Sunday, May 6, 2018
Graduation Day: A Sermon on John 15: 9-17
[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, May 6, 2018]
Robertson Davies’s novel What's Bred in the Bone tells the life story of a man who almost literally paints himself into a corner. Francis Cornish is, at his death, a wealthy patron of the arts with an extensive art collection, known as a superb art expert who famously exposed a faker of genius. Yet his friends and relatives never understand why this brilliant and talented man—once a talented enough young artist himself to become the apprentice of a great (if possibly dishonest) artist—dried up into a possessor of others’ works, a man who supported artists with money and advice, but laid down his brush with no body of work of his own.
We the reader know better, as we are told the story, by two narrators. The first is the Lesser Zadkiel, the Angel of Biography, and the second is the Daimon Maimas, whose job it was to lead Cornish to make the most of himself. In their telling, Cornish became an apprentice of the Italian artist Tancred Saraceni in the last years before the Second World War broke out.
And what did Saraceni do in those years?
He took worthless, but genuine, old paintings, and faked them up to seem like the work of Old Masters, and traded them on the black market to recover genuine paintings from the Third Reich for their real owners--for a profit, of course.
As his apprentice, Cornish excelled. But, Saraceni warned him, he was being tested, always tested, to see if he would be Saraceni’s successor, or just a perpetual apprentice. Whether he was ready to face the world as amici di Saraceni rather than the lesser alunno di Saraceni. That is, “friend of Saraceni” as opposed to “student of Saraceni.”
In the last year before the war broke out, Saraceni left Cornish his final exam: to do a new painting in the old manner, unsupervised and undirected—merely given an old canvas. With six months of isolation, Francis creates a triptych of the Wedding of Cana, one that incorporates in it the myth of his own life up to this point, and yet is "in the final accents of the Gothic voice." And, as he has done with his other work, he uses recipes for antique paints, mixes ancient dust from the castle in which Saraceni has been working him, in artificially created cracks mimicking those that occur as a painting ages. He creates at once a work intensely truthful, and yet gloriously fake. When Saraceni comes back, shortly before the outbreak of war, he views the tryptich, and, impressed, finally addresses Francis as “Maestro.”
And so his apprenticeship is over. Francis is welcomed as a friend of Saraceni, not merely a student. No mere technician, or even gifted fraud, Francis has created his masterpiece—the work that establishes him in his own right.
Unfortunately, because when it is found by the Allies after the war, it is hailed as an authentic last flowering of the Gothic world, Francis can never claim it. So he stops painting, for fear of reducing his great work, his self-summation, to a discarded fake.
The rest of his life, he develops talent in others, and spreads what he has learned.
Davies was an Anglican, and while seldom directly didactic, his novel, with its supernatural narrators, parallels today’s Gospel reading.
We are at the Last Supper, once again. Nowhere near the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the shadow of Golgatha begins to loom large now.
And yet Jesus takes the time to tell the disciples something they desperately need to hear, something to tide them through the horror to come, and the guilt that will only be dispelled when they meet again on the other side of the Empty Tomb: Their apprenticeship is over. They are amici di Jesus, friends of Jesus, not the lesser alunno di Jesus.
How can this be? We know that the disciples are yet to pass their final exams, are yet to demonstrate their worthiness—and yet.
Their apprenticeship is drawing to a close. Jesus tells them to keep his commandments, but then tells them that “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
But then he explains further: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.”
And he adds, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
He doesn’t ask them to be true to him, to die for him.
He doesn’t ask Peter to avow his love for Jesus, and risk execution himself.
He asks them to be true to each other, to be willing to die for each other.
Not for him.
Because he first has to show them how to do it.
And they do what he asks. After Judas’s betrayal, there are eleven men hiding in the upper room, afraid but united. After he appears to them, twice—Thomas misses the first appearance—there are eleven men, and an unknown number of women, who begin to bravely speak their truth.
Eleven who tell the story of the love of God for women and men, a love so great that God will stop at nothing in order to make that love clear, so clear that a movement will form to spread the awareness of that love to all people.
Everyone. Not just the children of Abraham by blood, but as the first letter of John says, quite clearly, that “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”
Now some will tell you that those who do not formally receive the news and avow themselves followers of Jesus do not warrant such love. But think again of what Jesus says: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
And what is the command?
Simply this: Love one another as I have loved you.
As C.S. Lewis and Karl Rahner point out, this commandment, and not the name in which the commandment is performed, is the vital part in reaching graduation day. As Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, God doesn’t play by rules—or fairly. Just ask the laborers in Jesus’s parable who start at the beginning of the day, only to receive the same wages as those arrive at the very end.
No, it’s not about rules, or fairness. It’s all about love. Sacrificial love, an offering of the self. And passing it on. Telling the story, as it caught you. Sharing experience, strength, and hope.
And in so telling, these Eleven, and those whose lives they touch, create what our Presiding Bishop calls the Jesus Movement, a wave of humanity from 2,000 years ago crashing on the rocks of these hard, bitter times in our world with simple message: Love one another as I have loved you.
The fictional Francis Cornish in Davies’s novel has to protect his great vision by making himself effectively invisible, and empowering others to tell their truth through their own eyes.
Jesus, too must leave us, so that we can complete out transition and receive the Holy Spirit, move from alunno to amici. And in so doing, tell the story as best we can.
But not just our own story.
To graduate, we are called to love one another, even when it’s risky, even when it hurts, even when it makes us vulnerable. Jesus’s love is both the spark that lights the paschal candle, and the flame that we pass, one to another, in the Easter Vigil. By accepting that love, and symbolically passing that flame, we are echoing the acts of the apostles—disciples no longer—and declaring our willingness to dedicate ourselves to sacrificial love.
That message makes tyrants afraid, because love casts out fear. So the willingness to speak that truth has throughout the past two thousand years, has caused and in some places is causing today, the death of those who share that method. However tense our fractious polity has gotten, we are safe to worship in our faith communities, to gather together and share the stories and the sacrament. To love one another, as community, as sisters and brothers in Christ. We should remember that such sacrificial love in other places, and in other times, has been and remains acutely dangerous.
Here, in divided America, that commandment is an antidote—perhaps the antidote—to the increasing suspicion and anger that mar our exchanges. Because love doesn’t stay confined. It spreads out, from those who are consciously following the commandment to love to those who find themselves surprised by an unexpected kindness, a shared moment across an ideological divide, a class divide, a racial divide.
So we hope. So we believe. And so we try to live.
But that hope should gain strength from the fact that we are here, tonight, in this chapel. Though empires have risen and fallen, as wealth has been built up, stolen, and squandered, as we have seen revolutions and counter revolutions sweep the globe, that simple command, difficult though it is to live up to, continues to echo, and to bear fruit. And every day we are presented with the opportunity to live up to our high calling of being friends, not servants, of Jesus of Nazareth.