Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon for Easter V

St George's, Belleville--John 14:1-15

Jesus is taking leave of his closest disciples. It is the eve of his crucifixion, and they will never see and know him again in quite the same way. They’re not yet aware of all the details, but they know enough to be nervous, to be anxious. Jesus recognizes how they’re feeling, and he says to them, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”

Let not your hearts be troubled. Easy enough for him to say. Back in the ‘80s, a talented musician named Bobby McFerrin made a name for himself with a hit song called, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s a cute song, and maybe even a good idea, but I doubt it had much of an effect on the general level of anxiety in the world. Our hearts are troubled. Our hearts are troubled by fear—fear that we won’t get what we deserve from life, fear that we will get what we deserve from life. Fear of the unknown, and fear of the known. Fear of dying, and fear of not being able to die when life becomes too much to bear. Our hearts are troubled by fear.

Our hearts are also troubled by regret. We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done. The older we get, the deeper our reservoir of regret becomes. We regret words of anger that caused pain, and we regret words of healing and forgiveness that were never spoken. We regret foolish behavior born of stubborn selfishness, and we regret stupid things we have done when we should have known better. We regret decisions we have made that seemed good at the time, but which turned out badly. Our hearts are troubled by regret.

So Jesus says to his disciples, and he says to us,
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.
This is meant to be reassuring. “Don’t worry … be happy.” Thomas, however, doesn’t get it. You remember “Doubting Thomas,” the one who insisted on seeing the physical evidence before he would believe that Jesus was risen from the dead? Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” So Jesus puts it another way, trying to make himself perfectly clear, and as a result, we get one of the most well-known verses in all of scripture, John 14:6—“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

am the way. Now, pay close attention here. Jesus does not merely tell us that he will show us the way. Rather, he himself is the way. Jesus does not merely promise that he will tell us the truth—he is the truth. And Jesus does not merely announce that he intends to give us life; he gives us his pledge that he is the life. This is a consistent theme throughout the gospel of John—Jesus offers us a great many gifts, but in the end, what he offers us is himself. Everything else he gives us is summed up in this: Jesus gives us himself. He doesn’t just give us bread; he is the bread of life. He doesn’t just supply us with a shepherd; he is the Good Shepherd. Today, Jesus is present with us as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

But now that Thomas is satisfied, it’s Philip who doesn’t quite get it. “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” So Jesus clarifies yet again: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Here is another central affirmation of St John’s gospel, and of the entire New Testament: Jesus is the human face of God. Jesus is God with us. All that the Father is to us, we see in Jesus. Jesus is central; Jesus is integral. As Christians, we would do well, in my view, to train ourselves to think and speak more specifically of “Jesus” and “the Father,” and less generically of “God.” Many years ago, early in my ordained ministry, I was asked to give the invocation at the regular meeting of a local school board. I was aware that the superintendent, who would chair the meeting, was Jewish, and so I made it clear to the person who called to invite me that I didn’t desire to give offense, but that, as a Christian, the only way I know how to pray is “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Anything else would be sub-Christian, and therefore hypocritical on my part. Now, that was nearly thirty years ago, and it was in the Deep South, so it was OK, and I prayed my Christian prayer at the beginning of the school board meeting, and nobody took offense. If I were to receive a similar request today, my agreement would come with a similar condition, but I doubt it would be accepted.

So … it appears that paying attention to our relationship with Jesus is critical. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus shows us the Father. How do we pay attention to our relationship with Jesus? There isn’t time now to give a detailed answer to that question, but let me suggest four broad categories of relationship maintenance:

First, we attend to our relationship with Jesus by reading and marking and learning and inwardly digesting the Word of God transmitted to us in sacred scripture. Second, we attend to our relationship with Jesus by participating in his life through the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of Holy Communion. Third, we attend to our relationship with Jesus by saying our prayers—publicly and privately, day in and day out. Finally, we attend to our relationship with Jesus in our involvement with and faithfulness to the community of Christ, the Church. Word, Sacrament, Prayer, and Community—these are the media through which we experience Jesus to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Doing so will, in turn, will give us the authority and power to pursue the mission of Jesus. When we live deeply in Jesus, he begins to perform his works through us. After clarifying himself to Thomas and Philip, Jesus tells the disciples, “…he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” Greater works than these—what could Jesus possibly mean? Jesus spent the majority of his ministry doing two things: teaching and healing. But even as God-in-the-flesh, he was limited by his incarnate state. He couldn’t be everywhere at the same time, so the number of people to whom he could minister was limited. But after he was raised from the dead, and ascended to the Father in his glorified state, that ministry of teaching and healing—that ministry of relieving anxiety, that ministry of calming troubled hearts—has been extended into time and space and been made available to every person in every place in every time. Our intercessions during the Prayers of the People in this very liturgy are part of those “greater works. The education and outreach programs of St George’s are part of those greater works. The love that we share with one another, and in our homes, and with our friends and neighbors and co-workers—this is also part of the greater works that we do because we have known Jesus: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.   

This is precisely what we give thanks for at the end of every Mass, when we pray to the Father that the grace we have received in Holy Communion will enable us to “continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in,” or to “love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart,” or “to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”

This is the context for Jesus assuring his followers, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.” It’s not a blank check for our personal gratification; it’s a promise that the Church will prevail in her mission, that the “greater works” we perform in the name of the Son, will bring glory to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. So let us not fail to ask—let us not fail to ask, in Jesus’ name, that our troubled hearts be comforted, and that we become channels of that comfort and peace to a fearful and regretful world. Alleluia and Amen.

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