7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 17:6-19;
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13
THE WORD OF TRUTH
It was the summer after my first year at seminary, and I was on my way out to Idaho, to work a summer job at a Lutheran camp. Back home in the Detroit area, one of my cousins was getting married that summer, and family was preparing for a shower. My Grandma Krist — my mother’s mom — was in her bedroom getting ready for bed. Because of the wedding shower the next day, it so happened that my mother and all four of her sisters were there that night. They were there to hear my Grandma Krist cry out from the bedroom; all five daughters came running. Grandma said, “Something’s wrong, something’s happening to me. Pray with me.” So all together they prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Grandma prayed out-loud several prayers of her youth in German, and then she laid down on her bed and died of a stroke. It was the kind of death one always hopes for: a prayerful and gentle release into God’s waiting arms, with loved ones surrounding you.
The setting of this morning’s Gospel lesson is at Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on the night before his death. The last thing Jesus does before going out to get arrested is to share this long prayer with his disciples. It is a poignant moment, a prayerful time with loved ones shortly before dying. Yet there is a big difference, of course, between this prayer and the one my grandmother was fortunate to pray before her death. Jesus’ death was not to be a gentle laying down and going to sleep for the last time. He knew what was coming; his disciples did not. Jesus knew that the next day would bring a terrible suffering and death.
Yet, in the face of such a death, isn’t this prayer remarkable? It’s seems as peaceful and measured as if Jesus were to simply lay down and die. And did you ever realize that in John’s Gospel this prayer at the end of the Last Supper basically replaces the more familiar prayer of the Garden of Gethsemane? The familiar Gethsemane prayer is much more anguished and so seems more appropriate to the circumstances. Jesus falls to the ground and prays that this terrible cup of poison that he is about to drink might pass, that there might be another way. Yet he prays, too, that God’s will be done. This prayer in John’s Gospel is quite different. Jesus’ focus isn’t on himself and what he is about to go through. In fact, to the extent that he does pray about his death, he does so in terms of his being glorified. And his main focus in this prayer is not on himself but on his loved ones, his followers. He prays that his followers might come to know the truth through what he is about to do.
“What is truth?” Pilate asks Jesus just a few hours later. Jesus had to die a terrible death at the hands of violent human beings, but perhaps he had to do so in order that we might see the full truth about, how for us, death and sin go together. Even when we are fortunate, as my grandmother was, to die a relatively peaceful death, is it completely different than the violent death that Jesus suffered? No and yes. Certainly, the specific circumstances around the dying are different. All of us would choose the way my grandma died if we could. But the thing that is the same is the overall circumstances of our lives being bound in sin. Jesus died at the hands of our sin so that we might finally see the full brunt of how our sin and death go together. We don’t just die. At the time of our deaths, we have been complicit in the deaths of others — as revealed in our being complicit with our Lord’s death on the cross.
In John’s Gospel, the Word of Truth about death and sin is obvious from beginning to end. His Gospel begins, you will remember, with the beautiful hymn to the Word made flesh, who has dwelt among us full of grace and truth — God’s Word to us of life and light, a light that shines in the darkness which the darkness cannot overcome it. What darkness? Right from the beginning, John’s Gospel is forthright with us about the darkness of our sin: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11).
At the middle of John’s Gospel we hear about that truth in even starker terms. On Reformation Sunday every year, we hear about how Jesus’ truth will set us free. What truth? Several verses later, Jesus is point blank: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (John 8:44). Isn’t this an amazing passage? Because of sin, death for us is not just simple death, but it is always implicated in murder.
If we still aren’t convinced of this truth, there is that poignant moment already mentioned from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus is standing before Pilate, minutes away from being condemned to death, murdered as God’s innocent Lamb to the slaughter, and we witness this remarkable exchange:
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” … Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33, 36-38a)
What is the truth, indeed?! As Jesus is about to be sentenced to death, he speaks of bearing witness to the truth. Isn’t it precisely the truth of our complicity in death? We don’t just die, as mortal human beings, we also collectively kill and take life. Most often in the name of keeping the peace, we execute criminals like Jesus was deemed to be. We go to war. As Jesus is about to be judged, he bears witness to the way in which our judgments are judged by God. Our judgments are judged to be deadly, as complicit in death. Our sin and death are bound together.
This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Have you ever noticed how we remember all our deaths together? What I mean is that we remember so-called natural deaths, like my grandmother’s, at the same time that we especially honor the tragic, violent deaths of our fallen soldiers. Our sin and death are bound together, and yet it still is difficult to see this fact behind the veil of our remembrances. We still tend to miss the fundamental difference between our way of gaining peace and God’s way of peace. We just read it. Jesus said that his entire life bears witness to this truth: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Isn’t this the fundamental truth behind the world’s way, our way, vs. God’s way? We would send soldiers to kill and die. God sends his son to die … but never to kill.
Are we really “murderers“? Isn’t that going too far? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). Yes, my grandmother was fortunate to die a relatively peaceful death. But, no, she was not free from such sins. She lived, as we all do, in a country that still uses this world’s way of waging peace through war. She spoke words of anger and insults to brothers and sisters. So do you and I. There are times when I slay my sons’ spirits with angry words. We all do. In fact, there’s a sense in which some wars do seem more justified than yours and my usual angry words. We have fought wars to stop the murderous ways of dictators such as Adolf Hitler. When I get speak angry words to my sons, it’s often over the smallest things. For us, death can never be purely natural, purely peaceful, because our lives are still darkened by sin.
But even the fact that we can begin to peer into such darkness and recognize it as such brings the light of Good News. On that night before dying at the hands of our violent sin, at the Last Supper, Jesus prays for our protection in the Word of Truth. And, thank God!, it isn’t only a word of truth about our sinful and deadly ways, but it is also the truth about God’s gracious way of forgiveness and love. Yes, my grandma died a sinner. You and I will die sinners. Brave soldiers die in our sin. But, in Jesus Christ, we will also die as sinners of our Lord’s redeeming, as sheep of his fold. We die in the Word of Truth which is also the word of God’s forgiveness as the true way of peace, and God’s power of life in the face of our sin, our deadly ways to peace. And, not only will we someday die in that promise, but each and every day before then we have the opportunity to die to our sin and rise to the holiness of God’s way of peace in this world. In our baptisms, we are raised with Christ to begin living in that power of life and peace right here again today. We are not only justified in that word of truth but we are sanctified in it. We are empowered by the Spirit to begin truly living for life and not for death. We are empowered to begin living God’s way of peace — to bring peace through the power of God’s loving forgiveness instead of our violent firepower. The Last Supper wasn’t really the last supper. This wasn’t really Jesus’ final prayer on our behalf. Even now, our Lord comes to us again today, to feed us with his word of truth and to pray for our protection in his word of peace. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 24, 2009