This is a sermon I preached in chapel today.
I stood in the driveway on a cold, dark morning with tears streaming down my cheeks. My grandparents had come to visit us for Christmas and now they were leaving. They were returning home. I don’t remember the exact words my grandmother said to me in that moment, but I remember they had something to do with not being able to come back if she didn’t leave. And of looking forward to future visits. Still, at age three or four, this was one of my most painful experiences. Even now, I still remember that feel of a broken heart mixed with the taste of salty tears. Whatever reasons my grandparents had for leaving didn’t seem good enough to soothe the pain. More than thirty years later, I admit that I still have a terrible time saying goodbye. Often, no matter how we rationalize them, goodbyes just don’t seem fair. Even when we know that goodbyes are necessary and even when they are for good reasons and bright futures, goodbyes are still mixed with pain and sadness. And if we grow to know very many people at all in this world, we will say many goodbyes that seem ill-timed and far too premature.
So perhaps the words of Jesus sound every bit as troublesome to us as they did to his disciples. Jesus asserts that, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Mother, because the Mother is greater than I.” Jesus says this after he admonished them not to let their hearts be troubled and not to be afraid. But really, this is part of a long conversation that Jesus has been having with the disciples. At the end of chapter thirteen, Jesus stated that he was going somewhere where the disciples couldn’t follow him now, but that they should continue to love one another. Peter does not want to accept this and declares that he would even lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus replies with that famous prediction that Peter will deny him three times. Then Jesus continues on and tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled and that he’s going to prepare a place for them. Jesus assures them that if he’s going to prepare them a place, then surely it means he must be coming back. Then Jesus says that the disciples know the way to the place where he is going. At this point Thomas, doubting Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answers Thomas with those famous words about being the way, the truth, and the life and no one coming to the Father except through him. Philip then in his frustration, pleads, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus then goes on to tell Philip that, “whoever has seen me has seen the Mother.” Then Jesus continues on, encouraging the disciples to keep his commandments and promises them the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus assures them that he isn’t leaving them orphans, but will come back. So then Judas – no not that Judas, asks Jesus why he only reveals himself to the disciples and not to everyone in the world. And it is the answer to this other Judas’s question that we just heard as our morning gospel.
Is this passage really about Jesus putting limits on how much we can hope? Is Jesus saying to this other Judas that just maybe his heart for this world is two sizes too big? Is this the passage in which Jesus says, “well Peter, let’s be honest, we all have good intentions, but intentions only stay intentions. Well Thomas, I’m the password to Heaven and that’s really what I’m all about. Didn’t you know that? And Philip, why are you so anxious to see God when I’ve been here all along? Hasn’t this been enough? And Judas, I only love those who love me back. Furthermore, I don’t understand why y’all are so upset that I’m leaving. You should be happy for me because I’m going to see God. The main reason I’m telling you all of this is so that when it comes to pass, you’ll remember that I told you so.”
Maybe we don’t all automatically approach this text with such cynicism. But if some of us do, who can blame us? We have learned early on in life not to get our hopes up too much. We have been schooled in the reality that things do not always or even usually turn out as good as we plan. We brace ourselves that the job market is bleak and that we might not get the career we study so hard for. We learn that eventually our grandparents have said their last goodbye and that they aren’t coming back. We’ve learned that sometimes we don’t even get to say goodbye to some beloved friends. So is it possible that just maybe the disciples’ questions are filled with the fear that they got their hopes up too high when they decided to leave everything and follow Jesus? Maybe they’re afraid that loving Jesus isn’t going to turn out any better for them than all those other times that they have loved and lost. After all, such words about having to go away seem unfair and unjust when they come from a young man in the prime of his life. They sound like the sort of words said in hospital waiting rooms. This is what Jesus is saying to them after all: He is telling them that he is going to die.
This conversation continues for another two chapters. Jesus talks about being the vine and tells the disciples that they must abide in him if they are to bear fruit. Again, he tells them that must love one another. Then he states that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. He warns them of persecution and promises this Holy Spirit again. Jesus then compares their pain about his leaving to the pain of giving birth. Yes, it is painful, but new and splendid life is coming into this world. Then Jesus prays to God for the disciples. And all of this is just before they walk to that garden where Jesus is going to be betrayed. If today’s scripture were a scene in a movie, it would fall in the middle of the hero’s speech before the final confrontation. Surely, this is what the disciples are yearning for – that Jesus is helping them gather their strength to confront and overcome and to tell the forces of evil to back off.
Paradoxically, Jesus has just told Peter that he can’t follow him – yet, while at the same time telling all of those gathered that they know the way to the place where he is going. They know the way. And the way is so excruciatingly painful that they cannot bear to see it. If today’s scripture were a scene in a movie, it would also be that point in which we learned that everything had been so carefully foreshadowed and laid out. No, not in some boring, trite, or predictable way. It would be the plot twist that no one saw coming. It would be the moment we were blown away and had everything about our worldview reshaped. These words would be in the sort of scene in a clever movie that we would watch a second time, a third time, over and over, trying to pick up on all the well placed cues. We would fall in love with the characters and see glimpses of their true selves all along as each moment of the film brought them closer to their destiny.
So Jesus answers this other Judas’s big question about everyone else in the world with this simple statement that those who love him will keep his words. Then Jesus says, “We will come to them and make our home with them.” (The “We” being Jesus and God). There is a famous saying about the humanity of Jesus. Gregory of Nanzianzus declared, “That which has not been assumed has not been healed.” In Jesus, God is one of us. Through Jesus, God understands exactly what it is to be a human being. And yet, this same Jesus also showed us the face of God. He says the word we hear from him is not his, but the Mother who sent him. Somehow, in the mystery of Christ, God and humanity are joined in a way that we can’t satisfactorily understand. We can only say that Jesus is not less fully than God. Neither is Jesus less than fully human. Then we must leave it at that.
Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to a place that they cannot yet go and that they already know where it is. And so there are all these words about love and peace throughout. “Those who love me will keep my word. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Mother, because the Mother is greater than I.”
So if this were a movie and we were returning to watch in this pivotal scene over and over, we would have the memory of resurrection etched in our hearts. We would realize that the reality of resurrection was foreshadowed in each healing and the miracle of Jesus. We would remember that friend of Jesus, Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead a mere three chapters earlier. We might remember that when “Jesus wept,” those tears were shed for Lazarus. And we would remember all those things because of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit will teach them everything and remind them of all that he said to them. John Calvin often said that scripture was the spectacles, the eye glasses, for correcting our vision to come to knowledge of both God and ourselves. And yet, it is not just enough to read the words in the pages of the Bible. It is the Holy Spirit who helps us understand these ancient and beautiful words. Otherwise, it is so terribly easy to read them with all the hurt and disappointment and baggage that we’ve learned to carry. Even though we stand before this text like a well known movie, we struggle to fully enter in, to follow Jesus down that way he prepares. The way that seems too painful to see. We must be reminded that Jesus embraced our humanity to the deepest level on the cross. We must be reminded that Jesus went to the places that we cannot bear to look. We must be reminded that Jesus went that scare us the most – and still Jesus promised a peace unlike any the world can give. And we must be reminded each time that we stand before this holy text, and hear the hopes and longings of fellow human beings just like us, that Jesus has been raised from the dead. We must be reminded that we live in a post-Easter world. We must be reminded that in the midst of all our suffering, our weeping, our tears, and our anguish, that glimpses of resurrection are always being foreshadowed.