Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Jesus' Farewell to His Disciples

For Lent this year, I gave a series of studies on what is known as the Farewell Discourse in St John's Gospel. I recorded a short summery of each for the Reflections programme on RTHK Radio 4.

1. Believe in Me

In the Church, we have just celebrated Easter, and we will soon be celebrating Ascension. These festivals are highlights in the Church’s year. But while we celebrate our Lord’s triumph over death and his return to take his rightful place in heaven, we have to ask where that leaves us. Has Jesus in leaving this world also left us?

On the night before his crucifixion at the Last Supper, Jesus specifically promised his followers that he would not leave them alone but would send them another to be with them forever. This other is the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate 10 days after Ascension Day at Pentecost. As well as promising them the Holy Spirit to lead and guide them, Jesus sought to give them some teaching while he was still with them on what it meant to be his disciple. I would like this week to reflect briefly on this teaching and what it means for those who want to be his disciple today.

The first thing Jesus tells his disciples in his closing words to them is that they should believe in him. This seems obvious enough. You can’t follow someone you don’t believe in. To believe in Jesus means first of all believing in his existence, not only his historical existence, but also his present existence as the One who rose from the dead and is alive. Secondly, however, it means to believe that he is who he said he is. Jesus stresses throughout his ministry that it was God the Father who sent him and that he and the Father are One.

Believing in Jesus, then, is more than believing in another human religious teacher, but believing that in him we meet with and come to know God himself. Many find that a step too far. But it is a step that Jesus challenges us to take.

2. Follow Me

We are reflecting this week on Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be his disciple. Jesus told his first disciples that they should believe in him, believe, that is, that he was who he said he was. Jesus’ claim was that anyone who had seen him had seen God his Father. Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t simply about believing in his teaching about how to live but believing he is who he claimed to be. Many can relate to Jesus as a good man and a teacher of morality. They find it much harder to accept that in him we meet God himself.

Jesus said his sheep follow him because they know his voice. Know that is who it is who is speaking to them. It is because we know that Jesus is the One sent from God to reveal the truth about God and about ourselves that we have the confidence to follow him. Jesus also says that his sheep will not follow a stranger.

Sadly, many may as well follow a stranger, for all too often we don’t like what following Jesus means for us. Jesus leads his sheep through dark valleys as well as green pastures. He demands complete obedience in following him and a willingness to sacrifice everything as we do so. The way he takes is a hard one and the gate narrow to enter it. Few are they who find it, he observed.

Instead, then, of following where he leads, we try to convince ourselves that Jesus isn’t really as demanding as the Gospels make him out to be. Surely, he wants to give us what we want and makes us happy, not to cause us pain and take from us what little we have? No wonder that many of the disciples who first followed him gave up and turned back! No wonder that many do so today.

3. Abide in Me

Having decided to follow Jesus - believing him to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the One by whom we come to God the Father - we soon discover how hard following him actually is. Firstly, there are so many routine distractions in our daily lives that take our minds off following Jesus. Whether it’s raising a family, pursuing a career, or any of a number of otherwise perfectly legitimate activities. Then, secondly, there are all those other things we would prefer to follow: money, ambition, pleasure. The temptation to follow after things other than Jesus is all around us. Thirdly, though, Jesus’ own conditions for following him don’t exactly make following him easy. Dying to self, putting the needs of others before our own, and always putting God first is not how we have been brought up to live.

Left to ourselves, then, we are bound to fail. We will be distracted; we will seek after other things; and we will put ourselves before God and others. No wonder, then, that we are tempted to give up and ask not only whether it is worth it but whether it is even possible to follow Jesus in the way he says we must.

Jesus knew that we could not do it on our own and that left to ourselves our feeble attempts to follow him were doomed to failure. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’, Jesus told his disciples on the night he was to be taken from them. If they were to follow him, they needed, he said, ‘to abide in him’. He is the True Vine, he said, and his followers the branches. As the branches get life from the vine, so we get our life from him. But we only get it by being completely united to him. Separated from him, we wither and die.

4. Feed on Me

Jesus uses several metaphors to explain what it means to follow him who describes himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the Light of the world, who shows his followers the way to go; he is the Shepherd, who leads his sheep; he is also the Door they must go through; he is the Resurrection and the Life, who gives life to all who believe in him. He is the True Vine that his followers must abide in and remain united to. We may not always like what we hear or even agree with it, but the metaphors Jesus uses are clear enough, except, perhaps, for one. Jesus says he is the Bread of Life. This is a metaphor that Jesus pushes to its absolute limit.

‘He who eats me will live because of me’, he says. And he doesn’t leave it there. Jesus warns them that unless they eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, they have no life in them. He tells them that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him and he in them. In saying this, he links the requirement for his followers to abide in him with the need for them to feed on him by eating him.

But what does it mean to eat him? It clearly involves believing in him in the sense of trusting absolutely in him and obeying him by doing what he tells us to do. But both the metaphor itself and Jesus’ expansion of it seem to indicate there is more to it than that. ‘This is my body’, Jesus said of the bread at the Last Supper; ‘this my blood’, he said of the cup of wine. Feeding on him cannot be limited to what happens in the Eucharist or Holy Communion, but Jesus’ actions and words seem at the very least to suggest that it is an essential part of it.

5. Love One Another

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that he was giving them a new commandment. The new commandment, he said, was for them to ‘love one another’. He demonstrated what he meant by this by getting down from the table during the Meal and washing their feet, something that normally only a slave would be asked to do. Peter, the leading disciple, is so horrified at what Jesus is doing that at first he refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. Jesus explains that he has given them an example. They should wash each other’s feet, that is, they should serve each other and no task should be too lowly or mean.

Well, we get it, but why was it so important for Jesus to say it then, just as he was about to be arrested and crucified? He has, in fact, been criticized for saying it. By telling his disciples to love one another, Jesus has been heard to be telling his disciples that their love is only to be for one another and not for those outside the group. It was not, however, them loving outsiders that Jesus was worried about, but how outsiders would treat them. ‘If the world has hated me, it will hate you’, Jesus warns them. And they were about to see just how much the world hated him.

Jesus knew that if his followers were to survive in a hostile world that would hate them because they loved and followed him, they would need each other. Rather than worrying about their position in the group, Jesus’ followers were instead to serve those who belonged to it. Their love for each other would show everyone that they were his followers. The problem has always been that we prefer to have our feet washed rather than to be the one to do the washing.

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