ST MARY’S IFFLEY
Easter 6 Year A Principal Service
21 May 2017
The Gospel reading today is taken from St John’s Gospel chapter 14. It happens each year at this point in the Easter season that the Gospel readings at church are no longer taken from the resurrection stories; we’ve moved on from Doubting Thomas or Forgiven Peter. But where we move to comes as something of a surprise because it’s back, back to the last supper, back to four long and complex chapters in St John’s Gospel, referred to often as the Farewell Discourses.
So what’s the thinking behind this?
Firstly we’re taken back to these chapters in John’s Gospel because at one level they mirror where we are in the Easter story – saying ‘goodbye’ and parting as we lead up to Ascension Day this Thursday. The place where these themes are explored in the Gospels is in these Farewell Discourses round the meal table at the last supper, just before Jesus’ death.
However there’s also a deeper reason. These four chapters of John’s Gospel are probably best understood not as the actual teaching given by the historical Jesus at the last supper, but as the teaching of the risen Christ, alive and active in the minds and hearts of the early Christians as they reflected on Christ’s life and teaching, plumbing those depths that they knew to be there in his life and thought.
With Ascension Day, the appearances of Christ to his disciples come to a conclusion. From Ascension Day the disciples have to live without the assurance of Jesus’ visible presence with them in quite the tangible way they had become used to. He is ‘parted from their sight’ as we shall hear this Thursday.
This Easter journey, from Easter Day to Pentecost via the Ascension, can be seen as a process of assimilating the spirit of the risen Christ so that now the disciples don’t need Christ’s physical presence with them, nor do they need those appearances of the risen Christ. Rather the spirit of Christ lives on in their hearts and lives. And it’s out of this that these four chapters of St John come:
‘He abides with you’ we just heard,
‘he will be in you.’
I may have mentioned before that these chapters in John’s Gospel put me in mind of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The Ring Cycle consists of four long operas. Themes are woven together and play in and out of one another throughout the whole cycle of four operas. I went to my first one ‘Siegfried’ when I was about 17 and while I knew very little about what was going on, and it was interminably long (about 5 hours!), I was overwhelmed by the power of the music and felt there were hidden depths that I wanted to not-so-much know more about as experience more deeply. I’ve still not seen the whole cycle of operas that makes up The Ring and one day that would be wonderful. Well……..I would love it!
But even if you’re not a Wagner fan, or even an opera fan, I think it’s helpful to use this analogy when approaching these four chapters of John’s Gospel. They are long; the themes are woven in and out of each other; and we have to let the words and images wash over us to appreciate them! Trying to pin them down too much is just frustrating!
So we need to approach these chapters in a contemplative spirit. They contain some of the most precious and intimate teaching in the whole New Testament about the inner life of the Christian:
‘because I live, you also will live,’ we heard,
‘you in me, and I in you.’