Enough to Set Us Free1 Peter 3:13-22 John 14:15-21
In 1960, “Camelot” the musical debuted on Broadway and ran for more that 850 performances. Some think its success was due to the fact that its time on stage paralleled the Kennedy administration, which is referred to as the Camelot era of the Whitehouse, with all its glamour, appeal, and idealism. But as with all long enduring tales, I think that the success of a story lays in how relatable it is.
The tale of King Arthur and his knights is legendary and its relate-ablity is found in its call to remember.
In the last number, the grand finale if you will, of the musical Camelot, King Arthur sings a song that reflects on this perfect era. Alone on stage (under the hot lights), he is a broken king begging to be remembered. He says,
Ask ev’ry person if they’ve heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if they have not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
This is a call to remember what is now just a memory. A time to honor what was, while we charge into the unknown future.
In the musical King Arthur sang: Now say it out with pride and joy!
And Tom, another character, would respond: Camelot! Camelot!
This is a call to pass the tale on to your children, even on to your children’s children… To keep up the lessons learned by the gallant knights of the round table… To keep Camelot alive.
A call of remembrance.
That is the grand theme of today. Memorial Day. The great day of remembrance.
Jesus’ words are similar to King Arthur’s in that they are a call for his life and lessons to be remembered. Our Gospel reading today, occurred on the same night that Christ gathers with his disciples for the last time. This is the night in which he would soon be betrayed by one of his closets friends, be arrested, and led on to his death. This is all taking place at the Passover table. And here, Jesus knows that this is his one last opportunity to teach and encourage his disciples. This is his grand finale as a rabbi and a teacher.
Dr. Barabara Lundblad said that about this infamous scene, “We can well imagine Jesus calling them to remember the wondrous wisp of glory they had shared, when light had come into the darkness of the world.”[i]
These are Jesus’ last words, his closing letter to his followers.
And what does he choose as his final message?
He says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask my Father, and he will give you another Advocate [meaning the Holy Spirit], to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. [But you,} 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.”
In this moment, when Christ knows that he will be leaving them… facing his death… he talks about coming to them and abiding with them forever. This seems a little out of order…
But Frederick Buechner sums up this passage by saying: these words are Christ’s promise that “The worst thing is never the last thing.”
The worst thing in this moment- what will soon happen to Christ/ being nailed to a cross- is but the next to last thing… because what comes afterwards (the resurrection)… that is the best thing!
The worst thing is never the last thing
That is Christ’s final message to the disciples before his death on the cross.
By the time John- the author of this Gospel- wrote down his account of the life and teachings of Christ most of those in John’s community had never met Christ. This was several decades after Christ’s death and resurrection… John was the last disciple standing. So these words were written well after Christ’s time on earth. And by then, the early Christians were facing great persecution. And the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed – which to many was a sign that the end was coming soon… But the end-times never came.
This was a desperate season in the life of the early church. Because the early Christians thought that they had two purposes
1) To spread the Gospel.
2) To actively wait for Christ to return… which would be any minute now…
These people (a few first generation Christians -like John…and many second generation Christians) had spent the last 30 years living at the edge of their seat… because they were certain that their days were numbered. That Christ was coming for them immediately! That the physical Christ would return to them any moment!
So as time went on… the whole of the community was sliding into despair. They thought that Christ had forgotten them… so they were pulling away from his teachings… There was a darkness slipping back into their Camelot. And it is then, in this context, that John wrote down these words, which are known as “The Farewell Discourses.” These are Christ’s words to a growing yet desperate community of believers.
Something I think the Christian church can relate to today.
This Discourse is full of stuff like:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
“I will not leave you orphaned.”
“A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you…”
These are meant to be great words of encouragement to those living in the most difficult of circumstances. Words to uplift their spirits and to bind them together as they wait upon the Lord.
Christ is saying, remember me.
Remember the promise I bear when the days are dark.
Pass it on to your children, he said, on to your children’s children… keep the promise alive.
Every year, our country sets aside a day to remember all those who have fallen in battle over the life of our nation.
And it is at thesame time that the Christian community, the church, is asked to set aside time to remember all those who have gone before us and praise God that our Lord had kept the promise: That the worst thing is never the last thing.
So, preaching on Memorial Day weekend can be difficult for preachers… many who attend worship on this weekend expect that the service will focus upon remembering our military veterans. And we will certainly be lifting our veterans up on prayer today after the sermon… but I’m treading softly here… because the church, in a spiritual sense is not national territory… it is supernatural territory… it is God’s… So we will be looking beyond the national celebrations of Memorial Day, to ask about what it is to be free in Christ.
Now, three years after the Civil War ended. Just after the bloodiest war in American history; with the death toll far exceeding 600,000 soldiers, the people of this nation realized that something needed to be done so that we could remember those lost. And remember in a healthy/healing kind of way. So on May 5, 1868, the head of the organization of Union veterans- the Grand Army of the Republic- established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Major General John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30, because it was believed that on that date flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
So the first observance of Decoration Day was held that year in Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River.
The ceremony was held at the Arlington mansion. And after a long speech from Ulysses S. Grant, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
This is the holiday that would grow up into Memorial Day.
When I think on this event, it is hard for me to imagine this as a hopeful or happy celebration. Because what is hopeful in a parade of orphans decorating their parents graves?
I could just imagine, being in that crowd at Arlington Cemetery thinking why did this all have to happen? Why did 600,000 people have to die? And then we could add on to that another 400,000 casualties… Why did all of that have to happen?
Why is there such darkness in this world?
As a citizen I can answer that in my head with our well known quips like: Freedom is NOT free, some things are worth fighting for, I would recite a couple of Toby Keith lines… and all that…
But I’m not asking my fellow countrymen that question. I am asking God that question: Why is there such darkness in this world? Why did this have to happen?
And as hard as it is to fathom, and as hard as it is to explain – on a day like Memorial Day- that is when we have to talk about the troubling answer: God loved us enough to set us free.
But, unfortunately, because of this freedom, we find ourselves in times of great trouble. We always live in the deep puzzle of love, freedom, and hurt.
This is what we know to be true: God loves us. We are free. And hurt and trouble are all around.
God did not make us slaves or puppets… but rather made us into free and beloved creations… and because of that, we have the choice to misuse that gift. And sometimes we pay a terrible cost.
We live in a world that regularly finds itself in the throws of war. Not just nation verses nation… but internal and personal wars as well: wars of addiction, trauma from assault, illness, emotional violence in our homes, wars of the heart and of the soul…
God could have created us in ways that prevented us from encountering these things- God could have made us into puppets. But we were gifted with a free path.
This is a holiday that remembers the cost that comes with our freedom to choose against the life that God intended for us. Our own Camelot, Eden.
Carl Schenck had this to say about our freedom: “One of the reasons God gives us the gift of freedom is because the God who loves us will not coerce our love in return, but wants it given back freely. The God who loves us invites, but does not force, our love in return. Yet this is a costly freedom that leaves us at liberty to make war, deal drugs, drive our cars drunk, and countless other horrors. In a world so full of hurts like these, one of the things that we must always learn when we come to worship God is that God is not the author, or the source of the violence and the pain of life. God is the one who loves us into freedom- even at great cost.”[ii]
The words of John’s Gospel, tells us the truth about God’s love. We honor, remember, and return love to our God by keeping Christ’s commandments.
Christ said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
This is the great choice ahead of all of God’s creations. All of us. Do we keep Christ’s commandments?
Our Lord is not interested in a mushy and syrupy kind of love or remembrance. He wants a love that is lived out with our lives! A love that is shown in our actions, in the ways that we love one another/ love ourselves/ obey our Lord.
To love God, is to live out our freedom wisely. To choose to live like Christ.
How cheap would it be to claim to be followers of Christ, without honoring and keeping his commandments? Our world and our churches are full of people who want an easy love, love that makes no demands of ourselves, of our time, of our energy. A love that is simply felt (in a comfortable kind of way on a Sunday morning) rather than one that calls us into action…
Our Gospel lesson makes it clear that a meaningful love, a true LOVE relationship with Christ, is shown through a life lived in harmony with the WAYS of Christ. Our freedom is, ALTHOUGH UNCOMFORTABLE AT TIMES, infinitely demanding of us.
So the question is: how are you using your gift of freedom?
Are you honoring it? Are you remembering Christ’s words and life with it?
When darkness enters into our Camelot’s, when we find ourselves lost and in trouble, when we find our hearts and souls bruised by this world… that is when our freedom is tested.
Remember Christ’s final message to his disciples on the night of the Passover:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
As you light up the barbecue’s on Memorial day, take a moment to honor those that have fallen in battle (fallen in both physical and spiritual battles) and let us envision a day when there will be no more war, no more struggle, no more cause for tears / or cause to ask our God “Why?”.
Perhaps, that seems like a hollow or idealistic dream to you. But know this, it will only happen when we allow God to be God and ….we obey. That day is our hope and we need to work to achieve it. We can work in our homes, in our speech, in our communities… we can work to achieve this peace and cohesion with God. Work toward honoring God’s great gift of freedom. It has to start somewhere, why not with each and every one of us![iii]
[i] Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad: I will Not Leave You Orphaned
[ii] Carl L. Schenck: Of Freedom, Love and Pain. Post on MinistryMatters.com
[iii] This was inspired by a Facebook status update from Rev. Bobbi Chapman