Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Other Side of Easter (5/14/17)
Paolo Uccello, Stoning of Stephen

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, May 14th is John 14:1-14. This is a familiar text. I frequently use this when I officiate a funeral, though not the entire passage. One of the challenges is that this story is so familiar that we don't hear the whole thing; we don't hear all of what Jesus is saying.

          Good morning. Well, that was a tough game last night. I didn’t wear my Penguins jersey last night. When I wore it for Game 6 against the Capitals, they lost, so I decided not to wear it for Game 7, and the Penguins won. I’m baffled by this. I mean, they were supposed to win because I didn’t wear my jersey. It’s like my wardrobe choices don’t have any impact on the game. I don’t know if I can accept this. My superstitions have to mean something, right?
          Our Gospel lesson this morning is a familiar passage. I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage, in the back of my mind, I still hear the words from the King James Version: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” That never made any sense to me. I grew up in a really small house. The word mansion made me think of a really big Victorian house, something enormous and fancy, a place where rich people lived. It was a fantasy for us, we were poor. And the scale was completely off. Mansions were big, houses were small. How could a house contain mansions? Of course, I was taking Jesus literally, far too literally.
          Scholars refer to this section of the Gospel of John as the Farewell Discourse, that is, Jesus’ final conversation with the disciples. And it’s a really long conversation; the Farewell Discourse goes on for about five chapters and Jesus does most of the talking. He’s got a lot to say.
          I often use this text for funerals; I suspect many of you have heard it at a funeral, too. The words are soothing, comforting. And that’s sort of what Jesus is doing—he’s comforting the disciples. Jesus is preparing them for what comes next; Jesus is preparing them for life on the other side of Easter:
Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples in this discourse anticipate and assume the events that lie ahead: the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Each one of these realities is the result of the primary theological event in the Gospel of John, the incarnation. The disciples are going to be faced with the end of the incarnation, the end of Jesus’ presence on earth as God.[1]
So, Jesus has a lot to tell them before he goes!
          The disciples really don’t know to react to Jesus. When Jesus tells them that they already know the way to the Father’s house, Thomas responds: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas seems to want a roadmap or driving directions. Philip also has difficulty comprehending Jesus’ true meaning; he tells Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Both Thomas and Philip are looking for literal answers, roadmaps, instruction books.
          Instead of giving them a set of directions for how to get into Heaven, Jesus continues to instruct the disciples about relationship. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. This is not just about the resurrection, this is about the “ascended life with God.”[2] Jesus then reminds Philip that the disciples have seen and continue to see God in the form of Jesus. Jesus tells them, they already know the way, they already know the father because they are in relationship with Jesus.
          But the disciples are fixated on the real, physical presence of Jesus in front of them. When Jesus tells them that he is going away from them, their fear is so great that they cannot comprehend the deeper level of what Jesus is saying. They’re too hung up on the literal in the same way that I was hung up on the difference between a house and a mansion. They couldn’t quite grasp the idea that they would remain in relationship with Jesus after his death, resurrection, or ascension. Their fear interrupted their relationship with Jesus; their fear interrupted their faith. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus comforts the disciples, speaks to their fears, and builds them up for their future, without the human Jesus in the world.
          That’s why this Scripture is used at funerals. It helps. It helps to remind us that we remain connected to our loved ones who have passed on. It reminds us that we participate in the resurrection, and I think we take comfort in that—perhaps too much comfort. We focus on our own resurrection and our eventual reunion with loved ones, and it takes the edge off the pain, but sometimes we focus too much on the mansions that we hope to move into. As we dwell in those happy thoughts, maybe we miss the second half of this lesson.
          Calming the fears of the disciples is not enough; they need to carry on in Jesus’ absence. He tells the disciples: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Now on the surface, this sounds crazy. No human can do greater works than Jesus; he’s God in the world, God with us. But as crazy as it sounds, that’s exactly what the disciples will do.
          Remember, in the Gospel of John, the reason for the incarnation, for God to enter the world in the person of Jesus, “is to make God known, to declare God, to reveal God, to bring God out so that God can be known and seen and touched.”[3] God is made known through God’s physical presence in the world and the signs—the miracles that Jesus performs. This is a demonstration that “God so loved the world.” The disciples will continue to do this by witnessing to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And yes, the disciples will also perform miracles. This is how they will make God known to the world:
Every sign, every encounter, every conversation has been with that sole purpose in mind, to make God known (John 1:18) so that a moment of believing might happen. In these works, the disciples are invited to participate…. [Discipleship is] based on their witness. To be sent is to witness…. Greater works will be possible and have to be because God loves the world. The entirety of the world has yet to know God’s love (20:30-31), and so the disciples are charged with embodying God’s love and grace for the world to experience.[4]
This is what a life of discipleship look like after Jesus. That’s on the other side of Easter for the disciples, and also for us. Beloved, there are so many places in this broken world where people still don’t know God’s love. We share in the disciples’ work of bringing God’s love into those dark places.
          The other day, my friend Charissa—she’s one of my best friends in ministry—asked me if I’d like to participate in a mentoring program at the Allegheny County Jail. This is probably the second or third time she’s asked me if I’d like to do this. Every time I tell her, “not yet.” And every time, I feel a little bit guilty. I believe that we are called to preach release to the captives; “not yet” feels like a really poor answer.
          The main reason I haven’t done anything about this yet is my call to interim ministry. I don’t want to begin a relationship as a mentor, knowing that my next call to ministry might be too far away to remain in the program. That’s a fair reason to wait, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit that I’m very jealous of my time away from this congregation. I want my down time to be relaxing; I don’t want to deal with other people’s problems. And of course, when I hear myself say that, I start to feel more than a little bit selfish. Lately, I’ve been wondering what I might be missing by not serving as a mentor.
          I’m sure that I would have to walk with people who are in a lot of pain, but I know that’s part of my calling as a Christian. Jesus is God in the flesh, in direct relationship with humanity. The disciples were called to witness to that and to continue the work of relationship and reconciliation after Jesus finished his earthly ministry.
          Think about being in prison. It means being cut off from human relationships. It seems like the opposite of what we experience here in church. In the Gospel of John, sin is the absence of relationship with Christ. I am connected to all the different people and things that give me life. I am constantly reminded of my human relationships as well as my relationship with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While prisoners are not completely cut off from all human relationships or from God, it has to be a lot harder to know God in jail.
          I’m not going to say that most of us have it pretty easy—I know that we all have our struggles. But most of us have lives that are relatively predictable. Most of us know where our next meal is coming from and most of us feel that we are loved by God and by at least some of the people in our lives. I feel confident that if something truly awful happened to me tomorrow, I would eventually find a way to get through it. I have enough relationships in my life; I’m connected to people who would support me in whatever way I needed it. My understanding is that very few prisoners have those sorts of connections before they’re incarcerated.
          My friend Charissa gets to walk with these prisoners as they reestablish their connections to the outside world. She gets to walk with these folks as they are reunited with loved ones. Certainly, it’s not all joy and light. But I get the impression that Charissa gets to see people as they enter into the resurrection as a real and present experience. It is a restorative practice for Charissa, too.
          I don’t know when I’m going to volunteer for this mentoring program, but I can feel my excuses crumbling. It is one more way for me to live faithfully into my call to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I’m not suggesting that any of you have to follow this particular call. However, I would urge each of you to do some soul searching. Ask yourself what blessings you might be missing when you decline an opportunity for ministry. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 187.
[2] Lewis, p. 187.
[3] Lewis, p. 189.
[4] Lewis, pp. 189-190.

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