Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year C] - May 9, 2010 (John 14:23-29 and Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5)

What’s the best kind of “good-bye”?

There are, of course, many schools of thought on this issue. When we had both of our daughters in day-care in Pittsburgh, the teachers of their respective classes told us the best goodbye was a quick one, no matter how much their bawling tugged at our heartstrings. “Don’t linger,” they’d instruct us sternly, “just a quick kiss, tell them you love them, and then turn around and walk out confidently. It’s better for them that way.”

Sure it is. I remember that on most days, as soon as we’d turn to leave, they’d start crying and running behind us with their arms spread open. But, inevitably, the teachers were correct. The more we dragged our goodbye out, the more insistently our daughters would plead for us not to leave, or to take them with us wherever we were going. And then it became more difficult for us to get out the door.

It could be said that, for Jesus, the best goodbye is one that is dragged out. For the better part of five chapters in John’s gospel, Jesus lingers in the presence of his disciples as he prepares for his departure. In one sense, Jesus is preparing them for his departure to the cross, the day of his death. But, in another sense, he is also preparing them for his departure to God the Father after his ascension. At the time, of course, none of this makes sense to the disciples because they could never fully know beforehand the unprecedented events of Good Friday and Easter. To them, it just sounds like Jesus is going somewhere mysterious that they can’t yet go, and instead of just getting on with it, saying “I love you,” and walking out confidently, he drags it out. In fact, it often sounds during his long goodbye that he changes his mind and that he won’t actually be leaving, or that he’ll come back very shortly. All of it is a bit confusing, and, like our childcare providers told us, this leads to more pleading and questioning from the disciples, the ones who are being left behind.

In the portion of Jesus’ goodbye speech that we have today, Jesus is responding to Judas, who asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (For those of you keeping track, this is not the Judas who betrays Jesus. This is another follower named Judas, a non-betraying Judas. I bet he was very insistent on making that distinction clear to everyone after Easter, don’t you? He probably became known as “Not That Judas.”) In any case, this Judas is wondering how Jesus is able to say that he will be able to reveal himself in his absence to his community of followers without also revealing himself in some grand way to the whole world.

From the beginning of his ministry, his disciples had expected that the Messiah, when he came, would give some type of impressive, majestic display of his glory. They were looking for some unmistakable sign of God’s glory and power, and they had been looking for that to be revealed in Jesus. Well, they’re almost to the end here and they really haven’t seen one yet. Surely—Not That Judas seems to think—the grand, magnificent display that Jesus will use to reveal himself after he is gone will be something that the whole world will acknowledge, too? Judas and the others apparently expect that Jesus will do something dazzling for them or to them that will stand out, something that will make a signal as clear as day to them and everyone else that God is present and mighty and glorious, like a fireworks display in the night sky.

Not exactly, replies Jesus. In the interim, in the time when Jesus goes to his Father and is not seen by his disciples—in the time after the crucifixion and then again after his ascension—Jesus will be revealed in the life of the community but not in ways that will always be clear to everyone else. It will not always be clear to everyone because it will involve their own life together. Jesus will reveal himself to them not through something dazzling he does on their behalf but through how they keep his word and love him. Risen, he will dwell with them as they carry out his words, as they embody for each other his selfless love as they recall the glory of his cross and seek to reflect it into the world. He will reveal himself, shall we say, not in the manner of fireworks, something to gaze at passively, but, rather, in the ember of peace glowing in their hearts, something to stoke and tend and nurture.

And it is his peace, in fact, that he leaves with them to tend and nurture. It was customary in those times to part company with the word “shalom,” a Hebrew word of both greeting and farewell that essentially meant “Peace.” Yet here Jesus declares this is no ordinary shalom that he is uttering. His peace is not resigned or complacent. His peace will be undergirded by the eternal love of the cross. His peace, when lived out, will put them at odds with the world, occasionally, calling them to witness to the power of the resurrection. The peace that Jesus gives is never an invitation to escape the world, or to fear the impact that God’s word will have on the world. It is, rather, an invitation to engage the world, to embrace it in love and forgiveness more fearlessly, more confidently, more hopefully. Jesus may be lingering in his farewell here in his final hours before the cross, but he is impressing upon his followers the need for them to carry on with his peace. In their active forms of love, in their steady desire to implement his teachings, he will somehow come to dwell with them.

A few weeks ago I came across a story about a man in England known as the pothole gardener. A 33-year-old amateur gardener by the name of Steve Wheen has taken to planting flowers in the potholes in London’s streets. As a cyclist, the man had become frustrated with the danger they presented, and had grown weary of the fact the city never seemed to patch them. So, instead of ignoring them, he took to using them as tiny flower beds, preferring to use low plants with “bright, colorful flowers in the hope that motorists will see his gardens and avoid them" (“The Man Who Plants Flowers in Potholes,” in, by Joel White, April 21, 2010).

As you can imagine, fruits of his labors don’t last long. Most fall victim to the traffic within a few hours or days. The longest any of his gardens has lasted is three weeks. But he keeps on planting, making a point, but also bringing beauty—even peace—into some of the most broken and overlooked of places. The pothole does not give as the world gives, you might say, which often selects only well-groomed yards with out-of-the-way plots for growing flowers. Those are no less needed or beautiful, of course, but there is something confidently graceful about sowing the seeds of cheer in potholes.

It would appear to be an image for Jesus’ community to emulate in the time after he leaves us, even that turns out to be only temporary. Granting forgiveness in situations that would otherwise call for a grudge. Speaking a word of hope into occasions that seem otherwise desparate. Encouraging love when the world wants to issue hate. Embodying Jesus’ peace—the peace of the cross, the peace of victory in love—when the world wants to resort to war or, perhaps just as bad, surrender and escapism. We are emboldened to do this even in situations that would appear to everyone else to be a waste of time…perhaps especially in situations that would appear to everyone else to be a waste of time.

And in case all this seems like too tall an order, Jesus gives us one last promise: we will not be alone. He will send an Advocate, a Counselor, a Master Gardener known as God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit will empower us to keep things going in Jesus’ apparent absence. The Spirit will keep us together. He will remind us of who Christ is and what he means to us. He will bestow on us gifts for spreading and keeping Christ’s word. He will be that flame that re-ignites the ember of Christ's peace in our hearts.  In fact, the Holy Spirit will be so real, so present, that it will almost seem like Jesus himself has not really left us. Like Jesus did throughout his life, death, and resurrection, the Advocate will provide us with the words and the confidence to live out Jesus’ peace in the midst of the world.

These are perhaps the most hope-filled words in Jesus’ long farewell: that God will love us and Jesus and the Father will come to dwell with us. There is the clear message, woven throughout Jesus’ goodbye, that it is not really final. In other words, while the Holy Spirit is staying with us, urging us to tend to Jesus’ peace and keep his words, it is all a foretaste of the time Jesus and the Father will come again to us, will meet us and claim us forever.

So the best type of “goodbye,” whether dragged out or short and sweet, is the type of goodbye that actually prepares us for a grand “Hello, again.” The best goodbye is one that assures us with the reality that the bitter end has not really an end, that beyond this separation we now feel there is a promise of some time just out of reach for us, when God will fulfill his word for all his creation. It is the vision of a world renewed, where the city of God will have no need of sun or moon to shine, because the glory of God will be its light, and its lamp will be the Lamb. His servants will worship him, and his name will be on their foreheads. Nothing accursed or unclean will be there—not a pothole to be seen!—for everything will be re-paved and the streets of God will flow with the water of life.

The best goodbye, it turns out, is one that prepares us to look and to work towards that great and glorious day when Christ will rule all in all.

So, in the meantime, I suspect you find yourselves a pothole and get to planting.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

photo of flowers from

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