Todays readings for 5th Sunday After Easter - (Also Mothers Day) Acts of the Apostles 7: 55-60 Psalm 31: 1-5, 17-18 1 Peter 2: 11-25 John 10: 14-1-14
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
“Do not let your hearts be troubled”. When I read or speak on this passage it is usually in the context of a funeral. Given the choice the vast majority of people select this as the passage that they would like read when their precious loved one has died. And you know the original context was something similar- Jesus is speaking in the face of his rapidly approaching death. He has raised Lazarus from the dead, setting in motion the events that are to follow. Jesus has told his disciples what is coming, he has given them a last meal, he has washed their feet, he has sent out Judas to betray him. And then he starts to talk to them about love, about loving one another and about the way the Father loves them and then he tells them he is going. Now it is very easy for us, with hindsight to be rude about the disciple’s lack of comprehension, but the reality for all of us is that it is hard for us to understand things that we have not experienced. The disciples have experienced Jesus’ love for them and I am sure that they get that, and they do not want to be separated from him. They do understand- or at least Peter does- that it might lead to death, he says, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you,” Jesus gently tells him that he is not ready- that he will yet deny him. We all know what follows, Peter does deny him three times before the cock crows. Peter’s transformation cannot be complete until after the cataclysmic event of the resurrection.
And immediately after telling poor Peter that he will deny him, Jesus says to them all, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” and in that context, just as in our context of the funeral, they seem very foolish words. Jesus is going to his death, his closest disciple is going to betray him and they have no idea of what is going to come, so it would be very hard for them not to be troubled.
And sometimes these words can be used as a rebuke, and I have certainly experienced this. “Do not be anxious- being anxious is a sin” or as Paul says in Philippians, “do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”. Have you ever had that quoted to you when you were feeling worried about something? And felt the sting of the rebuke spoken or unspoken – if you were a better Christian, more prayerful and more able to give thanks to God you wouldn’t be in this state? Or, if you really believe that your loved one has gone to be with God it is quite sinful to be in such a state of grief.
I think Jesus would be horrified by the uses to which we put scriptural verses. This verse is meant to be a statement of relationship that transcends the immediate human condition. The immediate human condition is one of grief, of sorrow and of anxiety just as it is one of joy and beauty, but Jesus is telling us that the ultimate reality is that we are united with him in the bosom of our creator, redeemer and sustainer. The One who breathed life into us, will never let us go out of his arms. This is a promise, not of a magnificent stately home with so many rooms that the millions of Christians can each have a bedroom with its own plumbing, but of intimacy and belonging with God.
And I think this is ultimately about identity. The disciples had all had jobs and roles and relationships, and then they had spent three years wandering about with Jesus and he knows he is going to leave them- who will they be then? As they live out the rest of their lives, who and what are they going to be? So Jesus strives to reassure them, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.’
Who they are is people in relationship with him, and through him with the creator God, the ultimate one of love, with whom Jesus is inseparably united. And that is the same for us- our identity, whether we realize it or not, is in our relationship with God. We will be there, in relationship with God, with Jesus. But where is there?
Jesus tells them, unequivocally, that they know the way. And poor Thomas, who is always brave enough to admit that he doesn’t understand or that he can’t believe, who is brave enough to go with Jesus towards death in Jerusalem, poor Thomas asks the question that they are all internally struggling with.
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” The trouble is that Thomas, and presumably the others, are thinking in spatial and temporal terms. Where are you going and when? Can we follow you?
And you know this is the same mistake we often make in our own lives. We want to think of heaven as a destination, like the last port of call on some eternal cruise. We want to see it as a locality, you know, “location, location, location,” the ultimate address. Who remembers this song, written by Ira F. Stanphill in 1949 and famously sung by Elvis Presley.
Sing “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below,
a little silver and a little gold.
But in that city where the ransomed will shine,
I want a gold one, that’s silver lined.
I’ve got a mansion, just over the hill top,
in that bright land where we never grow old,
and some day yonder, I will never more wander,
but walk those streets that are purest gold.”
This is playing into all our most avaricious dreams, isn’t it? We all want to know the way to get there!
And what is the way?- well Jesus tells us, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him”. Now, we can all quote these verses but the way we have understood them over the years has had many different implications.
Certainly, in the religious world that I grew up in, this was seen as an exclusive statement, I touched on this last week. The view of many Christians is that there are some people who come to God in the right way- that is through Jesus, but the others can forget it, as there is only one path to God. Do you think that exclusivity was to do with the fact that we wanted heaven to be exclusive, that we had a fear of there not being quite enough gold rooms that were silver lined, or that only the first 480,000 would get a room like that? We always have this impulse to make sure that we are in by making sure that someone else is out. But when I read Jesus’ words a little more carefully, I think that it is a statement of a very different kind of fact. I AM, the great I AM, YHWH, the word made flesh, is the opening, the gate of the sheepfold, from one level of being to another, from one state of not being united to God, to another of perfect unity. He is the perfect truth of God, which is that we are, with the whole of creation, loved and wonderful. This is life, relationship with God, and it is through Jesus that the barrier, the curtain of the temple, which exists only so that we can define God, is ripped asunder and we are united. If we know Jesus we can also know the Father. And for these disciples, from now on, before the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension has even occurred, already they do know him and do see him, because they see Jesus. Jesus IS the way the truth and the life and there is no other way to get there because he is the conduit through which the relationship is restored, he is the tunnel through which we all must pass on our way to the Father.
But the poor disciples, like us, are still struggling to understand and Philip who way back at the beginning called others to come and see the Lord, wants now to see the Father. This leads Jesus to make the clearest statement of the relationship between himself and the Father that he can in our human terms. They are in each other, part of each other, even though one of them is confined to the human sphere of time and space, they are united. The disciples, through the work of the Holy Spirit in them, will also be united with God in the great perichoretic dance of the Trinity. Though, of course, that comes after the death and resurrection and the ascension, which for Jesus’ auditors hasn’t happened yet. And let me just say that the Ascension is really important in John’s schema, because without the return of Jesus to the bosom of the Father, or if you look at it a different way, him leaving the temporal sphere, we couldn’t have the church, or the body of Christ, here on earth.
After Pentecost, God who has been “in” Jesus while he has human form, will be “in” them as well.
We also read this morning the story of Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen goes to his death just as Jesus has gone to his, with words of forgiveness on his lips. Stephen is the very model of the UNanxious, isn’t he? And is it because he has a mansion, just over the hilltop, which he’s dying to get to? I don’t think so, I think it is because he is in relationship with a God whose love is the ultimate life and security. He doesn’t need to be alive on earth, because he is alive in Christ.
When Jesus says to us, do not let your hearts be troubled, it is because he is the way, the truth and the life, and the present reality, no matter how difficult, no matter what we have to face in the next days and next weeks, months or years, cannot separate us, as Paul says, from the love of God.