One of the things that keeps surprising me is how incredibly apt the lectionary readings have been for us in this time of pandemic.”Do not let your hearts be troubled” Jesus says to us this week.
This passage is all about connection in a time of physical distancing. Jesus is about to leave them. Jesus knows he is going to die. He arranges a special meal, he washes the disciples feet, he attends to betrayal and to denial and then he says: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’ And I will come back to that idea of believing in God because you know Jesus in a minute, but first let’s explore the ideas of welcome, hospitality and abiding.
Jesus is speaking to Peter, who he knows will deny him, to Thomas who has trouble with things that are intangible, and with Philip who wants some kind of proof and all the other disciples with their different struggles. Right in this moment when he knows he is about to leave them Jesus is deeply concerned that they will know his love, and more than that, the deep relationship that will keep them connected to him after he has gone into another realm of being. Jesus is trying to comfort them before they really know that they need comfort. At this moment our world needs comfort, our world needs hope. Last Tuesday we read this passage at Robert Miller’s funeral. It is s often chosen for funerals because of the hope and comfort that it brings, and it suddenly occurred to me that over these last weeks, as death tolls have risen with Covid 19, this passage must have been read thousands of times. We have been so lucky here in Australia that we haven’t all lost people that we knew. For most of us the touch of Covid 19 has been experienced through separation, deprivation of our liberty and possibly anxiety. People have lost jobs and things have become difficult and of course people have been sick and some have died but we have got off lightly. This passage is still significant for us because it talks most particularly about the indestructability of connection, of relationship, which is a huge comfort.
I seem to talk about hospitality every week, but that is, I think because it is fundamental to God’s character and an incredibly important part for us of being made in the image of God. Here the hospitality of God is clear. It was a basic requirement of middle eastern society that one would offer hospitality to the stranger, and Jesus, himself, goes to prepare the room for us to stay in. The Father, Jesus says, has room for us all. The word’s “father’s house” equalled home for the Jewish people listening. Your father’s house was always home for you. We have been very big on living independently of our parents in our culture but I think the truth is for many of us as well going to our parents’ house was/ is going home. It is important to recognise however, that for some of us, going home to parents brings a very different set of emotions. However, when Jesus says he is going to his Father’s house, he is talking about the most generously welcoming homecoming. And more than just preparing the place he is going to take us there, escort us, himself. I will be frank with you, I don’t actually know what that means and I won’t I suspect until my death. I have sat with quite a few people when they were dying and I haven’t witnessed a death where the person seemed to be aware of Jesus taking them with him, mostly they just slip away. However, there was a woman I knew quite well, a doctor herself dying of breast cancer with four children: three teenage daughters and a son who was in primary school. She had been in a coma for more than a week, when on Easter morning, surrounded by her family, she suddenly sat up with a glorious smile said, ‘Praise God’ and died. It was an incredible gift to her family as they all had a strong sense of Jesus coming and taking their mother, on that great day remembering the resurrection. And she was taken from her family- separation exists, I have been feeling it deeply myself, but at the same time connection continues. In the next section of this discourse, which sadly we won’t read this year, Jesus says, “I am the true vine”, and goes on to explain the nature of connection. We are part of one another, fed by one another and connected into God.
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life as he explains to Thomas. Every single time I read this passage I am struck with gratitude for Thomas. He says what we are all thinking, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ And that is as true for us as post resurrection Christians as it was for the disciples prior to Jesus death. Thomas would like some instructions. I think in our day and age he might have been an engineer. He is brave, and resourceful but he likes to understand how things are going to work. Jesus takes him into another space with his answer. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ Jesus says. This verse which has been used for exclusive agendas, is really the answer to the world’s question, ‘what next?’. Jesus is telling Thomas, and the others, that it is through relationship that you come to the hospitality of God. Jesus says that in his Father’s house there is plenty of room to abide, to stay, to rest secure. Jesus uses the word in the Greek meno, that he has been and will use over and over again. God has an abode for you to abide for ever. We have largely lost that sense of a permanent resting place, in our transient society. But our Father’s house is home for us and we can stay there, connected for ever.
Philip wants some proof that all this is true, he wants to see the Father. Jesus tells him that if you know Jesus you know the Father. God is revealed in Jesus. And when we think about Jesus, healing, caring for the poor the destitute, those on the fringes, reveal himself as compassion personified we must understand that that is what the Father is like also. Jesus who honoured the outcasts, Jesus who embraced the little children is the way we have of knowing God. That is why we believe, or belove God.
For us, at this moment, when we are thinking about separation and distancing, these words of comfort, this promise of connection which lasts is the greatest hope that we can have. We, right now, as well as at the end of our lives, are connected in to God and indeed to each other by unbreakable bonds. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.
Vicar Roberta Hamilton