This morning’s text is yet another part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to the disciples in the so-called upper room: five chapters (almost a fourth of the entire gospel) in that one room—five chapters of reminders and last minute teaching, liturgy and prayer starting with chapter thirteen and going through chapter seventeen. And Jesus starts off today’s text saying, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech.” Really? Didn’t he know better by then? Way back in chapter two, they didn’t get the body as a temple until after the resurrection (John 2:18-22). Being born again went over everyone’s head (John 3:3-4). Living water, food that wasn’t bread, living bread (John 4:13-14, 32; 6:51). Come on, Jesus! Figures of speech were never really a good idea with the disciples! Not unless they’re—you know, so you’re out on the lake and you’re not catching any fish and you’re grumpy, your cigar’s soggy, you’ve run out of beer and you’re wondering why you subject yourself to this. It’s such a pain. But then you go in and come back later—new cigars, freshly filled cooler and you catch a mess of fish. Now that would work.
But no no, most recently: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (John 16:21). This is the figure of speech Jesus chooses for the twelve?—who were squirming before he finished saying woman in labor, let alone mentioned her pains, her hour having come and the child being born. What was he thinking? The disciples never even heard about the joy beyond the anguish. Too embarrassed. Rolling their eyes. Clearing their throats. Punching each other. Blustering in their deepest voices. But blushing too. That Jesus!
Now remember the context here—because the disciples were already on edge. They were in Jerusalem or right outside Jerusalem (John 12:12), and they were scared. Later that night Jesus and the disciples would cross the Kidron valley to the Garden of Gethsemane (not actually named in John’s gospel) where Judas would find them along with the soldiers and the police from the chief priests and the Pharisees (John 18:1-3). But they were already living with a sense of an imminent end—an impending doom. They had some pretty clear idea about what was happening—about what was going to happen.
They had lived with Jesus’ unflinching honesty about the terminal diagnosis of living the kind of life he lived. Now the Jesus of John’s gospel is admittedly not exactly explicit in predicting his death. He uses those “figures of speech”—about temples being destroyed and rebuilt, about good shepherds laying down their lives for their sheep, about seeds falling to the ground and dying (John 2:18-22; 10:11-18; 12:23-27). But from the beginning it’s part of the story. He came to the world and the world did not know him. His own people did not accept him (John 1:10-11). The light came into the world and people loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19). When Jesus speaks of being lifted up (John 3:14; 8:28), it carries, and we have to hear, every possible connotation of the phrase—including the cross.
We read about those who started persecuting Jesus and were looking to kill him (John 5:16, 18; 7:1; 11:50)—those he threatened—which is just about everybody! On two occasions in the temple, people tried to stone him (John 8:59; 10:31) and, of course, that’s what the disciples associate with Jerusalem. When Jesus said “Let us go to Judea again” they responded, “Are you nuts? Last time we were there, they tried to stone you!” (John 11:7-8)
Then there was the time in Jerusalem when Jesus flat out asked, “Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” (John 7:19. see also 8:37, 40) And some of that blunt, matter of fact honesty had rubbed off on the disciples too. We remember again, the way Thomas agreed to head to Jerusalem, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
They were absolutely clear. To live in the way of God is to confront the world and its ways. And the ways of the world are horribly devious. They seek to take “good” and to take “love,” to claim them, and to mutate them into something the world can call “good”—something the world can call “love” but a “good” and a “love” that serve its own purposes. The disciples understood—whatever else they didn’t understand, they understood that the way of God does not allow love to be subordinated. Does not allow love to be cheapened—used—exploited—perverted—desecrated. They understood that the fullness of God’s love lived forces the world to defend its own perversions in light of a clear and present danger to its ways. Love compromised always sees the fullness of love as the most profound of threats.
So from very early on in the disciples’ experience of Jesus, they knew, so matter of factly, that Jesus looked ahead to a chronologically limited life. From the beginning Jesus lived with his end. The disciples were themselves witnesses to the way people responded to Jesus, his teaching, his way of living. They were witnesses to the enmity of the world and the ways of the world to the ways of God incarnate in Jesus. And so the disciples lived knowing Jesus would leave them. Knowing his way of living left the world no choice. And now, with everything so obviously coming to a head, they were grieving.
But they had lived with Jesus who lived with all that knowledge as well. And lived so well. They saw in Jesus someone who understood that the experience of the fullness of love makes the experience of any cheapened forms of love intolerably sad—that the depths of God’s love make of any sacrifice a joyful affirmation. And they had learned. By osmosis more than anything else. Whether or not they understood, they got it—some of it anyway. It’s part of living fully. Living intentionally in the moment—mindfully. Allowing the inevitable end to fill the meantime with meaning and beauty and wonder and joy. Margaret Oshida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late August of last year. She struggled with infections in the fall, and it was late fall, nearing Christmas, we were talking about living intentionally. She was reading books some of you recommended—books some of you gave her. She was reading her Bible. She wasn’t watching TV. She didn’t want to waste any time. She wanted to be present to her loved ones. She wanted to make the most of every day.
She was so focused on getting past December. She wanted to get past her and Jim’s anniversary. She wanted to get past Kathleen’s birthday. She wanted to get past Christmas. She didn’t want any of those celebrations to bear the association of her death. Then in January—in February, we talked about her surprise at still being alive. “I didn’t expect to be alive now,” she said. She even confessed to watching TV again—NCIS! Mark Harmon!
You see, it’s not just about praying and reading the Bible and spiritual books. It’s not about not watching TV. It’s not about finding those things designated as meaningful to focus on, but allowing an ending to bestow meaning on everything. And then, life in its fullness becomes blessing to you and through you to others.
That was the disciples’ life with Jesus. Abundantly full. And it wasn’t just Jesus teaching all the time. It wasn’t all these “figures of speech,” and liturgy and prayer. It was all that, but it was also laughter and getting hungry and cooking and cleaning up and whose turn was it to do the dishes? It was jokes and memories—the good ones and the hard ones. It was dreams and fears and hopes and did I say jokes? It was bathroom breaks and runny noses and headaches. It was asking Jesus how he could cure lepers but not the common cold. It was feeling dirty and dusty and it was a bath stop and getting clean again. It was singing on a boat on the lake at night. It was blisters and bruises. It was visiting with friends and sharing a cup of tea. It was arguments and making up. It was the fullness of life as blessing.
You see, when Jesus said, “I have conquered the world,” it wasn’t by might, was it? Not Jesus in the steps of Alexander and Caesar, Ghengis Khan, Tiglath Pileser III. Jesus didn’t conquer with the almighty dollar (or the talent)—marketing Jesus products worldwide. Get your own blind man. Look his eyes open!
Note what goes together: I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” Peace and courage and the world conquered. Not the world is conquered and then there is peace, but the peace of Jesus that conquers the world. and Jesus says this to you, too. This peace that conquers the world does so one life at a time. Because the world goes ever on.
WEE celebrated the graduation of children in the Green and Purple rooms this past Friday. This year’s graduation roll included our own Amelia, Jordan and Phillip—kindergarteners now. I took the opportunity to thank parents for entrusting their children to us—thanked them for that wonderful gift of noise and energy and potential filling our space. I assured parents their children were well prepared for kindergarten and that that wasn’t just a matter of their having begun learning to learn, having begun cultivating the discipline of learning, having tasted the joy of learning—having caught a glimpse of the wide open spaces learning opens up into. More than that, I told them that their children had been loved—our teachers do that so well. I told parents their children had been loved by people other than their family and that that love had been rooted—grounded in the stories of God and the love of God. I encouraged them as parents to find communities of faith to sustain such stories of love as foundational—as ultimately real because the world would surely disabuse their children of any such idea. For the world lies ahead of those little ones. But Jesus conquered the world. May they (no longer babies, but still children in whom we locate so much hope—see so much potential) may they grow up sustained in the knowledge that love is the fundamental truth.
We often hear the verse—ponder the verse—quote the verse—want to claim the verse: “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” It comes right before today’s text. John 16:23. But that’s actually the second part of the verse. The first being: “On that day you will ask nothing of me.” So the whole verse goes like this: “On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” On that day, the day of realized joy, the day pain is absorbed into a greater celebration, on that day, you will ask nothing. You will realize on that day, at that hour, that the truth is so joyful—so wonderful—so marvelous—so all-encompassing, there’s nothing for which to ask. On that day, if you were to even stop to think of something to ask, instead of marveling—instead of celebrating—instead of the wonder and the awe of it all—if you were to, somehow, step outside the moment and ask for something in Jesus’ name, it would happen, because who could say no—how could anyone say no on that day? On that day of celebration and wonder and joy for God too, you see—that day of love finally shaking off all pale imitations.
It’s Ascension Sunday today. A day of elebrating vindication and triumph, but for the disciples, it was the day Jesus left—left even after resurrection returned him to them for a time after he left before. So this was worse. And whatever ascension meant to Jesus—whatever it would come to mean to the disciples, at that point, it was just grief. At that point, it was just goodbye. At that point, it was just loss. At that point, it was just loneliness and a big empty hole such a big presence had filled.
So let’s take another look at the figure of speech Jesus chose for the disciples. A figure of speech virtually guaranteeing they wouldn’t hear him! How often though Jesus actually speaks for later—speaks in such a way that what he says only makes sense in hindsight, in retrospect, in contemplation and reflection. Remember the disciples never even hearing about the joy beyond the anguish because they were rolling their eyes, punching each other—too embarrassed.
But later, “Now what did he say?” And maybe it was one of the women who remembered—who told the disciples what they hadn’t heard—hadn’t been willing or able to hear. Jesus took all the terrible feelings associated with his imminent suffering and death—took all the grief of his leaving and related it all to the birth of a baby. And so what we call the end was already interpreted—already—in light of what we call a beginning. And the pain—all the pain—all the grief gets loaded down with all the hope—all the looking forward—the anticipation—all the love that’s part of a birth—a baby created in and out of love—a baby born into love—a baby growing up in love. A baby—such a big presence bursting so very wonderfully into experience creating brand new wide open spaces to live into.
So you have pain now, but your hearts will rejoice, and no one—no one—nothing will take your joy from you. That’s not pie in the sky by and by, by the way. It’s the assurance of one who, according to the testimony of John’s gospel, knows the pie in the sky—knows it’s not by and by—not just in the eye, but as love does our every need supply—does our entire living underlie—even in every goodbye and when we die it is on love we will all rely—not sky high—but always so nigh and nearby—no lie.
And as much as we have to ask now—as many questions as we have—as much as we so desperately want now, ultimately the truth is so marvelous—the truth is so marvelous—we will not ask for anything. My my.