Leaning Forward For The Truth

John 14:15-21 – The Sixth Sunday of Easter – for Sunday, May 21, 2017

“I will ask the Father and he will send another Companion . . .” (John 14:16)

I haven’t used John’s fourteenth chapter at every funeral, but there have been quite a few occasions when it was read.

The mowed grass of a cemetery, with endless stone markers as sentinels, sprawls green to the horizon.

In the graveside and memorial ceremonies I handled as a young pastor, I probably chose snippets of the fourteenth chapter because of their inclusion with the suggested scriptures for “Death and Resurrection” services in the United Methodist Book of Worship.

The grave’s freshly dug earth is piled in a mound, moist and wet. The dark brown hump is covered by a blanket-sized swathe of artificial grass. It never disguises the obvious contents.

Though I wonder if I opened the Bible to the middle of John because the passage had been part of movies or TV shows. If it was good enough for Hollywood funerals, it was good enough for me?

A canopy has been erected, with slender silver poles supporting the canvas material, stretched tight and secure. The family has shade from the sun (or protection from rain). Several rows of folding chairs, each slightly askew on the uneven ground, face the coffin.

John 14 also contains, in its opening, one of the most familiar of all Gospel verses: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. How could any pastor, young or old, arrogant or humble, an angry bible-thumping preacher or a kindly absent-minded priest, not want to reassure the grieving family about a mansion awaiting their beloved?

The women of the grieving family sit on the metal chairs. Mostly, the men stand. Children fidget, maybe whispering to parents, negotiating to see if they can leave for some hide-and-seek on the inviting lawn. A boy—it’s usually a boy—escapes from his parent’s grasp and begins exploring the temporary “mountain” created by the grave’s dirt. His father, face streaked with tears, scoops up the child and returns him to the seat by the mother. Each of them is unhappy for different reasons.

In my ministry, with the first churches served in the twentieth century, I’ve had various “modern” translations of the Bible for personal study and sermon preparation. Early on, the Revised Standard Version, followed by the Jerusalem Bible and then the New Revised Standard Version, were the go-to choices. More recently, it’s the Common English Bible. But at death, with the living before me, weeping and hurting, I find comfort in the old language of the King James Version. Doesn’t “many mansions” sound sweeter to the grieving as part of Jesus’ promise rather than a “dwelling place?”

Friends stand in the back, leaving the chairs for the family and the elderly. Some, for it is hot in the direct sun, huddle at edge of the canopy. But others don’t care and remain scattered in the bright sunshine. They are close enough to hear the pastor, but far enough away to bolt to their cars or wander for a smoke as soon as the service concludes. Who wants to spend much time in a cemetery anyway?

Because it is John’s fourteenth chapter, which can be reassuring and repetitive, some verses are read and some are not. But I usually select the part about the “Companion, who will be with you forever.” Voice strong, comfortable enough with the oft-spoken words to gaze at the gathered mourners, I continue, “This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him . . .”

In the front row of uncomfortable chairs, they cry. Tissues are exchanged. Kids stare at these strange adults. How can a mother or father cry like this? Heads are bowed, perhaps in prayer, but also because it’s a way to avoid seeing the coffin, which rests on a pedestal within an arm’s reach. Some now regret they didn’t go with cremation, but it’s not what the deceased wanted. They hardly hear a word the preacher says. But in the back, between the shade and the sunlight, one or two lean forward. Maybe they have wearied of the hot sun, and yet maybe it was something the preacher said . . .

I admit to occasionally stumbling over the words. The “Father” sending a “Companion” (usually capitalized) and the “Spirit of Truth” seem peculiar. Why didn’t John’s author cut to chase with, “Spirit?” It’s not God. It’s not Jesus. It’s that third slice of the Holy Trinity that we learned about in Sunday school, but can’t explain any better than how electricity works or what a mother’s love is like when first holding her newborn. Why can’t the Gospel words be simpler?

But let’s imagine several lean forward because they desperately want to hear the truth. The Truth. They don’t know—since they are only listeners in this strange, sun-drenched moment—that certain words are capitalized, but they do know what they crave. They crave hope, in this world and the next. For love now, for themselves and their loved ones, because this funeral has reminded them of a reality that is like a rock stuck in their throats: everyone dies. Everyone is fragile. Everyone is vulnerable. Here, with an open grave and a preacher wearing a robe stained with communion wine and coffee from potlucks, they can’t ignore what they often avoid.

We are mortal.

Death is life’s final chip on the table, with everyone losing the bet.

And yet Jesus promised the Spirit of Truth. Jesus proclaimed—even to those weeping in the front row, and those kids scheming to play among the gravestones, and those adults with sweat beading on their foreheads—that we are bonded by and blessed with something “the world” can never give to us.

This is not about wealth in the bank or food on the table or shelter from the storms. It is about, and I will capitalize it, a Companion.

Sure, call the Companion the third part of the Holy Trinity. Call it a promise from Jesus. Call it an inscrutable Mystery. But whenever I dare to share those words, and spot someone leaning forward, I am wholly trinitarian. I believe, with mortality confronting them (and me), with loss burdening their hearts (and mine), and in spite of the cynicism and fear this odd modern, fame-seeking, money-lusting world foments, that there is a moment, a glimmer, where everyone knows what John tried to explain in the fourteenth chapter.

We are not left alone. We are not called to be alone.

Jesus, who experienced the worst of what humans do to humans, revealed that death was not the end of life. And through the presence of the ever-loving, ever-hoping Spirit, he called us to become neighborly companions instead of anxious, isolated individuals.

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  1. Excellent article. I loved the two stories laid along side each other. The mourners at the graveside in all it’s starkness. The reflection and the weaving of John 14 told at the same time. Solemity meets reality in a graceful connection. Your piece does remind me of so many funerals out in the burning sun or driving rain and the cover being to small to cover everyone. All there and most not feeling the least at home in this setting. Yet for centuries maybe millenniums people have gathered not knowing exactly what to do but getting the human task done. But isn’t that the point, we arrive not knowing what to do and we leave the same way.

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