I begin today like many people will, who will take time to say: Happy Mother’s Day! So I say to all the blessed mothers who gave birth to us; who were always there for us; who always loved us; who always toiled endlessly in front and behind the scenes on our behalf and who have, quite frankly, put up with us…to all the saints…and I know my mother sure was a Saint with me…I salute you! God bless you!
Because indeed, to all those of us fortunate enough to have been blessed with good mothers, usually today is when we like to spoil them: where most of us have the brilliant, so original idea to take mom out to lunch, or maybe even to supper.
Now I say that with first-hand knowledge because for the better part of my teenage years, I worked in a chinese restaurant in my home town of Paris, Ontario and every year Mother’s Day in the restaurant industry (in case you didn’t know) was always all hands on deck; code RED!!! Nobody was allowed to be suddenly sick or take the day off unless you were planning on not coming back, because every year absolute chaos would ensue for restaurant workers as we tried to manage and cope with the stressfulness and all the trouble of the day and hour.
And because I always worked in the kitchen, I remember the kitchen manager would sometimes give us a little pep talk: okay everyone, you stay calm, stay cool, I got your back… You know, when I think about it, it kinda reminds me of Jesus when he says in our gospel to his disciples today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” Believe in God, believe also in me…
Now Jesus is saying these words to his disciples on the night of “The Last Supper” when Jesus knows that his hour has come to depart from this world, and his disciples are tense; Jesus can see it -the fear in their eyes and the concern on their faces knowing that something isn’t just quite right. I’m sure like how many of us are feeling right now that something is definitely wrong today, because we can’t be with our sweet mothers or with many of our other loved ones because of this whole coronavirus thing, and do what we’d like to do which is to take them out or gather around a dinner table and shower our mothers with gifts and tokens and other signs of our affection that communicate words like: “You’re the best mom ever!” or “I’m so lucky to know you!” Or thanks for always being there for me and things like that…
And it’s this concern for knowing he’s not going to be there for his disciples that Jesus wants to assure his disciples that he will do everything he can in his power to be with them always. Jesus says to them: “I go to prepare a place for you and 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.” (John 14.3)
It’s a beautiful image that Jesus uses -borrowing from ancient jewish engagement practices where the groom would traditionally build onto his father’s house an additional set of rooms that one day would become the dwelling place for him and his new bride and until the new addition was complete, you see the groom was not allowed to come and gather his bride to be to him.
Now to be sure, these are very comforting words. As a pastor, often I use them at funerals to help comfort people especially of faith who have suffered a great loss. A loss, which nowadays, and especially today, many of us are feeling and so Jesus’ opening words to us as contemporary Christians: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” is very comforting.
Because this is the Jesus whom we all know and love right? -the warm cuddly all inclusive good guy Messiah. But then just a few verses later Jesus starts to make a few other statements, like: “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” (v.6) but then he drops the big proverbial post-modernism bombshell on us when he says: “[and oh yeah…]no one comes to the Father except through me…”
Usually nowadays this is a good place for a mic drop…as especially well-meaning, educated, and mainstream contemporary Christians begin to get a little antsy; maybe even a little troubled…and if you don’t believe me, next time you’re able to go to a party with a mix of all sorts of people go ahead and tell people that only through Jesus Christ do people get to go to the Father and see what kinda reaction you get… Cause I don’t know about you, but this is the place in John’s gospel where my brain and theological training perks up as a little warning light goes off dutifully informing me that sooner or later, if I stand by these holy words of scripture then I’m probably going to have to render an account of them. Sometimes I wish: “Oh Jesus, did you really have to say this – that no one comes to the Father except through me”?
It kinda reminds me of this cute story about a man who dies and goes to heaven, which, he thought, was like an enormous house. And when he got to heaven, an angel began to escort him down a long hallway past “many rooms” that appeared like mansions themselves. “Oh! What’s in that room?” the man asked, pointing to a very somber looking group of people chanting a Gregorian mass. “Well that’s the Roman Catholic room,” said the angel. “Very high church.” “Okay, well who’s in that room?” the man asked, pointing to a group of brightly coloured dark skinned people smoking something funny. “Well, That’s the Rastafarian group,” said the angel. “Very lively.” Wow! “Well how about that room over there?” asked the man, pointing to a group of bald-headed people meditating to the sound of an enormous gong. “Oh That’s the Zen group,” said the angel. “Very quiet. You would hardly know they were here.” And then as they were about to round the corner, the angel stopped the man, “Now, when we get to the next room, I would appreciate it if you would be very quiet and tiptoe past. We mustn’t make any sound, you see…” “Oh yeah, well Why’s that?” asked the man. “Because in that room there are fundamentalist Christians; and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Now I like this story because it appeals to my admittedly modern Liberal theological education, training, humour, and outlook that surely, there must be enough room in the mind and heaven of God to accommodate all of humanity’s great testaments and expressions of our love and trust to him! This joke makes me feel good about my spirituality; that in particular, to be frank, that I’m not like those westboro baptist Christian types for instance who seem to have a very narrow minded understanding of who’s in and who’s out of God’s good graces and don’t mind telling folks that unless you accept Jesus as your Saviour, not only are you not going to Heaven, but you’re going to the other place…So according to them, I guess it’s: “Bye bye, Ghandi…” So much for inspiring Martin Luther King Jr…
So on the surface of these words of Jesus, that no one comes to the Father except through me, there’s a tension between grace and trouble in these words. I think as conscientious Christians, we do right to inquire: “What are we to make of this statement?” Certainly, any cursory glance of Christian history has shown us in not always flattering ways what happens when certain groups of us have insisted upon a very tight, narrow, and exclusively literal interpretation of these words. Certainly, to be honest with you, as a pastor, especially when I talk to young people, who are curious about our contemporary world with all the different faith expressions and religions and wonder if what I think is something to the effect of “Christianity or bust…”it certainly makes these conversations very difficult. Perhaps some of you have had difficulty explaining or making sense of these words to say your children or grandchildren. Certainly, anyone who is sensitive to other faith traditions pauses to give thought to these words concerning what did Jesus really mean, or what was he getting at, really?
I think here is the place where it is really helpful to have a little historical-critical appreciation of our Bible and to remember that these words were spoken in a very specific context; a context, where it is useful to remember that the author of John’s Gospel is not writing as a modern Christian to a global audience, but remember, John’s gospel is being written at a time when the Jesus followers were just existing on the margins of Judean society. Where in the days that John wrote his gospel, the Johannine community was being kicked out of synagogues and their families for confessing faith in Jesus. The American Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, puts it this way, that
Jesus here is not addressing some interfaith conference with Hindus and Buddhists present. [But rather] He is talking to his close friends at a tender farewell moment. This language… is confessional language or love language. Jesus is speaking to a small group of his closest friends on the night before he dies. He is up to his eyelids in trying to speak loving words to his brokenhearted friends. He is “giving them everything he [can] think of to help them survive without him, and he [uses] the singular, exclusive language that people who love so often do. And when John [writes] it down, he [uses] that same language too.” It is language like we use in our tender and teary moments: “You are the best mother in the whole world. You are the only man in the world for me. No one has ever loved a child the way I love you.”
[Notice that these turns of phrases are not meant to be construed as] objective language to judge other religions or people from other faith traditions. This is language from the depths of relationship, spoken only for love, [and for lovers to grasp.] (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Only Way To God, 1999)
I think Taylor’s insights into John’s language by the way, are right on – because I think this is the way that often many of us speak of our families – in such exclusive terms. And for me the big give away is found in Jesus’ statement that: “No one comes to the Father, except through me,” Notice here Jesus’ deliberate use of describing God in terms of closeness and intimacy as the Father. Jesus doesn’t say: “No one comes to a generic God, except through me…” but what he does, is describe God again in those tender terms we use to describe a parent, like a Father or Mother, like when Jesus teaches his disciples The Lord’s Prayer, and the word he uses for Father, is the familiar aramaic word Abba, which is like saying the colloquial nowadays word -“Daddy.” O Daddy, who art in heaven…
Because what I think Jesus wanted to impress upon his disciples is that especially during times of trouble, during times of grief, during times of separation – and during times like these, that the God we have, the God that they and we have glimpsed in the face of Jesus, is not some distant, remote disinterested Zeus, or Thor , but is the God that is as close to us as a loving parent, a loving Father who shows us his ways, or like a loving Mother who gives us life. Jesus tells his disciple Thomas in response to his question: how can we know the way to God, by telling him that if you know me, than you know him…
Because like any loving parent, Jesus and God knows how much we, as humans desire and crave company and crave closeness and intimacy with each other. And Jesus here is reminding his disciples -that our lives, especially when we encounter trouble, are firmly in the hands of the Lord, even when our lives feel like they’re slipping out of our own: Our psalmist says today: “Into your hands, O Lord, do I commend my Spirit…” These are words spoken not only by our psalmist but are words that anticipate later what Jesus will say on the Cross to his Father in Luke’s gospel (Luke 24.46), a father who in his great mercy and by his grace, would not allow his Son to remain dead, but would raise him from the dead, to show that nothing including even death can separate us from God’s love.
And like the psalmist from today who recalls how God has indeed been merciful to him, we hear also from our first lesson from today from the Acts of the Apostles, how the disciple Steven remembers how time and time again, the God that he has glimpsed in the face of Jesus, is the same God who appeared before Abraham, and Joseph, and Moses, and David, and who is the same God that was heard speaking through his prophets down through the ages and who has now appeared in all his glorious majesty in the word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. It is to this God who time and time again rescues his people, that Stephen is empowered in his faith to even forgive those who have turned against him.
That this is the conviction of the psalmist, and the conviction of Stephen, as well as the conviction of the author of the First Letter of Peter who tells us how God calls upon all of us to be his living stones; this is the good news that we are called to proclaim and like Stephen are emboldened by and empowered with the telling to all those who would listen that, that this is the God who calls us to be his community, and to believe in God and to believe in Jesus and in his mandate “to do the works that I do and, in fact [to do] greater works than these…” (v.12)
So let it be so with us. For those who have felt rejected, for those who have abandoned, for those who have felt loss, this is the God who chooses to be with us to the end and in so doing, through his Holy Spirit that he has given us, to be his new community, to be the hands and feet and mouth and heart of Jesus, to a world more than ever that feels abandoned. It is to this community that God creates; his Church that he has built for us to be the body of Christ to his and our world, that we as in the words of Peter are all called to be – a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. (1 Peter 2.9)
Because in Jesus Christ, we have felt and experienced healing and forgiveness in our lives that gives us new life and hope, and in Jesus Christ we have seen a way that leads us to peace and to stillwaters and not to violence and retribution which only begets more violence, because in Jesus Christ, we have seen the truth, the truth that we are all called to be -his body, who have been redeemed in the eyes of our loving maker and are empowered to be that love to our world. A love, which when I consider what it is like, is like the love that so many of us have experienced in the love of a mother, who will not abandon us, nor stop loving us despite our flaws and shortcomings, and makes our world the better for her presence.
It is to this healing and forgiveness and newness of life that permits us as Christians to hear again and again, John’s words that indeed, in Jesus, we have seen the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way that makes sense to us that leads to the Father, the father who in his tender mercy and gracious love will do all in his power to know that we shall be with him all the days of our life, and in the life to come.
For as Saint Paul has boldly written: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8.38-39) In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.