Jesus is into an extended discourse of parting words to his disciples in today’s gospel. Storm clouds are rolling in. Jesus will be dead in less than 24 hours. You’ll often hear these words read at memorial and burial services. People listen closely and politely. Death gets our attention like little else. Life eludes us.
As I read this Gospel to mourners, and I preach the homily I wonder if people unfamiliar with what we do and believe in the church think I’m just pushing the company line. I can’t tell. Many tell me afterwards they appreciate the service. I want to ask, “So what did you appreciate? What do you find helpful?” I don’t ask – my fragile ego and all. So I politely say, “Thank you,” and go on.
It sounds like Jesus’ disciples don’t know all they need to know either. He tells them he is going away, but he’ll come back and take them to his father’s house where he’s got places ready for everyone. We assume he means “heaven,” but he doesn’t say that, just, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” Thomas doesn’t understand, “Lord, we have no clue where you’re going. How can we know the way?” “I am the way, truth and life.” And then Philip, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” “Phil, I have been with you all this time, and you still don’t get it? You see me, you see the Father.” Being anxious and troubled can make us forget or doubt what we’ve been told. It’s hard to believe death is not really the dead end. Death is difficult but not startling. Resurrection is both. Do we ever find enough assurance to keep trouble out of our hearts? Probably not.
“Pastor, do you really believe that stuff – Jesus is alive and will come for us when we die?” “Yeah I do – most days.” “Well, I just don’t see it.” “You’re right. It’s hard to see.” “Well, if you know so much, show me God. I’d like to believe. I’m not convinced.” I’ve stopped counting how many times I have been on the receiving end of such conversations. I can’t talk someone into believing, prove anything, or present compelling evidence. I can just say what is true for me. We’d all like to see and know more. I suspect people come to church not because they have nothing better to do. I believe some want to find the way. Others want to stay on the way. I think we all long for a compelling experience of God. Jesus is the way we know and experience God. He promises we won’t be left out or behind. How do we know he keeps his promises? We live like they are true, until his way becomes truth and life for us. It’s faith. And it’s God’s gift – not something we figure out, or learn, or act so darn good God rewards us. If we were certain, we wouldn’t need faith. So even with a strong faith, we’ll still wonder and doubt – “Is it really so?”
Sometimes in the mountains, or by the lake, or as the sun sets, we pause and drink in this world and our lives in it. We sense an unseen force at work, a creator – that must be God. But does that answer our deeper longing? Do we want to believe God exists or know what God is like? We know God through Jesus – not laws, doctrines, or in nature. God is in relationship with us in Jesus. We know God as we watch Jesus – his miracles, feeding the masses, stilling storms, raising the dead, welcoming sinners. We know of God by relationships with those whose faith we know and have known. That’s why the church is so important. In relationships with scripture, each other, the least of these, the messy folks, the church – we know and see God. Over time we learn to know a God who loves and cares, even dies for us so our hearts need not be troubled.
Some Christians think Jesus is the only way to God. I think that’s a bit narrow. Jesus opens the way, not closes other ways. Jesus is the way God comes to all, even those outside our flock – not just good church members like us. God’s agenda is larger than any church or religion. God’s evidence of resurrection is us. Jesus has already come back and takes us to himself here, now. Wherever God’s love meets the brokenness of this world, new life springs forth and that’s Easter again, and sometimes that happens through us. The father’s house is this world – not just the next. God, after all, did create it – even if we don’t understand it. Wherever a heart awakens and opens, Jesus has come and taken someone to himself again.
Through Jesus God gets to us and we get to God. Erin Rose Marie Sullivan will be baptized today. She’s blessed with the names of two great grandmothers who had the name Marie in common, and Rose, for Roseann, a great aunt, who died right after Carrie and Scott learned another child was on the way, carries the faith and spirit of three feisty women. Aunt Roseann was here for Auggie’s baptism, and Roseann’s daughter and son-in-law are godparents to Erin. I am sure these women are beaming and present with us today, in the balcony of the Communion of Saints. In their lives and stories, in baptism, God gets to us and we get to God. In prayers, in bread and wine infused with the Holy Spirit, in hymns, in scripture, in the people sitting with you today, people you’ll sip coffee with and for some, and maybe, miraculously even in a sermon, God gets to us and we get to God. “How can we know the way? Show us the Father.” “Well – and I’ve been with you…”
One night we were having a glass of wine with a friend whose momma had died earlier that day. He told us she was confirmed in the Church of St. Atheist. Her creed – when you die, it’s over. In my charming, comforting way, as I was offering some churchy dribble, a light bulb in the den starts flickering. My friend said, “Well, that would be her. She’d do something like that.” “Yeah,” I said, “Maybe she’s just letting you know she’s wrong, and not to worry, she’s safely home now.”
Christianity is hard. Who would ever believe a Jewish rabbi, walking up a hill, lugging a cross once said, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the father. Come and follow me. Where I am, there you may be also.” Most days we believe that. Each day we need to live as if we do. In a Savior like Jesus, God gets to us and we get to God – and we are raised to walk in newness of life – forever.