The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D. '13
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity
(The following is a transcript of the service audio)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
So here we are at the end of the academic year. And it's been a long year, an eventful year. Thinking back since I first joined you last fall, there was the welcome everyone back to campus after so much time away, and then Delta variant. And then I broke my foot, if you remember that. And the installation, the Christmas concert, and then this Omicron came and all the events from the spring. It's been a long year.
And I have to say, as much as I will miss you all, I'm looking forward to a break this summer. I'm looking forward to some time this summer. But even as I say that, I know having listened to Alanna's lovely sermon last week, I know that is a little bit of avoidance. Looking forward to what happens three weeks from now is a way for me to not think about the farewell that we make today.
This church, This Memorial Church, is distinctive for many ways. But one of the ways that I realized it is distinctive this week, as I was thinking about this last Sunday we have together, is how here at this university church, each year we say goodbye to a significant portion of our congregation.
Today we say farewell. And as Alanna said last week, and is again true this week, we are in the midst of Jesus' farewell to his disciples in the gospel of John. A farewell that takes up about a third of the gospel. His parting words, about a third of that gospel. And it's appropriate that we are hearing these words today as we say farewell, as we say goodbye. For some for a few months, and for some longer. And so I want to think today about what's left after we take our leave from one another.
A few weeks ago my wife, Colette, traveled to the United Kingdom for work. And it's been a pandemic, so we haven't been traveling much. And we certainly haven't been away from our kids. And our youngest son, Danny, who is eight. I mean, he was about a third of his life has been the pandemic, and he wasn't used to mom and dad leaving. And the night before Colette left, he was ... We said goodnight. And then about five minutes after he said goodnight, we could just hear him crying. And he was inconsolable.
And I went in there. Colette was packing, so I went in there to talk to him. And I said, Danny, what's wrong? And he said, "I don't want mommy to go."
And I said, "Don't worry, she'll come back."
And he said, "You don't understand. I love her so much."
And I explained, she's coming back. It's just a week. It's okay. And he said, "You don't understand. I just love her so much."
Jesus spends a third of this gospel saying goodbye to the disciples, and they do not understand. And they are arguing with him about it. If you look at the verses before the verses that Courtney read this morning, they are resisting him and asking him questions. Every time he says to them, "I am going away." They say, "What now?"
Peter starts it. Jesus says, "I am leaving you. And I'm showing you what to do. I'm going to wash your feet." And Peter says, "You're not washing my feet."
And then he says to them, "I am going away, but don't worry. I am going to make a dwelling for you. And all you have to do is follow me there."
And Thomas says, "We don't know where you're going. How are we going to get there?"
And then in the verses just before the verses we have this morning, the verses that Courtney read, Jesus says to his disciples, "I will not leave you orphaned. You will know me and you will see me, even though the world doesn't know me and doesn't see me.
And Judah says to him, "How will we know you if the world doesn't know you? How will we know you if the world doesn't know you? How will we see you if the world doesn't see you?" And then, that's where our lesson begins.
When Jesus says to Judas, the other Judas, not Judas who betrayed him. Says to him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and I will make my home with them. And God will send an advocate in my name."
So this is the answer to Judas' question. Judas asks, "How will we still know you, if the world does not know you? How will we still see you, if the world does not see you?"
And Jesus says, "If you keep my word, I will be with you. And God will send an advocate."
Now there's a play on words in the Greek in this line. Not just a play on words, but a play on the word, word. The word that is translated as word in English is the Greek word logos. And at the beginning of this gospel of John, we are told that Jesus is the word. That Jesus himself is the word of God. And what Jesus is saying here is, if you keep my word, if you keep hold of my word, in particular the commandment he has just given them that Alana preached on last week, that you love one another. If you keep hold of this word, then you will keep hold of me.
Christ, this gospel tells us, is the word made flesh. And what Jesus says to his disciples is, if you put flesh on my words, if you keep my word of love, if you live them with your lives, then you will keep hold of me.
So what about this advocate? Advocate is a title for the holy spirit that only John uses. The other gospels don't refer to the spirit as the advocate. And if that word, advocate, sounds oddly formal and legalistic, that's because it is formal and legalistic.
The Greek word here is Paraclete, or parakletos, which many scholars think is a Greek translation of a Latin legal term advocate. Which means the one who speaks for you. The literal etymology of advocate is the one who speaks for you.
"Those who keep my word, keep me." Jesus says. And to keep Jesus' word, to keep that command that we love one another, is to keep him and make a home for him in our hearts. And then when we do, if we do, when we live our lives in love, that love speaks for us. That love is all we need to say.
Judas comes to Jesus with a question, "How is it that we will know you, but the world will not know you?"
And Jesus says, the world will just see your love. You will know that is me living in you. But to the world, it will just look like your love. That is how the world will know, by your love for one another.
This is Jesus' teaching in this line, I think. Jesus is saying love is all we need to say. Love speaks for us. Consider this, and consider the long history of our Christian Church. Is this what we have done, these 2,000 years? After Jesus gives this lesson he says, "Not as the world gives, do I give to you." And I think by that he means that the world wants credit, and tribute, and fealty. And the church wants that too.
Think of our generations and centuries of forced conversions and violence in the name of Jesus. Of us winning souls for Christ, as we have said in the past. Of us desiring to speak for God and speak for Jesus, rather than to let our love speak for itself. At the least, we too often busy ourselves with telling others what Jesus wants them to do with their lives, and not enough time just loving them.
I got COVID a couple weeks ago and I've been away for a couple of weeks. But even in the last few weeks, you can see the rising tide of this desire to tell people what God wants them to do with themselves and with their bodies. We have rumors of legislating forced childbirth. And this attack in Buffalo, this murders in Buffalo last week, and the reality that Christian nationalism is directly tied to white nationalism.
Too often we have consecrated violence with God's name, rather than closing our mouths and just loving our neighbor as ourselves. What would it mean to take Jesus' teaching seriously this morning, to let our love speak for itself? What would it mean for our evangelism if we closed our mouths and let love speak? What would it mean for proclamation if we closed our mouths and let love speak? What would it mean for preaching? I'm standing up here telling you what Jesus thinks.
What would it mean for our preaching if we closed our mouths and let our love speak? If we kept Christ not on our lips, but in our lives?
I think Jesus is telling us this morning that if we hold onto Christs' teaching that closely, then we will know Christ and the world will know him too, even if it never learns his name.
This is the end of my first year as your minister, almost the end. There's some stuff this week going on. The end of my first year as your minister, and this is my question for the church. And when I say church, I don't mean it in the broad, and baggy, and woefully unspecific way that theologians like me tend to talk about the church. I mean us. I mean you sitting in these pews. I mean us ministers up here sitting on this chancel. This church, what would it mean to let our love speak?
And I also mean those of you who are leaving this church this week. Because this is a farewell address. Jesus is saying goodbye. It is not lost on me that we are saying goodbye this morning to many beloved members of this congregation. And when Jesus says goodbye to his beloved, he says, "If you love me, then go love the world. Go keep hold of my word, and you will hold onto me, and it will speak in, and through, and for you."
Some of you are leaving us today. In light of everything Jesus has just said, I hope, I pray, that we in this church will go with you as you leave. What I mean by that is, I hope that something you have received from this church, these last pandemic years, will help you find a way to love the world. To love it more bravely, more fiercely, more firmly, more boldly.
In other words, I hope you have felt loved by us. By this church. And I hope our love for you will inspire you to love the world in turn. Because nothing could speak better of this church, or indeed of this university, than the lives you will lead and the loves you will share.
But before you go, know this as well; even though you are leaving, you will remain with us too. Because church is not a one-way street. Church is not something that we have given to you. It is also something, you who are leaving, it is also something that you have given to us. These last challenging years, you have shown us what love is. You have shown us what courage, and patience, and grace looks like in the face of upheaval, and turmoil, and pandemic.
And whatever courage, and patience, and grace we find in years to come, and we know more upheavals are coming and we are going to need courage and patience and grace. When we find those things in our future here at this church, we will have learned those things, at least in part, from you. We will owe these lessons, at least in part, to you.
To all you have meant to us, to all you will still mean to us then, and to all the lingering gifts you have given to us these last years. So to those of you who are going, as you take your leave this day of The Memorial Church, remember, remember always, this church loves you. We love you. Many things will change this week, but not that. Never that. So go in peace, to love and serve our world.