08 May 2016, Seventh Sunday of Easter
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Acts 16. 16 – 16-34; John 17. 20-end
A few days after my father’s death, some sixteen years ago, a parishioner came to the door of my vicarage in Leeds. She held out a Tupperware container of home-made biscuits, said to me ‘I am so sorry Simon’, and left without saying anything else. As I watched her leave, and then looked at what she had given me, I knew instinctively that I was being held in prayer and that the biscuits were a way of telling me this. I was both moved and humbled by the gesture. As I reflected on it, I came to understand for myself that those who minister to others must learn first to be ministered to themselves.
Such a lesson lies at the heart of today’s Gospel reading and of the chapters that have preceded it. Taken together, these chapters constitute St John’s account of Jesus’s final evening with his disciples. At the beginning of the evening Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, teaching them that it is only by accepting this gesture of loving service that they can fully share in his ministry: those who would minister to others must first learn to be ministered to themselves. The evening then proceeds in the context of a shared meal during which Jesus intimates to his disciples that he will soon be leaving them. He gives them the new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. Then comes a whole series of questions and requests from the disciples about his imminent departure: Lord, where are you going? Lord, why can I not follow you? Lord, how can we know the way? Lord, show us the Father. Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?
Underlying all the disciples’ questions and requests is a fundamental anxiety about what exactly is going on. Jesus has spoken about leaving them, but where’s he going? How can they get there as well? And what about those who aren’t disciples: ‘the world’, as St John puts it. Where does everyone else fit in to this new order, this new way of living?
Jesus does not answer these questions directly. Instead he begins to frame an answer in which the new commandment to love is fundamentally connected with action: if you love me, Jesus tells the disciples, you will keep my word; in other words, you will do what I have commanded you to do. This answer looks back to the washing of the disciples’ feet: love and action fundamentally connected; the answer looks forward to the following day, when Jesus will be lifted high on the cross and will open his arms in a gesture of all-encompassing love: love and action fundamentally connected; and the answer looks forward to the closing of the eternal circle of God’s of saving grace, which we will celebrate next week, when the risen, ascended and glorified Son will send the Holy Spirit to remind the disciples of all he has taught, teaching which can be summed up very simply: love and action are fundamentally connected. I may be gone, says Jesus, but you know what I commanded you, and if you ever forget you will have the Holy Spirit to remind you. Loving me, and doing what I command, are so intimately and fundamentally connected that they are the same thing. In doing what I command, you are showing my love to the world. It is through you that others will come to know me.
As the evening draws to a close the questions and answers, the instructions and exhortations come to an end. Jesus looks up to heaven and prays. Today’s Gospel reading is the final section of that prayer. The evening has begun with Jesus ministering to his disciples by washing their feet. It ends with him ministering to them through his prayer to the Father: those who pray for others must learn to be prayed for themselves. The disciples’ worry about Jesus’s departure is no more than a natural human reaction – we might call it a separation anxiety. What they cannot grasp, but what Jesus is trying to help them to see during these final hours with them is that they will only fully come to understand his love once he is no longer physically with them. This is a painful paradox, God’s presence known though God’s absence – perhaps the central challenge to our faith.
Graham Greene expresses – and I think explains – this paradox quite perfectly in the closing paragraph of his late novel, Monsignor Quixote. The priest of the book’s title befriends Enrique Zancas, a communist, and fiercely atheist, mayor who has been deposed from office and who is at a low ebb. Together they travel around post-Franco Spain like some latter-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. After many adventures Monsignor Quixote is fatally wounded whilst trying to defend a statue of the Blessed Virgin from sacrilege. He dies in his still-atheist friend’s arms, and the mayor accompanies him to his final resting place, a town called Orense. This is how the novel ends:
The Mayor didn’t speak again before they reached Orense; an idea quite strange to him had lodged in his brain. Why is it that the hate of man dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end?
In being loved by the faithful priest, the communist mayor has learned to love in a way that is so consuming and so lasting that it almost makes him afraid. This is the same mystery, the same gift, and the same Gospel that lies at the heart of Jesus’s prayer for the disciples and therefore for us: the mystery, the gift, and the good news of God’s death-transcending and unconditional love shown in Christ for us, and through us for the whole world.