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Comfort and Conflict

A Homily from John 14:1-14

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

April 24, 2005 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)

There is a special power in the words of someone who is about to die. That is not to say that those words are magical or even particularly profound, but they have a power in our memories. As a pastor, as a friend, and as a family member I have a large collection of memories of those last conversations by hospital beds or in living rooms filled to bursting with medical equipment. Those final talks stand out, even when they are competing with thousands of other memories about someone I had known my entire life.

Last words are powerful, and they stay with us. By the time the Gospel of John was written, memories of Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples had sustained the enthusiastic members of a new religion for half a century. They had been chased from their synagogues, shunned by their neighbors, and even watched their friends martyred; yet they had persevered…trusting that the Messiah who had walked with them on Earth would sustain them from Heaven.

Jesus knew that they would need that sustenance. After Judas departs from the upper room where Jesus had shared a final meal with his closest followers, Jesus gathers his disciples close and offers them powerful words of encouragement for the days and years to come. They are about to see him die, and he knows that, even after his resurrection, their sense of loneliness and abandonment will return after he ascends to Heaven and they are left to do the work of his kingdom.

And so, with the edges of his tunic still damp from the towel that he used to wash their feet, Jesus commands his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” As one commentator points out [O’Day NIB], the word translated here as “troubled” doesn’t simply mean “unhappy.” The author of John uses the same word only three other earlier times in the gospel [11:33; 12:27; 13:21]. In all three cases, the word refers to Jesus’ deep despair in the presence of death and evil.

Jesus isn’t simply saying, “Don’t be sad. Don’t let things get you down.” He’s saying, “When you come up against the reality of death, the reality of grief, the reality of loss; don’t let it destroy you. It will if you let it. This is a broken world, and its brokenness has driven me to tears time and again. Do not let the brokenness of this world break you!”

That seems all well and good for Jesus the Son of God; but what about us? If the grief that comes from loving and living and dying in this world was enough to drive him to tears, how are we supposed to be able to handle it? What can he offer us to make it through those times when the whole world…from a dead car battery to a broken marriage…seems to be intent on dragging us down? What can he offer to his disciples, his friends, who will all-to-soon face death if they continue doing what he has told them and teaching what he has taught?

Jesus answers with another command, “Believe!” He says, “Believe in God and believe in me.” He goes on to say, “There is plenty of room in my Father’s house, and it is my house too. You have a place there, and I will take you there myself. Find a home in me and you will find a home in the Father.”

In part, Jesus is answering the question that Andrew and Peter asked him in the very first chapter of the Gospel of John. When they met him, they asked, “Rabbi, where is your home?” He told them to “come and see.” Now he is giving them their answer, he dwells with God and God with him.

To borrow again from literary scholarship of the Bible, this theme of “dwelling” runs throughout the gospel of John, and it is about more than simply where we live or whether or not we have a “home in heaven” [Culpepper, O’Day NIB]. Where we dwell, where we have out home, is where we are centered, where our identity is, who we are. For Jesus, that means being the full union of human with a loving God, and he invites us to be a part of that, to center ourselves in the home that Jesus has created for us in the presence of God.

We have a choice. We can choose to despair, or we can choose to believe. But when we choose to believe it’s not just simply in “God”, in some abstract divine presence. Jesus says, “Believe also in me.” Jesus is the living, physical proof that God is more than simply a distant, semi-mythical force; God is actively working in the world and in our lives. God is an involved, loving, Father or Mother who sees us, touches us, weeps for us, dies for us, and lives for us. God is not just Spirit, God is Son in the flesh.

Jesus says, “You can choose to find your home in God. You know the way.”

His disciples, even after years of traveling with him, still don’t get it. They respond with what seems to me to be the universal apostolic response to Jesus in the gospels. They ponder the wisdom of his teachings, scrunch up their brows, and say, with the utmost profundity, “Huh?” More specifically, Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t even know where you are going. How could we possibly know how to get there?”

You have to wonder if Jesus paused for a deep sigh at this moment. After all, he’s only a few hours from execution, and they still don’t get it. We shouldn’t be too hard on Thomas though, since people have been misunderstanding and underestimating the words of Jesus for a very long time.

Nevertheless, Jesus is a bit emphatic when he answers Thomas’ question. He says, “I am the way!” “I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the life. No one will get to the Father except through me.”

It is a bit of an understatement to note that this proclamation has created some difficulties for interfaith dialogue. How can we respect a follower of Buddha or Mohammed or Dr. Phil if Jesus is the only way to God? How can we be good neighbors to people who do not believe that Jesus is the way to God, or even a way to God?

The first thing to understand, is that this is not a text about neighborliness. Jesus is not speaking to an interfaith dialogue committee. Jesus is speaking to people who are willing to put their lives on the line for him. Jesus is speaking to men and women who will give up their houses and their bank accounts and their nice clothes and even their friends and family members to live a life of poverty and exile among the sick, the violent, the insane, and the hopeless. Jesus is giving them the truth they need to stick it out through incredible pressure to simply give up and surrender to sin and evil.

It is no accident that we read this text on the same Sunday that we hear the story of Stephen in Acts. Stephen stood before the religious leaders of his day and said, “You know the entire history of our faith, and yet you cannot comprehend that the Most High God does now dwell in a house made of human hands. God dwells in the world with us, and in the person of Jesus Christ who is even now at the right hand of God.” Then, of course, they killed him.

God asks no less of us: to proclaim the good news of God’s love for the world, of our redemption from sin…from our own sinfulness…and the hope of eternity in the presence of a God who cares for us as a committed Mother or Father cares for their child. God asks us to proclaim that good news with our words and with our actions, just as Stephen did, even if it means giving up all that we have, even if it means our lives.
That seems almost incomprehensible living in the wealthiest nation in the world, and seems particularly irrelevant when every other car in this city seems to have a little fish on its bumper. God may ask a lot of us, but churches rarely do these days. Maybe a tithe now and again, and we’re certainly glad to see you on Sunday; but it’s the rare sermon that sends anyone out to do something that’s likely to even tick someone else off, much less get anyone killed.

That’s probably why Jesus’ words, which are meant to be comforting, sound a bit harsh and dogmatic to our ears. The things that give us peace in a crisis often seem silly or unnecessary when life is easy. A hug when you are weeping beside a casket is a lifeline, but it’s just a friendly gesture, sometimes even an uncomfortable one, when you’re meeting a casual friend for lunch.

There is nothing casual about the disciples situation, gathered in a darkened room while the authorities try to track them down for a mock trial and an execution; and Jesus’ words are not meant for casual conversation. There is nothing in this text to keep us from respecting the faiths of others or honoring their commitment to seeking God. There is nothing here to keep us from saying that there is much wisdom and much to honor in many of the world’s religions.

But…when it all hits the fan, when things are falling apart around us, when we question the reality of God or the love of God or the meaning of our own lives; Jesus wants us to know where to turn. When we are lost, Jesus wants us to have no question about where we should go. When we are alone, Jesus wants us to know exactly who is there for us.

That person, the one who stands with us no matter what, is not just some well-spoken carpenter from the first century. That person is not just holy God, the Creator of the universe who watches us from on high. That person is our loving Creator and also the mortal human Jesus, miraculously and absolutely united.

The disciples still can’t fully get it. Philip says, “Just show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied. That’s all we need. Show us what God looks like.” That doesn’t seem unreasonable. Jesus wants us to trust in God, and that would be a lot easier of Jesus would just let us see God.

By now it’s pretty impressive that Jesus isn’t shouting, and perhaps he was. The problem, it turns out, is that even apostles are really lousy at recognizing God at first sight. Jesus answers them, “You want to see God? You’re looking at him! When you saw me feeding thousands of people, you were seeing God. When you heard me teach on humility and poverty and integrity and love, you were hearing God. When you felt my hands washing your feet, you were touching God. If you can’t believe in me, at least believe in what you saw me do.”

Knowing where to find God doesn’t seem like a big deal sitting safely in a comfortable Midtown church on a Spring day. Most of us are satisfied knowing where we can find a little religion or a little fellowship if we want it. At the minimum, we’re glad to know that the church is here for us, even if we’re at the park or Starbuck’s on Sunday.

Following Jesus, however, is about much more than church, or even the whole Christian Church, or even our fellow congregants can do for us. It’s about a more than knowing that we have a good community that cares about its neighbors and does good work.

Following Jesus is about knowing where we can turn when our life is in shambles. Following Jesus is about believing that, when we turn to Jesus we are turning to God; that we are turning to the fullness of the divine power that created the universe wrapped up in a fragile human shell just like ours. Following Jesus is about knowing, not thinking or hoping, knowing that all-powerful God reaches out to us with nail-scarred hands to carry us through our times of suffering – be they moments or years or a lifetime.

Jesus reminds his disciples that, not only have they known God in knowing him, they can count on him to act on their behalf. We can count on him to act on our behalf. Today’s lection closes with “If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.”

I must confess, I asked for a television when I was ten and didn’t get it, so I’ve always questioned this verse a bit. I think it’s fair to assume, however, that a Messiah who recommended giving everything to the poor isn’t talking about material possessions here. It also makes sense to think that a Savior who, after praying to be delivered from the cross, went to it anyway isn’t even speaking about making our lives easy. What he is promising, however, is to be there for us and to do what we need when we need it.

What we need changes day to day and even hour to hour, but ultimately all of us will face the reality of death, our own or someone else’s. Hopelessness will loom in the shadows of each of our lives at some time. Doubt, weakness, and failure are a part of being sinful humans in a broken world. They will cross all our paths.

When they do, the one thing we will need is the one thing we cannot find from spirituality movements or academic study or our own imaginations. What we will need cannot be supplied by any human person or institution. What we will need is the presence of God, the love of our Creator, the hope of eternity. Jesus tells us that in those times, God will find us, and it will be in the person of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever, Amen.