Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 10, 2020
John 14:1-14 Commentary
“Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” If ever there were a word for our COVID-19 moment, this would be it. And in more ways than the merely obvious one. As we will explore, most of the time when someone—even when it’s Jesus—tells you to NOT let your heart be troubled it is because as a matter of fact anyone with the ability to look around can see PLENTY of actual trouble! We need to be told not to be troubled not on sunny summer days while floating on an air mattress on a crystal clear lake with a cool drink in our hand but instead when troubles are in fact abounding. Like now.
In the flow of John’s Gospel, what we see in John 14 takes place before the crucifixion. Yet in the Year A Lectionary we read this a month after Good Friday and in the Eastertide season. So what do we see here in John 14 that is startlingly instructive? As we will note, the disciples were no doubt startled by what Jesus said that very night and that sense of disorientation and startlement would only deepen in the next 24 hours. So how do Jesus’ words here “sound” in both the context in which they were originally spoken and now to also our ears given what we know was coming next for Jesus?
First, a note on the “acoustics” of this chapter. So often we read the “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” lines here with confidence and some gospel bravado. But do you think that is how Jesus spoke those words? I doubt it. It was a dark and gloomy night for Jesus. He knew and sensed what was up. Further, back up into what we call John 13 and we will see Judas’ sad departure and the foretelling of Peter’s tragic denials. Things were falling apart fast around Jesus and so I think it is at least as likely—if not from a human point of view far more likely—that Jesus spoke the words of John 14 with a quivering chin and with tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
After all, Jesus is telling them not to let their hearts be troubled but the main reason he needed to say that is because in reality, trouble was all around. And as Gethsemane will soon prove, Jesus’ own heart is in turmoil enough as it is.
But even before that grim evening on what we now call “Maundy Thursday,” the disciples had seen Jesus’ distress before. Just recently he’d wept over Lazarus. He’d welled up with tears on other occasions, too. The disciples had also seen Jesus laugh, of course, and they’d seen him be surprised and delighted over life. They’d watched him eat, seen him nod off when sleepy, watched him clean his teeth and turn aside to void his bladder. They’d seen his love and compassion for the little people they encountered and sensed his grace and forgiveness for almost everybody.
But lately they’d also seen him take steps that were getting him ever closer to something they all feared: Jesus’ own death. Maybe they repressed that fear most of the time but soon and very soon Jesus’ demise would be on display for all to see and it would cause every last one of them to flee Jesus liked frightened school children.
So when Jesus says “I am the way” in response to Thomas’ question about what the “way” was, what Jesus was telling them was that the way to life abundant was down the path he was walking that very moment, and it was not a fast track to the top! Very soon the disciples will see Jesus crossed out by the Romans, writhing on a cross of despair, pain, dereliction, and finally death. Surely Thomas was not alone in wondering across the next couple of days, “If Jesus is the way, then how can his ‘way’ lead to anything good?” Golgotha surely won’t look like the path to the heavenly “dwelling places” to which Jesus refers in John 14. The cross was the end of any “way” any sane person would want to travel. The cross was in fact not “the way” but “the dead end.”
But then Jesus quickly goes on to say that his “way” will lead to also the one he calls “Father.” Now it’s Philip’s turn to chime in. “Show us the Father.” And in reply Jesus tells him “You’ve been seeing him all along.”
Really? God the Father? God the Father with a piece of chive stuck between his incisors after dinner? God the Father conked out in sleepy exhaustion in the back of a boat? God the Father weeping and crying? God the Father cozying up to a Samaritan woman with a past, to prostitutes, to tax collectors? God the Father being so gracious with sinful folks and so harsh with religious folks? Oh, and the next day, God the Father pinned to spits of wood with spikes through wrists and ankles?
No, no, no: the Father must be different than all that. Where’s the glory? Where’s the dazzling light show? Where’s the hellfire and brimstone of judgment?
Jesus’ claim that all along the disciples had been seeing the Father whenever they had seen Jesus is far, far more scandalous and shocking than any other such story of hidden identity we’ve ever known. This is not just Clark Kent really being Superman or the pauper who is really the king in disguise. This is not Aragorn the King of Gondor hidden inside the odd ranger called Strider and it certainly is not even the lowly frog who is a prince waiting to be kissed.
This is the Holy One of the cosmos revealing his truest nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Whether we look at this pre-crucifixion as the disciples originally did in that room that night in John 14 or from our Eastertide perspective just on the other side of our annual celebration of Good Friday and Easter, the effect is the same: utter startlement and even bewilderment that this can be true.
The Way to life is through a cross. The humble man from Nazareth who was so full of “grace and truth” was the Father in our midst all along.
This Lectionary reading is a scant 14 verses long. But it’s hard to imagine any other stretch of the Gospels that contains so much of everything that makes the Gospel wonderful and mysterious than this one! At a perilous time of pandemic when everyone is seeking to be less troubled, to know that God can be with us in this scary and disorienting time, Jesus’ call to not be troubled helps us but only because the same One who issued the call soon found himself in—quite literally—a hell of a lot of trouble. But if he’s been to hell and back for us and for our salvation, then we know in this COVID-19 moment, he is here. With us. So let not your hearts be troubled.
It’s curious to note that in this key chapter, the more prominent disciples like Peter and John fade to the background in favor of lesser-known figures like Thomas and Philip. Indeed, neither Philip nor Thomas speaks more than two or three times in the gospels (virtually not at all in the Synoptic Gospels) and yet here they are the key discussion partners with Jesus. Perhaps this says something about the atmosphere of the upper room as John sketches it for us. Judas has already stolen away. Peter was probably stunned into silence to hear Jesus predict his upcoming three-fold denial. On that night in which Jesus was betrayed, things were topsy-turvy and upside-down for the disciples. Perhaps the nature of this famous exchange—and who was doing the talking—was part of all that went into that evening of darkness and shadows.
In one of the many fascinating portraits sketched by neurologist Oliver Sacks we see what could be described as a metaphor for the Christian life. Tourette’s Syndrome is a bizarre mental disorder that causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes also raunchy swear words. One man with Tourette’s whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive type adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. The kicker is that the man is a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. When the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, of course, yet I find this doctor a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” in a role. There really can be a great transformation of your life when you are focused on just one thing–focused to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
Something like that is our Christian goal as we travel the way that just is Jesus. We lose ourselves in the Savior and are transformed. We do follow his Way, even though it leads to and through a cross. And we do see that Jesus and the Father are one and that we can become one with both through baptism and then living out that identity every day. We will be changed. Our old selves will wither away. Thanks be to God!
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