I spent this last week hanging out with other clergy friends at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching conference I go to every year. And it’s fairly easy to tell when I’ve been spending more time than usual with other clergy folks, because I notice that it affects the way I talk – I find myself using a lot of those five dollar words they teach us in seminary, words like: soteriology, kerygma, eschatology, exegesis, and so on.
One of these words that you might hear used by particularly nerdy preachers (like yours truly) is the word “pericope” (it looks just like the word “periscope” without the ‘s’). Pericope is a word that’s sometimes used to talk about a section of scripture – it’s basically like how we use the term “reading” or “lesson.” The word comes from the Greek for “a cutting-out” – which kind of evokes this image of someone snipping out passages of scripture and then pasting them somewhere else.
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 (kind of makes them sound like scriptural scrapbookers, haha). Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious why they choose to cut texts where they do – 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 with our readings for today, the place they choose to cut something doesn’t make much sense to me at all.
Like with this gospel reading especially. 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. Earlier in the evening, he had washed the disciples’ 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 pretty scared – or, at the very least, bursting with questions about what was going to happen now. And so, in this long discourse, Jesus is trying to help them understand all the things that are about to take place. And – like we talked about last week – he’s trying to help them find their way once he’s gone. He is trying to give them hope and courage by helping them to see the bigger picture of what is going on.
This pericope takes on a lot more meaning when you read it alongside all that context that got cut out. And that’s especially true when you look at how this passage begins! It starts off with, “Jesus answered [Judas (not Iscariot),] ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them…’” What a strange place to start a reading! The lectionary gives us Jesus’ response, but it doesn’t give us a clue what the question is he’s answering.
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?”John 14:18-22
That question adds a whole new layer of meaning to this text. In fact, Judas’s question is one that the church has long wrestled with in this increasingly secular world – and especially now as people struggle with their faith in the wake of this pandemic. Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, but not to the world? I think this is 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 Jesus seems to be 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 the reverse is probably true as well – that someone who acts in good and loving and Christlike ways must also know something of God, 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.
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. It’s not for us to figure out the big picture of how the church will look 50, 15, or even 5 years from now. Instead, we can be at peace knowing that God is at work – in us, through us, and around us – with unfailing love and grace for all creation.
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. Our lives are just one small, cut out piece of that picture – a pericope, if you will – and it may not always be clear to us what God is up to in our lives. But just like with this gospel reading, taking in the larger context helps us to understand the importance of our life of discipleship. It matters. God has chosen our hands to carry out these works of faithful witness and loving service. And by faith, God enables us to step outside the frame of our one small pericope, to see even now that what we do as people of faith is part of a much, much bigger picture.