Saturday, May 09, 2020

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter on May 10, 2020.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter


• Acts 7:55-60
• 1 Peter 2:2-10
• John 14:1-14


The Gospel reading for this week and next is from John chapter 14.  We will read verses 1-14 this week and then 15-21 next week.  John 14 is part of what is commonly known as the ‘Farewell Discourse’.  These are our Lord’s final words to his disciples before he is crucified.
[This week’s sermon is really the first part of a two-part sermon; the second part will be next week.  This week, I want to look at the context of the Farewell Discourse and the opening few verses.  Next week, I will look more closely at the message of both readings to us.]

The passage for our reading this week is one I know well.  When I was first ordained, I was a curate in a large parish on Merseyside.  I was responsible for taking many funerals during my time there, and regularly took three or more a week.  The opening verses of this week’s Gospel reading was one of the recommended readings for the service and the one chosen the most often.  It is often still chosen at funerals I take in the present.  It is understandable that it should be used.  Jesus is about to be crucified, and he offers comfort to his disciples beforehand.  In his ‘Father’s house’ are ‘many rooms’, he tells his disciples.  He is going to ‘prepare place for them’.

This is normally taken to mean that there is a room waiting for us after we have died in heaven prepared by Jesus himself.  Of course, it is always imagined as a room in a heavenly luxury resort described in palatial terms.  This image was encouraged by the translation in the King James Version, which instead of ‘rooms’ has ‘mansions’, the word ‘mansion’ having had a different meaning when the King James version was translated to how we think of it now.  But the thought of our loved one going to a mansion in the sky, a heavenly Downtown Abbey, is an image we are happy with, and it offers comfort at a time when it is needed.

I am sorry to spoil it for you, but I have to say that this is not at all Jesus’ meaning in the passage.  There are plenty of passages about our hope as believers of life after death, and which provide much reassurance for those who have faith, but this passage is addressing different matters altogether.

To understand it, we need to return to the original context of Jesus’ words.  The setting for his final words to his disciples is the Last Supper in the Upper Room.  A few days before, Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Jesus, you will remember, had rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on what we now know as Palm Sunday.  The crowds had gone wild with excitement, proclaiming him their King.  This was what the disciples had been hoping for since they became his disciples.  Now it seemed the moment had come for Jesus to set up his Kingdom on earth and overthrow the Romans at the same time.  St Luke, in his Gospel (Luke 22:24-27), tells us that at the Meal they were even discussing who would be the greatest in the Kingdom when it came!

At Passover, which celebrated Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims. It would be the ideal time for Jesus to establish his Kingdom.  We can imagine the excitement then as the disciples gathered to eat the Passover Meal with Jesus.  Things, however, don’t go quite as they expected.  As they gather for the Meal, Jesus gets up and starts to wash their feet.  This was the action of a slave, not a King about to begin his reign.  Peter is understandably horrified, but Jesus insists.

Things go from bad to worse for the disciples, however.  During the Meal as they are eating, Jesus becomes troubled and tells them that one of them is going to betray him.  Satan enters the heart of Judas and he leaves to get on with doing just that.  St John writes simply and symbolically: ‘And it was night.’

Yet again the chapter and verse divisions confuse us.  For it is at this point that what we call the Farewell Discourse should begin.  After Judas has gone, Jesus says dramatically:

‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.’ (John 13:31)

But he won’t be glorified in the way the disciples are expecting.  He won’t be glorified with an uprising and being made King, instead Jesus tells them, ‘Where I am going you cannot come (John 13:33).’  Peter understandably asks, ‘Lord, where are you going (John 13:34)?’

Jesus tells Peter that while he cannot follow him now, he will follow later.  You can imagine how they must have felt.  They have been told they have a traitor in their midst and that Jesus is leaving them and won’t allow them to follow him.  What is going on?  Peter tries to hold on to the dream.  He tells Jesus he will lay down his life for Jesus, then comes the final blow.  Jesus answers him:

‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.’ (John 13:38)

One moment they think they are having a meal with the future King of Israel, the next thing they know he is acting strangely, talking of treachery and denial, and telling them he is leaving them.

This, then, is the background to our reading this week.  Seeing their distress, Jesus says, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’  They must have been very troubled by now.  John chapter 14 is Jesus’ attempt to offer them hope and reassurance.

He tells them that they believe in God, they should believe also in him.  In answer to their question about where he is going, Jesus tells them that he is going to his Father’s house, which has many rooms in it, to prepare a place for them.  And that’s where we stop.  There’s a place waiting for us and our loved ones in heaven when we die!  That’s all we need to know.  But it is not where Jesus stops.  He tells them that if he goes, he will ‘come again’ and take them to himself, so that where he is there they may be also.

What does Jesus mean by ‘coming again’?  Again, most people don’t care as long as they get their ‘mansion in the sky when they die’.  Those who do care, not unnaturally, think that Jesus is talking here about his ‘second coming’ when he returns to earth.  Jesus will, of course, return to earth, and he talks about his return on several occasions.  He is not, however, talking about it here.

The coming Jesus is talking of is an entirely different ‘second coming’, and it is one of the main themes of the Farewell Discourse.  Jesus says later in this chapter:

‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.’ (John 14:18)

Before Jesus returns to this earth at the Last Judgement, he will, he says, ‘come again’ with his Father to make his home in the life of those who have faith in him, who love him and keep his commandments.  ‘On that day,’ Jesus tells his disciples, ‘you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’ (John 14:20).

The Farewell Discourse is all about how Jesus’ disciples can know the Father.  His going will make knowing the Father a possibility for those who are his.

Not surprisingly, the disciples find all this hard to grasp, as we do today.  They say to one another:

‘What does he mean by saying to us, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.’ (John 16:17-18)

Jesus understands their frustration and says to them:

‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father.’ (John 16:25)

And so, we come back to our Gospel reading for this week.  The Father’s House, the many rooms, and the place prepared for us by Jesus are ‘figures of speech’ like the images of the Gate and the Shepherd and the sheep last week.  Jesus uses them to describe the relationship that his death, resurrection, and ascension make possible for the believer with God the Father.  It will be a relationship that they will enjoy when he comes again to them.

They should rejoice that he is going away, Jesus tells them, because of what it will mean for them.  He will see them again in just a ‘little while’.  On that day, says Jesus, they will ‘rejoice’ (John 16:22).

We read in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Easter how Jesus appeared in the evening after his resurrection to the disciples and showed them his hands and his side.  St John writes:

‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ (John 20:20)

The very next thing that happens is that Jesus sends them as the Father sent him and breathes on them that they may receive the Spirit.  What he described just ‘a little while’ earlier, three days ago to be precise, in the Farewell Discourse, is taking place.

For the way that Jesus ‘comes again’ to the disciples after he has gone back to the Father is in the person of the Spirit.  This Jesus tells them about in advance in the Farewell Discourse.  It is through the Spirit, who Jesus describes as another ‘helper’, that both the Father and the Son make their home in the believer.

But that will be the subject for the sermon next week.

What Jesus is talking about in the Gospel reading for this week, then, is not about how we can go to heaven when we die, but how we can come into the Father’s presence and enter a relationship with him now.  It is a relationship that begins here in the present and will continue forever.  The only way this relationship is possible, says Jesus, is through him.  He is the ‘Way, the Truth, and the Life’.

Jesus doesn’t continue by saying that no-one can get to heaven except through him, but that no-one can come to the Father except through him.  This is why last week’s image of Jesus as the Gate is so important.  We are drawn to him as the Good Shepherd, but he is also the Gate that he leads his sheep through.  And it is only through him as the Gate that we his sheep find eternal life and come to the Father.

The disciples understand that this is what Jesus is saying hence Philip’s response to what Jesus says:

‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ (John 14:8)

To which Jesus responds with an amazing statement:

‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ (John 14:9)

Next week, we will see how Jesus makes it possible for us to know the Father.  For now, two important lessons from this week’s reading:

1. Jesus reveals the Father

I remember the first real conversation I had about God.  I was a teenager at School in Liverpool in the UK.  For lunch, I used to take a packed lunch, which I ate with others who also brought packed lunches.  As I was sitting in a classroom eating my lunch, a teacher came in and started talking to me about being a Christian.  He told me that being a Christian was about knowing God and asked me whether I knew God.  I am here today because of that conversation.

Christianity is a complicated religion.  There are so many different branches of it and aspects to it.  It is all too easy amidst all the complexity to miss what Jesus came to tell us and to do.  Jesus tells his disciples to believe in him.

Believing in him is not about believing in him as a religious teacher, prophet, or life coach.  Yes, Jesus does teach us how to live.  He shows us what is right and wrong.  He enables us to make the most of the lives we have.  But that is not why he came.  It is not why he was sent.

We have seen how throughout St John’s Gospel Jesus has been talking about and promising those who believe in him that he will give them eternal life.  He said to Nicodemus that the Son of Man would be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness that all who believed in him would receive eternal life (John 3:15).  God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  To receive this eternal life Nicodemus needed to be ‘born again from above’ (John 3:3).

Jesus told the woman at the well in Samaria that those who drank the water that he gave would never be thirsty, but that it would be like a spring within them gushing up within them to eternal life (John 4:14).  Jesus had come, he told the Pharisees, that his followers might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

We, however, are born blind and like the man born blind in John chapter 9, we need to be healed.  Jesus is the One who has come to heal us to take away our blindness, to give us new birth from above, to provide us with the water of life so we may never be thirsty.  As he said to Martha, he is the ‘resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25).  Those who believe in him, he says, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die (John 11:25-26).

But this life isn’t simply or even primarily about what happens to us when we die.  Again, Jesus himself, in his final words, tells us what it is:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

The life that Jesus gives to those who believe in him is about a relationship with the Father through Jesus whom the Father sent for this very reason.  Being a follower of Jesus isn’t about what we do, what we believe, or even where we go.  It’s about who we know.  Yes, how we live our lives is important, what we believe matters, and going to Church isn’t optional.  But these all come out of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to reveal God to us and make it possible for us to enter a relationship with him.  Not God in an abstract, theoretical, or philosophical sense, but with the God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and who wants to be our Father too.

2. Only Jesus reveals the Father

This all sounds positive and while we may not act on it and may never come to know the Father for ourselves, we are happy with the idea that in Jesus a relationship with God is at least possible.  What we don’t like to hear is that it is only possible in Jesus.  We don’t like the suggestion that other philosophies and religions are wrong and false paths.  We don’t like the implication that we aren’t able to choose our own way and pursue our own interests, choices, and lifestyles.  We want the freedom to choose.

Satan entered the heart of Judas in the Upper Room.  And he enters our hearts too.

Following Jesus and being in a relationship with him is exclusive.  We have to follow him his way and that means rejecting the other ways.  We don’t want that sort of limitation and that exclusivity.  We want the freedom to explore other ways as well.  We want following Jesus to be inclusive.  The ‘exclusive Jesus’ offends our professed love of tolerance, inclusivity, and diversity.  We try to silence his words and filter them out.  He won’t be silenced:

‘No-one comes to the Father but by me.’ (John 14:6)

Jesus is not a way; he is the way.  He is the only way.  He is the way to his Father’s house, to the place where his Father lives.  He is the One who prepares a place for us in his Father’s presence.  He is the One who invites us into his Father’s house and who introduces us to his Father.  He is the one who shows us the Father.

And the amazing discovery we make when we meet the Father is that it was the Father who sent the Son to find us.  The Father knew we were lost, blind, and alone; he knew we were trapped in sin and darkness, weak and powerless to help ourselves.  It was the Father who gave his Son that we who were dead might live and that we who were in darkness might see.

And now having been invited into his house and having met the Father, both the Father and the Son make an incredible offer.  How would we like to live with them and spend eternity with them?  They have plenty of rooms.  One of them can be ours.

And that is the offer that Jesus makes to us today.  He says to us what he said in the Upper Room to the troubled disciples:

‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ (John 14:1-4)

He is the Way.  The only question now is: will we take it?


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