May 19, 2019
In this season of Easter, we’ve been jumping a bit around the Gospel of John. Today, we find ourselves just after John’s telling of Jesus washing his disciples feet. It marks the beginning of what we call the “Farewell Discourse” - the discourse in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his absence. “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”
My Dad’s likely not going to be thrilled that I use this story. But I’m going to go with it anyway. When I was a kid, I had a tendency to take a really long time to get ready. Even at like 4 or 5, I took really long showers and baths. Like the kinds of showers where you use all the hot water from the hot water tank. I had an active imagination. I was the kind of kid that could make anything into a toy or a game. In elementary school, I used to play with the crayons in my desk as if the crayons were characters in a story; so my desk had this whole imaginary world contained in it (I still don’t know how I never got caught). But bath time (or shower time) was another time where I got lost in my own world and had zero concept of time, until the water turned cold, shaking me out of it and back into reality. Once I got out, I often again got distracted by my barbies and stuffed animals while I was getting ready.
Dad got more of a reaction than he was expecting. I remember hearing the front door close, walking downstairs, seeing the dark, not hearing any voices. 5 year old me was absolutely terrified. I was left alone. And I burst into tears. The reaction wasn’t disappointment at not eating ice cream (like everyone else) but it was utter terror at being left alone. In the dark. For a child, being left alone meant, not only not having the people around us to care for me, but being left alone meant that no one was there to protect me from the monsters that invaded my world - or to quote a song from the new P!nk album - “the monsters in my closet that want to come out and play” (and as a child with an active imagination, I certainly knew those monsters in the closet and under the bed quite well). I somehow knew that being left alone meant being vulnerable. Now, before saying “well, that was really mean!,” or “what a terrible thing to do!” it wasn’t intended to be so. Every once in awhile, Dad or Gram reminiscing about watching my brother and I grow up will mention it (and they still feel bad about it like 20 some years later). Oh, the things we remember from childhood.
I tell this story, of course, not to make my Dad look bad, but because it strikes me that Jesus calls his disciples “little children.” Fred Craddock imagines this scene from today’s Gospel like children playing on the floor, seeing their parents put on their jackets, picking up their car keys. There are three questions - “where are you going?” “Can we go?” “then, who’s going to stay with us?” Those of us who have kids or who have worked with kids know these questions. But I think Jesus’ language in today’s Gospel points to something even deeper than that. There’s a fear attached when there’s a possibility of being left alone. There’s something in that address, “little children.” It seems that Jesus recognizes that this fear of being left alone is a fear that is so intense for little children - in their vulnerability.
Jesus knows that he’s going away from them, and that leaving these little children that he had grown to love so deeply, was going to be terrifying for them. He didn’t want to surprise them. He was leaving them alone - or at least leaving them without his physical presence - to face the world (the dark and the monsters of that world) on their own - many of them to face their own martyrdoms later. He knows that his absence will bring about fear. And the terror of feeling alone. As someone who has lived alone for a long time, I sometimes forget the intensity of that fear brought by “being left alone” - an intensity that children know well - including 5 year old me - the one who still believed that there were monsters in the closet, kept at bay by a loving parent. And it is a fear that the disciples will know well. So Jesus has to address the questions and the fears of his disciples, the little children, before he departs from them. And that’s what he does in the farewell discourse.
To combat that fear, Jesus unites them as a community. Not just any community - a community defined by love. And it is not just any kind of love. It is the kind love that drives out fear. It is the kind of love that provides security in vulnerability, as a parent comforting their children. It is the kind love that turns the monsters in our closets and in our world to something that can be conquered. It is the kind of love that assures us - that whatever happens - we will not be left alone. It is the kind of love that Jesus showed to his disciples throughout their time together.
In her new book, Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World, Rozella Haydee White writes about God as lover. She says, “when I think about God, I think about God as lover. The faith that I profess is rooted in a belief in a God that loves us deeply, desperately, and with a passion that cannot be contained. This God is always seeking us out, wanting to be with us and wanting us to experience the very best that life has to offer… This God lovingly crafted us in God’s own image, so that we too reflect God’s desires. This God created us to be lovers too” (White, 14-15). This is the love of God that is made ultimately known in Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, the Son of God. This Word Made flesh is the one, who facing the monsters of the world, goes to the cross for the sake of the world that God so loves. And that love is made known as Jesus lays his life down for his friends. Because God is love. And that love envelopes the disciples - and us - for whatever is to come - so that, no matter what happens, we are never alone. It is a love that empowers us to take risks for the sake of our neighbor and for the sake of the Gospel.
This love is now to be embodied by the disciples as they prepare for Jesus’ physical absence from them. That love will sustain them as a community, will dispel (or allow them to face) their fears united as one body. That love is what makes them willing to face the monsters that they will face in their darkness, and to continue the message of the gospel.
Bishop Yvette Flunder, at the Festival of Homiletics this past week, puts it this way “God never intended that the Gospel would have a closed end. God intends it to be alive.” In today’s Gospel from John, we see that the Gospel comes alive as we embody the love of God in our community and in the wider world. We get to make the Gospel come alive through our hands, our hearts, and our voices - as we bring the love of God to those around us. We get to be part of the love that breaks down barriers and brings about wholeness and healing. We get to be part of the love that dispels the darkness and the monsters of the world - sexism, racism, homopobia, transphobia, poverty, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, violence, xenophobia - to name a few. We get to be part of the love that creates a new community - united by the love that we’ve already found in Christ - so that we know that we are never left alone. The story does not end as Jesus departs. But it continues and it is as vibrant as ever. Thanks be to God for that.