One of the problems with how we tend to read the Bible in our worship is that we chop up the text and present it as if it is an isolated piece of wisdom out of context. It isn’t of course, and we know that the short passages that we read and hear have something before them and there is more that follows on. We know from the press that words taken out of context can seem to mean something very different to when we have the bits before and after. Our gospel reading this morning is such a passage (John 14:23-29). To understand it we need to rewind at bit and look over what has come before it in the preceding chapters and verses, and also what follows. It is only then that we can understand what Jesus meant by ‘keeping his word’ and this being a sign of our love for him. So, a bit of a recap.
Chapter 12, of John’s Gospel, ends with a summary of his teaching (v44f) and that is that he came as the light into the world so that those who believe in him will not be in darkness. He does not come to judge, but to save. The twist is that those who reject him will have a judge on the last day because they are rejecting truth and John’s gospel begins with a profound prologue that sets out Jesus as the eternal Word among us (1:1-14), God’s truth and thought, purpose and relating, here in our midst. Reject that and we reject the purpose, truth and relating at the heart of all creation. John gives us deep philosophy that transcends story but also lies at the heart of story. So Jesus in John is bigger than any single institutional or cultural expression. This gets to the heart of who we are and who God is.
Now before this gets bogged down in heady thoughts, Chapter 13 begins with Jesus doing something that would have struck his followers are completely odd. During a meal he takes a bowl of water and a towel and washes their feet. This was no one’s job. Water was provided as people arrived to wash their own feet in a dusty climate – to freshen up on arrival – but certainly not something done during a meal. So he follows a profound bit of teaching about being the light by showing them what that means. Being light means washing feet, means doing acts of service, even if they don’t fit the schedule, or the expected order, and even if they disrupt proceedings. This is deliberate. Acts of loving service are how we live out the profound and show our nature, who we are. God, Jesus, the Word, shows who he is, that he is saving light, by acts of loving service reaching out to connect.
Judas rejects this and his betrayal fits at this point. It is a damning indictment of him, of the light or more to the point darkness that is within him. And Jesus’ teaching rams this home with a warning that the one who rejects him, rejects the one who sent him; the nature, the eternal Word within. In John’s Gospel Judas is not just struggling to understand, he has decided to bring Jesus down. This is contrasted in the torches and lanterns that those who come to arrest him have to carry as they walk in the darkness to arrest the light (18:3).
Jesus follows the foot washing by giving a new commandment. They are to love. This will be the sign that they are his disciples, by the quality of their love for one another. Acts of service have just moved into a much deeper commitment. This is not merely patronizing those in need with charity, it is to love them. The language of anger and hostility towards vulnerable refugees doesn’t even pass the patronizing test, but how far it is from loving them! The demonizing of those who need to draw on benefits is vitriolic in some sections of the press and it stirs some very unpleasant responses from some dark recesses in our psyche. Loving doesn’t mean not asking how we can help people get off them again, but it does mean respecting, honouring and seeing the image of our shared Creator in them. Jesus tells us to love, not merely to tolerate or put up with. And loving celebrates and delights, it longs for wellbeing and wholeness, for flourishing in the light of Christ.
Chapter 14, from where our gospel was taken, begins with the funeral reading. Christ has a room for us in his mansion. There is a place for us and it is prepared. This quickly moves into his great statement that he is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. Follow his way, walk in his truth and delight in his life and we will be embraced by his love and his inner light will dwell in us. To aid this he will send the Holy Spirit to be our advocate and guide.
Then our Gospel reading follows (John 14:23-29). It is a response to a question from a different Judas, not the one who betrays him. The question is ‘Lord how is that you will reveal yourself to us, and not the world?’ (14:22). How will you manage to pull that off? If we can see you, surely everyone else can too? His answer is that the ones who love him keep his word. This seems to be interchangeable with commandments. When we want to know what those commandments and words are, we need to rehearse everything that we have just been exploring. Jesus is the light of the world, who shows this by acts of loving service and these reveal the truth, the way and the life within him. When we do the same, when the light of his truth is within us and truly dwells there, then we keep his word; then we can see because there is light. And remember Jesus is the eternal Word in John’s Gospel, so keeping the word is about keeping the purpose and the revelation of that purpose. It is about seeing.
Again to be guided and held in this, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit will come to us. The church is not just a group of people who think a similar way, it is fed and shaped by the Holy Spirit. There may be times when that feels a bit strange and not as obvious as it might, but we are not completely hopeless. The enduring presence over the centuries, the call of people to proclaim the profound and be transformative through the ages, is a sign for me that something much more profound is at work in this organization than can be captured by mere strategy and management tools. The church has a divine calling, mandate and empowering.
We carry on a little into Chapter 15, where Jesus talks about being the vine and we the branches. This is an organic image, one of living and feeding. If we are grafted into the tree, we are being fed from him. The opposite is also true, to be cut off is to die, spiritually. And he ends this by telling his disciples that they are his friends. Friends are known, they know, they have a close relationship with one another, and they freely choose to belong. By moving from disciples to friends, Jesus is revealing his purposes to them so that they live it and don’t just follow orders. When he talks of commandments he has a very different meaning in mind. His commandment is to love and he shows this in action. There is not a rule book, it’s a lived purpose and that is only possible when it becomes a light within and commitment of the heart.
So Jesus telling his disciples, soon to be called friends, that those who love him keep his word is saying much more than here is a rule book or set of instructions. He has spoken of himself as the light, he has shown what this means in an act of loving service, he has drawn a sharp contrast with Judas and his act of darkness, he has described himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life and he has promised the Holy Spirit to keep them fed and nurtured in the journey of history ahead. We are his disciples and friends when we keep his word by it dwelling inside us through the gift of Holy Spirit. This is peace, beyond our comprehension, because it connects us with the purpose of creation itself. We see because of the character of who we are and who we are is displayed in the loving service we do, which flows from the light of Christ, the Word, within.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st May 2016