a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year A]
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says,“believe in God, believe also in me.” My guess is that most of us have heard these words before while we’ve been standing at a gravesite or as a part of a funeral or memorial service for someone we loved. When our hearts are troubled, it is good to be reminded that Jesus recognizes our sadness and that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in God’s eternal care. In my seventeen years of serving as a parish pastor, I can say that when families ask for a specific gospel text to be read at a funeral, this one is mentioned more than any other. It is such a good one. People find great comfort in these words of Jesus as they say farewell at death. I do too.
As it happens, these are the words Jesus himself uses as he begins his own farewell to his disciples. It is the night before his crucifixion and he has gathered his closest followers. Judas has already left to betray him. Peter has already been informed by Jesus in front of everyone that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the next day. Things are heavy and things are strange and things are somber. We can imagine there was a sense of dark unknown and looming disaster in the air that evening. And the first thing Jesus does is acknowledge their misgivings and their troubled hearts. His first words of good-bye are of hope, of comfort, focused on them and their fears. What he’s saying in this farewell talk is something like, “Yes, this is hard. Something really bad is about to happen. Your sense of looming disaster is not unfounded. It’s going to be horrific, and you probably aren’t going to know what to make of it. But God is nevertheless going to be with me. Trust me on this. God, our Father, will see us through and his glory will shine.”
It occurs to me that these are good words for Jesus to speak to us now. We may not be at a graveside or a funeral, but many of us are living with a sense of that dark unknown and maybe even looming disaster. People in authority give us information, but so much of it seems to be conflicting or incomplete and there doesn’t seem to be a good way forward, let alone a clear one. We wonder and worry about so many things related to this virus. Conspiracy theories are on the rise.
Into the midst of all this dark unknown Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Into the helplessness of not knowing what to do or whether our actions matter, Jesus says, “The one who believes in me will do the works that Jesus does and in fact even words that are even greater!” Into the blur of information Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”
A lot of us are used to living our lives on our terms, on looking at big chunks of time, knowing—or assuming with a fair amount of accuracy what’s coming down the road. This virus has shortened all of our perspectives. Each day and each week is about all we can concentrate on. That is disorienting and troubling. And just as Jesus’ first disciples had to adjust to a change in plans for what kind of leader Jesus would be and how his kingdom would come about, so do we need to hear that God shows us the way. No matter what the phases of reopening bring, no matter what we discover about this virus, nothing will change the way, the truth, and the life that we have come to know in Jesus.
Jesus describes the next days in front of him, the days of his suffering and death on the cross, in terms of preparing rooms. You know, we at Epiphany know a bit about preparing rooms. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year here with our construction, and for the two years before that as we dreamed and prayed about how God is calling us to new ministries and relationship-building. I’m standing in one of those new rooms right now, in fact. There are lots of new rooms! And refurbished ones! This is our administrative suite, where the staff will work.
It takes a lot of work to prepare rooms, and it also takes time and certain skills. Members like Bill Hockman and Carole Alfriend and Linda Swartz have helped us figure out how to use space and furniture to make things welcoming and inviting. For most of the past week Stephanie Hamlett came in and volunteered her time to help pack up our church offices so that we would be ready to move into these new rooms this coming week. And our construction manager, Steve Collins, has spent incalculable hours on-site making things move along well. Everything looks so new and fresh, but behind these walls are hours of electrical work and HVAC duct work and security wiring and plumbing. And before that there were walls studs and a foundation. Within a month, all of the work will be done, we’ll hang a few pieces of art on the walls, and God will help us, at some point, welcome everyone back and new people into our community. And because we’ll have so much more space, both inside and out, and more rooms, we’ll be able to socially distance like we never before!
The dwelling places and rooms that Jesus talks about preparing for us are not physical spaces with walls and electrical outlets but a place within God’s love. He goes to create a spot for us within the relationship that Jesus shares with his Father. That’s what’s been so hard for the disciples to grasp but which they are coming to trust: God the Creator of all is present in a new and powerful way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and knowing Jesus is the same as knowing God. And that’s not all. The Father and the Son have such a deep love for one another that eventually the whole world will find home within it. That’s preparing rooms.
At one funeral service of one of our members several years ago the son of the deceased gave a brief talk, and as he talked about his mother and what she was like he realized he had to talk about his father also, because the two of them loved each other so much. To know one was to know the other. He shared one of his fondest memories from growing up was when he and his siblings would come into the kitchen and happen upon their parents in an embrace in front of the sink or table. It was just a typical love of a married couple, perhaps he had just gotten home or work or they had just been talking and decided to share a hug and maybe a kiss. The kids, when they were young, thought it was gross or awkward so, being silly, they’d wedge themselves between their parents legs and try to push them apart. But instead of relinquishing, their parents would hug and kiss even more, and it became this playful, boisterous scene each time it happened, where mom and dad would try to get closer together with their embrace at the same time as all three children would squeeze within it, trying to spread them further and further. I love that image. I can imagine why that was a great memory for that son as he said goodbye to his mom.
Jesus says, you can’t talk about me without talking about my Father. You can’t know my Father without knowing me. You get one of us, and you get the other. We’re that close, Jesus says, and the love and devotion we have for one another isn’t going to be just for my Father and me. It’s going to have space inside for all of you. Rooms upon rooms in this love. Let’s get another kid in here. The love that Jesus shows for his Father in offering himself on the cross and the love that the Father has in raising him up is the embrace that envelopes all of humankind no matter how hard we try to deny it or push it away.
You and I have room there. Our loved ones who have already died have room there. People who come to worship here at Epiphany and people who worship at other churches have room there in the love of God. In fact, there is room there for people who haven’t come to trust Jesus or God yet. That’s how large and amazing this love is, and how tight the Father’s embrace of his Son is. Nothing can tear them apart. They receive all.
So when Jesus says no one comes to the Father except through him he means that this outpouring love is the key to understanding how God functions, how God is experienced. Sometimes these words come across as sounding exclusive to us, but Jesus is not making an evangelism statement here. He is not making a comment about what other people of other faith traditions believe or what their ultimate destiny might be. Jesus is speaking to a group of followers who are already persecuted for trusting Jesus and who are about to witness God act in a completely new way and he wants to reassure them of his mission.
We know that Jesus never shames people for not following him or believing him. Jesus never forces people to come to faith. Jesus never excludes anyone on account of who they are. His love is never forced on anyone or turned into an argument because it is built on self-giving. He is the way, and to take that way will involve offering one’s self for the sake of others. He is the truth, and he comes that we may know the heart of God is love. He is the life, and in the embrace of God we will always be alive, and now that death has even been embraced by Jesus on the cross, then we shall live forever in him.
It seems all our questions right now center on the way, the truth, and the life. We want to know the best way forward—how to open up, how to resume some sense of normalcy. We want to know the truth—the truth about coronavirus statistics, the truth about “what works” in terms of prevention. And we want to know what is life going to be like in the future. Those are great questions, and I don’t have any specific answers. But we do know that Christ has prepared a room for us, and that Jesus says we will do greater works than he did, and that if we ask for anything in his name, he will do it.
The best way forward, then, is to offer ourselves to our neighbors. The most reliable truth is given to us in Jesus’ words. And the life is found in trusting in God and sharing the gifts he’s given us. It is in squeezing more people into the wide rooms Jesus has prepared that are so numerous they could never be counted.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.