Saturday, May 20, 2017

Gone...But Not Really Gone

Installation of Aaron Suomala Folkerds as Senior Pastor
Lutheran Church of Christ the King, Moorhead
May 21, 2017/Easter 6
John 14:15-21

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“Gone but not forgotten.”

We’ll hear that phrase and speak those words next week, because it’s that time of the year.  By Federal statute, no less, we set aside the last Monday of May as our “gone but not forgotten” holiday, when we stop to remember those who’ve left this world, especially those who died in service to our country.

“Gone but not forgotten” may be among the most poignant words in the English language.

This brief phrase masks a deeper, darker reality—which is that whenever someone leaves us, it is shockingly easy to forget them, despite our best intentions.

Not, of course, that our loved ones pass completely from our memories, but they no longer occupy our minds or command our hearts.  In that sense, gone too often means forgotten.

But on Memorial Day we will ourselves to do what no longer comes naturally—we will ourselves to remember them, to lay fresh-cut spring flowers on their graves, to ponder the great sacrifice that they made.   For this one day at least--by gum!--they shall be “gone but not forgotten.”

But the day after Memorial Day, along with all the days that follow…those days are another story… all too often “gone” means “forgotten.”

As this season of patriotic remembering plays out…..the church is doing its own brand of remembering during the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

And this remembering, this focused mindfulness of the Church recalling the One who died and rose again, reflects a different understanding of reality.

In the church’s way of remembering Christ the Crucified and Risen One, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten,” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

Say what?   What kind of nonsense is that?  How can someone, anyone, even Jesus be “gone, but not really gone?”

As jarring as those words sound, “gone, but not really gone” is the pulsing beat, the arresting rhythm of the Great Fifty Days…and nowhere is that more apparent than in this gospel reading from John 14.

Jesus came to earth.  Jesus was born of Mary.   Jesus walked where we walk. Jesus loved and prayed for and healed and taught his neighbors.   And, in short order, Jesus was cruelly betrayed, wrongly convicted, brutally forced to carry his own cross on his bleeding back. 

In the end, Jesus died.

And then three days later Jesus was raised again…

….and then over the course of forty days, Jesus showed himself to his followers, often and compellingly enough to convince them that with him, with Jesus, death’s stranglehold had been broken.

And then, just when his followers were starting to get the hang of it, this same Risen Lord Jesus Christ was taken from them once more, ascended into heaven, returned to his Father, gone for good it seemed…

….gone, but not really gone!  

Jesus was gone, but not really gone.    The Resurrected One made wondrous provision for us, to deal with his physical absence from us:  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 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.” (John 14:16-17)

Jesus was leaving this earth, he was about to be gone—but not really gone.

How can that be?

Here’s how:  Jesus promised “another Advocate” to come to us and be with us forever:  the Spirit of Truth would “succeed” Jesus in keeping faith alive and hope strong.

Jesus promised another Advocate, because we already had our first Advocate, Jesus himself in the flesh.

An advocate, you see, is someone who comes alongside us to make a case or plead a cause.

Jesus, the original Advocate, pled our cause before God our heavenly Father.    Jesus spoke out for us most clearly, most distinctly, in the final days of his life….when he gave us a Meal we’re still eating, bread for his body, wine for his blood.

On the Cross Jesus advocated for us most convincingly when he cried out:   “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”   Jesus in his dying breath advocated for us, made the perfect case for us, sinners all:  “Father forgive them.”

If Jesus on the Cross pleaded perfectly for us with our Creator-God, he promised to send “another Advocate,” the Holy Spirit who doesn’t so much plead for us, as he pleads with us.

The Holy Spirit advocates for the risen Lord Jesus Christ, with every breath we take.   The Spirit presses God’s cause upon us every day, giving us reasons to believe, reasons to hope, reasons to stake our lives on Christ the Crucified and Risen One who may be gone (in the way he first lived among us)-- gone, but not really gone.  Jesus continues to have us and hold us and send us into the world that is becoming his perfect Kingdom.

So the living Lord Jesus no longer occupies the body he received from his mother Mary, he is no longer bound to “to distant years in Palestine” as hymnwriter Brian Wren puts it (ELW #389, stanza 2).
Jesus is gone from all that, but he’s not really gone.

In a far fuller, richer sense, Jesus--in the power of his resurrection--is more alive now than ever before!

And Jesus is alive, not because our feeble memories will him to be alive.  Jesus’ resurrection life isn’t about us whistling in the dark, engaging in wishful thinking….

No, Jesus is alive still, because that other Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Lord and Giver of Life—breathes upon us, kindles within us the unquenchable fire of faith…and never allows that flame to die out.

“Gone but not forgotten” reflects our responsibility, our striving, our work….

But with Jesus everything is made new:  with Jesus, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

And you have Jesus’ own Word on that. 

You have the down payment of the Holy Spirit, the urgent, nudging, enlivening testimony of that other Advocate who ceaselessly makes God’s case before us, wooing and cajoling and winning us over, freeing us to confess from our hearts:  “I believe.   Help my unbelief”

So it is the Spirit of Truth who tirelessly reminds us that Jesus is Risen from the grave, nevermore to die.

But there is even more.   

In v. 19 of our gospel lesson Jesus ups the ante with this promise:  “because I live, you also will live.”

Phew!  What a relief that is—to know that we will somehow “survive” death….that in some unimaginable way we partake of Jesus’ own unending life.

But Jesus utters this promise not simply to set our hearts at ease, to beat back our fear of death.

No.  Jesus promises to share his own unending resurrected life with us so that we will be good for something, even as we await and pine for God’s New Day.

“Because I live, you also will live,” Jesus declares to us, and that miraculous life of Christ in us testifies to us and everyone else that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Jesus shares his unending life with us so that we will be living specimens, walking talking testimonies who constantly bear witness that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Our whole life as the Body of Christ, is God’s best proof that Jesus didn’t vanish into thin air…but has chosen to continue his rescuing, reviving, death-defying, future opening work.

So because Jesus lives in us we can make all sorts of audacious promises in his name.

We can look each other right in the eyes and say things like:
“I announce to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.”
“Take and eat, this is the body…this is the blood of Christ.”
“Because Jesus lives, you will live also!”

Pastor Aaron, I suspect that most of the time the last thing you want to be is someone else’s “mouthpiece.”

But there’s one exception to that rule of thumb.  There’s at least one sense in which you and every other pastor are a mouthpiece for the only voice we need to hear in life and in death.

Jesus, who is alive—sure as shooting—has called you here, as the chief shepherd of this flock, to utter audacious promises that only he can keep.  Just remember that everything you’re called to do here as senior pastor of this congregation flows from that absolutely crucial role—of being a called and “dedicated” mouthpiece for Christ the Crucified and Risen One.

And wow--isn’t that grand?

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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