6th Sunday of Easter - John 14:15-21
May 14, 2023
Good Morning, Saint Aidan’s.
I can picture the scene: a July night in a summer of my high school years, perhaps the summer of 1990, in rental car heading from Chicago to Spring Green, Wisconsin where my grandmother had grown up. We were headed to a family reunion. It was very late, and the drive had taken the requisite three plus hours on top of the long flight to Chicago from here. My mom was driving, and I believe I was in the backseat next to my grandmother. My sister was in the passenger seat. That my grandmother was not driving is astonishing, because she loved to drive and took great pride in her skill. She was a confident, even forceful driver. (In my memory, my grandfather never drove when both of them were in the car. Only Grandma.) On this trip, however, my mom had made clear that she would be the driver. As we got close to our destination there was some confusion about direction. Where was the town? Had we turned off the highway too late? My mom wasn’t sure—none of us was. Except Grandma (it had been her hometown, after all). The turn was back there, she said. We continued down the highway and began to cross a bridge. As soon as the bridge began, Grandma’s voice thundered from the backseat: turn around! We all took it in for a moment, it was so startling in its crystalline authority. Turn around! We got to the other side of the bridge, pulled over, and then reversed course. Before long we did indeed arrive at our destination.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus tells his disciples in our gospel passage this morning (John 14:15). As I dwelt with this sentence and with the whole of our passage from the Gospel of John today, I could not help but think of Grandma. I might even have thought of her with last week’s passage, particularly poor Thomas’s protestation “how can we know the way?!” (14:5) And then Grandma: I am the way… no one will get to their destination except through my driving… Yet even if that signature backseat driver line (never uttered again; never forgotten) may sound more Lenten than Easter, truly, the authority underlying it spoke not disconnection but connection, not judgment but deep, abiding love. Love not as coercion, not as quid pro quo (despite John’s if/then language), but as commitment, as assurance, as relational ground of being. “This is my commandment,” Jesus continues in the next chapter of John’s gospel, “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). That love bound us together in that rental car as it wended its way to reunion in all its fraught complexity, crankiness, and exhaustion. All of us, truly, were driven by, steeped in that love.
Our whole passage from John’s gospel – last week’s that continues into this week’s – is known to biblical scholars as Jesus’ (or Mr. Jesus’ – hat tip to Weston…) Farewell Discourse. In it, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure from them – that is, he would die and would be raised, but ultimately even in his resurrection life would not walk among them in the same way as before. Instead, the Spirit would dwell with them, with us, conveying the deep relational union of Christ with us, which flows out of his abiding connection with the divine Parent. John does not have a story of the Ascension as Luke-Acts does, but we are given these two Johannine passages at this point in Easter’s Great Fifty Days with that Ascension narrative arc in mind, since the Feast of the Ascension is coming up this Thursday. We began this season with the empty tomb and dialogue with Mary in the garden (John 20:1-18), then shifted to the upper room encounter with Thomas and the others (John 20:19-29) and to the Emmaus Road revelation (Luke 24:13-35). From there, we have been invited over successive weeks to dwell differently with the risen Christ: as one who shepherds us (John 10:1-10), as one whose Spirit comes to abide with us in deep truth, as one who calls us to abide in love with one another (John 14:1-21).
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At some point within the last year—perhaps during my sabbatical – I went through some old VHS tapes from a box in our garage. (Yes, we have a working VCR—as my family can tell you, I’m attached to my old audio-visual technology). In addition to the nostalgia of old Red Sox games, TV shows, and old commercials, there was a home video from a middle school basketball game. I stood in the living room trying to make out my teammates and my thirteen or fourteen-year-old self running up and down the court, but the years had left an indelible horizontal streak across the middle of the screen. No amount of adjusting the tracking would make it go away. After a few minutes of fruitless scrutinizing, I stooped to eject the tape but then stopped, noticing something. Behind the players, above the streak, you could see people—fans, encouragers – seated along the wall of my school’s tiny old gym. You couldn’t see their faces clearly but their outlines were sharp enough. I pressed pause to get a closer look before the camera could pan away and realized what I was seeing: my mom, my grandma, and my sister. There they sat together in a row, unmistakable in outline, watching me play. I remember them doing this – sometimes in different combinations, depending on their schedules. My grandfather (Gramps) was at nearly every game. But as I looked at them, paused on the streaked VHS tape, I felt that this holy trio was not simply watching. They were bearing witness. They were present in a way that extended far beyond that moment in space and time. They were abiding.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. “I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18-19). In the chapter after our passage, Jesus develops this idea of his coming to his community, his post-resurrection presence with them, with us, with the language of abiding or dwelling. He uses the image of the vine and the branches to convey that sense of presence and connection (John 15:1-17). Toward the beginning of last week’s passage, he uses the language of “dwelling places” to get at this idea as well (John 14:2). He is seeking to reassure that while his abiding connection may not always be legible, it is still there. It is there just as his connection with God the Parent was a visible reality that the disciples needed to learn how to see and embrace. In that seeing and embracing, they would be taking in the love that Jesus had for them, the love that bound him together with God the Parent, the love that binds us to one another and to all creation. Seeing that love, they would be receiving what the Gospel of John uniquely calls the Spirit of Truth. Not just the Spirit but the “Spirit of Truth” (14:16-17), the Advocate, a moving, flowing divine presence with a quality that reveals the truth in all its depth and complexity. The charged yet loving relational currents flowing in that late night rental car, the clarion call to turn around! The love that draws a family back to places of origins, layered with history, the presence of old stories told and untold, reaching hands across the generations, across time itself. Jesus prepares the way for the Spirit of Truth to carry us forward in love, calling us to convey, to reveal, to embody that love with, for, and beyond our immediate circles.
I think of Grandma as a key link, an anchor, in a long, loving tradition of mothering in my family – of parenting both inflected by particularities of gender and exceeding gender’s bounds inasmuch as love cannot be contained by any earthly interpretations of our bodily, relational realities. One could express this love in other ways as well – through parenting more broadly, through mentorship, through collegiality, and particularly through friendship, recalling Jesus’ powerful statement “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). I am mindful that this day, Mother’s Day, can be joyful or fraught (or both) for any number of reasons, lifted up by the lived experience gathered in and beyond this room. And so today I give thanks for the abiding love in this room. The love that has brought me and my family to this place – that of my own mom, of my grandmothers, of Kateri’s mother, of Kateri, and our broader family and loved ones.
I think too of the insights of Julian of Norwich, medieval theologian and anchoress whose mystical reflections on the “showings” God revealed to her in prayer have been passed down to us, as I wrote in the Flame this week. She writes,
And so I saw that God rejoices that [God] is our Father, and God rejoices that [God] is our Mother, and God rejoices that [God] is our true spouse, and that our soul is [God’s] beloved [spouse ]. And Christ rejoices that he is our brother, and Jesus rejoices that he is our savior. These are five great joys, as I understand, in which he wants us to rejoice, praising him, thanking him, loving him, endlessly blessing him, all who will be saved.
She continues, “During our lifetime here we have in us a marvelous mixture of both well-being and woe.” Indeed, the news and our own lives tell us this truth in no uncertain terms. Yet amid this mixture, says Julian, “We have in us our risen Lord Jesus Christ.” We have abiding love, turning us around, cheering our efforts, driving us to be with family across miles and generations. We have love drawing us home. Thanks be to God for love given and received, love practiced and shared, for the newness of life such love calls us to see and proclaim this day and always.
 https://www.staidansf.org/post/easter-5  E.g. D. Moody Smith, “John” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), p. 977.  Reginald Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville, MN, 1984), pp. 84-85.  “Marvelous Mixture,” May 12, 2023. https://us20.campaign-archive.com/?u=122600bf856da9384f8a8d2ac&id=8f70229888  All Julian of Norwich quotes from chapter 52 of her Showings (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 279.