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Monday, May 23, 2011

Sermon from Sunday, May 23, 2011: Fifth Sunday of Easter (A)

John 14, 1-14
Rev. Rob Ruff

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people…” Today’s gospel reading from John is familiar to many of us because we’ve heard it read many times at funeral services. It’s included in funerals as words of consolation and comfort to the bereaved, assuring them that their dear, departed loved one is going to the place in God’s great, heavenly mansion prepared just for him/her.

This gospel reading is set before us today in the context of the Easter season because in it Jesus is comforting and consoling his inner circle of followers, who were upset to learn that he would soon be leaving them. He tells them that he will be taken from their midst by death and later he will leave them once again to return to heaven.

They are saddened and confused to hear this.And so he says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust me. I am going away for your sake, in order to prepare a place for you. And when I return I will take you to myself so that you can be there with me. And you know the way to that place where I am going.”

Lovely words from Jesus. Comforting, reassuring words. You can hear His love for his friends in those words. But what is striking to me as I read this passage is how Jesus’ disciples just don’t get it. They don’t understand.

Thomas says, “Jesus, we have no idea where you are going. How can we possibly know the way to get there?” Jesus responds by saying, “All you need to do is focus on me, and trust in me. I am the way I am the truth I am the life. In me you have all you need. In knowing and seeing me, you also know and see God the Father.”

Again, lovely words. Comforting, reassuring words. But Phillip is still clueless. He says, “Speaking of God the Father, could you show him to us, Jesus?”

It’s at this point that I imagine Jesus puts his hand up to his forehead to rub his temples for a moment.

Despite sitting in Jesus’ very presence, despite walking and talking and working with him for years, the disciples don’t get it. In fact it seems, more often than not, Jesus’ inner circle was rather clueless. They didn’t seem to truly understand just who Jesus was, or where he was going, or what mission he was on.

For example:

• The argued amongst themselves over which one of them would be the greatest – even though Jesus told them that in his kingdom the least will be the greatest.

• They wanted to stay on the top of the bright mountain where Jesus was transfigured – even though he told them that he needed to travel down into the dark valley.

• They drew a sword to defend Jesus when soldiers came to arrest him – even though he had called them to be peacemakers and had told them he would need to suffer the cross.

• They did not recognize the risen Jesus while he walked beside them on the road – even though their hearts were burning within them all the while. Jesus called them “foolish and slow of heart”.

It seems that the only time that the disciples were not ‘foolish’ or ‘slow of heart’ was when Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter came up with the right answer: “You are God’s chosen One come to save us.”

But only a moment later when Jesus explained that his saving work would come in and through his death, Peter tried to block Jesus’ path. And Jesus had to say “Get behind me, Satan.”
Clueless. Foolish. Slow of heart. So often not understanding.

It’s a bit of grace for us, I suppose, that His disciples were so often slow to understand Jesus because we too can be slow to understand Him.

• Like the disciples, we too would rather stay on the mountaintop where it is bright and safe, rather than follow Jesus down into life’s dark and foreboding valleys.

• We too often argue amongst ourselves about self-centered matters rather than reaching out in love to those in need.

• We too are often inclined to wage war rather than make peace.

• And we too often fail to recognize the risen Christ who walks right beside us.

And yet we should remember that Jesus then built his inner circle of disciples, and today constructs his Church with the only raw materials available here on earth: Ordinary, fallible, often slow to understand, human beings, like Thomas and Philip, Peter and Stephen, Mary and Martha. Like you and me.

And the wonder and mystery of it, is this: Jesus relies on us ordinary, fallible, human beings to be his very body in the world. He relies on us to help him bring about his kingdom. In fact, theologian and poet, Dorothee Sölle in a section of her poem, “When He Came”, goes so far as to put it this way:

He needs you.
That’s all there is to it
Without you he’s left hanging
Goes up in Dachau’s smoke
Is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used upwithout you

Help him
That’s what faith is
he can’t bring it abouthis kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

But just how are we ordinary, fallible human beings to be of any real help to Jesus in bringing about His kingdom, prone as we are to slowness of heart, to misunderstanding? Might we not, in some crucial moment fail Him or deny that we even know Him?

Well, we must remember this: God, in Jesus, has unleashed Easter on the world, Has cracked open the tomb of death. The risen Jesus is the first born of the dead and through him, in him, and with him nothing is ever the same again. Death has been overcome by life. Darkness is turned to daylight. Sadness is transformed into joy.

And in addition, God has unleashed Pentecost, blowing the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth, setting the faithful afire. Tongues are spoken, flames burn brightly, the church is born. And nothing is ever the same again.

Nothing is the same. Including us, Brothers and Sisters.

Because of Jesus, because of Easter, because in baptism we have been infused with the Holy Spirit, we are not the same. We are not just fallible, sinful humans. We are also saints.

In the words of our 2nd lesson: “Once we were not a people but now we are God’s people.”We are not the same, just as the disciples were not the same after Easter, after God’s Spirit was breathed into them. They were transformed from cowering in fear behind locked doors to boldly traveling throughout the known world proclaiming God’s good news and founding the church.
They were transformed from ones who failed to understand Jesus to ones who served him in love and faith, like Stephen, the first martyr, who was moved to pray forgiveness for those who killed him. We too, Brothers & Sisters, like the disciples, have been transformed by our sweet savior. Because of Jesus, because of Easter, because of baptism: We have become “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, … God own people” - and we have been chosen, transformed, & loved in order that we might help him – “in order that we might proclaim the mighty acts of the Holy One who called us out of the darkness of our misunderstandings into God’s own marvelous Easter light.”

So help him, Brothers and Sisters, help him who is our way, our truth, our life – help Him. That’s what faith is.

Follow him through the land of unlikeness. Serve him in this world so beset by anxiety and despair. Love him and those he calls you to love in his name: neighbors, the lost, the lonely, outcasts, our enemies.

“You who believe in me, He said, will do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I have gone up to God the Father.”

In other words, He needs us, we who have received his life-changing mercy, He needs us to bring about his kingdom. That is, indeed, his irresistible appeal.


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