Column: ‘Farewell discourse’ aimed at future disciples as well

by Father Mike Stubbs

Sixth Sunday of Easter Jn 14: 15-21

An after-dinner speech can too easily interfere with the digestion and interrupt a much-needed nap. A good speaker will sometimes spice it up with humor and amusing stories. On the other hand, a serious subject will hold the attention of the listeners if it clearly pertains to their interests.

That was the case with the speech Jesus gave after the dinner the night before he died. Only John’s Gospel includes that speech, also known as the “farewell discourse.” We will hear a portion of it as Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 14:15-21.

In this section of the farewell discourse to his disciples, Jesus deals with their impending separation. He promises them: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” Then a few verses later, Jesus assures them, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”

How should we interpret Jesus’ promise to return? A couple of possibilities present themselves.

First of all, we should remember that Jesus speaks these words during the Last Supper the evening before he dies and a few days before his resurrection. In that light, we can interpret Jesus’ departure in terms of his death on the cross. Similarly, we can interpret his return as his resurrection Easter Sunday, his return to life. That is one possibility.

But there is another. If we consider Jesus’ words in a  broader sense, we can understand Jesus’ departure as his ascension to the Father, his leaving for heaven. Similarly, we can then understand Jesus’ promise to return to the disciples as referring to his coming again in glory on the last day, at the end of time, in the event called the parousia. In that case, Jesus is not only addressing the farewell discourse to the disciples at the Last Supper. He also intends it for his future disciples, for all of us.

The second verse quoted greatly supports this second interpretation: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” The phrase “on that day” echoes some of the Old Testament prophecies which look forward to the last day, the end times.

Consider, for example, “On that day it will be said ‘Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!’” (Is 25:9) We find similar examples in Isaiah 24:21; 26:1; 27:1; 27:2; and 27:12. Each example begins with the phrase “On that day,” just as does the verse in John’s Gospel. The phrase “On that day” in John’s Gospel then, points that verse in the direction of the last day, when Jesus will come again in glory in the parousia.

So which is it: Easter Sunday or the parousia? Or, do we really have to choose between the two?

We should note that John’s Gospel operates according to the point of view that C.H. Dodd, a prominent New Testament scholar, called realized eschatology. In that way of thinking, the lines between the present moment and the future coming of the Lord in glory are blurred.

In the mysticism of John’s Gospel, the parousia can be already experienced. That is why it is so difficult to pinpoint events in John’s Gospel on a rigid time line. John’s Gospel wishes to move us beyond time, to touch eternity. And in John’s Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus is the event which enables us to do that. Through the resurrection, we experience the return of the Lord as it will happen at the end of time.

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