In the last scene of the musical Camelot, King Arthur sings a song about what he knew to be the most charming and wonderful place on earth. Alone on the stage, the broken, forgiving king pleads with the audience to remember:
“Ask ev’ry person if they’ve heard the story, and tell it strong if they have not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot!
Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.
The message King Arthur sings is clear. Keep the story going. Pass the story down to your children and generations who will come after your children. Whenever you remember, you keep the dream alive. And maybe, just maybe, even when despair is all around you, your memories will help you recognize when a special moment in a magical place reappears and springs to life once again…
As we arrive at the fourteenth chapter in the Gospel of John this morning, picture the set of Camelot looming in the background. Meanwhile Jesus and the disciples are gathered in the foreground. By this point in the Gospel, Jesus knows he will be betrayed and arrested and put to death. No surprise there. Unlike the other three Gospels, from the very beginning of John, Jesus understands and even orchestrates the arc of his life narrative.
Here in the middle of chapter fourteen Jesus sits down with his friends around the table, the same way you and I will do a few minutes from now, to share a meal and to offer final words of advice. The words Jesus spoke at this last supper were King Arthur-esque. My friends, remember the glory we shared. Remember the light we brought into the world’s darkness. Remember the lives we changed, the people we healed, the God we loved and served. And sure enough that night, filled to overflowing with the story Jesus told them and the song of Jesus which rested in their hearts, the disciples found a small measure of the fortitude they needed to carry on after Jesus was gone…
In many ways, the Gospel of John is the most unique of the four Gospels. Written after Mark, Matthew and Luke, some sixty or seventy years after the crucifixion, John’s community was filled with people who never met Jesus face to face. In fact, not only did John’s community not know Jesus. They likely never knew the disciples either, as most or all of the twelve would have died in subsequent years. And to top it off, the temple in Jerusalem had recently been destroyed…a sure sign to the believers in John’s community that the end of times was right around the corner.
In this uneasy, post-Jesus, post-disciple, post-temple, seemingly pre-apocalyptic time, John wrote his Gospel as a message of hope. And part of that message unfolds in today’s Scripture lesson, which is located in a section of John’s Gospel often referred to by scholars as “the Farewell Discourses.” Consider this morning’s Scripture lesson then to be a portion of Jesus’ swan song. Final words of wisdom that Jesus imparted to his followers before his earthly ministry and ultimately his life came to an end.
If you look at the entirety of the Farewell Discourses and boil them down to their essence, what you come up with is a series of instructions from Jesus around the theme of “love.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
It sounded straightforward. But as the disciples listened to Jesus and reflected on his words, they asked the question. “How do we do that?” “How do we love other people with the same compassion and conviction you love us?” It was an obvious question, particularly in light of the fact that the disciples, being the human beings they were, struggled and often failed to love throughout the Gospel.
Consider the fascinating response Jesus gave to his disciples though. Jesus told his disciples to remember the glory-filled moments they shared together and hold onto them for all they were worth. Hoping in some way that by remembering experiences they had with Jesus, the disciples would in turn be able to remember how to love. But in the end, Jesus wasn’t interested in living among the disciples as a mere memory. Instead Jesus wanted to live among the disciples as an ongoing presence.
So Jesus went further and made them a bold promise in today’s verse eighteen. “I will not leave you orphaned.” On the very night Jesus knew he was going to be betrayed and arrested, he said to his disciples that he would be leaving them. Yet in the same breath he also promised he would be coming back. “Because I live, you also will live.”
What Jesus asked his disciples was a tall order. Love fully and live fully. Fortunately, Jesus also knew the disciples would not be able to do those things without help. And that’s where the Holy Spirit came in. In the New Revised Standard Version Bible translation we heard this morning, Jesus said he would send an Advocate to help his friends live and love. Other Bible translations sometimes use the word “Helper” instead of “Advocate.”
Regardless of the actual word, Jesus reassured his friends. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who advocates for you and helps you along the way, you will feel my presence. The Holy Spirit will guide you and lead you and teach you and inspire you and give you strength even after I’m gone. And he looked at each of those disciples around the table and reiterated. “Trust me…I love you more than you know…I will not leave you all by yourself…”
As he shared a last supper around the table, Jesus effectively left a lasting endowment for his friends. He endowed them with stories and memories they could hold onto even when he was no longer with them in body. What’s more, Jesus endowed them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would help the disciples sustain and interpret and carry on the ministry of Jesus for generations still to come.
The same endowment Jesus left to his disciples he leaves to each one of us. Whenever we gather for worship or communion or prayer or mission, Jesus endows us with stories and memories that remind us how to live and how to love. Even more, Jesus endows each one of us with the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can sustain and interpret and carry on the ministry of Jesus for generations to come…
Noted church historian Rosemary Radford Reuther theorized in recent years that there are two things every church must do. First, we must pass on or endow the faith tradition to the next generation. Like King Arthur, the church must tell the story loudly and clearly and continuously so that those around us can remember. And so that those who come after us can remember as well.
The second thing every church must do? Be open to the Holy Spirit which speaks in new ways and blows in new directions making the church come alive anew in every generation. More than Camelot. More than memory. Yes, the Spirit helps us remember. And the Spirit pushes us forward.
The Holy Spirit is the greatest endowment God’s people have ever been given. It started two thousand years ago when Jesus Christ endowed the first Christians and the first church with the Holy Spirit. More than two hundred years ago, that same Spirit endowed the people of Wapping Community Church with the wisdom and the devotion they needed to build this church in this community. In the name of Jesus Christ, and over the course of these last two hundred years, the saints of Wapping Community Church passed the gift of the Holy Spirit down to you and to me so that the Spirit can help us carry on the ministry of Jesus Christ in today’s world. And part of our God given task is to pass the gift of the Holy Spirit down to our children and our children’s children so that the Spirit can help them live as Christian disciples far into the future.
Come then and join with me around this communion table filled with bread and cup. It’s a table endowed with stories and memories of the Savior who came in flesh and lived among us. It’s a table endowed with Christ’s presence, reminding each one of us to live and love fully in Christ’s name. And it’s a table endowed with the Holy Spirit, leading us forward boldly as we take the ministry of Christ out into the world and continue to pass it on to those who come after us. Amen.