Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, May 14
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Risen Christ, you prepare a place for us, in the home of the Mother-and-Father of us all. Draw us more deeply into yourself, through scripture read, water splashed, bread broken, wine poured, so that when our hearts are troubled, we will know you more completely as the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.
[Jesus said:] "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places. 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." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 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, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."
All readings for the week:
1 Peter 2:2-10
1. What is the heart of Jesus' message?
2. Which voices are authoritative for you in the life of faith?
3. Do these scholars change your understanding of verse six in this passage?
4. How can endings become beginnings?
5. What would be the heart of your own farewell message?
Reflection on John 14:1-14 by Kate Matthews
These beautiful words of Jesus, spoken at the Last Supper, are his farewell speech to his followers, but they're also heard by us on this Fifth Sunday of Easter, one week after we reflected on the familiar and beloved words of Psalm 23 that sing of God's tender, loving care for us. Holding both of those settings in our hearts and minds, we hear these words in new and more profound ways, not as a litmus test for determining who is saved, and who isn't.
Unfortunately, most of us hear only that one verse (14:6) of a long and exquisitely beautiful good-bye from a teacher who is wrapping things up, in a sense, with reminders and coaxings and reassurances to his much-loved but weak disciples. We know what it feels like to hope for a review from the teacher before the final exam. Jesus the Teacher will face the test and measure up, but his poor students will fail the very first time around. We're grateful that they, like us, are given another chance, and the Spirit to help them.
A loving farewell speech
Gail R. O'Day provides background on "the farewell speech" in the ancient Mediterranean world; she reminds us of familiar stories from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 49; Joshua 22-24; I Chronicles 28-29, and the entire book of Deuteronomy), but we don't often hear these stories of Jacob, Joshua, David and Moses mentioned in sermons on this text from John. Jesus, however, is doing much the same thing with his followers before his death: speaking not only to those present but to those who would come long after, including us today.
The farewell speech in John (a very long one, interrupted at least once) brings into sharp focus the theology of the Fourth Gospel (in case, we sense John is thinking, anyone missed the message all along). O'Day says that John follows in the path of earlier writers, including the author of Deuteronomy recounting the last words of Moses to the Hebrew people, through which "the traditions of Sinai and Moab are given a fresh hearing, a 're-presentation' in a new setting, because they are presented as being spoken in this moment for this people."
A voice full of authority and power
Even though Moses' speech was written hundreds of years after their ancestors had entered the Promised Land, the people of Israel could hear these words afresh, find themselves in the story, and understand that God was still speaking to them in their own place and time. The voice of Moses was powerfully authoritative for the Jewish people, and the voice of Jesus is full of power and authority for the readers and hearers of John's Gospel in every age. We sense that he is speaking to us, in our moment, as his people, as his beloved flock.
If we wonder what this last speech is about, we might go back to the beginning of this long evening before his death. John begins chapter 13 with Jesus' awareness that "his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father." And here is the key to what was in the heart of Jesus, in that very same verse: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." This speech, in a sense, is a love letter. It reminds us of the words of Henri Nouwen, who urged us to "love Jesus, and love the way Jesus loved."
Teaching by speech and example
The evening is disrupted by the drama of Judas' betrayal, but it also begins with Jesus' teaching by example before beginning this long speech: he washes their feet and tells them to be humble servants. The undercurrents of the evening churn up anxiety in the disciples, and we hear Simon Peter and Thomas trying to make sense of it all. Throughout the entire speech, Jesus reassures them with words of love and care and promise.
However, we usually don't hear about the love, care, and promise as much as the claim of verse 6, O'Day says, that is "proof positive that Christians have the corner on God and that people of any and all other faiths are condemned." On the other end, of course, are those who turn away from the entire gospel (not only John's Gospel) because they think it sounds "exclusionary and narrow-minded."
A small group and a great price to be paid
O'Day continues: "When Jesus says 'no one,' he means 'none of you'Ö.This is not, as is the case in the twentieth century, the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but it is the conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. It is the conviction of a religious group who had discovered that its understanding of the truth of God carries with it a great price." Their faith, she says, had gotten them expelled from their "church home," so they would have to "carve out a new religious home for themselves," as a distinct people, and John's Gospel expresses "the distinctiveness" of Christians who find their way to God through Jesus.
Still, this is a difficult passage to read and to preach. Next week provides another opportunity, a "part two," if you will, of this glimpse of Jesus' farewell speech. What is the spirit of the entire speech? What is Jesus trying to tell his followers, including you and me today, the church today, the world God loves?
A few last words of love and wisdom
Most of us think that if we knew we had only one day to live, we'd want to find those we love most and tell them important things, even though we may have said them many times before. We parents would also want to remind our children of more things we think they need to know. We do this out of love, but the love of God, the love of Jesus, far surpasses even the love of earthly parents.
Speaking of tender love and care: there is a moving sermon on this text by the great Gardner Taylor in the second volume of The Words of Gardner Taylor. Taylor sets the scene and explores the insides of those hearing the last speech of Jesus, including the anxious question of Thomas, who seemed to like certainty and reassurance (don't we all?). When Thomas asks how they would find the way, Jesus says that he is the Way. (We might ponder the difference in emphasizing "is" over "the.")
Words that embrace us all
Taylor then expands the words of Jesus to embrace us all: "Jesus is the way out. We are all captives and slaves. There is something wrong with our humanity. We feel a disquiet, a deep and true dis-ease. We are not satisfied with what we are; we sense that we are born for some spacious destiny from which we feel somehow barred. We feel trapped...longing to be free." Greed and materialism, our "new religion," don't provide a way out, Taylor says: "Jesus is the way out of our foiled sense of destiny and purpose. He declares us to have august connections, a relatedness to the eternal God, intimate and binding." Those words, "intimate and binding," provide something for us to "chew on."
But what about the pain and hardship of life? Is it only about waiting until we reach that place that Jesus is preparing? Has he gone on ahead and left us alone, to our own devices? No, Gardner Taylor says, "He is the way through life's hardness and harshness, its pain and its penalties, its fears and its failings. Jesus is the way through."
The way home, to bright glory
What is beyond the horizon, what we long for and are oriented toward (one is reminded of the theology of Karl Rahner and, of course, Augustine), is the grace of a loving God who puts all things and all experiences in perspective. "If Jesus told us anything at all, he told us that this world is not all; we have dual citizenshipÖ.He did say that he is the way! The way home! The way to bright glory! The way to sunlit shores of an everlasting country."
So Jesus was going on ahead to prepare a place for us, and we still forget and lose our way as we attempt to follow in his path. Taylor says not to worry; remember last week's psalm? The shepherd, tender and good, will come back for us, seeking us on the paths and hillsides where we wander. God's love, made known to us in Jesus, will seek us out. Hope is alive, and new life abounds. In this Easter season, that is the foundation and fount of our joy.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Ivy Baker Priest, 20th century
"The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning."
Gilda Radner, 20th century
"I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next."
George Eliot, 19th century
"Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love."
S¯ren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard. 19th century
"The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins."
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 20th century
"Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
"This is the end--for me the beginning of life" (his last words to his fellow prisoners before his execution).
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