Sermon: Parting Gifts
When somebody leaves a job, we normally buy them presents. When I left my office to study Theology, my friends bought me a set of mugs, given the image of students sitting around drinking.
But when a ministerial colleague left the first circuit in which I served, he reversed the custom. Before Ken left to follow his calling as a prison chaplain, he gave gifts to all the staff. I still remember that he gave me a book by Henri Nouwen, the (since deceased) Dutch Roman Catholic priest.
And today’s reading is about parting gifts. It’s about parting gifts, given by the one who was going to leave. On this Sunday after Ascension, we go back to a passage where Jesus promised what he would give his disciples when he left them. What did Jesus leave his first disciples – and, by implication, us?
The first gift is one that effectively says, I’m not really going.
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (Verses 23-24)
Physically I’m going, says Jesus, but the Father and I will be present in your lives. It’s rather more than what we mean when we say we will be with someone in spirit: Jesus and the Father will actually be present spiritually, in a way ordinary humans cannot be.
So Jesus is saying this isn’t a complete going away. You won’t be bereaved, I’ll just be present in a different way, in some sense a better way. Not only will Jesus be present with those he shares his earthly life, he will be present with all disciples. And further, it won’t just be Jesus who is present, but the Father, too.
Hence, all the wistful, romantic views about how wonderful it would be to have walked with Jesus along the shores of Galilee are punctured. Jesus says, this way is better. It is more blessèd for him to ascend and then come spiritually with the Father to all disciples. Let those of us who have never physically seen Jesus view ourselves as second-class Christians.
This, then, is a beautiful gift for the parting Jesus to give. He and the Father will be spiritually present with all Christians. There is no distinction between superior and inferior disciples. All are valued, and this is shown by the divine presence in all followers of Jesus.
There is, however, a challenge that goes with this first parting gift. Jesus associates this gift of divine presence with obedience to his word. To repeat the quote I just gave, Jesus says that the promise of his and the Father’s presence is to ‘Those who love me [who] will keep my word’ (verse 23), and in contrast ‘Whoever does not love me does not keep my words’ (verse 24).
What do we make of this? Is Jesus making it some kind of condition that he and the Father will only come to those who are goody-goodies? If so, it’s hardly some kind of gift. In that case, rather than a gift, their presence becomes some kind of reward or payment. You could say their presence would be more like wages for doing the right thing.
But I don’t think it is that. Jesus is setting this parting gift in the context of a relationship based on love. When people love one another, they both want to be with each other and they want to do what pleases the other party. That is what is going on here: both a close presence (‘we will come to them and make our home with them’) and a desire to please (‘Those who love me will keep my word’).
Put all that together, and what have you got? You’ve got a relationship where one party is going away, with all the potential heartache of a parting. But you have something there that cannot be paralleled in ordinary human relationships, in the way that Jesus and the Father will spiritually make themselves present in the lives of disciples. Our part is in love to ‘keep’ the words of Jesus.
That word ‘keep’ is interesting. It isn’t just about obeying, although it includes that. We keep the words of those we love. Think of a couple who are going out together, and especially if they live miles from each other, they will keep one another’s words. Letters will be kept, emails will be filed away, and especially when they are apart the correspondence will come out and someone will pore over it for nuances of their beloved’s thoughts and feelings. Only in the light of that devoted reading will they then act, because they have learned what pleases the one they love.
I’m sure I don’t have to ram home a spiritual application too hard after that. Keeping Jesus’ word means reading what he has said to us in a spirit of devotion, because we love him and he loves us. As we do so, we gain a feel for what pleases him, and we then set out to please him. All this brings him (and the Father) closer.
The second gift comes in verses 25 to 26. We’ve had Jesus and the Father, now we receive the Holy Spirit:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Let’s pick up on that word ‘Advocate’. Other translations say ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Helper’. Which one is right? All of them. And more. It’s one of those rich Greek words in the New Testament: paraklétos, and because it is so layered with meaning some people like to leave it virtually untranslated as ‘Paraclete’. If you did translate it literally, it would be something like this: ‘one called alongside’. So you can see why English versions opt for words like ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper’.
However, paraklétos had a particular application in the legal world. It referred to ‘a helper in court’. And from that you can see why some English translators choose words such as ‘Counsellor’ (think of ‘learned counsel’ in our legal parlance) or ‘Advocate’ (especially if you think of that word’s use in the Scottish legal system).
Add to this ‘helper in court’ Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (verse 26), and you get something like this. The Holy Spirit is the helper in court who reminds us what Jesus says. You could say, then, that the Holy Spirit here is Jesus’ helper. He is an advocate for Jesus to us. He helps us hear that word we are longing to pore over in our relationship of love with Jesus. On our own we cannot hear the word of Jesus. Even if we read it in the pages of Scripture, it just doesn’t jump off the page and sink into our being. But the work of the Holy Spirit makes the difference. Not that it then always becomes easy to hear the word of Jesus, but the Spirit makes it possible and real.
If you stretch the legal language a little further, then perhaps there is a particular time when the Spirit does this for us. If there is a ‘court’ context, then perhaps this is a promise that the Holy Spirit will especially help us receive the word of Jesus when we are ‘on trial’ for our faith. Not necessary literally on trial, although that is true for so many Christians around the world, but when we are under pressure, facing difficulties or opposition, the Holy Spirit comes to us and makes the message of Jesus clear to us.
This, then, is the second parting gift from Jesus. The Holy Spirit will help us hear his word in order to dwell on it and please him, but especially in times of stress he will make the voice of Jesus clear to us.
The third and final (at least in this passage) gift is peace. Verse 27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It’s a verse I often read at Methodist funerals, and I hoe it provides comfort to people in the deepest sorrow. It’s a verse I’ve applied to my own life at times of great nervousness. This may seem trivial compared to bereavement, but when I first took my driving test I was a bag of nerves. My foot beat time on the clutch – so much for the three-point turn – and I was in such a state that I pulled in behind a bus, waited for it to move off, completely oblivious to the fact that it was at a terminus, having completed its route. The second time I took my driving test, I wanted to avoid being a nervous wreck again and I memorised this verse. I was duly calm, and performed well in the test.
Except I didn’t pass. I sustained a puncture a quarter of a mile from the end of the test route. Although I had completed all the statutory manoeuvres, the examiner refused to proceed to the Highway Code test (no written exam in those days) and gave me a ‘no result’!
So we tend to apply this verse about Jesus’ promise to give a parting gift of peace in rather personal, if not individual terms. Yet however valid that is, I have been struck this week by the thought that Jesus might originally have meant it in a different way.
Jesus doesn’t simply give this gift of peace to individuals here, but to a group – his disciples. Some of our conventional understanding of this verse will still make sense in terms of the Ascension – if they are troubled by the thought of Jesus’ departure, he will calm them. Likewise, if they are under pressure, if not in a ‘court’ situation, then the gift of peace alongside the Spirit’s work will be invaluable. But I suspect he means more.
If it is peace in the midst of a group, then is Jesus not saying that peace should characterise his disciples? Should we not be known as a community of peace? By that, I don’t mean that we never have arguments, nor that we sweep our differences under the carpet. I mean that our life together as Christian community is one of harmony, healing, well-being and justice. Is that what we are like?
The other night I went to hear Sam Norton, the vicar of Mersea Island, speak at Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society. During his talk, he showed us a photo of the Amish community in the United States, and we remembered the terrible murder committed in their midst by an outsider a couple of years ago and how they pulled together in forgiveness. That, surely, was a Christian community that had practised the gift of peace given to them by Jesus and then when the crisis hit it was more natural to them to practise it also when under strain.
In other words, if we receive the parting gift of peace from Jesus, we need to put it into practice. It is no good just waiting for the crisis. We need to turn things into regular habits. The regular practice of peace will make us what one writer calls ‘the peaceable kingdom’. And by that I don’t mean simply sharing ‘The Peace’ at Holy Communion as we shall do in a few minutes: I mean the habits of peace that involve forgiveness, reconciliation, believing the best of one another and so on.
In conclusion, Jesus gives us a word about joy at the thought of his forthcoming departure:
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (Verses 28-29)
You wouldn’t normally mark the departure of a loved one with joy for yourselves, even if you were happy for them. But if the departure of Jesus means parting gifts like these – a loving relationship with him and the Father sustained by deep love and keeping his word, the Holy Spirit bringing the word of Jesus to us even in the most testing of situations and finally a communal peace – then do we not have every reason to be joyful that Jesus departed the earth for the right hand of the Father?