r m p








Reading: John chapter 14

In New Testament Greek, there is an interesting ambiguity in the word diatheke. It is translated, depending on its use in the context, as either "covenant" or "testament." In English there is a wide difference between the two, but both have it in common that they are types of legally binding agreements. But in the case of a testament, we have a covenant made unilaterally between the will-maker and his heirs, who can only hope they will be treated fairly. But then again, in the case of a last will and testament, "fair" is just about anything the testator wants it to be.

In the New Testament, as the very name "New Testament" implies, we have an especially creative and revealing use of this ambiguity: it is the book dealing with the new agreement God has made with all who will enter into it with him, an agreement to forgive and to love. And like a last will and testament, this new testament is predicated on someone's death, that of Jesus on the cross.

You can elect to enter into this agreement, but whether you do or not, in another sense you are already included within it, because you have been stipulated as an heir, unilaterally, by the choice of the testator. There has been a bequest, and it waits for you.

And in fact it is a very generous bequest. It is the bequest of grace that Jesus symbolizes in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. At the end of the workday, the owner of the vineyard decides to go ahead and give everyone a full day's wage, even the workers who only got to work for a single hour. The workers who sweated and strained all day long groused about this, somehow feeling they were being cheated, but the owner replied with the logic of the testator, "Am I not free to do as I will with what is mine? Are you being stingy because I'm being generous?"

Jesus speaks at the Last Supper of many bequests. In Luke he tells the disciples, "To you who have stood by me in my hour of trial I bequeath a kingdom as my Father has granted me a kingdom." What kingdom was that? It behooves us to know, for he has granted the same kingdom to you and me, as our reading from John says in its own distinctive way. It is that kingdom that Jesus says is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will men say, "Lo, here it is!" or "There!," for this is the Kingdom of God that is within.

I want to focus on two statements Jesus makes at the Last Discourse in John 14. First he confuses the disciples by promising to lead them to the Father, when (they think) they do not know the way. Philip feels the frustration of the student who is so confused he fears to ask the professor to clarify, because to ask will reveal how confused he is. This is why most students, I think, are not forthcoming with questions; they don't dare reveal their confusion, which they somehow think is not already evident! But occasionally you can see the gears turning, and a student seems to realize that on exam day, if not before, the truth will come out anyway, and it will be worth it to reveal his ignorance now if he can have a chance of passing the test later!

This was Philip. Parable after parable had soared right over his head for month after month, and he had only nodded his head gravely, as if he understood. Now he realized things had reached critical mass. It was now or never! Jesus was talking about getting to God! Philip knows, so to speak, that this will be on the exam! He had better speak now or forever hold his peace.  So he speaks, and what comes out is the most elementary of religious questions, the one on everyone's tongue, but which never is unleashed, for fear. "The question," in the words of a song from the 60's, that "he never asked, he was taught not to ask, that was on his lips as they buried him" -- but Philip didn't want to die with that question unasked, or, if possible, unanswered. The other disciples cringe in embarrassment as they hear the shunned words taking substance in the air; they cringe from the rebuke they know is coming, yet none is without a secret daring hope that the Master may just deign to answer it: "Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough!"

"Enough?!" Enough, you say? That's all you want? Enough? One might rather say too much! If Jesus once grants such a request, makes such a bequest, then faith becomes sight, then the Grand Inquisitor forever loses his greatest weapon against the free consciences of men and women. We need never again be cowed with threats of unknown mysteries, because the chiefest mystery will be known!

Jesus grants his request, or rather he has been granting it all along! Indeed his only hint of rebuke is that Philip should think the question still needs to be asked! "Philip, have I been with you so long now, and you still do not know me? Why, he who has seen me has seen the Father!"

Philip suddenly feels like one of those disciples on the road to Emmaus is going to feel a few days hence: he has all this time been walking with the one he feared never to see! The God he despaired of was all the time under his nose! And he was oblivious!

Or perhaps he wasn't! I think that Philip had indeed known it; he just didn't know that he knew it! Peter spoke for him that day in Capernaum when he said, "Lord, we have come to know and  believe: you alone have the words of eternal life." But if one knows that, one is walking with God, hearing God's voice, the same voice whose first words of life were, "Let there be light!" One is spoken into new being by that voice. Philip knew not to put the name "God" to that voice, but he heard it as unmistakably in any case! And he flourished because of it!

So all this time he had seen the Father, since the Father was in Jesus, and Jesus was in the Father! Of course! In retrospect, it all made sense! He had known, all right, he just hadn't known that he knew!

But isn't it true that you don't know what you've got till its gone? What good does it do Philip to know that he had seen the Father now, on the eve of Jesus' departure! What a cruel trick! Why, oh why, had he waited so long to ask that question? Again, think of the chagrin of the Emmaus disciples: Oh what wouldn't they have given just to see a glimpse of their dead Master again? Suddenly they do, and no sooner do they recognize he had been with them for hours than he is gone!

Here is where Philip and the rest hear the last testament, the last bequest of Jesus. It is that even though he will leave them, he will not leave them! Just as the Father was with them secretly, really enough that one might feel the effects of his presence yet not know to name him, even so, Jesus himself will come present in a new, unseen way. "I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth ... you know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you."

So Christ's last bequest is that of his own abiding presence, and that in a form so subtle that, again like the two Emmaus disciples, you may walk with him and talk with him, gaining the benefit of it, your heart burning within you, but never once suspecting that it is truly he. In a strange sense, you do know his presence, only it is so deep, so secret, that you don't realize you know it. As Tillich said, the power of Jesus may yet be active even where his name is not named.

But tonight is a night when we do seek to know it, when we seek, as Paul said, to discern the body of the Lord at the table of the Lord. Please join me around the table now in the Guild Room.




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