Their feet are clean and their bellies are full; they've eaten some bread and drunk some wine. They are having supper together on the night before Passover. Judas has hastily left the upper room. A few of them assume that because he kept the cash bag, Judas is off buying needed provisions for the next day's feast. We, of course, know better. John, the Beloved disciple, is reclining near Jesus' chest and listening. These readings, this Sunday's and last's, taken from the Gospel of John in these weeks before our observance of Ascension Day, record some parting sayings of Jesus -- his farewell discourse and prayers. "Now the Son of Man is glorified," Jesus says "and in him God is glorified â¦ Little children, yet a little while I am with you â¦ I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more." Goodbye for now, Jesus seems to say. "I am going away and coming back to you."
He is speaking to his disciples as friends, as one who knows loss and feels a deep sadness at the prospect of parting in death from his flesh-and-blood companions. He alternates between speaking plainly and speaking figuratively. All this may seem a little troubling, but it needn't be. "If you keep my commandments," Jesus says in today's Good News, "you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love."
Jesus is going away, to be sure. But he is going more in the sense of a homecoming, of going off to a family reunion with his father. They are so close--Jesus and Abba. We get a sense of this throughout the strange, rhapsodic chapters of John's Gospel. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In Jesus, the Christ, the word becomes flesh and dwells among us. The author of the fourth Gospel gives us the Logos; gives breath and life and form to this Word. He who was in the beginning with God, Jesus, the Christos, is preparing in this fifteenth chapter of John's Gospel to return to the beginning, to God â¦ to the Father.
He is known to us, then gone. He is present, larger than life. Then he's absent. He is with us, sharing a meal, teaching and praying. And then he is taken. In this Easter season, we hear how he appears: to Thomas and the twelve in the Upper Room; and again, making breakfast by the lakeshore at the Sea of Tiberius. But just as quickly as he's known to us, he's gone. He appears then disappears.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes Christ's final "disappearance" in a piece collected by Philip Zaleski's in his Best Spiritual Writing 1999 (New York: HarperCollins, 1999). Originally featured in Christianity Today, her thoughts on Ascension Day are entitled, "The Day We Were Left Behind":
You can read in Acts 1:6-11 how one moment he was there with them and the next moment he was gone, his well-known hand raised in final blessing, his face grown bright and indistinct, his familiar shape vanishing into the fog like the end of a dream too good to be true - all of it slipping out of their reach until he was no longer there for them, no longer present but past, a memory that would haunt them to the end of their days.
Before vanishing into the fog, Jesus wants us to know something. He prays that we'll understand this. The disciple whom Jesus loved tells us this something; he seems to "get it." That something is this: the Maker of all things loves us and wants us. We need to know this and abide in our knowledge of God's love. The overwhelming love that obtains between Jesus and his disciples has it origin in the Father to whom Jesus is returning. His loves overflows in his final act of self-giving on the cross.
That Jesus and the Father are close there can be no doubt. We get a sense of this throughout John's Gospel. It's a sense that Reynolds Price, a contemporary writer and scholar who's translated John from the original Koine or "common language" Greek, relates his own understanding of Jesus as one who "stood in a demonstrably but inexplicably intimate relation to the creator of our world." (Three Gospels, 1996, p.19) Jesus is leaving. He tells us in John 4:3, "And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will bring you to myself, that where I am you may be also." By the fifteenth chapter, which we read today, John's gospel is heading toward its climax. In a little while Jesus will leave the room where he's broken bread, go out to the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron valley, to a garden called Gethsemane. There, as we say, things will really start to fall apart at the seams.Shortly after becoming Bishop of Chicago (October 24, 1987), the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold preached on the parting words we heard proclaimed in today's Gospel.
In the midst of his farewell to his disciples, as recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus declares, "As I am loved by the Father, so have I loved you." His ability to love is the direct fruit and consequence of his being loved: "As I am lovedâ¦so have I loved you." Why is it that our love is so faltering and short-lived, so subject to moods and patterns of natural affinity? Because we have not allowed ourselves to fall into the hands of the living God and to experience in its full force the brutal gentleness of the divine love.
The "brutal gentleness" indeed! God's love is sometimes like this, an oxymoron, brutally gentle, bitterly sweet. Will we stand by and watch as Jesus vanishes into the fog? Will we grasp after an explanation for his premature departure? Will we know ourselves as loved, and through every desolation, await the return of God's unchanging presence? Praying the words of today's Collect:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.