This sermon was preached by Sue Walker on 14 May 2017.
The gospel we’ve just heard is one of the best known chapters in the Bible, in fact I learnt some of it by heart in Sunday School, so if I slip into quoting the authorised version from time to time, you will have to forgive me. It begins with the words “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. Or, to put it another way “Don’t worry”. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words “Don’t worry” I am automatically suspicious. What, I ask myself, might there be to worry about. Now, for example, imagine that you have lent your teenage son or daughter your car.
He comes back in and he says to you “Don’t worry…and then he follows it up with “the other driver has admitted responsibility”
Or she comes in and she says “Don’t worry. My boyfriend put petrol in the diesel engine, but I noticed before he turned on the ignition.” (That did actually happen – I rather expect my daughter’s ears are burning now).
Or don’t worry… I’m not hurt. And you realise, actually, that as long as he’s all right that is all that matters.
Jesus said to them “Do not let your hearts be troubled” but in fact the situation was very troubling. The chapter before this one is the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. He washed their feet and he told them to love one another. But after that, events took a darker turn. He spoke of betrayal and Judas left the room. Peter promised to be faithful but Jesus predicted that he would deny him three times. And right after that Jesus promises to his disciples that “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places”. It’s not just accommodation he is promising; it’s dwelling places, it’s homes. Now I wonder what the disciples made of that. They had spent 3 years travelling around either with Jesus, or together in pairs, relying on hospitality from strangers. Perhaps they thought this sounded like a well earned retirement. But, we know that’s not how it worked out. These are the men who would soon be travelling around again spreading the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now, we could take it that it’s a promise for the next life, but when Jesus talks about heaven he is usually talking about the here and now as well. So if Jesus is promising us a home, I wondered what makes a place to live, into a home? I looked on the Shelter website for a definition, and here are a few things that I found there. A home is a place where we can live together with those we love. For many asylum seekers, the hardest thing has been to leave their husbands, wives or children behind, because the alternative would be unjust imprisonment or death. It’s not home unless we feel safe. If it’s a place of violence, it’s not home. If we can’t walk out of our front door without fear of abuse or danger, it’s not home. If the walls are running with water, or the flat is infested with rats, it’s not home. For a lot of people today those basic human needs are not being met. Some people have the gifts for political action, or to work directly with homeless people. Or we can give to a homeless charity, so that when we see people on the streets we have the satisfaction of knowing we are doing what we can. Jesus has promised homes, and it is up to us to ensure that people have access to them in the here and now. But, the disciples had chosen to leave their own homes – they had had family, safety and security and they had freely given them up. Their lives had been unpredictable and dangerous, and they would be again. Jesus wasn’t promising them a return to quiet domesticity. He was offering them a faith that would include friendship with God, joy in the face of discomfort, deprivation or pain and the knowledge that whatever happened to them their security was in the welcome of a loving God. It is important that our need for a bricks and mortar home is met, but we are also offered a spiritual home and we can know that in the many rooms there will always be one for us.
The disciples were puzzled by Jesus’ promise. Sometimes we think they must have been a bit dim not to understand things that Jesus told them again and again, but they were being asked to believe some really difficult things. Thomas had the courage to admit that he was at a loss, and in doing so he provoked Jesus’ response: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” which is one of the most memorable sayings of Jesus. We all benefit from Thomas expressing his doubts. Doubt is healthy. Just for a moment have a think about those people who have absolute certainty – maybe some are saints, but most are fanatics. And there’s no room for discussion or compromise or those precious words “I may be wrong”. Quite often doubting can be painful and it can feel as though your whole world of belief is crumbling. It might be an intellectual crisis over understanding Christian beliefs, and puzzling how our faith makes sense. Or it may be questioning God who sometimes seems to treat us so cruelly, taking away the things or people that matter to us most. When those dark times come remember that the disciples who were set alight with faith and hope, and spread the gospel around the world, were once cowering, faithless and confused. There was hope for them and there is hope for us, too.
Jesus replied to Thomas that he is the “Way, the Truth and the Life”. Notice that he doesn’t say that he speaks the truth, or he will show us the way – he tells us he is these things. To be a Christian is not to assent to a set of doctrines, or to live by certain rules, but it is to encounter the risen Christ. Our beliefs, our lifestyle and our purpose in life all flow from that relationship. The rest of the verse is more difficult “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” We all know people who we look up to, who we would call good people, but they are not Christians. They might be not particularly interested in religion, or they might be from another faith. Does this mean that they are destined to eternity without God? If the key is relationship with Christ, then we can’t know how they relate to him, although they may not necessarily call him by his name. Sometimes when I talk to people of other faiths I recognise the things they say about prayer, their motivation for helping others or perhaps the way their faith supports them and I find it’s much like my own experience. It isn’t for us to judge who Christ may or may not recognise as his friends.
Last week Rev Deborah looked at the twenty third Psalm with us. It promises to give us rest in green pastures and still waters but it also acknowledges that we will face the valley of the shadow of death. We have the promises of eternal love, safety and security through our relationship with Christ, and it’s not because of anything we do or what we believe. Sadly we won’t be spared from pain and doubt and loss, but we do have an eternal home now and forever where the loving arms of God are waiting to welcome us.