I AM in you

sermon on John 14:1-20

 

There’s a scene in the movie “Three Amigos” where these three clueless, doofy white Hollywood actors walk into a Mexican cantina. The bartender whispers a message to Steve Martin’s character, named Lucky Day: “The German says, Wait here.” Lucky looks thoughtful, nods carefully, and remains thoroughly confused. Because it’s not a message for him. It’s for an arms dealer, not a pampered playful actor. He couldn’t possibly know what that message meant.*

This might be your Lucky Day, having-your-own-Three-Amigos-kind-of moment. The reading says you know where Jesus is going as he prepares a place for you. Hearing that message, I can see you looking thoughtful, nodding carefully, and remaining confused. You don’t know where he’s going, what it means, do you?

At least you’ve got the benefit of hindsight, while within the story, the followers of Jesus must’ve been baffled. As we hear the words of Jesus talking about going away and coming back, we might figure out from context clues that this is on the night in which Jesus is betrayed. In the previous chapter, after he washed feet and loved and served, Judas, who betrayed him, went out into the night to fetch authorities to arrest Jesus. In less than 24 hours, he’ll be dead. But on the third day, we happen to know that Jesus will have risen from the dead. So we might be able to piece together that when Jesus talks about going away and coming back, it might relate to crucifixion and resurrection. Thomas and Philip and the rest of the amigos would’ve had little clue that Jesus could be meaning this.

Maybe you’re able to nod your head a bit more confidently. You might recognize this message as slightly less cryptic and confusing than you first thought, with some vague sense of what’s going on here…Except the stuff of “I AM the way, the truth and the life, and nobody comes except through me” and Thomas saying “We don’t know where in the heck you’re going, so how in blazes can we know the way?”

I adapted Thomas’s language there a bit. I started out with it just to sound silly, but realized it can point to our usual interpretation of this passage. But this mysterious message from Jesus actually insists we redefine our understandings and outlook.

We mostly take this as being about heaven. Jesus says his Father’s house has many rooms. At a funeral, you may have heard Jesus going to prepare a place as sort of the equivalent of him getting your heavenly condo ready, as a turndown service to leave a mint on the pillow, so your accommodations will be set when you get to heaven.

That’s often accompanied by a notion that Jesus is your only ticket to heaven, that if you want to get there, then you need Jesus. This passage gets used not only as a gentle assurance that insiders have someplace good to go afterlife, but also used as a cudgel to whack outsiders and threaten they’ll be left out, to exclude entire religions as unable to get into heaven. It makes Jesus into a bouncer at the heavenly hotel, waving his amigos past the velvet rope, but rejecting the bad hombres and, in the severest interpretations, telling them that not only are they not welcome, that there’s no place prepared for them, but pointing them instead to the blazing fires of hell as their eternal abode.

That’s nasty. But it’s also a sloppy reading of this passage. It claims to understand a secret message from Jesus to mean that if you don’t understand the secret message, you’ll be damned. That gets it wrong, and exactly violently wrong.

To start, I notice that almost all the time the Bible refers to the Father’s house, or the house of the Lord, or God’s house it is talking about…the temple. Not heaven. That’s also the case for the one other time the Gospel of John uses the phrase “my Father’s house” as Jesus is cleansing the temple.

As we’ve been reminded in these weeks, the point in the Gospel of John is that Jesus has replaced the temple. If that was the place where you could go to meet God, to be on the Father’s turf, to be chez Pere, now we look to Jesus to meet God, to understand God, to have God revealed for us.

Of course, that’s part of what Jesus reiterates in this passage—that when you’ve seen him, you’ve seen God. To know the Son is to know the Father. There is no separate surprise waiting behind the curtain. What you need to know, you get from Jesus already.

Further, when Jesus describes himself as the place to meet God, it’s not something we’re waiting for. It isn’t post-mortem when your soul flies to the sky. John’s Gospel says eternal life already begins now in this relationship. Other Gospels similarly recognize the kingdom of heaven is present now, breaking into our earthly realm. You already are able to dwell with God.

A vital characteristic of the term “dwelling places” is that this isn’t isolated reserved space, but that it ties to the verb remain, “remaining places,” like we heard last week amid the reflection of I AM the vine and you are the branches as remain or “abide in my love.” You see, this is less a physical space than a mode of existence. The dwelling place isn’t elsewhere; the dwelling place is in you, and you in him! The abundant place Jesus prepares is to abide, remain, dwell, live in his love, you and all the amigos. Not because you discerned the cryptic message and figured out a roadmap, but because the whole point is to welcome you in. That’s what the way of Jesus does.

That leads back to the confusion about I AM the way, the truth, and the life. It’s exactly the opposite of some general domineering view that this is a “my way or the highway” kind of way, that God shuts the door on you if you don’t agree. Rather, Jesus is inviting you into his abundant love and life. Finding a place in Jesus is never an exclusive hierarchy, but is for sharing love. There’s no discouraging backside threat to this encouragement of “don’t let your hearts be troubled.”

Yet that clearly subverts any usual expectations our society has. If Jesus is talking about life on the night before he dies, we could be skeptical whether his way is the right and true way. We might figure our survival instinct would point us away from such a path.

Such resistance to it also shows when Jesus argues with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor with power to execute him, who is so confused he asks, “what is truth?” and who can’t see that the kingdom of Jesus could be different than earthly kingdoms. Pilate is stuck in the lies and falsehoods of his authority: that might makes right, that the way to peace is through violence, that the strongest and biggest must be best.

But the way of Jesus subverts that. His way of offering himself in love and laying down his life cannot be understood by empire. Those fixated on appearances and stature will never be able to grasp it. It is not what ads claiming to have the way to happiness and longevity can truly offer. It cannot be marketed and it cannot be commanded. It feels questionable because it defies our norms of success, and so is risky. This way of suffering love, dying for others, loving to the end is not the way this world rules.

But it is the way of life because it is the way of God. That is what Jesus is saying here: if you want to see God, look at the love that gives itself away, that doesn’t selfishly insist on its own presumed best interests. That is how you’ll know God, as Jesus goes to the cross to confront oppressions of violent authorities, a nonviolent resistance, a force more powerful than the biggest military in the world, of love that cannot finally be killed, God’s enduring work.

That is how Jesus invites you to live at every turn—not clinging selfishly and not to give in to hate, not persuaded it’s better to avoid getting your hands dirty, not to imagine that it’s about having everything you ever wanted, but to wade into the threatening lies, able to risk your wellbeing for the sake of others, to take pain and sorrow in order to transform it, to bear wounds to heal.** Jesus says that’s what he’s doing and that’s how you’ll truly find life, and that can never be taken away.

Now, clearly there are major ways such sacrificial love is needed around us, to keep breaking into our world. It’s needed when we figure we can take away from those on welfare. It’s needed against claims that our wellbeing is damaged by those with other religions or skin colors or nations of origin. It’s needed when we would extract life from natural environments around us and dispose of them as expendable resources. It’s needed when deadly weapons and militarized budgets come at the cost of life. For the true good, for real life that God intends, that is when we need to give up our comfort and alleged safety for this greater good.

But it’s also abundant in smaller moments. This way of Jesus is daily lived out as you practice caring and sharing in your family, when you set aside your selfish desires, when you take time to listen, when you examine your budget for how it can help others, when hear Aldo Leopold’s land ethic,*** when you prepare to resist immigrations police, when you take your turn, when you pause to help, when you teach and clean and serve and observe and on and on.

It shouldn’t be surprising, that for all the dominance of violent power and selfish tenacity, that this way of God is pervasive and all around us. After all, it’s part of what Jesus promises you—that his works will amplify. It happens increasingly, as he also promises he won’t abandon you to this practice by yourself, because you are his amigos in love. He remains in you. God dwells in you. The Holy Spirit abides in you. You have become part of God’s spreading efforts. It wasn’t only once long ago, since you bear that presence now, as heaven continues breaking into this world. And through all the struggles you are embodied also to say “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”

There’s really no secret in that. But there’s still a lot to discover.

 

 

 

 

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh7eAG2jJkA

** see Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ, p25

*** From the Foreword to “A Sand County Almanac,” finished 70 years ago today:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

These wild things, I admit had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not. …

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.

These essays attempt to weld these three concepts. Such a view of land and people is, of course subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias. But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.

Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.

 

Aldo Leopold

Madison, Wisconsin

4 March 1948

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Mothers’ Day and Matters of Death & Life

sermon on Acts7:55-60; 1Pet2:2-10; John14:1-14

 

If your faith is going to get you killed, you might like to anticipate it and know why. That’s just one question of life’s trajectory as followers of Jesus in the surprise our first reading presents.

In Acts, we heard the very end of a story. Not even catch-as-catch-can to pick up in the middle of things, the lectionary drops it, leaving us with a shocked “what-the-heck-caused-that?!” No sooner had Stephen opened his mouth than the mob was dragging him out to stone him to death. It’s violent, and jaw-droppingly, abruptly so. You can’t even avert your attention, it hit so suddenly without the rest of the story.

As it happens, Stephen seemed ready for it, even if we weren’t. Our snippet gave practically no indication of what led to his tragic fate. From this ending, Stephen is identified as the first Christian martyr, usually meaning the first to be killed for following Jesus. Now, if one can evidently be brutally lynched not only for being Jesus but for following Jesus, we might want to back up to figure out why to anticipate that.

Last week, I mentioned how—in spite of their best intentions—the food pantry of the early Christian communists wasn’t running fairly. Chapter 6 of Acts described ethnic discrepancies that meant certain widows weren’t getting their share in the daily distribution. Without explaining too much dynamics, it’s as if German-heritage Lutherans like me neglected responsibility to Scandinavians for somehow considering them inferior or secondary. (Nevermind that—both in Acts and our own history—things continued to spread exponentially past those kind of restrictive confines, since the Holy Spirit always plans beyond the stubborn barriers we erect).

Besides the first problem of dumb injustices of ethnic boundaries, it also turned out that the core group of 11 (or 12) apostles who had been closest to Jesus said they were too busy to worry about the food pantry, saying they had to preach sermons so others needed to be found to staff the pantry.

That’s where Stephen came in, as the central one along with six others hired or commissioned to be deacons. It’s a word literally for “waiter,” for one who serves food. (We’ve continued to use the term for distinctions in church. Last summer at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly it was adopted as the term for official roles other than pastors. Pastors are responsible for Word and Sacrament, while deacons are those officially involved in Word and Service categories of ministry.)

Like that, Stephen is chosen with Philip and five others especially to serve food. But no sooner were they in the role than Stephen wound up a preacher anyway. This pattern is consistent in the book of Acts and is kind of funny. I mentioned in Bible discussion a couple weeks ago that, even though we know this book as “Acts of the Apostles,” it could better be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since she’s constantly undoing the Acts the Apostles have done!

In this case, the apostles said they had to focus on sermons so somebody else should serve food. But Stephen got put on trial and needed to defend himself, and so the guy selected for food service wound up chosen by the Spirit to preach the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. In the chapter after this, another deacon, Philip, ends up fulfilling Jesus’ words about being witnesses to the ends of the earth as he preaches to an Ethiopian eunuch.

So much for the apostles trying to stake out their turf or for Peter’s central place in charge of the church’s hierarchy! We constantly learn that the Holy Spirit isn’t too interested in the center, much less who thinks they’re in charge, but keeps pushing to edges of new beginnings.* Stephen’s sermon proclaimed that humans all too often reject as unpopular how God has chosen to act. As if to prove his point, they kill the messenger.

For the original question of what got Stephen killed, what prompted the unleashing of this aggression against him, a basic answer is that he was trying to take seriously what faith meant in following the God of Jesus.

Maybe more to the point for us, the model isn’t that you should be getting folks so ticked off they want to crush you. Though his words commending his spirit to God and responding to the hatred with a prayer for forgiveness echo the model in Jesus’ own crucifixion, Stephen’s faith isn’t just for the ending. Though we might wonder if we’d be ready to die faithfully, it’s also good to practice long before the end. Stephen is a martyr in the fuller biblical sense, not merely for getting killed, but as a witness, that commending your life into God’s care is the greatest power. The rejection and being driven out by people cannot rupture that relationship, since nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week I happened across an essay from Luther suggesting when frightened or attacked by anything—not just an angry gang—to resist by saying, “No, you’ll not have the last word!…If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.”**

And yet, maybe we need to step back a bit. If you’re not awaiting a moment when a mob will seize you and drag you out of town, if testifying by confronting heresy isn’t really the epitome of what seems to matter about faith, if your main question isn’t really even whether God’s love is stronger than death, if it’s not so much about standing firm in the face of horrible fears for some ultimate ending, then you may instead have questions about getting to the middle of the story.

That pairs with our Gospel reading. In fact, it’s almost directly what Thomas asks and another Philip reiterates, a question not so concerned about the final endpoint but about the meantime, the middle of the story. Thomas says it this way: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way to get there?” It’s tough to arrive at your destination if you don’t even know which roads to take.

But Jesus doesn’t reply with pointers to start those disciples down the right path of living a bit more faithfully. He doesn’t say, “Well, why don’t you try to be nicer to your family? Maybe you should gossip less? Or isn’t it about time you check the list of volunteer opportunities to see where your skills could be helpful?” He doesn’t ask what injustices you’re confronting and certainly doesn’t prompt, “So…how are you doing on your goals and five-year plan?”

In a way, we like those sorts of mileposts to measure progress, though. We might not feel so saintly as Stephen, but certainly must be doing better than the murderous mob. When things aren’t going the direction we’d want, we perversely even like those directional indicators for offering blame, even when it lands back on ourselves for straying from the straight and narrow, or failing to make the improvements we’d intended.

Instead of giving directions, though, Jesus says I AM the way. Now, that’s not as Jesus himself is directions or instructions or measurements of comparison. Neither is it that he is a means to your end, as if he’s the rocketship you climb aboard for a ride to heaven. No, Jesus is saying: don’t try to get elsewhere because I’m already with you.

That’s still not satisfactory for the disciples, though. This other Philip asks for something else: “Show us God and we’ll be satisfied.” Jesus says, that’s what I’ve been showing you this whole time, throughout the story! Don’t go looking for something different, waiting for more spiritual sensations, wandering off after shiny new and improved-ness, expecting you’ll get it all figured out, all mapped out. I bring God’s presence for you, Jesus says. And just after this he says, when I’m not here, you’ll have my Spirit. God always with you! That’s what you need! That’s it.

Yet that brings us even further back. If we aren’t confronting the ultimate end like Stephen, of needing to declare faithfully that our lives are in Jesus’ hands, and if like Thomas and Philip we’ve received the assurance that Jesus is with us even though we’re not sure where we’re headed or how to place our next steps, then that brings us all the way back to the first verse from 1st Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, tasting that the Lord is good.” Like newborn infants, you are nursed and nourished and nurtured and raised by this mothering God’s goodness. Commending your life into God’s care or committing to God’s pathways isn’t something you even need to do because you are carried already and always in God’s arms, sustained by God offering herself for you, from giving you birth, through life, beyond death, to new beginnings.

That’s tenderly wonderful good news, but it also comes with an ongoing awareness: you may wish it were so quick and simple as going down defiantly in a blaze of glory, with a heavenly vision as you’re confidently facing foul villains. But faith isn’t about Stephen’s ending. Even he witnessed that the Holy Spirit continued to abide with him. His life was already and always in Jesus’ hands. Neither, then, is this about changing your path, about needing to reorient your life. I find the term “followers of Jesus” generally helpful for us these days, but that isn’t trying to indicate that you’re following Jesus off elsewhere. He is with you.

Yet for this elusive assurance to be most effective, you probably need constant doses of it. If you’re longing for the pure, spiritual milk like newborn infants, a newborn nurses like eight or a dozen times per day, right? At best, you’re getting communion here and tasting that good gift from God once a week. Not that being away from here removes you from God’s maternal, eternal care or excludes you from God’s embrace. Far from saying that at all. But if you have to wait a week, you’re probably starving, longing, bawling and crying out, or just feeling so faithfully vulnerable, in desire for another feeding of this pure, spiritual milk to fill you with what you need to live, to satisfy your spirit, and revive your growth.

So, to continue to nurse and nurture you for the days ahead, here’s once again the assurance: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.  And why don’t you turn an become surprising preachers for each other. Make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead with those words: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.

* See Justo Gonzalez Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit on these observations

** Luther’s Works, vol43, p128 “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”

 

I believe there are worthwhile reasons Jesus refers to God the Father. But today some of those reasons are offset by Mothers’ Day, which gives us good reason to hear this passage with its very Father-heavy language instead in a motherly way:

The holy gospel according to John.

Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said,] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Mother’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? 3And 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. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Mother except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Mother also. From now on you do know her and have seen her.”

8Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Mother, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Mother. How can you say, ‘Show us the Mother’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Mother who dwells in me does her works. 11Believe me that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very 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 Mother. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Mother may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God within us, for the Word of God among us, thanks be to God.

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