Imagine something disastrous is about to happen. An asteroid hitting the earth. A great fire. Or maybe the death of someone in the room.
Now imagine that you’ve been given the task of explaining to those gathered in the room why this coming disaster is actually a good thing, and why they should be glad that it is happening.
That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? But that’s what Jesus is trying to do in the gospel reading that we just heard.
Our reading from John takes us back to the last Supper, to Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his death. They’ve shared a meal. He’s washed their feet. Judas has just gone out into the night to betray him. Jesus has told his friends that he will be put to death, that he’s going away.
And then he tells them, “Do not be troubled! If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father. It is to your advantage that I go away”
Yeah right! At that moment, nobody’s buying it. No one sees the advantage, and this is definitely not a rejoicing crowd. This is a community in crisis, fearful, anxious, sad, questioning. Jesus is trying to tell them that his death is actually a good thing for them, but they are having a hard time hearing it.
Maybe you know how it is in a moment of crisis. That moment when you go to the doctor’s office, and you see the doctor after the biopsy, and you hear the word “cancer”, and after that you really don’t hear or remember anything else the doctor says. That’s what the upper room must have been like for Jesus’ closest friends. They had to come to terms with the fact that the reality they had known and experienced, walking alongside Jesus in the flesh, was about to disappear forever.
But, Jesus tells them, there is a new reality coming, and it is even better. And though they can’t really hear him, Jesus tells them about it anyways, he tries to paint a picture for them of the new reality that will be ushered in by his death. A post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, post-ascension reality. Or, as we might like to think about it, our reality.
And so Jesus begins a long discourse which lasts from Chapters 14 through 17 of the gospel of John. He answers their questions, he circles around and around, repeating himself, saying the same thing in different ways, painting a picture of the new reality using a variety of images. We heard just a snippet of that discourse today. Some of what Jesus says really does sound like a paradox. “I am going away and I am coming to you.” Well, how does that work? We get the going away part, death we are familiar with. But what does Jesus mean when he says that he is coming to us. When he says that he is going to the Father, and that the Father and he will come to us and make their home with us? Is that why it’s better that he’s going away? Is that why we should rejoice?
Let’s listen to some more of what Jesus has to say:
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am, there you may be also.”
“I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.
“As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us.”
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with you forever. You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you.”
The picture that Jesus is painting here is an image of divine in-dwelling, of God living in us. The images he uses, of family, of home, of a vine and branches, the language of abiding and being in and dwelling all point to a new reality for the disciples. Whereas up until that time they had experienced Jesus as a flesh and blood human being, the new post-crucifixion, post-Easter, post-ascension reality is that they will experience the divine, Father, Son and Spirit as an in-dwelling presence, God within us.
Is that how you think of God? Maybe not. We use a lot of language that points to a God who is out there, not in here.
How is it that we came to think of God as out there, as up there in heaven, as distant and remote when Jesus describes the post-Easter reality in such intimate terms, using language of mutual in-dwelling, God in us and we in God, using such participatory and relational words? Well, the question of how we got to the idea of a distant God might be a good one for theologians or church historians.
But more importantly, the question for us is how do we experience God?
I take Jesus at his word. I believe that God dwells in me, and in us collectively. And when I say God, I don’t want to get hung up on language. If you are more comfortable saying Father, or Jesus, or Christ, or Spirit, or the divine, or Grace or Love, that’s fine, let’s not let our language get in the way. I believe that God dwells in us, just like the picture that Jesus paints in his farewell discourse. But I also believe that even though God dwells in us, often we don’t even know it. We can live our lives totally unaware of the divine presence and power which lives in each one of us and in our communities. Despite the reality that the divine makes its home in us, our minds are perfectly capable of convincing ourselves that God is a separate entity, one that must be out there somewhere. In fact that’s the way we usually think.
But every so often we manage to stop thinking long enough to experience this new reality, the God who makes a home in us and in whom we find our home. Way back in the 1970s, Karl Rahner, one of my favourite theologians, predicted that the Christians of the future would be “ordinary mystics”, people who follow Christ not because of what somebody else said but rather because they themselves had experienced something. I think Rahner was right. I believe that most of us who are here this morning are here because we are indeed “ordinary mystics”, people who have experienced something, and want to experience something more.
Do you experience God in the way that Jesus is describing, as an in-dwelling presence, as one who makes a home in you?
I dare say that the honest answer to this question for many of us is “I’m not sure!” Because sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it, isn’t it? It isn’t always easy to articulate, it isn’t always easy to get a handle on our own experiences, especially our spiritual experiences.
Which is why there is such amazing value in pursuing our spiritual journey as a community rather than solely as individuals. Our experience of the divine in our lives is hard to get a handle on, hard to pin down, and we need to share our experiences in community in order to figure out just how it is that God is present and working in our lives. That’s what the church is meant to be, a community where we can share our stories with each other and where we can hear the stories of those who have come before us, in our scriptures and through our traditions.
Jesus is getting us ready for a new reality, the amazing, incredible good news that God is to be found within us, making a home with those that God loves.
How do we experience that new reality?
Yr C Easter 6. May 26 2019. St. Albans
Readings: Acts 16.9-15; Ps 67; Rev 21.10,22-22.5; John 14.23-29
Image by Merry Losie, Creative Commons