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For Us the Living
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
May 21, 2017
A Reading from the Gospel
‘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. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
‘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.’
This week I finally hung my seminary diploma up in my office, because I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do with it. I have no idea what happened to my undergraduate diploma. It may be in my parents’ attic. It may be lost to the winds of time. I did not quickly enough attend to its framing and preservation and so history has removed it from me which is not something I’m particularly proud of. A lot of time and money went into getting that diploma and it seems the least I could have done have been to hold on to it. Knowing this as I did, and feeling this shame as I do, when I graduated seminary I was very quick to acquire the overpriced seminary-branded frame — I mean, it’s two bucks’ worth of calligraphy on a quarter’s worth of parchment, but the frame costs extra — and I put that whole package together and hung it right on the wall in my first office mostly so that I wouldn’t lose this one too, and the wall here has felt a little empty without it but this week I found fifteen minutes to repair that breach and put my diploma into its new long-term storage facility, there hanging somewhere over my desk. It looks all nice and professional. It looks very dignified, if I do say so myself. The only problem, I confess to you, just between you and me. The only problem is that I can’t understand a word of it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There are roughly 110 words on that diploma, and a few of them say “Matthew Roberts Gaventa” and my high school Latin buys me maybe 5-6 more but the rest of it is an enigma, written, ironically enough, in the one ancient language of the church that was not part of the regular instructional curriculum at my alma mater. If they had written me a diploma in Biblical Hebrew, I could wade through it — slowly, and clumsily, and with no small degree of personal embarrassment, but we could have pulled it off. If they’d written me one in New Testament Greek, I could probably do okay. But the diploma is not written in any language that the school sought fit to teach me — or, one might say, in any language in which I sought to be educated — instead, it comes in so many words of Classical Latin, because the seminary traces its heritage to the explosion of the university as an institution throughout Medieval Europe when Latin itself was the universal language, from a time when the best guarantee that somebody would be able to read your document was to put it in Latin, and so my diploma is written in that same universal language so that anybody might be able to read it except, of course, me.
Still I keep it around. I don’t know what it means, but it means something, and it’s got my name on it. And I think the disciples would understand. Well, maybe not the Latin. But at least they might understand me, since we both have diplomas we don’t know what to do with. After all, the Easter season, which now sprints towards its conclusion, is its own kind of graduation ceremony; it’s not just the story of Jesus rising from the grave; it’s the story of these disciples being pushed into the world and asked to take some mantle upon themselves. It’s this threshold moment: they were children — in John’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to the disciples as children, even in our passage from this morning when he promises not to leave them as orphans — they were children, but now the world needs them to grow up; now they are sent with missional purpose and with urgent purpose; now they are set into a world that is entirely the same and yet entirely different. This is not a comfortable feeling. If you cannot bring to mind what it feels like to graduate, let me briefly testify: it’s joyful and terrible both at the same time. It’s so much a celebration, and so much a farewell, and so much the awful uncertainty of what comes next.
But at least the disciples get a diploma. They get something. “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus says, which, as commencement speeches go, is beautiful but not entirely original, it echoes of “remember everything I taught you” which always feels like a little bit of a cop out. Still it lands. It strikes a chord. We know it does, because the early church is nothing if not a prolonged attempt to gather and keep Jesus’s commandments, so much calligraphy on parchment. Parables and stories, collected and formatted and woven together. Teachings and moral lessons, gathered and inherited and passed on and written down. Specific litanies, like the words of the Lord’s Prayer, or like the words of institution that guide us to the communion table. By time John gets around to documenting this graduation ceremony, by time this commencement address gets recorded for posterity, the early Christians are swarming with diplomas on all sides, documentation of the passage they have made from childhood to adulthood, validation of the work they have done and orientation for the work they have left to do.
The only problem, of course, is that they can’t read any of it. Not cleanly. Not simply. Of course some of them might think they know what it says: the history of the church is the history of people thinking that they know exactly what Jesus said or precisely what Jesus meant. Wars have been fought over much less, and even by the time of John’s Gospel, it was evident that uniform agreement was unlikely. What does it mean, in this very passage, when Jesus says that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you?” Christological doctrines, multiple of them spawning multiple conflicts and multiple branches of the church itself, jump off right from that very opaque piece of language. Which is of course just the tip of the iceberg. This, from the same guy who brought you the rich man going through the eye of the needle. This, from the same guy who brought you Loving Your Enemies, I mean, what is that? This, from the same guy who brought you the bread that becomes his body and the wine that becomes his blood. “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” makes for a beautiful anthem but it would be a lot easier to swallow if the commandments were written in any kind of language you and I could understand.
But we keep it around. I mean, I keep that diploma hanging over my desk. Partially because I don’t want to lose it, as I said. And partially because of course I need it to have value. It represents a substantial investment of time, untold days and weeks spent in lecture halls and study carrels and overpopulated coffee shops, dozens of professors and advisors and one particularly good librarian, several dozen reams of paper, more than a few USB charging cables, hours and months and years of wear and tear body and mind and spirit not to mention a substantial investment of resources both personal and institutional, all of this for a little ink and a little parchment and the frame costs extra. So I need to display it, because I need it to accrue value equal to the value I put into it. Even though I can’t read it. Even though it reminds me of all the things I didn’t learn and can’t do. Even though it hangs there, watching me, grading me, I can hear it judging me, “Hey Matt, is that really the email that a seminary graduate would write?” “Hey Matt, is that really the sermon that a seminary graduate would give?” “Hey Matt, don’t you think you should check that passage in the Latin? Oh, right.” You know, for a document that I can’t read, it sure has a powerful ability to communicate.
All of which goes to the irony of this whole enterprise. I mean, we come to this graduation season so wrapped in obsession with the value of these small pieces of parchment, with the time and money that went into receiving them, or with the time and money they represent in doors yet to be opened and opportunities yet to be received. But that’s only the bright half of the conversation; the dark half is much worse. The dark half isn’t about the value of those pieces of paper; it’s about our value. It’s about my value. What kind of graduate can’t even read his own diploma? That place poured time and investment into me. What do I have to show for myself? What do we have to show for ourselves? All the teachers and mentors and friends to guide us along the way, and what becomes of us? All the instructions, all the lessons, all the commandments. All the guidelines, all the stories, all the parables. All the words. All the words we don’t quite understand. All the languages we can’t quite speak. If we’re honest, the dark half of this conversation isn’t about how much those pieces of paper is worth. It’s about how much we’re worth. If we’re honest, if we let it, the paper ends up giving us value.
And nobody gets to give you value but God. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus says, but as the text unfolds, it’s clear that Jesus cares a lot less about the commandments than he cares about us. After all, this is the moment in John when Jesus gives advance warning for the coming of the Holy Spirit — “an Advocate, to be with you forever.” So that keeping commandments isn’t any longer simply a matter of what we can understand and what we can accomplish but rather of what the Spirit can do in and through us. But more to the point, it’s hard to read this passage without hearing the deep affection that Jesus has for these disciples. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” “Because I live, you also will live.” “I am in my father, and you in me, and I in you.” This conversation isn’t about the piece of paper, no matter what it says, no matter who can read it and who can’t, no matter how beautiful or terrible it may be. It’s not about calligraphy on parchment. It’s not about the object. It’s not about the thing. It’s about the children of God, loved more than any wall decoration. It’s about you and me, valued more than the words in any language. It’s about all of us, transformed by this love for God’s purposes. After all, we disciples don’t just go into the world with a diploma. We go with everything we are. We go with everything we have been. We they go with everything we will become.
In just a few minutes, we will gather around this communion table to keep one of these commandments one more time. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said, as he broke the bread and poured out the cup. It is one of those commandments that has spawned countless interpretations and more than a few shouting matches, but here at UPC we will celebrate as we normally do by intinction; we will invite you forward, and, if you like, you will take a piece of bread and dip it in the cup, and you will hear the words. Depending on who serves you, you may hear something a little different from everybody, but you’ll hear the words, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” or “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” or infinite variations thereof. These words are beautiful, or at least they can be. But of course they themselves are not the point. The point is not that you come forward to receive the words. The point is that you come forward to receive who you are called to be. The point is that we come forward to receive the bread of life that calls us to new life. The point is that we come forward to receive the cup of salvation that liberates us from waking death. The point is that you go from this place as disciples whose lives proclaim the one crucified and risen.
This is, of course, what we get for our graduation, as Easter slips into Pentecost and we stand on the threshold. It’s not a diploma. It’s not words on a page. It’s not wrapped in a box or slipped in an envelope. It’s we ourselves. It’s how we grow. It’s who we become. After so many weeks and months and years. After so many lectures and so much coffee. After so much investment, you get more than a piece of paper. You get more than a diploma. You get yourself. You get the person God calls you to become. You get the journey God calls you to take. You get the work God calls you to do. You get the words of love that God has written on your heart. You get the living Word that walks alongside you from here until the last day. So no matter if you get the diploma and no matter what you do with it, the real words will still be inside you. No matter if you buy the fanciest branded frame, no matter if you lose it somewhere underneath your passenger seat, no matter if it disappears somewhere in your parents’ attic, the real words will still be inside you. No matter if you put it in the place of highest honor and no matter if it ends up somewhere in the back of the garage, the real words will still be inside you, because they are the words of God’s love from everlasting to everlasting, because they are the words of God’s call from everlasting to everlasting, because they are the words of life given to us that we might also live. They are the words framed over my desk. I still can’t read them. I still don’t know what they say. But I know what they mean: Matthew Roberts Gaventa, Child of God. Because I live, you also will live.
And the rest isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.