Friday, April 14, 2017

A Maundy Thursday Sermon on The Farewell Discourses (John 13-16)

When we come again to these annual festivals in the church year, it’s always a challenge for the clergy to try to say something fresh – especially if I try to remember what I’ve said before, and wonder if you’ll remember it!

But Maundy Thursday offers an embarrassment of riches.

On this day, our Lord celebrated the Passover with his disciples and instituted the Lord’s Supper at his Last Supper.

He washed his disciples’ feet.

He gave them the new commandment (the mandate from which the word Maundy comes) to love one another as he had loved them.

He taught his disciples and prepared them for his departure.

He prayed.

He agonised in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He was betrayed and arrested.

This Easter I want to camp out in John’s Gospel.

Today I want to think about the so-called Farewell Discourse, which Jesus addressed to his disciples: his last words before the cross.

Jesus’ last sermon, we might call it.  

And tomorrow, in our Hour at the Cross, I want us to think about the prayer which Jesus prayed as he faced his death, from John chapter 17.

So today our focus is the end of John 13, through to the end of chapter 16.

It would probably take about 14 or 15 minutes to read out loud, and perhaps we should have just done that, on the assumption that Jesus is a much better preacher than the Rector!

Of course I won’t do justice to Jesus’ words in this brief sermon, so you might like to find half an hour this Easter to re-read these chapters on your own.

Quite likely Jesus had much more to say to his disciples and what we have in the Gospel is a selective inspired summary, rather than a word for word transcription.

Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, of course, whereas the gospels are written in Greek.

We began our service with words from John 13 and I chose a reading from near the beginning and one from the end of Jesus’ sermon, and I just want to notice a few themes with you, and try to give a sense of the whole, with an eye both to the Easter events, and to our living today as disciples of the Lord Jesus in the light of Easter.

Certainly, later on the evening of Maundy Thursday, as Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane, we’ll see his great conflict and turmoil as he faces his coming death.

His humanity will be very evident as he is deeply distressed and troubled and he says, “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:37-38)

Jesus was in anguish and he prayed so earnestly that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).

He embraces his Father’s will that he goes to the cross rather than his natural desire that there might be some other way.

As Jesus prayed this tortured prayer of faithful commitment and rededication, the disciples fell asleep.

Here, as Jesus speaks to them, he is remarkably composed and in control.

He has it together!

He deliberately faces his coming death.

The disciples are bewildered and pretty clueless.

Although he has repeatedly spoken to them of the necessity of his coming death and its part in God’s plans, they seem baffled.

As the horror of the cross looms, it’s not Jesus’ disciples who comfort him, as we might expect, but Jesus who comforts them.

Here is a striking demonstration of Jesus’ self-less love.

Even now he is concerned for others.

He loved his disciples to the end – more than he loved his own life.  

Tomorrow he will die for them and tonight he ministers to them to prepare them for his departure.

This farewell discourse reminds us that Jesus goes to his death quite willingly and intentionally, for the sake of all those who will put their trust in him.

From the point of view of the purposes of God, Jesus’ death is no tragic mistake nor an unexpected failure.

It is the very climax of his ministry – his great hour, as John’s gospel has called it.

As Jesus looks to the cross, his time has come.  

As the Scriptures say, for the joy set before him, Jesus will endure the cross, scorning its shame.

According to John’s Gospel, contrary to appearances, Jesus’ death will be the great moment of his glory.

He will literally be lifted up on the cross, and that will be his exaltation:

In this deliberately terrible and shameful death, God’s awful purposes will shine most brightly.

Jesus’ crown will be a crown of thorns – his throne an instrument of execution.

Jesus will indeed be revealed as the servant king – the bleeding, dying God-Man.

Here manifest at the cross is the splendour of Christ’s love, the radiance of his victory, the brilliance of his humility, his shinning obedience, his glorious faithfulness, his spotless purity.

Jesus warns his disciples that where he is going they cannot now come.

Here their paths diverge for a while.

Jesus must face his death alone.

This is a cup, the cup of God’s wrath, which Jesus alone can drink.

For all their bravado, the disciples could not endure it for a moment.

He will drink it to the dregs so that instead they might share a cup of salvation and blessing.

He will drink the fruit of the vine with them again in the Kingdom of God.


Uniquely, Jesus is the sinless lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world.

He is the only and final sacrifice for sin.

There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.

He will make full and perfect atonement.  

Jesus faced the cross in our place, so that we might not.

His path was a solitary one.  

Yet he does call us, in our own way, to suffer with him.

He calls us to go the way of the cross, not that we might Save The World, but that we might be made like our Saviour.

Jesus’ sufferings are unique and on our behalf, instead of us: he is our substitute.

But the sufferings of Jesus the Head overflow into his body the church.

As Paul will say, we share in those sufferings and even fill them up.

Jesus warns his disciples: if the world hated me, it will hate you.

As the Master was persecuted, so will the servants be.

For us too, the pattern is death to sin and self, and only then resurrection life.

Jesus will go ahead of his disciples and make a way for them to the Father, but only because he has first blazes the trail.

Only later will they be able to follow, when Jesus has opened a new and living way to the Father.

Jesus is the Way.

Jesus goes to prepare a place for all who will follow him.

Not that Jesus will rush ahead to heaven to get their rooms just so and fluff up the cushions or choose curtains in their favourite colours for their heavenly home.

No, by his going, by his death, Jesus prepares a place for them: he wins their entry into heaven.

He makes it possible for sinners like you and me to come into the presence of a holy God.

For Jesus’ disciples, the life of faith will change from this point on.

For the last three years, Jesus has been the centre of their world.

They have been with him full-time and it’s been an amazing journey.  

Soon Jesus will no longer be with them physically.

Now they will pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, and Jesus will do even greater things through them.

They will depend on Jesus’ saving work for them and their prayers will be for the coming of his Kingdom.

It’s hard to imagine greater miracles than those which Jesus did when he was on earth.

What could these greater things be, walking further on water?

Crossing an ocean on foot?

Feeding 20 000 people with one loaf of bread?

Raising whole graveyards full of people?

The point, I think, is not that Jesus’ disciples will do more spectacular miracles than he did but that Jesus’ death will bring in the greater age of the Spirit.

Jesus ministry was confined to a small part of the middle east for 3 years.

But the disciples’ ministry will begin to take the gospel, in the power of the Spirit, to all the nations.

The Holy Spirit will be poured out in a new way, permanently filling all God’s people.
Jesus’ going will mean that the Spirit is sent.

His saving death is the essential pre-condition of Pentecost.

Down the centuries and around the world, the great good news of the gospel will ring out and countless millions will receive new resurrection life – a multitude from every people and tribe and nation, which no one can number.

God’s gift of spiritual life to the nations is really the greatest miracle of all – one that keeps on being performed even today.  

Judgement day will reveal that Jesus has done far greater works through his Spirit-empowered disciples than he ever did when he walked in Judea.

After Jesus goes his disciples are to go on living in loving obedience to him, sanctified by the Word of truth, and the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth.

They will be bereft of Jesus, but they won’t be left alone.

Just as Jesus had been alongside them, God the Father would send the Holy Spirit to be alongside them, like a union rep at a tribunal or a defence solicitor at a trial.

The Spirit will be with us and on our side to help us.

We are not alone.

Till now Jesus has been the disciples Counsellor but from now on the Holy Spirit will be another Counsellor, almost another Jesus to them.

Or to put it differently, Jesus will be with them by his Spirit.

He will not leave his children as orphans but will come to them.

As our liturgy has it:

The Lord is Here.

His Spirit is with us.

It is for the disciples good that Jesus goes on his great Exodus, on his last and most terrible journey, and, despite their fears and their tears they are to be glad.

Their world will fall apart, but Jesus The Resurrection will put it back together again, transformed and renewed.

It will seem like Satan has triumphed, but their grief will turn to joy.

They need not fear.

The Spirit will give them new power and purpose as they become Jesus witnesses.

On resurrection day, the disciples will be like a mother who almost forgets the pain of the birth as she delights to hold her new-born child.

You might think that’s easy for me to say, but some women do deliberately have more than one child, don’t they, so there must be some truth in it!

As they live with the physical absence of Jesus, the key to their fruitfulness is simply the remain in Jesus.

They are united to him by faith in the Spirit.

Jesus is the Vine.

They are the branches.  

Their life and vitality depend entirely on him.

Jesus says he told his disciples all this in advance so they might believe.

As Jesus’ friends, they know his business, his plans.

And by his resurrection, Jesus was vindicated.

All his saving work was fulfilled and accomplished, just as he had said beforehand that it would be.

Jesus is the true prophet whose words have come true.

As Jesus sent his Spirit at Pentecost, kept his promise.

Jesus said, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.”

And I feel a bit like that too!

It would be the Spirit’s work to bring back to the disciples minds all that Jesus had taught them and to lead them into all truth.

The New Testament is the fruit of the Spirit’s work, and he speaks that word to us still today.

Jesus said to his disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.

In this world you will have trouble.

But take heart!

I have overcome the world!”

May we be heartened this Easter to live for the risen Lord Jesus in his troubled and troubling world.

May we know his peace as we rejoice that Jesus has overcome the world.

To him, with the Father and the Spirit, be all glory and honour and power and praise, now and for ever. Amen. 

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