Once in a while in my work as a parish minister I encouraged family and friends to gather together for a farewell exchange with their loved one who was expected to die soon. I knew this might be a powerful moment in their lives. The author of John’s Gospel in chapters 1 4-17 has given us the farewell discourse spoken by Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper. It is, perhaps, the most powerful farewell in all literature. I believe its power derives from the striking images Jesus uses to bring home his central reassurance that, despite the terrible events about to unfold, he would not abandon his friends but would continue to be at the center of their lives in a new way. It is all the more remarkable that in his hour of greatest danger, he is not thinking about himself but rather about his friends. And these were friends who did not really understand him and who did not stand by him in the coming crisis. What kind of amazing love is this?
There are four images (one from each chapter) which grab my attention: homemaking (chapter 14), vine growing (15), giving birth (16), and union (17). In chapter 14 Jesus speaks of leaving to make a home (dwelling place) for his disciples with God, the Father (14:2-3) and then he and the Father will return to make a home with those who believe in him (14:18, 23). So he reassures his followers that they will not be left alone (orphaned) but that God will make a home with them. For the readers of John’s Gospel this future promise has become a present reality.
Sipping wine as he spoke prompted Jesus to describe this relationship in terms of vine growing. He is the vine and we are the branches. If we want to make a difference in this world we need to stay connected to him (15:9 “remain in my love”), otherwise we become useless branches that produce no fruit. For John love means staying connected to Jesus.
A remarkable image is giving birth, especially since the focus is on the pain and subsequent joy of the woman (16:21). Many commentators compare the pain and joy of the woman to the pain and joy of the disciples, but omit the possibility that Jesus is also comparing his own situation to a woman about to give birth. Raymond Brown in his Anchor Bible Commentary (vol. 29A, The Gospel of John, p.715) convincingly shows that John modeled Jesus the Word on the female figure of Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible, who was present at the creation of the world. It would be appropriate, then, for Jesus to compare himself to a pregnant woman undergoing the birth pains of a new creation as he went to the Cross.
The fourth image is union or unity (17:20-33), but the application is undefined. Future disciples are to be one with each other as Jesus and God the Father are one. As Raymond Brown points out (p. 776), whatever unity means it has its origins in divine not human action; it includes both human and divine relationships; and it must be some kind of organic unity or community, because love has to be visible so that the world is challenged to believe in Jesus. Perhaps such a union is patterned on a loving marriage or a deep friendship.
All four images are “locally grown”, products of home and garden. They are everyday images of intimacy and connection, to which we readily relate. These images fit well with meditation. In meditation we become aware of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus, who has made a home with us. In daily meditation we remain in the love of Jesus, as branches to the vine. Through meditation the Spirit makes us aware that we have been born into a new world, even though it was a painful struggle, and leads us into community, a developing unity where we treat people in the same loving way we wish to be treated.
I was thinking about these four images on my way to a spiritual direction session with my longtime friend and Sister of Mercy, Sr. Dianne. The images are all about finding our home in God, I thought, and immediately a highway billboard appeared on Route 95 south, proclaiming “Home: theplacewelovemost.com”. A little divine prompting, I would say, wouldn’t you?