Sunday, April 27, 2008

Easter 6A

AP Calculus was the last math class I ever took, except I guess for Statistics and some class on how to write standardized tests in grad school. I talk about how I don't like math, but truth is, I secretly love working through to an absolute answer. Outside of math, there are so few of those...

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

The air in that room is absolutely still, heavy, almost humid, with the weight of the teacher’s words…Do not let your hearts be troubled…Have I not been with you all this time and you still do not know…I have set you an example...If you know these things…In a little while you will not see me…I have said these things to you so that when the hour comes you may remember that I told you about them…

To the students, though, struggling to hear through the haze of their anxiety, it seems suddenly as if the teacher is presenting all new material rather than reviewing what they have so laboriously learned. We do not know…How can we know…Why can I not follow you now…Show us…

There is not much time left before the test will begin, a test that will demand every ounce of their strength, every fiber of their being. They will have to rely on what little they can remember, much less understand, of things right and wrong, truths eternal and temporary, actions that multiply and actions that divide. When the test begins, the teacher cannot be there to demonstrate any answers.

If this sounds familiar to you, then you, too, took the AP Calculus exam once upon a time! You, too, sat staring at a page swimming with equations you were supposed to know. You, too, listened to a teacher review concepts that suddenly made no sense. You, too, felt entirely unprepared to face the test alone, armed only with a number two pencil and your knowledge of…pi?...cosines?...tangents?...

There is not much time left before the test will begin, a test that will demand every ounce of their strength, every fiber of their being. They will have to rely on what little they can remember, much less understand, of things right and wrong, truths eternal and temporary, actions that multiply and actions that divide. When the test begins, the teacher cannot be there to demonstrate any answers.

If this sounds familiar to you, then you, too, took your imagination back to the once upon a time of the Last Supper when you heard our gospel reading this morning. The disciples were intent upon their evening meal after a long, dusty day with Jesus on the city streets below, where there had been lessons in making miracles and endless exercises in mercy. Jesus, their teacher, stood up from the table so that they expected him to speak. Instead, he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet… In that moment, and throughout the rest of the evening, Jesus rehearsed for his disciples, his students, everything they would need to know for the test that awaited them all – the test of his leaving them.

And so the review began. Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. But the disciples were distracted because Judas had just left the Upper Room in a hurry, as fast as his clean feet could carry him.

Believe in God, believe also in me. I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going. But hollow echoes of Jesus saying that Peter would deny him stifled the sound so that all they heard, as though he were already far away, was that Jesus was no longer going to be with them.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. The test, Jesus wanted them to know, would measure not only what the disciples could remember about the things he had taught them, but also how well they could apply those things in their own lives. If you love me, you will keep my commandments: You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and you will love your neighbors as yourselves. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another. Love one another as I have loved you.

To the disciples, it must have seemed like an impossible task, to pick up where Jesus was leaving them, to carry on his teachings, to reveal to others the profound nature of God’s love in the absence of the one who had revealed it to them. How could they love others as Jesus had loved them when they felt now so unloved? How could they embrace those the world had cast out and orphaned when they themselves were being orphaned? How could they care for broken hearts when their own hearts were being broken?

Perhaps the disciples were too absorbed in their anxiety to hear at first that they would not face this terrible test alone, like so many AP Calculus students surrounded by one another and yet alone at their desks with answer booklets no one else can see. From the start, Jesus had been instructing them not as individual believers (although each would live out of his or her belief according to the gifts and abilities each individual possessed), but rather as a community of believers of which they would be the first of countless members, of which we are also members.

Jesus knew, however, that his first disciples would feel deeply the loss of his physical presence, and that those of us following now so long after would never have known that level of companionship with him. He knew that his disciples’ track record – as a group, let alone as individuals – was shaky at best, even for their sincere efforts. Jesus could no longer be there to hold their hands or wash their feet. And so he promised his students, his friends, his followers, I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… You know him, because he abides with you and he will be with you.

The word in Greek is parakletos, or paraclete as we have come to know it, and it means “one who stands alongside”. It originates, in fact, in the Greek word for “call,” so that even more closely it means “one who stands alongside the one who is called.” Knowing how we would long for his presence like bewildered students longing for a teacher, like outcasts longing for an advocate, like orphaned children longing for a parent, like lost sheep longing for a shepherd, Jesus graciously asks that God send the Spirit to be our teacher, our advocate, our parent, our shepherd, our guide as we face the tests and trials and tribulations of this life of faith in a world that no longer sees Jesus Christ walking the city streets on his own two feet.

In just a few weeks, we will hear much more about the gift of the Spirit, and how it did indeed transform the lives of the disciples, allowing them to speak with confident hearts about things right and wrong, truths eternal and temporary, and actions that multiply and divide. As the Spirit settled like a fire in their hearts and blew through their breath like wind, they experienced the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, who in Jesus had come as near as flesh and bone, and who was now nearer to them than their own skin.

Today, though, we are with the disciples at the supper table, looking for the last time into the eyes of our beloved teacher and friend. He speaks with us there not as individuals but as the church, called to love the world as he has loved it, called to care for it as he has cared for it, called to reveal him in it. Although we will not see Jesus in his own flesh and bone as the first disciples once did, we have learned from them and from the generations who followed them to see Jesus in the faces and flesh and bones of others, in kind and merciful acts, in passionate cries for justice, in love. It is the Spirit who helps us, guides us, strengthens us to see how Jesus continues to be at work in the world through his church, through us who are now his body as St. Theresa has said, who are now his arms and legs and hands and heart. We do our best to remember what we have learned from him, and to pattern our lives after the love that he taught us. With the Spirit alongside and all around and abiding inside us, advocating for us, mediating to us an ongoing and intimate relationship with our teacher, we take on the roles of being advocates ourselves, helpers of and caretakers for those whom the world has outcast and orphaned.

All shall be well, I tried to remember as I struggled though that AP Calculus exam. Those words from Julian of Norwich had taught me an eternal truth about facing difficult tests in life. Indeed, in the midst of a severe illness that both her life and her faith, Julian longed for a vision of Jesus, her teacher. Her account of that experience has comforted many. She wrote, “I saw that God was everything that is good and encouraging…God showed me in my palm a little thing round as a ball about the size of a hazelnut. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself, ‘What is this thing?’ And I was answered, ‘It is everything that is created.’ I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing. The answer came, ‘It endures and ever will endure, because God loves it.’ And so everything has being because of God’s love.”

The air in the Upper Room was still that night, heavy, almost humid with the weight of the teacher’s words. Today, in this place, on this side of Easter, it is resurrection air that we breathe. We will return after a while to the world that tests our faith, but the Spirit will go alongside whispering all that Jesus needs us to know: Love one another as I have loved you. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Amen.

Artwork: "The Washing of the Feet", by Corinne Vonaesch; "At That Moment", by Delda Skinner

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