Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter John 14:1-14
Let not your hearts be troubled.
Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Well, I say, “Easier said than done, Jesus!” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing with Jesus; I know he’s absolutely right in teaching us that we don’t have to be troubled, even in the direst circumstances. But I must confess that my heart is indeed very troubled. And just telling myself – or even Jesus telling me – “don’t feel bad; don’t worry,” just doesn’t cut it.
As we enter our ninth week of sheltering in place, with no end yet in sight, we have a multitude of issues confronting us. This epidemic is affecting all parts of our lives: how we do work, how we do school, how we shop, how we vacation (or not), how we do church. We worry about the unemployment rate and the precarious state of the economy. We often hear that we’ll never go back to the way things were, but we don’t know what that means.
Then there’s the threat of the virus itself. The number of those infected is staggering; the number of dead is heartbreaking. Predictions by the Center for Disease Control and other reputable experts are not encouraging. While no one knows when this will end, pandemics in the past have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months. One former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the CDC said, “My expectation is that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat for a good part of 2020, and that we’ll start to see the page turn in 2021.”
That should make us feel a little better, knowing that people who know what they’re doing are on the job and looking out for our welfare. Unfortunately, not everyone is looking after our welfare. The number of people refusing to comply with social distancing and other safety precautions is very disheartening, as is the politicization of it. Protesters, saying that having to wear a mask is a violation of their civil rights may have the right to protest. But they put the rest of us at risk by doing so. So do the ones claiming that the epidemic is a hoax. States and communities prematurely opening up will have an adverse effect on everyone else trying to stay safe.
And if this all wasn’t bad enough, along comes the news about the shooting in Georgia of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, shot as he was jogging near his home. That was back in February. But it wasn’t until last week that the two men – seen on a video taken at the scene – were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. So, yeah, my heart is troubled.
Of course, there are good things happening these days. We live in California, for heaven’s sake. The weather is beautiful. We’ve got family and friends and a church community. I picked up our new kitty, Miley, from the SPCA yesterday and we’re enjoying watching her explore the apartment and assess us as her new staff. In so many ways, life is good. Still, there is a lot that can weigh heavily on our hearts. We feel grief for our old way of life, even as we hope for a better one to come. We feel anger at injustices, magnified now in this crisis. We feel anxious about what the future might bring. We don’t have to deny any of our emotions. Even when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
But we’re not going to ignore Jesus either. Do you think he didn’t know what was going on in the hearts of the disciples as Good Friday loomed before them? His instruction to unburden their hearts wasn’t given in a vacuum. He knew his friends were hurting. This section of John’s gospel is from the four chapters in John called the Farewell Discourse given by Jesus the night before his crucifixion. The disciples were understandably devastated. In saying “Do not let your hearts be troubled” Jesus didn’t ignore their feelings, which is why we have to read the rest of the passage in order to find help for our times of grief, fear, and anxiety.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Good Friday was over a month ago. It’s Easter; why are we going back over the crucifixion?” That’s a good question. And there is a reason. During the seven weeks of Easter, the gospel readings for the first three weeks were resurrection appearance stories. But the readings for the four weeks after that are all about how to go about life with untroubled hearts, all about Jesus teaching us about living in intimacy with God, how to be spiritually resilient in the face of difficulties.
3 Promises and a Problem
There’s an old model of preaching that says every good sermon should have 3 points and a poem. Diverting from that model just a bit, my sermon today could be called 3 promises and a problem (with thanks to Bruce Epperly’s blog, The Adventurous Lectionary).
Promise #1 comes right away in verses 2-4, so often read at funerals and memorial services: “In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you?” Other translations say ‘many mansions’ or ‘many rooms.’ But mansions, rooms, dwelling places – it doesn’t matter; the place is not necessarily a ‘place’ at all; it means being in the intimate presence of God. The promise here is of a future life in God’s presence.
But the “dwelling place” is also wherever God is present: everywhere and in every challenging situation. God is just as real in the here and now world of pandemic as it will be when we die. So this vision of God’s presence encourages action, not passivity, in responding to the real problems of our real world. The promise is of an absolutely divine future – which then enables us to experience eternal life in the here and now. We can face anything because of our trust in God’s everlasting love.
Promise #2 is in verse 10: “Believe that I am in God and God is in me . . .” Jesus is speaking of the spiritual unity between himself and the Creator of the universe. Look at Jesus and you’ll see the heart of God dwelling in Jesus in his deepest self.
This statement has existential implications for us. It should remind us of the next chapter, where Jesus speaks of the divine connectivity of vines and branches. Because we’re intimately connected to the vine, we can receive and manifest divine love in and through our lives. Later, in chapter 17, he continues to talk about the interconnectedness of divine and human presence and activity and prayed: “that all may be one, as you are in me and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us . . . that they may be one, as we are one – I in them, you in me.” We are intimately related to God in Christ.
Which brings us to Promise #3 in verse 12: “You will do the works I do – and greater works besides.” Now this is puzzling; Jesus is pretty vague here. Does he mean we can heal the sick and raise the dead and defy the ordinary limits placed on human life? Does he mean that we can forget about physical distancing and open up our churches, confident that we and our neighbors will be immune from the virus? Now that would be great, wouldn’t it? But we know that would be irresponsible.
Jesus doesn’t specify what he means by “greater works.” But given the vision of the commonwealth of God presented by Jesus, we do know that we can do greater acts of hospitality, spiritual nurture, and healing. We do have power when we align ourselves with the way of Christ, maintaining our connection to the vine, and letting God’s vision guide us in every moment. The lack of specificity is actually helpful, because in not fully defining “greater works,” we’re free to push our limits both as individuals and as a congregation, even while we are sheltering in place.
If ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what is the question?
The problem comes verse 6: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Those of you who will be reading my book will hear this story again because it was one of the defining moments in my decision to pursue a doctorate in how Christians relate to people of other faiths. I was at a funeral and I happened to sit next to my friend, Kitty. When the gospel was read, including this verse, it felt like a blow to my heart. Kitty is Jewish, and hearing the “good news” through her ears was disorienting, disturbing and unacceptable. This verse is one of the passages used to promote the exclusivism of Christianity, that there’s just one way to heaven – Jesus, that our religion is right and all the others are wrong.
But this is not what Jesus was talking about. Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University has a good take on this. She asks,
“If ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what exactly was the question? I once asked a class of 150 religion students to state it. Nobody remembered the question, but most everyone knew the answer. However ‘I am the Way’ is not the answer to any question one might wish to ask. It is the pastoral response to an anxious question.
“It was poor uncertain Thomas who asked the question that night, as John tells it, the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. After having washed their feet, he spoke to them in words of farewell: ‘I’m going where you cannot follow, not just now. I’m going to God’s house of many rooms to prepare a place for you, and you know the way where I am going’
“And what did Thomas ask him? Did he ask, ‘Lord, are Hindus to have a room in God’s heavenly household?’ Did he ask, ‘Will Buddhists make it across the sea of sorrow on the raft of the Dharma? When the prophet Mohammed comes 600 years from now, will he hear God’s word?’ No, on that night of uncomprehending uncertainty, he asked, ‘we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?’ And Jesus answered, ‘I’m the Way.’ It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one. It was an expression of comfort, not condemnation.”
In light of the promises of the rest of the passage and of the entire Farewell Discourse, that makes so much more sense. When we interpret John 14:6 inclusively, then it becomes our fourth promise: God is with us on the way wherever we are – in our grief, anxiety and fear, as well as in our times of joy.
How to Build Our Spiritual Resilience
As we seek to build our spiritual resilience in this trying time,
- that because our eternal future is secure, we are free to live fully in God’s grace now, no matter what the circumstances;
- that because we are intertwined like branches on a grapevine with God, we have access to spiritual resources that we cannot even imagine;
- we can put these into service for the good of the world;
- following the Way of Jesus, we are assured of Holy Presence in whatever we do.
Still, to be honest, I need to practice living into this Way, especially when my heart is heavy. And for that good news, we can again hear Jesus, on Easter evening, coming into the locked room saying “Peace be with you.” And then breathing on the disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit.
We should be especially thankful for our breath in this pandemic time, as one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Breath is crucial for our physical existence. It’s also the key to living into our relationship with the Holy One.
Breathing deeply, intentionally aware of each breath, is a sure way into the Way. For many, it’s helpful to have a mantra or a phrase to go along with your breath. It could be anything. One I particularly like is (on the exhale) ‘there is nothing’ and (on the in breath) ‘only you.’ Another one can be said on both inhale and exhale: ‘toward the One.’ Some people like the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Or as St. Paul said in Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
I’ve even used some of my 5-word Easter messages as mantras:
Be not afraid (exhale). Possibilities abound (inhale).
Emmaus is nowhere (exhale). Emmaus is everywhere (inhale).
And this one I just discovered from Breath Prayers for Anxious Times:
True Vine and Gardener (inhale), I abide in You (exhale).
You can choose one (or more) that’s meaningful for you. I invite you to try it the next time you are in one of those heart-troubling times or when your anxiety is keeping you awake. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus has given us the roadmap for our spiritual resilience. No longer easier said than done, although it does take practice. Thankfully, our salvation isn’t dependent on practice makes perfect. But the practice is one sure way into the heart of God – and peace in our hearts as well.
Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith in me as well. In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well. You know the way that leads to where I am going.”
Thomas replied, “But we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Abba also. From now on, you do know and have seen God.”
Philip said, “Rabbi, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you don’t know me?
Whoever has seen me has seen God. How can you say, ‘Show us your Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in God and God is in me? The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is God, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of God. Believe me that I am in God and God is in me, or else believe because of the works I do. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has faith in me will do the works I do – and greater works besides. Why? Because I go to God, and whatever you ask in my name I will do, so that God may be glorified in me. Anything you ask in my name I will do.