Preached on 14 May 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. These comforting words begin a passage we often hear at funerals. This passage has brought comfort and reassurance to countless people grieving loved ones who have gone ahead.
How might we hear it differently in this context, reading it when we are well into the Easter season? We have rejoiced at the empty tomb and wondered at the resurrection appearances. Now we get to the nitty-gritty of life after the Resurrection; of discipleship after the Resurrection. No wonder Jesus addresses their troubled hearts.
It feels like a bit of a time-warp here. John is writing long after all of these things occurred, but he writes about what happened before. He is writing down what he remembers from that night. The night before everything changed; the night before their world seemed to turn upside down; the night before Jesus was crucified.
This is the story John tells of that night. It’s commonly called Jesus’ farewell discourse and it goes on for pages and pages, four chapters worth. Jesus is preparing his disciples for life without him. He has washed their feet and told them they must be servants to one another. He has told them that one of them will betray him and another will deny him. And he has told them that he will leave them – he is going where they cannot follow.
Now he tells his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” In the days and years to come, there will be much to trouble their hearts. So, Jesus is preparing them. He gives them words of comfort and encouragement and instruction to carry with them the rest of their lives.
That night, of course, Judas betrays Jesus and he is arrested. He is brought before the priests and then Pilate for judgement and Peter disowns him. Then Jesus is crucified and buried. The disciples scatter.
I imagine their hearts are very troubled.
But that’s just the beginning.
We see in our reading from Acts a community so divided that they are willing to kill and die. Luke tells of Stephen’s death, drawing parallels with that of Jesus: After proclaiming God’s word, teaching with great wisdom, and working miracles, he is arrested on the testimony of false witnesses. He is tried and driven outside of the city where he is put to death. While they are stoning him, he commends his spirit to the Lord and asks forgiveness for those who stone him.
In the second reading, Peter writes to communities suffering Roman persecution. Following the Way of Jesus is dangerous. Whose heart wouldn’t be troubled?
Peter offers words of encouragement and reminds them who they are and how they are to live. “You are a chosen race,” he writes, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
So, in light of all that, let’s listen again to the message of Jesus in this familiar passage.
The long arc in John’s gospel goes from Jesus with God in Creation: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
It continues through the Incarnation when “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
and it ends with Jesus returning to God, “Jesus said to Mary, ‘… go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” The Ascension is more important than the Resurrection.
Jesus’ mission is to make the Father known; to reveal God. That is the “work” he does and the “work” he is sending his disciples to do. The “works” they will do have to do with revealing God and restoring relationships with God rather than signs or miracles.
In John, eternal life and the kingdom of God are about a kind or quality of life in the present, not so much about some future after we die. John writes a lot about abiding or dwelling not as in a location but as in a deep, close connection with the other. Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in him. He prays that the disciples abide in him and he in them.
Jesus goes before us preparing the way and abides with us and in us enabling and empowering us to do his works to continue his mission of establishing and restoring relationship; of revealing God; revealing God’s love for the world; revealing God’s dream of the kingdom.
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says, “You already believe in God” – you trust God, you set your heart on God. “Believe also in me,” Jesus says. Trust Jesus in the same way, set your heart on him.
In times of trouble, in times of divisiveness, in times when it feels risky or dangerous to follow the way of Jesus, to challenge the Powers in defense of the lowly, the voiceless, may we remember Jesus words to his disciples:
He abides in us.
He goes before us to prepare the way.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
May we set our hearts on Jesus.