I don’t know how many of you have run across Randy Pausch. He is the professor from Carnegie Mellon University who has become famous for his “Last Lecture.” Last lectures are things that on some college campuses are very popular. Professors are encouraged to give the lecture they would present to their students if it were the last one they could ever give. In Professor Pausch’s case it is particularly poignant because he is 47 years old, the father of three young children and it appears that he is dying of pancreatic cancer. His lecture, which really is quite an amazing and inspirational talk, was picked up on You Tube, and in the way of these things, has spread all over the world, and is now being published as a book.
Our Gospel this morning is in the manner of one of those last lectures. John is recording Jesus’ last words to His followers. I want to remind us, as sometimes the chronology can get a bit fuzzy, that this was all written long after Jesus was gone. This gospel is written for a community for whom Jesus was only a memory. Most of those in John's community had never met Jesus. Most, if not all, the disciples were dead. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed- which had been a sign for many of them that the end-time they were expecting would soon come. But the end-time hadn’t come, and life went on and that was, in many ways, the hardest part of all. This community of believers felt pushed to the very edge of despair and hopelessness. The gospel writer knew the dangers of such despair. So it’s likely that John pulled together many of the things Jesus said into this one section of the Gospel known as "The Farewell Discourses," perhaps a bit like the Last Lecture. And the central message of this Last Lecture that Jesus gives his friends is that his gospel is one of radical love, and the reminder that if they are to carry out living as his disciples, that truly is their mission, to carry out Jesus’ work of bringing about God’s kingdom by obeying Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he had loved.
As a good professor knows his or her students, Jesus knew that carrying on this mission would be difficult for his followers. Day in and day out in the three years he had spent with the disciples he had seen how they struggled to understand the deeply countercultural message he preached….love one another, forgive those who persecute you, take care of those who are the least and the needy, watch over the outcasts, give all you have….all of those things that he taught them had been difficult when he had been right there with them, he knew left to their (and our) own devices it would be difficult if not impossible to carry out! So in his last lecture, over and over, he tells them that he is NOT leaving them alone, but is leaving them another advocate, another “Paraclete,” to help them. I remember thinking as a little kid in Catholic school that Jesus was leaving them talking birds….having somehow I think gotten the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove and a “parakeet” mixed up….but the true meaning of the word Paraclete is really a wonderful image.
In the Roman law system, a defendant didn’t hire an attorney to argue his case. Instead, each person was expected to defend himself; he was, in essence, his own lawyer. But how would an ordinary person know the law well enough to present an adequate defense? He would hire a “paracletos”. A paracletos was a professional expert on Roman law. Once hired to support the defense of an accused person, the paracletos would brief him before the trial, and then he would also attend the trial. He would sit next to the defendant, and as the defendant would make his case, the paracletos would whisper advice into his ear so that the defendant would be able to present the best possible case.
So the promise in this Gospel is that each individual would have a “paracletos” in the form of the Holy Spirit who would be with us to be our “advocate”, “comforter”, “counselor” and “helper”. Essentially this Spirit continues the presence of Jesus in our midst. Jesus tells them that that they will know this Advocate because “he abides with you, and he will be in you.” He tells them not only that the Paraclete will be in them, but also that he will be in the Father, the disciples will be in him, and he will be in them. This is a promise of a continuation of relationship, a commitment, a covenant. There is a sense of comfort here….As one commentator has pointed out, the Greek word that is used here is the word “meno”, which has its roots in words like dwelling and remaining and enduring. As he says to them, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
And yet there is a tension here. If we look at how the passage begins, it starts with an admonition. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It is not all about our comfort.The Spirit will stand by us and empower us, so that we can effectively stand before “governors and kings” and confront the systems as Jesus did to bring about change. Because it is clear as Jesus is no longer physically present, there is an expectation of action from his followers. We, too, are to be engaged in public life – just as Jesus was. We, too, are to call ourselves and others to accountability to be all that God asks. And in order to enable us to do that, Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit – “another Paraclete” – to empower us and give us both the wisdom and the courage to work towards bringing God’s kingdom about here on earth.
The ways we are called to as followers of Jesus to live and love are challenging. Neither his early followers nor any of us could do it without the Spirit. The eternal, cosmic Word of God had become flesh in Jesus. The Spirit, which blew like a wind over the face of the deep in creation, became incarnate and sat and broke bread with them at the table. Serving as a model of servant leader, this Living Word bent down to wash the disciples' feet. Loving us to the end, Jesus gives his life in sacrifice. Greater love than this has no-one…..
Love and the Spirit--these two are at the center of Jesus' farewell message, his Last Lecture Series. "Love one another as I have loved you" and "The Spirit of Truth will abide with you when I am gone." A little later in this same chapter, Jesus says, "The Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of all that I have said to you." Jesus was saying, you don't know everything yet. You have more to learn. "The Spirit will be your tutor," he said, "guiding you into all the truth."
It appears that the Apostle Paul was willing to be guided by the voice of the Spirit in his ear. In this morning’s first reading we hear the story of his adventures as an evangelist among the Greeks at the “Areopagus." It might be helpful to know that while the Areopagus a place, a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, it is also a group of people. Originally, the Areopagus consisted of nine chief magistrates that laid the foundations for Greece's eventual democracy. Across the centuries the Areopagus had changed, so that by Paul's day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were decided. The members of the Areopagus ridiculed Paul, who had been publicly proclaiming the Jesus Way, and invited him to explain his "strange ideas." Paul preached to the Athenians that he believed that God "made the world and everything in it", so in his mind there was no sphere of influence outside of God’s care and concern. All of life were part of God’s divine, loving presence —law, literature, medicine, education, the arts, business, government, science, quite literally anything and everything. So, in his own way, Paul viewed the Areopagus as just another place where the Lord of all creation had gone before him and was already present. As Paul said to the Athenians, "He is not far from each one of us."
The epistle for this week hints at the purpose for the evangelism undertaken by Paul at the urging or the Paraclete (and we hope by us as well) as we go out into our mission fields, which is the opportunity to "give a reason for the hope that is in you." Like Paul, each of us daily has opportunities to witness to the ways we also have reason for this hope. Let us pray that we might listen to the promptings of the voice of the Paraclete spirit and respond by keeping the commandment to love one another as we are loved, and live our lives in ways that this is manifest.