Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Farewell Discourse

                                                                  Farewell Discourse - A wake up call to do!

This passage from the gospel according to John is the beginning of his ‘Farewell Discourse’, which will go on for several chapters. Now before your eyes glaze over and you begin to make a mental grocery list because ‘farewell discourse’ sounds a bit churchy and very possibly boring, I want to suggest that most of us give farewell discourses fairly often. In fact, nearly every time I leave, whether it is for a vacation or a short trip to the store, I give a farewell discourse to my family. I seem to forget that my children have lived with me all their lives and that they actually know how to care very well for the dogs, they think to turn off lights, recycle, take out trash….well, the list is often endless. These things I believe they absolutely need to remember, things I believe they must do.

Jesus, it seems, feels much as we do when we are leaving. His words read almost as if he fears the disciples and followers will not be able to recall anything they have all done together. He wants to say it all again, but that would literally take years, so he tells them simply enough, “Keep my commandments, keep my words, do what I have done. Just remember to love each other, love your neighbor and, most difficult I know, love your enemy.” The question Jesus is asking without saying it is: “can my friends and followers love this much? Will they remember and have the courage to do this love thing?” When Jesus is no longer there in the flesh, will they be able to love this much?

The truth is it would be very natural for Jesus’ disciples to retreat to the upper room, to close themselves off from the rest of the world, to pull inward, swapping stories of how it used to be. It would be safer in fact to keep a lid on the whole, rather sordid mess, by not including anyone who wasn’t part of this from the beginning. They could reassure each other that they were keeping his command by loving each other really, really well. Pulling together, closing ranks and taking care of just those they already know would be good enough – in fact, doing only this will be hard to do. Give a good pat on our collective backs and be done with it – “we kept his commandments well, didn’t we?”

Jesus is reminding them so that this very withdrawal will not happen. He encourages and challenges them to go out into their world and do the work of being in relationship, of sharing the good news of God’s very real love for all creation. He means for them to let go of their fear, to move boldly into life, to risk offering themselves in relationship with any and all others, he means for them to be in community with people who are like them and with people who are very unlike them. He means for them to continue to do what he has been doing, even though he will no longer be with them physically.

This week I had the great fun of hearing Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor speak. As a college professor she has occasion to drive a van loaded with students to various events. She has often heard one student ask another, “Are you a Christian?” And when the answer is “yes”, the follow-up question is more than not likely to be, “What do you believe?” She is waiting for the day when the follow-up question is, “You are a Christian? What do you do?” What a provocative idea. To claim to be a Christian is to claim some kind of definable behavior. It will mean that the person who openly wears this label does life differently than the person who does not lay claim to this label.

Now it might be easy to make the assumption (and we all know what happens when we make ‘assumptions’!) that this “doing” is about making nice, about smiling at random folks we encounter, about saying please and thank-you, about stuffing a critical thought or comment. All of that may be in fact true, but it will not be the meat of it.

Living out the heart of the gospel message will mean offering ourselves in unconditional love to another. Offering unconditional love to people we don’t like, to people who don’t like us, to people who we would rather judge than love. Living out the gospel message will not mean loving when people do things our way, when they look and talk and dress and eat and pray and worship just like we do. Loving each other as Jesus loved will not be easy and we each may need to spend more than a little time taking stock of our prejudices, our fears, our angry responses, our secret places of unhealthy and painful unhappiness. Becoming and being a Christian will, in the end, be about what we do because being in relationship with Jesus does not depend on his physical presence, as his followers would soon discover, but on the presence of the love of God. And the love of God is made present when people, when we, keep Jesus’ commandments.