What I said this Sunday – Easter 6
“I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” The final words of Humphrey Bogart just before he died at the age of 57.
Famous last words. Some clearly thought them through. Some tried to be amusing at the last. Others simply didn’t know what to say. And yet if you’re famous you can guarantee that your final words will live, and be repeated, long after you are gone. And one of the problems of being famous is that you are often expected to leave behind you something inspirational. Karl Marx, as he neared death, was asked by his housekeeper who was the only person with him, for some profound and meaningful last thoughts. “Go away!” he shouted at her, “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” and she fled from the room to leave him to pass away in silence. And yet last words can often be deeply moving and inspiring.
History records for us, of course, the final words of many famous people, and while some are perhaps best forgotten others still resonate. Take the final words of Edith Cavell, for example, executed by German firing squad during the First World War: Standing, as I do, in the view of God and eternity I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone. Who can fail to be stirred by those words?
Sometimes, people didn’t get it quite right and couldn’t think what to say. Pancho Villa, the Mexican bandit and revolutionary, who died in 1923 after being assassinated by a political opponent, said to newspaper reporters as he lay dying: Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something. Sometimes, people seem to have been completely unaware that their end was near. It is recorded that H G Wells, the great novelist, said just before he died: Go away, I’m alright! My own favourite last words are those of General John Sedgwick. John Sedgwick was a General in the Union Army during the American Civil War. At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864 he was directing artillery placements when his corps came under fire from confederate sharpshooters 1,000 yards away. Members of his staff, and his soldiers, ducked for cover. Segdwick strode around in the open: What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance. His men continued to flinch, and he repeated: I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance. I don’t need to tell you what happened just a few seconds later! And history doesn’t record for us the look of embarrassment of General Sedgwick’s face.
The last words of the famous.
The writer of the fourth gospel has recorded for us, in chapters 14 to 17, the last words of Jesus to his followers before he faced death. Not, of course, his actual last words spoken on the cross – it is finished – but his final words, his final teaching, to his disciples spoken to them in the upper room on the night before his arrest. Known as the Farewell Discourse, we see Jesus taking time to tell his disciples what he wanted them to know and understand about God and the nature of God – about the Father, about himself, about the Holy Spirit, about love and what it all meant. Last week we heard the very beginning of that final speech. Today’s gospel passage continues that farewell speech to the disciples, and it is the first of several teachings in the gospel about the Holy Spirit: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.
What exactly does Jesus mean by that? What does he mean when he says the Father will give another Advocate? Well, the word translated as advocate is the Greek word “Paraklete”, the literal meaning of which is “a person summoned to one’s aid” and it’s a word only used in the New Testament Johannine books – the gospel and letters of John. And it has a range of meanings that communicate who the Spirit is by what the Spirit does. Among other things, paraclete can mean to encourage, help, or comfort. A Paraclete is someone who helps you, who does what is best for you, who supports you, who speaks out for you. And, says Jesus, I will send to you from the Father the Advocate, the Paraklete, who will help and support and strengthen you as you seek to live out my commandment of love in a hostile world. The emphasis in this passage is not so much belief in Jesus as it is love for Jesus. The importance of the Paraclete as ‘advocate’ is one who supports and helps us as we seek to love. Such love is revealed, Jesus says in this passage, through action. The exercise of love is connected with keeping Jesus’ commandments: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
Jesus had announced a new commandment in John 1334 : love one another. Now Jesus makes it clear that disciples keep Jesus’ commands in acts of love in and for the community. Love, Christian love, is not just a nice warm feeling towards one another – love is something that results in action. Christians love, and therefore keep the commandments of Jesus – and as a result of that Jesus asks the Father to send the Paraklete, the Advocate, to be in us.
And then Jesus goes on to use the language of family to expand upon the reality of our relationship with God and his presence – as Father, as Son and as Spirit – with us.
He continues the imagery of God as “Father” – and introduces a new expression as he declares that the Christian community are not being left “orphaned”. This use of the word “orphan” makes connections with other parts of John’s gospel. We are told at the beginning of the gospel that Jesus gave us power to become children of God. And in the chapter that precedes today’s reading Jesus addresses his followers as “little children”. This language of relationship with God, spoken of in terms of the closeness of family, is used by Paul in our first reading where he reminds us that we are God’s offspring. And this longing for an intimate relationship with God, and God seeking such relationship with us, flows through all our readings this morning. Paul, in Acts, asserts a universal human longing for God. Peter describes God’s seeking in the farthest of places in his imagery of Jesus visiting the “spirits in prison”. God’s reach includes the places and people others might write off as hopeless. God’s love knows no bounds.
Jesus says that it is those who have his commandments and keep them who are those who love him, and that those who love him will be loved by the Father. It is a sobering thought, perhaps, that according to Jesus in our gospel reading, if we want to have the Father love us, if we want to have the Spirit – the Advocate – living in us – then we must not just be people of love. We must also be people who actively show that love, people who carry out the commandments of Jesus in the way that we live, the way we behave towards one another, the way we engage with the world around us. God seeks to create community by the gift of the Spirit and the exercise of love. We, in turn, find the means to live in community by the Spirit’s gift and through love’s call.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.
As we approach Pentecost and the celebration of the Spirit’s coming in power upon the Church it is useful to reflect upon those words of Jesus and ask how they might spur us to action as we strive with the Spirit’s help to keep his commandments. What has been your experience of the Spirit’s gift in your life and that of our church? In what ways might the call of Jesus to love change how you – as an individual, and together with the rest of our church community – respond to the situations you face in your life and in our community, both our local community and the global community?
Let us pray. Holy God, Holy Spirit, you always seek our good and ever bless our lives. Come to us now. Remind us of Jesus’ way and his call to love and to live out his commandments. Empower us by your presence. Shape us as individuals and communities, that our love may indeed be spirited and Spirit-filled. Amen.