St. Paul’s – Easter 5 – May 10, 2020
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, the setting of our Gospel is grim and somber. Jesus has just finished a last supper with his disciples. He has washed their feet, given them a new commandment, predicted Peter’s denial, foretold Judas’s betrayal, and told his friends that he is about to leave them. Where I am going, he tells them, you cannot follow now.
Needless to say, the words sting, and fill the bewildered disciples with fear. What is Jesus talking about? How will they survive if he leaves them? Where will they go? What will happen to their cherished plans? Why is the ground shifting under their feet? Why is everything changing?
If you’re like me, during this pandemic with all the predictions of what is ahead and not sure what life is going to look like for the next many months or years, you can relate to the disciples’ questions. Why is the ground shifting under our feet? What’s going to happen to our families, our towns, our nations, our world? Will the center hold? Where is Jesus in all of this pain, fear, death, and loss, and how will we find him if he’s gone to a place we cannot follow now?
Our Gospel passage for today is at once among the most important to understanding the Christian faith especially these days under the shadow of COVID-19. At the same time it is often the most misconstrued and thereby misleading verses of all of Christian Scripture. So first a word about what this text is not.
Jesus is not saying Christianity is the world’s only revelation of Divine Being – who he affectionately refers to as the Father. For one thing, for Jesus there was no such thing as Christianity. Jesus lived and died as a Jew. Nor was there much, if any, awareness that there were other world religions beyond the religion of the God of Israel and the religion of Caesar’s Empire which claimed Caesar to be God.
Any reading of the Prophets of Israel, texts familiar to Jesus and his disciples, reveals a constant contrast between the way of God over against the ways of whatever Empire sought the allegiance of one and all, be it Egypt, Babylon, Greece or Rome. Jesus appeals to such an understanding in John 14. It is worth considering who or what would be considered the way of Empire today.
Further, a thorough reading of the Fourth Gospel reveals that since Christ, the Word or logos of God, is already in everyone and everything (John 1: 1-5), and that there are sheep not of this fold, but that Jesus will bring them … So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10: 16) That is, Jesus will gather the flock from people of different ways, relieving us of that task, freeing us to be about the work he actually calls us to do: the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these. (John 14:13)
That is, we are to complete his work of reconciliation in the world according to the gifts given us (BCP 855), which work includes that outlined in the 25th chapter of Matthew: food and drink for the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting prisoners, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick .
So Jesus is not setting up some kind of litmus test or making any sorts of claims of exclusivity. Jesus is simply placing himself and those who would dare to call themselves his followers in the context of his understanding of the religion of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the Prophets.
One might well ask why he is doing that now in chapter 14? As we said at the beginning of this homily…In Chapter 13 Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet at the last supper and calls them to do the same for one another. Judas has set out to betray Jesus. Jesus commands the disciples to love one another as I have loved you. And Jesus announces that he will be leaving them soon – as in tomorrow, Good Friday.
The disciples are understandably upset and worried, and no doubt anxious about having to carry on without Jesus. What we get in Chapter 14, then, is Jesus offering Reassurance, Recognition and a call to Responsibility.
The Reassurance is that his leaving is on the one hand a return to whence he came, that is to the Father’s house, the dwelling place of the God who is Love (I John 4: 18-19). Here one needs to recall that Jesus, the Word or logos of God, chooses to dwell among us. (John 1: 14) The dwelling place of God is with us – Emmanuel, God with us.
Jesus is not here talking about some place ever after in the by and by. Jesus is saying that in his Father’s house there are many such dwelling places here and now. The reassurance is that he is with us, all of us, and all different kinds of us, here and now. He even says,..so that where I am, there you are also.
No doubt this is just as confusing for us as it is for Thomas. How can it possibly be that God chooses to dwell among us, prepare places for us and be with us? To which Jesus replies, in essence, Do you not recognize who I am?
If one notices absolutely nothing else about the Fourth Gospel it must be this: Jesus says the words, I am all the time. I am the good shepherd, I am the gate, I am the vine, I am the true bread that comes down from heaven, I am the resurrection and I am the life, …so that where I am, there you may be also, I am the way, the truth and the life.
Anyone reading John’s Gospel in the first or second century Jewish community would not fail to recognize 1) it begins with the very first words of all of scripture, In the beginning…., and 2) Jesus forever repeats the words Moses heard from the burning bush, I am who I am. These are only the most recognizable words of all of Hebrew Scripture: I am.
Like Thomas and Peter and the rest, we are to Recognize Jesus for who he is: he is the incarnation of the great I am of Exodus chapter 3!But, says Jesus, as if to demonstrate once and for all God’s infinite grace, goodness, patience and mercy, if you still cannot Recognize me for who I am, then Recognize me by the things I do: believe me because of the works themselves.
That is, let’s look back over the past few years and what business I have been about, because it is in fact my Father’s business and I am entrusting you to manage the franchise! I turned water into wine, I welcomed a Samaritan woman and asked her to help me, I restored sight to the blind, I cast out demons, I healed the sick, I fed the hungry, I welcomed strangers, sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, I raised Lazarus from the dead, I washed your feet and I gave you a commandment to love one another and to love others as I have loved you. I am who I am. Can you see me now?
So now that I have reassured you that I come from Love, I am returning to Love, and my Love, God’s Love, is all around; and I have given you ample time to recognize me for who I AM; it is time for you to take Responsibility.
There is no time to be anxious. There is no time to feel sorry for yourselves because I am going away. There is no time to be worried and upset. This is no time to be concerned with questions about what life is like after death, or are we part of the right church or the right religion. All that matters is the quality of life in relationship with Christ and one another – all others. These relationships are determined by the relationship of Jesus and God.
And do not forget that what I said to Nicodemus (John 3) I say to you all, God’s spirit blows where it wills. You know not where it comes from or where it is going. It can be blowing among Gentiles and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims and Taoists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Mormons, and even Agnostics and Atheists! Be clear that what is at stake is not who is being saved, but what salvation actually is.
Salvation is the breaking-in of the reign of God, God’s kingdom, here and now. And my Father’s kingdom can be recognized by the works themselves. It is time to stop worrying about all the rest and take Responsibility for the works themselves – and to recognize that others may also be doing the things God in Christ calls us to do.
For those who take Responsibility will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Greater works than these!Reassurance, Recognition and Responsibility: Is it any wonder that we try to make this 14th Chapter about something else, anything else? For isn’t it a whole lot easier to spend our time prattling on and on about who will and who will not be saved than to take responsibility for continuing and completing Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world? Isn’t it a whole lot easier to feel superior to every one else than to get down on our hands and knees and wash their feet? Isn’t it a whole lot easier to sit around and speculate on life after death than it is to bring light and life to a dark, troubled and broken world here and now in the midst of this pandemic?
The way, the truth and the life is revealed in all those who participate in the works Jesus does. What this 14th Chapter of John calls us to do is to recognize the way, the truth and the life in all those who participate in the works of Jesus and do greater works than these.
As we promise in our Baptismal Covenant: we are those people who, with God’s help, seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. There is something of the logos, the Christ of God, in all persons. It is our Responsibility to Recognize this truth and allow ourselves to be Reassured that God’s love is with us, in us and all around us even now in the middle of this pandemic and for ever.