Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, May 7, 2023

YEAR A 2023 easter 5

Easter 5, 2023
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Acts 7:55-60
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There are a lot of time jumps in today’s readings.  While you and I are still in the Easter season, today’s gospel reading takes us back to what we call the Last Supper, before Jesus is put to death.  

And we’ve got another jump in that first reading we heard today.  Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is stoned to death by the religious leaders, which happens long after the resurrection of Jesus.  As far as the flow of the narrative, we’re kind of all over the map.  But there’s a thread running through the readings today.  

The first reading, from Acts, recounts the stoning of Stephen.  Brutal, and horrible, and senseless.  The religious leaders’ reaction to the gospel is unthinkable in our country today, but it still goes on elsewhere in our world.  Plenty of places in fact.  Christianity is still a dangerous road to travel, and we are offered no guarantees of protection.  As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Trust in God; trust also in me.”  Stephen did exactly that, and his dying words are recorded as, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.  In today’s Psalm we heard, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O LORD, O God of truth.”  And, you probably remember, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Into your hands, I commend my spirit.  For Stephen, for the Psalmist, and for Jesus.  The connection I want us to see here is the continued unfailing trust in God to receive our spirit.  When it all comes down to it, that is the most important part of our faith journey: trusting that God will indeed receive our spirit when it matters most.

So now, back to this gospel text.  Keep in mind what happened right before this reading we just heard.  Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, predicted his own death, and told Peter that he will deny him three times.  Then Jesus says, “Do not let your heart be troubled.”  Huh?  After all that crazy information, do not let your heart be troubled?

The language is important here.  Because “your” is plural, and “heart” is singular.  He’s talking to everyone in the room, but he’s talking as if they have just one heart . . . one collective heart—a heart which is not to be troubled by what he is saying.  Then he gives them the reason not to be troubled: “Trust in God, and trust in me.”  It gets translated into “Believe in God,” to us, but the original word, pisteuo, is closer to confidence and trust, than it is to belief.  

And this distinction is important, because there really is a difference between belief and trust.  For example, I believe in democracy; but I trust in gravity.  My belief in democracy might influence my decisions and choices and attitudes, sure.  But my trust in gravity determines how I live my life.  From picking up a glass, to going outside without a rope, gravity is something you trust, and it would not usually occur to you to do otherwise.  Trusting in God and in Jesus is not something you choose to believe intellectually; it is not some preference for one thing over another.  In a sense, we cannot help but trust in Jesus.  It’s just the way we are.  How we see the world, whether we know it or not.

And then Jesus follows up the Trust statement with something that seems puzzling to us, I think.  And it seems puzzling because it has been interpreted certain ways for so long that we automatically think we know what it means.  He says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.”  Since we have fairly fixed ideas of what a house is, we picture a massive mansion somewhere, maybe with marble floors and Viking appliances.  And, for many people, the best part about that image is that it is plural—placeS, or roomS—meaning we don’t ever have to run into the people we don’t like.

But, there is an interesting connection between the word interpreted as “dwelling places” and a temporary stopping point.  Some scholars say this word monai is something like a place set up to receive visitors traveling through.  Not a private place to kick back and live out your eternal retirement, but a public place, to be welcomed after a long journey, with good food and a place to rest.  When we go where Jesus is waiting, we don’t put out our hand to receive our personal room keys.  Instead, Jesus stretches out his arms to receive us.  A “welcome to the party,” if you will.

And then here’s the part of this little story that I really like.  Jesus ends his flowery speech with, “And you know the way to the place that I am going.”  Cut to: disciples shoving hands in their pockets, kicking the dirt, not wanting to be the one to ask the obvious question that they’re all thinking.  But leave it to Thomas to speak up.  Leave it to Thomas to be the one who wants reliable information and a road map.  Leave it to Thomas to look up and say, “‘Know the way’?  We don’t even know where you’re going!  How can we possibly know ‘the way’?”  

And then I imagine Jesus looking at them all and saying, “Ahem.  People?  I AM the way!  Remember me?  The way, and the truth, and the life?  You don’t have to know where you’re going, because you know the way.”

Now of course, this is contrary to everything we learn about directions.  You get directions as a means to get where you’re going.  Knowing the way is never the point, is it?  Tell me the destination, and then the way is just details, because there are many paths.  I might take the 21; I might take the 77.  Just tell me the destination.  Lots of people view Christianity in exactly this way.  “I want to ‘go to heaven’, so tell me the behavior-modification plan that will get me to the desired destination, and I’ll take it from here, Jesus.”

But Jesus stands this on its head and says, you do not need to know the destination; you just need to know the way.  Trust in God and in me.  If you know the way, you’ll end up where you’re supposed to, even though you don’t know the destination.  And you—the collective you—you know the way.  All of us together are on a journey with Jesus: destination, unknown.  But we know the way.

It’s hard to believe we know the way right now, isn’t it?

We look at where we are and where we want to be, and it doesn’t seem like we know how to get there.  Show us the way to being able to have civil conversations with our family and friends again.  Show us the way to feeling safe in a grocery store or a shopping mall, let alone a school.  Show us the way not to wake up panicked in the middle of the night wondering if we’re going to have a job tomorrow.  Show us the way to get people to come back to church again.  Show us the way, Lord!

I can’t help but think this gospel text would be heard so much differently back in the 50s or 60s.  Back when there was a discernible middle in most things.  Back when NASA had a room full of people in short-sleeve button down shirts and matching glasses, using slide rules to land a man on the moon.  Back when vaccines were widespread and trusted and effective.  Back when we knew the way, right?

And now, here we are in 2023, where almost half our citizens don’t trust science or data or medical professionals about anything.  In a world where politicians try their darnedest to clear out the middle and get everyone to yell from the extreme corners.  In virtual world of AI and deep fakes, and a physical world of multiple mass shootings every  single  day.  This is where we are together right now.  This is the world in which we live, together.  So now you tell me, how do we get out of this together?  We don’t even know where we are going.   HOW CAN WE POSSIBLY KNOW THE WAY?!?

And Jesus says to us, just as he says to Thomas:  I am the way.  We don’t know where we are going, but Jesus is the way.  If you know the way, you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be, even if you don’t know the destination.  And you—people of St. Timothy's—you know the way.  You are on a journey with Jesus: destination, unknown.  But you know the way.

We know the way to the Father because Jesus is the way.  We trust in God because we trust in Jesus.  With Stephen, and the Psalmist, and Jesus, we pray that God will receive our spirit.  Do not let our heart be troubled.  Because we know the way. 

It’s true:  We don't really know where we are going, but we are going there together.  We are going there together.  We disagree, and we walk in darkness, but we are walking together.

And as we walk together, Jesus walks beside us, and shows us the way: himself.  And that is why we are going to be okay.  Because we know the way.  And when we have arrived at that unknown destination, God will receive our spirit, and say to us, all of us, “Welcome home, weary travelers!  Do not let your heart be troubled, because you have known the way all along.”


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