“The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin” att. Lorenzo Monaco ca. 1402. Public Domain.
John 14:15-21 New Revised Standard Version
15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Imagine being a frontline soldier in some war at the beginning of the 19th century. It’s night, and you receive a message from command. But there is no moon. There’s no way to read the message without lighting a lamp that will expose you to enemy fire. In the early 1800’s French artillery officer Captain Charles Barbier was inspired by this predicament to create something called “Night Writing.” It was a code consisting of raised dots poked onto a piece of paper. The code used combinations of twelve dots to stand for different sounds. Over time, Barbier thought that the invention might be useful for people who were blind, so he took his papers to the Royal Institute for the Blind. There he worked with a 13-year-old boy, teaching him to use the system.
The young boy was excited by the opportunities it offered but thought that the system might be too complicated. He offered Barbier some ideas to improve and simplify the system, but Barbier became furious. He did not welcome the suggestions and was insulted that a mere boy would offer corrections to his system. When the boy tried to explain further, Barbier simply picked up his things and walked away from the entire project.
The boy, however, did not lose heart. He took the system and incorporated his own ideas by cutting the number of dots in half to 6 and making them stand for letters instead of sounds. Louis Braille was just fifteen when he completed his system of writing for the blind, a system that is used today in schools all over the world with 10’s of thousands of books, magazines, and journals translated into his system. I enjoy stories like these, stories about something new being accomplished despite resistance. We can imagine a young boy becoming too discouraged by Barbier’s harsh treatment and simply dropping the project. Likewise, we can imagine the young boy going with the old soldier’s systems, despite its difficulties, and that it would have been too difficult to really catch on. But today, the world is better because a blind, teenage boy was not discouraged by Barbier’s arrogance.
I think about what was handed to Louis Braille and what was taught to him. And I think about how he was able to take this system, adapt it, and create something that meets the needs of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. This creativity in the face of great difficulty is perhaps a central theme in today’s gospel lesson.
The first half of John’s Gospel has been a great adventure for Jesus and his followers. His troupe has traveled around Judea and Galilee – modern-day Israel/Palestine - healing and teaching, even raising people from the dead. And because Jesus’ message was so odd, and because he claimed an unsanctioned authority, Jesus has been rejected by the religious leaders at every pass and has begun to raise eyebrows with the oppressive Roman occupiers. Now, everyone is in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. After making a fashionable entrance, Jesus sneaks away from the crowds with his disciples. He washes their feet and gives them a new commandment to love one another. And he also talks about his death.
Last week, during the fifth week of Easter, Jesus began his farewell discourse, which starts at the beginning of chapter 14. The discourse is a prolonged speech from Jesus. We can imagine it to be something like the last will and testament of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus’ speech is filled with hope and fears, with concerns for his closest friends and reassurances. Last week we heard his words – “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” This week we hear, “I will not leave you orphaned.” Jesus continues to console his confused and grieving friends. He reminds them that to love him is to do what he did and follow what he taught. Among the many things Jesus said and did, this passage appeals back to chapter 13: “A new commandment I give you this day, that you love one another. And love one another just as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are mine if you truly love one another.”
But it seems that Jesus is leaving more than this command as an inheritance. Another will come to help the disciples, an advocate. In Greek, the word is paraclete. Often this is rendered as advocate, helper, or intercessor. It originally has a technical meaning like a lawyer or attorney. In John’s Gospel, it is generally used to mean “one who appears in another’s behalf,” like a representative.
Later in chapter 14, Jesus expands on what this Advocate will do for the disciples. In verse 25, Jesus says, “Now I have said these things while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
In verse 27, Jesus adds these famous words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”
The beginning of the Farewell Discourse centers of two themes. The first is Jesus’ wish that his disciples continue his work. The second is that they take his work into new areas.
Jesus knows that he will soon be taken into custody, but wants his followers to continue his message and mission. He wants his disciples to continue to bring light to the world, and to love those around them by bringing healing and transformation.
But Jesus also knows that if his followers continue his work, they will not be bound by the same geography as Jesus, or the same audience, or the same issues. They will encounter new difficulties and challenges, and they will be required to adapt. Jesus wants his followers to take on their own missions – through the support and direction of the Holy Spirit. This is not a dogmatic movement, one that moves around the known world, applying the same cultural and ethical norms regardless of location. The movement is adaptive, local, and creative. It’s a movement led by the Spirit.
One of the United Church of Hinesburg’s three historic denominations is the United Church of Christ. In the UCC Constitution, it states that “God’s people… are called in each generation to make this faith our own.” It’s this “still speaking faith” that says that God’s work to spread hope and justice is not finished. It’s this “still speaking faith” that reveals new avenues for God’s own compassion, guidance, and truth. It’s this “still speaking faith” that says, “Our faith is over 2000 years old. Our thinking is not.” And it’s a “still speaking faith” that calls both the very faithful and those new to the faith to imagine what might be possible.
I think of Louis Braille here, taking something handed to him, rally a tool for warfare if you think about it, and making something new for the betterment of the world. If God is still speaking to us even today, what’s being said that might challenge the way we’ve always done things? What new ways are we learning that might make a positive impact in our world today?
I am mindful of the ways churches around the world have hopped on a steep technological learning curve in these last few months to live stream, video chat and podcast worship services, support groups, and Bible studies. Folks in pulpits and pews, who previously considered themselves unteachable, are logging on, calling in, and supporting one another. It will be interesting to watch how these learnings are adapted to the ongoing support of those that cannot regularly gather in person.
I am also mindful that for many, these last two pandemic months have been a reset of sorts. Without all the running around to youth events, yoga classes, and late-night meetings, priorities are coming into focus, and some feel more grounded in family, faith, and the outdoors. I know that we are reading more, playing with children and animals more, exploring the woods, and eating dinner together every evening.
Perhaps this pandemic will also better expose the areas of injustice in our societies that the church is called to challenge and correct. Inequality among the very rich, and everyone else is more apparent. The lack of green spaces and issues with our food system have been exposed. The friction between human wellbeing and an unregulated free market is no longer an economic or political issue, but an everyday, main street issue.
Even in this time of pandemic, God is still speaking, calling on us to create something new that can breathe new life into all of creation.
May we listen for God. May we consider our part in Christ’s ongoing work. For the sake of the world. Amen.