When you go to seminary, you get to learn a whole world of new vocabulary words; words like: kerygma… hermeneutics… homiletics… epiclesis… eschatology! As I was reading our gospel for this morning, I kept thinking of one of these five dollar words that I learned in seminary: “pericope.” Anyone heard the word pericope before? It’s a good one. Pericope is a word that’s sometimes used to talk about a passage taken from the bible – it’s basically like how we use the term “reading” or “lesson.” But “pericope” comes from the Greek for “a cutting-out” and I find that image of cutting out helpful for talking about a pericope like this one that we read this morning.
The group of people who put together the three year series of readings that we follow – the lectionary – are responsible for cutting out the texts that we read together each Sunday. Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious why they chose to cut texts where they did – perhaps there’s a story or a parable with a clear beginning and ending or a section all on the same theme. But sometimes, like today, the place they chose to cut something doesn’t make much sense to me at all.
Like with this gospel reading. The way it’s cut, we’re missing a lot of the context. And without seeing the larger context that this piece is cut out of, it’s hard to tell where Jesus is even going with all the different things he says here. He says some stuff about loving him and his Father and keeping their word, then he says some stuff about the Holy Spirit and some stuff about peace, and finally he hints at something bigger that’s about to happen.
It helps to know that this particular pericope is taken from a much larger section of John known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. This discourse takes up four whole chapters of John! Jesus spoke these words to his disciples on the night in which he was betrayed. Before this, he had just washed their feet and commanded them to love one another; he had predicted Peter’s denial, and he had exposed Judas as a traitor. You can well imagine that his remaining disciples were terrified and bursting with questions about what was going to happen. And so, in his discourse, Jesus is trying to prepare them for what is coming next: not just his death and resurrection, but also his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. He is trying to give them hope and courage by helping them to see the bigger picture of what is going on.
Cutting out all that context makes it harder to understand this particular passage. But honestly, that’s not the strangest part about how this pericope was cut. For me, the strangest part is how it starts: “Jesus answered Judas (not Iscariot)…” What does a beginning like that make you wonder?
…Exactly! It makes you wonder: what in the world did Judas (not Iscariot) ask Jesus in the first place?
Well, starting with verse 18, this is what comes before our reading for today: Jesus says,
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”
That question adds a whole new layer of meaning to this text. In fact, Judas’s question is one that has continued to haunt the church to this day. Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, but not to the world? It’s a particularly hard question for those of us who have family and other loved ones who do not seem to have experienced any kind of revelation of Christ. How is it that we have experienced God, that we have this faith in God, but these other people we care about do not?
So how does Jesus answer this question? Well, there are a lot of things going on in his response.
The first thing he says is that those who love him keep his word and that those who don’t love him do not. There is a clear connection here between loving and knowing Jesus and living out the word he has commanded. Our actions reveal where our hearts truly lie. It reminds me of what Jesus has said in other gospels about how you will know a tree by its fruit – that a good tree will produce good fruit and a bad tree will produce bad fruit. What I think Jesus is saying here is that if anyone claims to know him or love him, their actions should bear that out. I can’t help but think that maybe the reverse is true too – that someone who acts in good and loving and Christlike ways must know something of God as well, even if they don’t realize it or think of it that way. It makes me think that maybe Jesus reveals himself to all, but that not everyone has the eyes of faith to see him or to see the bigger picture he reveals.
Jesus goes on to promise his followers that God will send the Holy Spirit to them. This Advocate will continue to teach them even when Jesus is no longer physically present, reminding them of all that they have seen and heard. Even though they don’t have all the answers to their questions now – and/or don’t understand the answers that they have been given – that’s okay. Jesus reassures them that he will not leave them abandoned. The Holy Spirit will come to them, just as it comes to us, to show us the path and to guide us in the way we should walk. The Spirit is always at work in the world and in human hearts, even when it’s hard to see.
And finally, Jesus gives his followers his peace – not as the world gives, but as God gives – true and lasting peace. And he tells us not to be afraid. It is not for us to worry about how or when or to whom Jesus chooses to reveal himself in the world. Instead, we can be at peace knowing that God is at work, whether anyone knows it or not, and we can trust that God’s love and grace for all creation will never fail.
All things are in God’s hands. Overwhelmingly, this is the picture of Jesus that John’s gospel gives us: a savior who is supremely in control and who has a plan for the salvation of the entire cosmos. So there is no need for us to fear what comes next, no need to worry about figuring out what to do now that the gospel mission is in our hands. The mission is God’s. The big picture is God’s. And God abundantly sends the Spirit to help us figure out how we are called to take part in the bigger mission.
Like the disciples, we have been given the gift of seeing that bigger picture. Our lives are just one small, cut out piece of the picture – a pericope, if you will. But by faith, we have seen that our lives and all of creation are all part of God’s grand, ongoing story of salvation. By faith, we have seen the bigger picture that has been revealed to us and it has filled us with courage and hope. We live in a world full of people to whom this has not yet been revealed, or who have not yet seen the big picture of hope and salvation. But, knowing that, rather than being filled with fear or despair, I think we are called anew to be witnesses to what we have seen. We are called to show the world that there is even more to life than this one little pericope we’re living.