Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
The words from John are what I used when burying my own father a few weeks ago. It is something that brought me comfort at the time and still does as we each deal with the death and destruction brought on by Covid 19. As we watch our politicians trying to gain and upper hand. As we see moments of betrayal, we each want more and more to see hope. There is real comfort in Jesus’ words.
The Gospel of John says in chapter 13 that Jesus tells his disciples a whole set of troublesome details about what is to come. He is going to be betrayed, and by one of his inner circle. That betrayal will result in Jesus’ “going away,” although he leaves his destination vague. As it dawns on the disciple that this going away is permanent, that Jesus is going to die, they clamor to be with him, especially Peter. Jesus then tells Peter that not only will he not die with Jesus, he won’t even have the courage to stick up for him when it really counts. Jesus tells Peter, the bravest and strongest of the disciples, that his fear will master him and he will deny even knowing Jesus.
The next words out of Jesus’ mouth, according to John, are “do not let your hearts be troubled.” What an extraordinary statement! Let’s see, one of them is going to betray Jesus to his death, one of them is going to run scared when the going gets tough, and this Jesus whom they thought to be Messiah is going to die. But don’t let yourself be upset or concerned or worried? How can Jesus be so seemingly cavalier?
Of course, Jesus is not cavalier at all. Jesus sees a bigger picture than his disciples are able to see. That big picture encompasses many things including God’s ultimate victory in resurrection and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, as he will tell the disciples in the continuation of these “farewell narratives.” That big picture also includes an understanding of life and death and life beyond death which challenges the earth-bound mentality of his disciples, and many of us as well. To help bring them on board more slowly with the concept of eternal life, Jesus uses an image which has become dear to many Christians as they contemplate the deaths of those they love or their own death. He presents the idea that there’s a home in heaven, a place to dwell there that is as real as this world, although markedly different. Many folk have picked up this image to euphemistically talk about someone’s death, remarking that they have “gone home.” It may be a comforting image for some, but it can also be difficult for people who feel their loved one had a home and that home was with them, here on earth. How do we make sense of this understanding of death as “going home?”
Jesus gives us another hint in the verses following this day’s lection. In verse 18, he reassures the disciples that he will not leave them “orphaned.” In the society of the time, to be left an orphan meant to have no legal or social protection unless a relative took you in as a servant. The orphan of that day and age experienced a life of being alone, without loving connection, in constant fear that one might not get enough food or clothing or have shelter. In the Roman world of that time (though less common in the Jewish community), children whose mothers died in childbirth or whose family was too poor to keep them were often simply left out in the wilderness to die. To be an orphan meant to be radically alone in the world.
Certainly, the disciples feared they would be alone as people who had seen the world in a new way through Jesus after he left. Many of us also look at death and fear the singular aloneness of going through it. Many people who know they are dying will hear people say to them as they express fear or pain, “I understand.” Often those dying will respond that those of us still holding strongly to life cannot understand their fear of that journey, a journey we all take alone. The sense of emptiness, for some, is palpable. As we consider the severing of all physical connections to this world, and the uncertainty of what is to come, that sense of aloneness can become overpowering.
Here is where Jesus’ image of dying as a journey to another home can be empowering. The King James Version used the word “mansions,” probably as a way to say that the home to which we go in heaven is better than the one here. For many people alive in 1611, when life for most people was, indeed, “nasty, cruel, brutish and short,” this thought of going to a mansion as opposed to a London tenement would be welcome indeed. Yet Jesus’ words do not indicate such grandeur. What they do indicate to us is that we need not ever fear being alone, even as we die. There are many rooms, many dwellings, Jesus says, implying that there are many dwellers in our life after death. No value judgment is made concerning whether our home in heaven is “better” than our homes here, although for some folk that will very much be the case. The central reason why we should not let our hearts be troubled is that we will not be alone. Jesus will be there, he clearly says, and by implication, others as well. And, as the Psalmist says, this transition home will be permanent; “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
It is common in the adoption community for adoptive parents to speak of the time their adopted children came to them as the day they “came home.” While my husband and I were in the adoption process, that language troubled us a little. We were afraid that by using that metaphor we were negating the home our children were leaving, as though they had never known home. Our children were born in Korea and went right from the hospital to loving foster homes. They had a homeland there, and also a home, albeit temporary. After our first child “came home,” we began to understand this metaphor in a new way. Our child was now home. His first home had an important place in his life; we would never seek to deny or denigrate it in our hearts or in our words to him as he grew. Though that home was fraught with some difficulties, it also had included love (and we understand that is not true of all adoptees; this metaphor adapts to different situations both in the lives of adoptees and of the rest of us). As a small child he went though a transition we have not experienced, nor can we understand what fear and loneliness the transition to our family may have caused him. But once he joined us, we promised, spiritually and legally, that he would never be alone. For all our children, that promise in front of God and then of a judge means a great deal. This home is forever, or at least as forever as our mortality allows. When they die, we teach them, they make yet another transition to a truly forever home, and again, a promise is made that they will never be alone.
Our experiences of home here on earth may be places of exquisite joy that we would be loath to leave. They may also be places of pain and struggle. Jesus promises to the first that they need not fear that death will end the joy of connection, but rather will bring that connection to yet a new level, a new kind of home. Jesus promises to those whose homes here have been hell that at death they will know a joy of which they have only dreamed, a true home filled with loving presences. In either case, as Paul wrote in Romans 14:7-9, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
There comes a time when we must believe where we cannot prove and to accept where we cannot understand. If, in the darkest hour, we believe that somehow there is a purpose in life and that that purpose is love, even the unbearable becomes bearable and even in the darkness there is a glimmer of light.
Jesus adds something to that. He says not only: ‘Believe in God.’ He says also: ‘Believe in me.’ If the psalmist could believe in the ultimate goodness of God, how much more can we? For Jesus is the proof that God is willing to give us everything he has to give. As Paul put it: ‘He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’ (Romans 8:32). If we believe that in Jesus we see the picture of God, then, in the face of that amazing love, it becomes not easy but at least possible to accept even what we cannot understand, and in the storms of life to retain a faith that is serene.
Jesus went on to say: ‘There are many abiding places in my Father’s house.’ By his Father’s house, he meant heaven. But what did he mean when he said there were many abiding places in heaven? The word used for abiding places is the word monai, and there are three suggestions.
(1) The Jews held that in heaven there were different grades of blessedness which would be given according to people’s goodness and their fidelity on earth. In the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, it is said: ‘In the world to come there are many mansions prepared for men; good for good; evil for evil.’ That picture likens heaven to a vast palace in which there are many rooms, with each individual assigned a room such as that person’s life has merited.
(2) In the Greek writer Pausanias, the word monai means stages upon the way. If that is how to take it here, it means that there are many stages on the way to heaven, and even in heaven there is progress and development and advance. At least some of the great early Christian thinkers had that belief. Origen was one. He said that when people died, their souls went to some place called Paradise, which is still upon earth. There they received teaching and training and, when they were worthy and fit, their souls ascended into the air. They then passed through various monai, stages, which the Greeks called spheres and which the Christians called heavens, until finally they reached the heavenly kingdom. In so doing, the souls followed Jesus who, as the writer to the Hebrews said, ‘passed through the heavens’ (Hebrews 4:14). Irenaeus speaks of a certain interpretation of the sentence which tells how the seed that is sown produces sometimes a hundredfold, sometimes sixtyfold and sometimes thirtyfold (Matthew 13:8). There was a different yield and therefore a different reward. Some people will be counted worthy to pass all their eternity in the very presence of God; others will rise to Paradise; and others will become citizens of ‘the city’. Clement of Alexandria believed that there were degrees of glory, rewards and stages in proportion to a person’s achievement in holiness in this life.
There is something very attractive here. There is a sense in which the soul shrinks from what we might call a static heaven. There is something attractive in the idea of a development which goes on even in the heavenly places. Speaking in purely human and inadequate terms, we sometimes feel that we would be dazzled with too much splendor if we were immediately ushered into the very presence of God. We feel that even in heaven we would need to be purified and helped until we could face the greater glory.
(3) But it may well be that the meaning is very simple and very lovely. ‘There are many abiding places in my Father’s house’ may simply mean that in heaven there is room for all. An earthly house becomes overcrowded; an earthly inn must sometimes turn away the weary traveler because its accommodation is exhausted. It is not so with our Father’s house, for heaven is as wide as the heart of God and there is room for all. Jesus is saying to his friends: ‘Don’t be afraid. In this world, people may shut their doors upon you. But in heaven you will never be shut out.’(Barclay, W. he Gospel of John [2001, Louisville, KY] Vol. 2, pp. 178–180)
A “common sense” approach to John 14:1–14 through the careful eye of a person in the pew (the “perspicuity” of Scripture) will find it to be part of an unfolding supper conversation between Jesus and his disciples. After a foot washing and exchange with his betrayer, Jesus speaks about his imminent departure, prompting an anxious inquiry from Peter (chap. 13). Our own passage begins with Jesus assuring the disciples not to be “troubled” (14:1), for the “Father’s house” with its many rooms is ready for occupancy, his and theirs (14:2). But Thomas is puzzled about how to get there (14:5). The answer is: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). The disciples remain confused, and Philip pleads, “Lord, show us the Father” (14:8). Jesus replies: Don’t you get it? If you’ve seen me, you have “seen the Father.… I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:9, 10, 11). Look at the manifestations of God’s own power, in me and my name (14:12–14).
The pivot of the passage is the word “way.” The disciples want to know the route to the Father’s house. Jesus declares that the path to the place is “me”; Jesus and the Father are inseparable. And what goes with that one-way home is “truth” and “life.” These refrains concerning “the scandal of particularity” in way, truth, and life—reconciliation, revelation, and redemption—continue throughout John. Many are the allusions to Jesus’ unity with the Father, and many are Jesus’ “I am” assertions concerning his singular deed, disclosure, and deliverance.
Critical tools from the academy join the foregoing sensus literalis, opening up new aspects of the passage. We learn that it is situated in a “book of signs” that runs from 1:19 through 12:50, succeeded by a “book of glory” from chapter 13 through 20:29, featuring rich symbols and a rearrangement of chronology to fit a theological intent. This core is surrounded by a prologue in 1:1–18, concluding remarks in 20:30–31, and an epilogue in chapter 21 that are probably from a canonical hand shaping the book toward future audiences. Further, the “only way” motif is to be read in relation to Isaiah 40:3—preparing “the way of the LORD, / [making] straight in the desert a highway for our God”—and parallel references to the path from and to God in the prologue and epilogue of John. So understood, the hodos in 14:6 is the singular path God takes into the world in Jesus, and thus the inseparability of Son and Father. “Truth” and “life,” therefore, are epexegetical, for the one way brings with it true believing and living (20:31). The egō eimi refrain throughout John echoes the particularity of the path, and the unity of the Father and Son, dramatically so when seen in conjunction with the divine “I am who I am” of Exodus 3:14. At the same time, in the Gospel as a whole a note of universality appears alongside its particularity, albeit one grounded in Christ, as in the declaration that “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (10:16).
A critical consciousness alert to language usage can discern female imagery throughout. The organic “in me” and “life” suggest womb analogies. When associated with the separation theme of the passage, the cutting of the umbilical cord comes quickly to mind. As such, “father” language is theologically deconstructed, anticipating the seventh-century Council of Toledo’s allusion to “the womb of the Father” and Barth’s later counsel to read Scripture’s paternal figures by the analogy of faith. The Father of John’s Gospel is not the extrapolation of human experience; it is to be defined by the biblical story, not confined by cultural patriarchies. The “Jesus as mother” tradition of medieval piety strikes a similar note.
Jesus as the unique enlightening and saving Way God makes into the world is echoed throughout the New Testament in its rich variety of images and titles: Messiah, Lord, Savior, Word, Redeemer, Son of God, Son of Man, Master, Servant, Lamb of God.… In all cases he is the one who brings revelation and salvation, truth and life. The church has sifted and sorted the images and their import into ecumenical affirmations prompted by questions and controversies over the centuries. Thus the being of the Way is testified to in the description of Christ as one person in both divine and human natures. And his doing is formulated as a threefold work of prophetic, priestly, and royal ministry. These two dimensions are developed in the classical doctrines of incarnation and atonement. In them the truth that overcomes ignorance and error is given by the prophetic seer of the Light, and eternal life comes from the priest who saves from sin and the king who overcomes suffering and death. These victories are accomplished only when God makes the divine way into the world as the Word enfleshed.
How far is the range of this one way? Here is a road that wound through a wilderness lighted by a night’s pillar of fire (Exod. 13:21), a route traced back to Israel’s journey and forward to Christ’s person and work. And further yet the way wends, for there are spurs out from Easter to a wider world. The same Word made flesh in Jesus is at work universally to give whatever “light” and “life” are needed by “all people” (John 1:4) to keep the story going forward to its center and end. In its earliest centuries the church recognized the journey of the indwelling Logos, Jesus Christ (logos endiathetos), through his outgoing (logos prophorikos) in a seminal work (logos spermatikos) that gives what light and life are required by a fallen world to see and make a livable way ahead to its goal in the embodiment of that Word (logos ensarkos).
Contextual interpretation of the scandal of particularity in John 14 will speak to the issues posed by the parishioner’s experience of twenty-first-century religious pluralism. How can Christians assert that Christ is the only way, truth, and life when surrounded by the evidence of the holy, good, and true in the other faiths? Preaching that deals with this question should be familiar with the variety of current theological views on this agitated question. We review a spectrum of them.
A cluster of views is pluralist, seeking accommodation to the new context. One is “modern” in its rejection of particularity and welcome of every religion that serves enlightened moral ends, interpreting John’s threefold claim as the poetry of personal commitment, one that does not preclude a believer in another faith from using its own love language for its own way, truth, and life. Another is “postmodern,” skeptical of any access to the holy, but allowing for talk of Jesus as one’s way, truth, and life if it “works for me” in making sense of the world. Another view shares the latter postmodern relativism but stresses the corporate nature of belief, requiring the rigorous norms of one’s community, a Christ who is true for us, not just “for me,” though making no claim that he is true for all. Another view looks toward the time of a global religion in which the best from each faith is appropriated, with Christians merging their perspective on reconciliation, revelation, and redemption with other religions’ contributions. Another pluralist view maintains that all religions have their own valid ways, truths, and lives, but like Everest on its mountain chain, the highest peak is Jesus, a difference in degree but not kind.
A second range of views is particularist, for all declare for Christ as the way that God makes into the world to turn it from alienation to reconciliation. Yet the issues of religious pluralism are addressed in one way or another. The first view holds that while the singular way is known only to Christians, Christ is mysteriously at work in all high religions and people of goodwill, offering eternal life when received by sincere response to the truth so given, making the respondent an “anonymous Christian.” Another view holds to the absolute particularity of Christ’s truth as well as his way, yet the decisiveness of this divine action makes all human beings “virtual” brothers and sisters in Christ, though what happens de jure on Calvary must be yet determined de facto by the sovereign God, universal salvation being an article of hope, not an article of faith. Another view asserts the scandal of particularity in redemption as well as reconciliation and revelation, yet the mystery and generosity of God are such that other kinds of “religious ends” may be achieved by other faiths, though lesser than the salvation wrought in Christ. Another view declares all the foregoing to be compromises of Johannine teaching, truth being found only in the church’s Christ and eternal life granted only to those who accept him here and now. (Fackre, G. and R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol 3 pp. 547–551)
Are you sure there’ll be room for us all?’ We were on our way back to a friend’s house. There were two carloads of us, relaxed and happy after a football match which we’d won. The match had been at another school several miles away, and rather than going back to our own school, and from there to our homes, we’d arranged that we would stay with one member of the team who lived much closer to where the game had been played.
‘I told you, didn’t I?’ he said. ‘You’ll see. There’s plenty of room for you all.’
We had been imagining he lived in an ordinary house on an ordinary street. Even with an extension built on the back, as some of our friends had, ordinary houses only had four bedrooms, or five at the most. How could he manage to squeeze in ten of us? Were we all going to sleep on the living-room floor? What would his parents say?
We turned into the driveway, and then we realized. This was not an ordinary street, and it wasn’t an ordinary house. It was a mansion. He grinned, a bit shyly.
‘Told you there would be room, didn’t I?’
We tumbled out and he took us upstairs. Long corridors, lots of rooms. We couldn’t believe it. It was like a hotel. His father’s house.
That’s the image Jesus is using. He is going away, and the disciples are naturally anxious about where he’s going and whether they will be able to follow him. So, he speaks of ‘his father’s house’. The only other time he’s used the expression it referred to the Temple (2:16). The point about the Temple, within the life of the people of Israel, was that it was the place where heaven and earth met. Now Jesus hints at a new city, a new world, a new ‘house’. Heaven and earth will meet again when God renews the whole world. At that time there will be room for everyone.
This promise is made as a way of assuring the disciples that, though he’s going away, it will be for their benefit; he won’t forget them, he won’t abandon them. But it reaches out, beyond the disciples on that dark spring evening, and embraces all of us. These words are often used at funerals, and we can understand why. We can’t see the way ahead, and we need to know not only that there is indeed a way into the unknown future, but that we will be able to find it.
Thomas, in character, is grumpy. ‘What do you mean, we know the way? We don’t even know where you’re going!’ Jesus’ reply has haunted and confronted the world’s imagination ever since. ‘I am the way.’ If you want to know how to get to the father’s house, you must come with me. (Wright, T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 [2004, London] pp. 57–59)
Many of us after weeks of lock down or wearing masks at work we are feeling grumpy just like Thomas. Jesus’ reply to his grumpy disciples suddenly has the power to fill us each with hope. Jesus says I can get you where you want to end up. Jesus says I have a way to make you realize what is ahead for you. In fact, I am going to go ahead and start setting up your room. I am going to give you fresh towels and make sure the room is dusted because I want it to be already for you.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Thomas enquired concerning the way (v. 5), without any apology for contradicting his Master.1. He said, "Lord, we know not whither thou goest, to what place or what state, and how can we know the way in which we must follow thee? We can neither guess at it, nor enquire it out, but must still be at a loss.’’ Christ’s testimony concerning their knowledge made them more sensible of their ignorance, and more inquisitive after further light. Thomas here shows more modesty than Peter, who thought he could follow Christ now. Peter was the more solicitous to know whither Christ went. Thomas here, though he complains that he did not know this, yet seems more solicitous to know the way. In John 14:6, Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me." That's a very difficult passage because so many people see that we must not be open if we don't accept all these people who come to God in other ways. But it's very clear here, Jesus says, and we must go through Christ to get to God. And so, we see that he was truth. And sometimes it's hard to communicate the truth because there's something that we want to gloss over. I would say for each of us, we need to say, am I communicating truth, am I living out with integrity what I know to be true? Because I believe if I honestly lived out truth every day, other people would see that. And sometimes it's hard to explain it to people, but I think when they ask us, we need to say, Jesus says he is the only way. And that's great news because all they have to do is say, okay, open my eyes, Lord. And I want to see that. And that's the truth of the gospel.
In John 14:6, Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me." That's a very difficult passage because so many people see that we must not be open if we don't accept all these people who come to God in other ways. But it's very clear here, Jesus says, and we must go through Christ to get to God. And so, we see that he was truth. And sometimes it's hard to communicate the truth because there's something that we want to gloss over. I would say for each of us, we need to say, am I communicating truth, am I living out with integrity what I know to be true? Because I believe if I honestly lived out truth every day, other people would see that. And sometimes it's hard to explain it to people, but I think when they ask us, we need to say, Jesus says he is the only way. And that's great news because all they have to do is say, okay, open my eyes, Lord. And I want to see that. And that's the truth of the gospel. (https://www.christianity.com/wiki/bible/why-did-jesus-say-i-am-the-way-the-truth-and-the-life-john-14-6.html)
Today, I realize that what Jesus was really saying is this: “I am the way,” as in, “I know the way.” “I’ve discovered it” which, by implication means, “you can, too.” Elsewhere, he put it like this: “I and the Father are one” and he prayed that we would discover the same as well (John 17). Which is precisely why he said continually, “Follow me.” In other words, it’s as if Jesus was saying, “If you believe anything, believe not WORDS but the WAY to Life itself. My way, like many other ways, will guide you into the Eternal. In fact, you cannot separate the way to God from God herself. The way to God IS God.”
My own suggestion is this: instead of believing in Jesus, why not live similarly after the manner of Jesus? A life of self-denial, of compassion, of trust and surrender? Why not give up believing there is anything you must believe, as in beliefs or dogmas or doctrines or certain words you must pray? Give up believing...give up the religious performance...give up the belief systems...give up the catalogue of things you don’t do, as well as the lengthy list of things you do, do...as in, religious practices you engage in and specific behaviors you try hard to avoid - and all because you’re afraid...not certain you’re good enough...trying hard to please God...to fit in with some dysfunctional religious group...and on and on. None of this is necessary and I assure you none of this will get you anywhere.
Why? Precisely because you are where you need to be already. And, where’s that? Right where you are. You are accepted already. You and the Divine are ONE already. If you live from this place of knowing, you will be free—free of the religious dysfunction so prevalent in virtually all religions, Christianity included...the nonsense of thinking “Our beliefs are right...you’re beliefs are wrong or, at a minimum, not as right.” “We’re the chosen ones...you’re not.” It is pure insanity.
Choose to be free—free of the fear of God...of feeling you’re constantly auditioning for his approval. Know and observe that the way of Jesus, not somebody’s words about Jesus, is the real meaning behind, “...no one comes to the Father but by me.” For me, the choice was clear. I could argue and defend and so hope to arrive. Or, I could live knowing I had arrived already. This kind of “believing” gives way to living—real living. Which is why Thomas Merton used to say, “When you are disposed to being alone with God, you are...no matter where you are: in the monastery, in the city, in the woods, in the streets. At the precise moment it would seem you may be in the middle of your journey, you have actually arrived at your destination already.” (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jesus-said-i-am-the-way-b_b_1318405)
This interpretation has the benefit of explaining a conundrum in the verse, which St. Augustine himself points out: If the Father’s house already has many mansions, why does Jesus need to go to prepare a place for us? One possible solution is that Jesus goes to ‘prepare’ in the same sense that someone might prepare a room for a guest — he or she puts new sheets on the bed, cleans the bathroom, and otherwise neatens and tidies up the place. Then again, this is heaven we’re talking about. Is it really in such a state of imperfection?
Instead, the imperfection lies with those who remain on earth. It is they who need the preparation. As St. Augustine puts it, “But He is in a certain sense preparing the dwellings by preparing for them the dwellers.”
But this explanation then raises another question, according to Augustine. If we are the ones in need of preparation, then why is Jesus departing to heaven to carry out the work of preparation?
The answer, Augustine says, is that Jesus’ departure is a necessary precondition for our faith:
Let the Lord then go and prepare us a place; let Him go, that He may not be seen; and let Him remain concealed, that faith may be exercised. For then is the place preparing, if it is by faith we are living. Let the believing in that place be desired, that the place desired may itself be possessed; the longing of love is the preparation of the mansion. Prepare thus, Lord, what You are preparing; for You are preparing us for Yourself, and Yourself for us, inasmuch as You are preparing a place both for Yourself in us, and for us in You (Tractates on John). (https://catholicexchange.com/the-hidden-promise-about-the-mansions-in-the-fathers-house)
It is, however, most evident from our text that it is not according to our Lord’s mind that any of his servants should be troubled in heart. He takes no delight in the doubt and disquietude of his people. When he saw that because of what he had said to them sorrow had filled the hearts of his apostles, he pleaded with them in great love, and besought them to be comforted. As when a mother comforted her child, he cried, “Let not your heart be troubled.” Jesus saith the same to you, my friend, if you are one of his downcast ones. He would not have you sad. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,” is a command even of the old dispensation, and I am quite sure that under this clearer revelation the Lord would have his people free from heart break. Has not the Holy Ghost especially undertaken the work of comfort in order that it may be effectually done? Trials depress the hearts of God’s children, for which the most tender ministry fails to afford consolation; and then it is most sweet for the failing comforter to remember the unfailing Comforter, and to commit the case of the sorrowful spirit into the divine hands. Seeing that one Person of the blessed Trinity has undertaken to be the Comforter, we see how important it is that our hearts should be filled with consolation. Happy religion in which it is our duty to be glad! Blessed gospel by which we are forbidden to be troubled in heart!
Is it not a thing greatly to be admired that the Lord Jesus should think so carefully of his friends at such a time? Great personal sorrows may well be an excuse if the griefs of others are somewhat overlooked. Jesus was going to his last bitter agony, and to death itself, and yet he overflowed with sympathy for his followers. Had it been you or I, we should have asked for sympathy for ourselves. Our cry would have been, “Have pity upon me, O my friends, for the hand of God hath touched me!” But, instead of that, our Lord cast his own crushing sorrows into the background, and bent his mind to the work of sustaining his chosen under their far inferior griefs. He knew that he was about to be “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death”; he knew that he should soon be in an agony through bearing “the chastisement of our peace;” but ere he plunged into the deep, he must needs dry the tears of those he loved so well, and therefore he said most touchingly, “Let not your heart be troubled.”
While I admire this condescending tenderness of love, I at the same time cannot help adoring the marvelous confidence of our blessed Lord, who, though he knows that he is to be put to a shameful death, yet feels no fear, but bids his disciples trust implicitly to him. The black darkness of the awful midnight was beginning to surround him, yet how brave his word—“Believe also in me!” He knew in that threatening hour that he had come forth from the Father, and that he was in the Father and the Father in him; and so he says, “Ye believe in God, believe also in me.” The calm bearing of their Master must have greatly tended to confirm his servants in their faith.
While we see here his confidence as man, we also feel that this is not a speech which a mere man would ever have uttered had he been a good man; for no mere creature would thus match himself with God. That Jesus is a good man few question; that he must be God is therefore proven by these words. Would Jesus bid us trust in an arm of flesh? Is it not written— “Cursed be the man that trusted in man, and maketh flesh his arm”? Yet the Holy Jesus says, “Ye believe in God, believe also in me.” This association of himself with God as the object of human confidence in the time of trouble, betokens a consciousness of his own divine power and Godhead; and it is a mystery in whose difficulties faith takes pleasure, to see in our Lord Jesus the faith of a man for himself, and the faithfulness of God for others.(Spurgeon, C. H. Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled. In The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons [1883, London] Vol. 29, pp. 517–518)
“Do and believe what I tell you and leave the rest to me.” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 54, Table Talk, ed. Theodore G. Tappert [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967], p. 64)
As an alternative to the way some people refer to dying as being “called home,” we might rather use the phrase “received at home.” The theology that God chooses a specific time to call each one of us home breaks down in the face of the magnitude of death on a day like September 11, 2001. As we think of those thousands dying in airplanes, leaping from buildings or being crushed as the buildings fell, does it not seem to be more consistent with the Biblical message that God did not use terrorists that day to “call” people home. Rather, when they died, God received them with love and forgiveness.
A profound companion to these verses of reassurance from John come in Paul’s assurance to the Roman church that nothing in all creation, including death, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Thomas Dorsey’s hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was written in response to the deaths of his wife and child. The hymn imagines the singer holding God’s hand, much like a child on a walk with a parent. The chorus ends with this powerful image, “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”
The United Church of Canada Creed ends with these words of reassurance and hope: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.”
St. Augustine had a profound grasp on the eternal nature of our connection with God when he said “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”
One of the oldest religious jokes plays off this image of many dwelling places in heaven, and in doing so it negates the very message Jesus continually tries to bring to his followers. The story goes that when a Presbyterian died and went to heaven, St. Peter took him on a little tour. He showed him the Methodist house and the Baptist house and the Jewish house. Then Peter asked the man to be very quiet and tiptoe past the next house. When the man asked why, St. Peter replied that this was the Roman Catholic house and “they think they’re the only ones here.” Besides being ecclesiologic ally inaccurate, this joke also contradicts the notion that after death we will be ever more clear on the fact of our oneness in God’s family, no matter what labels we wore on earth. The Book of Revelation, after all, envisions the New Jerusalem as a place to which “the nations” stream.
More than once in my ministry, children have forced me to clarify my theology on the really important issues. Six-year-old Jenny came to me the day after her pet gerbils, Killer and Earl, had died. She wanted to know if they were in heaven. Since the Bible is quite silent on the fate of the non-human creation after their deaths, I think the jury is out on this one. In my response to her, however, I recalled Jesus’ image of a home awaiting us after death. I knew that for this child, pets were a critical part of what made her home a home. So I asked her if heaven would feel like home to her if Killer and Earl were not there. She said, “No.” Then I assured her she would find them in her home in heaven.
One of the oldest funeral prayers, originally written by John Henry Cardinal Newman, ends with these lines, “Then in your tender mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.” (Book of Worship, United Church of Christ [New York: UCC Office for Church Life and Leadership, 1986], p. 389)
During a Bible Study in the small town of Solentiname in Nicaragua in the 1970’s, one of the poor villagers heard these words from John’s gospel and responded this way. “He says we’re going to live together in a house. The Father’s house is a family house. Humanity is going to gather in a single family.” (Ernesto Cardinale, The Gospel in Solentiname, Vol. IV [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982], p. 147)
A deep faith often results in a decreased fear of death. Studies have shown that people who are church members and are highly committed to their church tend to exhibit a low anxiety about dying. In contrast, those who have a more perfunctory approach to their faith—those who are church members but who do not participate actively—do not share that decreased anxiety. (Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion [New York: Random House, 2004], p. 7)
When it comes to death and what lies beyond, we need to realize that at the present we cannot fully understand what is awaiting us. Therefore quick, off-the-cuff explanations of the deep mysteries of our faith are not always helpful. J. L. Motley, in Rise of the Dutch Republic, narrates a story from the period when Charles the Hammer was launching his conquest of Friseland in 692. After his defeat, the Frisian chief Radbod was just about to accept baptism when he stopped and asked, “Where are my dead forefathers at present?” The officiating clergy, Bishop Wolfran replied, “In hell, with all other unbelievers.” Radbod paused a moment and then declared, “Very well, then I will rather feast with my ancestors in the halls of Woden than dwell with your little starving band of Christians in heaven.” Having said that, he stepped away from the baptismal font and refused the sacrament. A humbler, and less offensive, response to his question is offered in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. Article 1257 states that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but He himself is not bound by His sacraments.” (Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion [New York: Random House, 2004], p. 593)
According to the Muslim approach to death, nighttime is a favored time for burial because that was when Muhammad was buried. However, nocturnal interment is not required. Islam contends that the corpse senses pain during the process of decomposition, which they view as a means of doing penance for the sins committed during one’s lifetime. (Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion [New York: Random House, 2004], p. 650)
Because of the increasing occurrence of obesity in American society, a whole new line of products have been designed for overweight people who die. One company that is at the forefront of that industry is Indiana-based Goliath Casket Company. Among their products, they manufacture caskets that are three times wider than the typical casket. Sales have been increasing around 20% annually. The ripple effect is that larger caskets require “larger cemetery vaults, larger hearses, and larger burial plots.” (New York Times, 9/28/04)
Without Jesus showing us the way, we would not be able to understand where the journey of death leads. Back in October of 2001, a small band of scientists dressed themselves “in gray fabric costumes and strapped themselves into some ultralight aircraft.” Their objective was to lead a flock of young whooping cranes on a 1,250 mile migration from Wisconsin to Florida. Their effort was necessary because the cranes had been raised in captivity, and they did not have the benefit of whooping crane parents to show them the way. The inclination to migrate is inbred in the birds. But the direction and destination of the migration is taught to children by their parents as they make the journey. Without someone to show them the way, the young cranes would not have been able to reach their goal. (Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], pp. 174-75)
Princeton University’s motto is Vitam Mortuis Reddo, which means “To Restore Life to the Dead.” The motto appear over an open Bible. (Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 112)
Although many people fear death, Christians are invited to view death as an entry into a new, eternal form of existence: “The foolish fear death as the greatest of evils, the wise desire it as a rest after labors and the end of ills.” (St. Ambrose)
As Jesus indicates, beyond death a glorious future awaits us: “Death is but a passage out of a prison into a palace.” (John Bunyan)
By gaining an appreciation of our own mortality, the priorities for our lives suddenly fall into place: “Death helps us to see what is worth trusting and loving and what is a waste of time.” (J. Neville Ward)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Amid the storms of life, God is our refuge!
People: God is our Savior! The Lord draws near in our times of need!
Leader: O Lord, hear our prayers! Come quickly to save us!
People: Into Your hands we place our trust! You have been faithful to Your people in ages past, and we trust that Your faithfulness has no end!
God of life, You have revealed to us that You are the way, the truth, and the life. Yet as we consider the hardships that face us, and especially as we ponder the mystery of death, we confess that there are times when we doubt. We want to believe, but we yearn to see tangible evidence with our eyes and to touch firm proof with our hands. Gracious Lord forgive our lack of faith. Cast out our fears, and enable us to place our full trust and confidence in You. For You are our hope not only this day but forevermore. In the name of our resurrected Lord we pray. Amen.
Redeemer Lord, we bring our gifts to You this day not just to pay the bills and to cover the expenses of our church. Rather we bring our gifts to You so that You might breathe into them and use them to accomplish life-giving and life-changing works in our midst and throughout Your world. In the name of our risen Lord we pray. Amen.
God of light and hope, as we continue through this season of Easter, we still seek to grasp the full meaning of that resurrection morning. We know what the angel declared. We are familiar with what the women announced. We have read what the Gospel writers have penned. Yet still we struggle to understand what exactly it all means for us. O Lord, You know the grief that overwhelms us when those whom we love pass away. You know the way that our hearts break when the specter of death appears in our families or among our friends. Especially in those times of loss and sadness, speak to us once more the word of life that You revealed to us through the raising of Your Son, Jesus Christ.
Mighty Lord, our world so often seems to be held in the clutches of death. Wars and murders fill the pages of our newspapers. Reports of bloodshed and massacres occur every day. Yet in the midst of this world that seems so determined to pursue that pathway of death, lead us instead on the pathway that You have prepared for us—the pathway of truth and life. So in the midst of a world of fear and destruction, make us instruments of peace. Shape us to be agents of healing. Mold us to be proclaimers of hope. Empower us and all the world to hear the good news of Your gospel, for even in the darkest hours Your light continues to shine; in our Savior’s name we pray. Amen.