Below is my sermon from May 14, 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. It is mostly focused on the passage from John 14, although it does touch on the other readings. It deals with a central question for the Easter season: what does it mean to be a follower of Christ, when Christ is no longer with us?
If you’d like to listen to the Hamilton song, One Last Time, here is a link to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRHOcskOudg
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of my favorite songs from the musical Hamilton (although it’s very hard to pick because most of the songs could qualify as my favorite), is One Last Time. It’s the moment where George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton that he’s not running for president again, and that he wants Hamilton’s help in crafting his farewell address.
Those who are fans of history and not just the musical know that Washington’s farewell is one of the most famous speeches in American politics. In the words of the musical, he tells Hamilton that, “I wanna talk about what I have learned. The hard-won wisdom I have earned…The people will hear from me one last time, and if we get this right, we’re gonna teach ‘em how to say goodbye.”
Hamilton doesn’t understand. He doesn’t want Washington, his hero and mentor, to leave his post, and he asks, “Why do you have to say goodbye?” Washington tells him, “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”
Washington understood that with this farewell he had the opportunity to leave a legacy. That it was his last shot to influence how this nation he had been so integral in crafting would carry on when he was gone.
Not that the comparison is exact, but in our Gospel, we have Jesus doing something very similar. Saying goodbye. Sharing his wisdom, making sure his disciples hear him one last time, so that they will know how to carry on.
There’s nothing in our reading that would tell you this, but these words of Jesus take place on the very last night he has with his twelve disciples, the night of the Last Supper. He has just washed all of their feet, Judas has fled in betrayal, and here, with what we read today, Jesus begins a lengthy farewell speech.
We often read this passage at funerals. In a way, it is quite right to do so—Jesus says these words anticipating his own death and eventual resurrection. And so, at funerals, we find the promise of our resurrection, of our hoped for rest with God.
But these words are not just a promise meant to give us hope of a future peace. These words are a promise of our certain future, dwelling with God where there is room for all. But that future means important things for our present life: “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus.
He reassures them with this promise that we too share: If you know me (and they do), you will know the Father also. Just in case the disciples or we ourselves weren’t getting it, Jesus says again, “You do know the Father, and you have seen the Father.”
Do not worry. Your place with God is secure, for there is room for you and room for all. And with that promised, Jesus begins the necessary steps to make sure his mission outlives him when he is gone: he entrusts his mission and his ministry to the disciples, telling them:
“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” Jesus is not just saying goodbye, he is also equipping the disciples to carry on his work.
In some ways, that’s why I think that this passage is paired with our reading from Acts: the stoning of Stephen. Carrying on Jesus’ work is not always a simple, pleasant task. It involves walking the way that Jesus walked, which lead to the cross.
Stephen, a deacon chosen to help make sure all in the new church were taken care of, was stoned because he questioned the accepted religious structure of the time. He dared to suggest that God was at work outside of the priests and the temple, and outside of the people usually deemed acceptable.
It’s a warning to us, who are on the inside of the temple, to never assume we have a monopoly on understanding how God is working. Because of that kind of thinking, Stephen is stoned, and becomes the church’s first martyr.
Martyr is actually a Greek word that simply means witness. The Martyrs were those who witnessed to God and were killed for it. But as Jesus gives his ministry over to his disciples, and over to us, they and we are all called to be martyrs—to be witnesses.
There is such a thing as an expert witness, but most witnesses, the vast majority of witnesses, are asked simply to recount what they themselves have seen and experienced. Rather than presenting complex arguments, rather than performing impressive displays, we are called to witness to Jesus by telling what we have seen and what we have experienced of Jesus in our own lives.
In First Peter, we are promised once again that we are God’s own people in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. In order that we may witness to God.
I’ve seen a lot of Law and Order, and you know who always makes the best witnesses? The people who were paying attention. If we’re going to witness to God, we need to pay attention to things that God is up, we need to pay attention to the places that God is leading us to. We need to look with care to see God’s work around us.
If we think of Christianity primarily as doctrines, or as behavior, we may not be looking for the traces of God’s providence guiding us, or for the work of the Holy Spirit in shaping our lives. Our own words and actions, done in love and justice, may also matter for the reign of God in ways we could not ever anticipate.
We’re gonna teach them how to say goodbye—so that they will outlive me when I’m gone. Part of the church’s calling during the season of Easter is to figure out what it means to be followers of Christ when Christ is no longer physically here. How do we witness to the things we have seen and heard? How do we continue the mission and ministry entrusted to the disciples, and to us?
Jesus’ goodbye says it all: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Your place with God is secure for the future—for the rest of time. And now, in these times, Jesus’ work is our work: to tell—to live, in word and deed—the mighty acts of God who loves and accepts us. Amen.