A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
May 18, 2014
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (NRSV).
At the end of last Sunday’s service I mentioned that I will be taking an eight-week sabbatical this summer. Most of the people who have talked to me about it since then have been very gracious, wishing me the kind of deep rest and refreshment that can only come from an extended period of time away, but a few have wondered whether now is really the best time for a sabbatical, when there’s so much going on in the church. After all, we’re renovating the sanctuary this summer, which will require moving to the gym for worship. We’ll all have to give up our regular places on the pew; the deacons and ushers will have to re-think the way they hand out bulletins and take up offerings; and who knows what will happen the first time we try to serve communion! Some have wondered: “With all those winds of change blowing around, wouldn’t it be helpful to have a steady hand on the tiller? Do you really think now is the best time for a sabbatical?”
It reminds me of that moment in John 13, when Jesus tells his disciples that he won’t be with them much longer. “I’m going away,” he says, “and where I’m going you can’t come, at least not now. So I want you to do this for me: I want you to love one another.” It’s a good word, and some of them are able to hear it, but others can’t get over the shock of Jesus’ leaving. You can almost hear their questions, can’t you? “You’re going away? Now? When there’s so much going on?” And you can almost see their faces as they wonder: “What about us? What will become of us?” Jesus could hear their questions, he could see their faces, and that’s why his next words are these: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.”
I think I could preach an entire sermon on those words, because so much of my work involves people with troubled hearts. One person is afraid he’s going to lose his job, and his heart is troubled. Another person has just lost her spouse, and her heart is troubled. Another person has found out he has cancer, and his heart is troubled. Another person has realized she doesn’t have much of anything, and her heart is troubled. And those are only the ones who are brave enough to tell me about it! How many more are out there, nursing their troubled hearts in silence? So, I love the way Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” As if that were possible! He uses the imperative mood, as if it were a command, but he uses the passive voice, which complicates things. How do you keep your heart from being troubled? When the plane begins to bounce around at 32,000 feet until you think the wings are going to come off how do you convince yourself that it’s only a little turbulence? You can talk all you want, but your heart will keep on pounding. It’s a little bit like saying, “Don’t let your heart fall in love!” You may find that you don’t have much control over these things.
So, what do you do with your troubled heart? You do the very next thing Jesus commands: “Believe in God.” This verb is also in the imperative mood, but it’s in the active voice, as if to remind us that while there are some things we can’t control, there are other things we can. Even in times of trouble, we can put our faith and trust in God. I remember standing at the corner of 14th and K Streets in Washington one day, getting ready to cross that very busy intersection, when I saw a little boy holding on to his father’s hand. As the light changed and we all began to cross the street together this little fellow pointed toward the sky and said, “Look! A squirrel!” And I did look, and sure enough, there was a squirrel, hopping along a power line. It struck me only later that he was the only one who could have seen that squirrel, the only one in that crowd who wasn’t watching the lights, and looking right and left, and trying hard not to get hit by a car. He was holding on to his father’s hand, and because he was he was free from all other concerns. He could look up and see a squirrel.
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says; “believe in God. Hold onto his hand the way that little boy held on to his father’s hand while crossing a busy street. And if you can’t do that, then hold onto my hand, because I’m holding on to the Father’s hand.” If I close my eyes I can almost see it: that same boy crossing the street at 14th and K, but this time he’s not alone. His father is holding onto his hand, but he’s holding onto his little sister’s hand, and the three of them are crossing together. And maybe this time it’s the little sister who says, “Look! A squirrel!” Because she is the one who is completely free of concern. She’s holding onto her brother’s hand, and he’s holding onto the father’s. Hold that image in your mind for a moment, and put yourself in the place of that little girl, because it’s there, when you are connected to Jesus, who is connected to the Father, that you find the cure for the troubled heart. Everything else Jesus says in this passage seems to depend on that simple truth.
- The Father is reached through him. In the next part of this passage Jesus begins to talk about his Father’s house and how to get there. Because we’ve heard this passage read at funerals so many times, we assume he’s talking about heaven, and because we’ve heard it from the King James Version we assume we’re all going to live in mansions up there. But in Greek the word is monai, and it simply means “dwelling places.” There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house,” Jesus says (or, as I like to translate it, “In my Father’s house there is plenty of room”). He’s talking to his disciples, and I love what he says next: “If it weren’t so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Well, no, they mumble. You probably wouldn’t have. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, won’t I come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also?” Well, yes. You probably will. “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas, whose heart is still troubled, says, “Lord, we don’t even know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” And that’s when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Often we interpret this verse exclusively, as if Jesus were saying, “I am the only way to heaven.” But notice that he doesn’t say “heaven”; he says “Father.” “No one comes to the Father but by me,” and even though he’s been talking about the Father’s house and how to get there you can see that it’s not so much the place as the person that makes it heaven. I know we don’t usually interpret this verse this way, but I think Jesus may be saying (as that boy might say to his little sister), “Now, don’t worry. I’m holding the Father’s hand, and you’re holding my hand, and if we can just stay connected we will get where we’re going.”
- The Father is known through him. Jesus says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Can you see how Jesus is still working to reassure his disciples? But Philip, whose heart is still troubled, says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus says, “Philip! Have I been with you all this time and you still don’t know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father. I’m in him and he’s in me. The two of us are one!” Again, I get the feeling that if we can just stay connected to Jesus, we will get to know the Father. That knowledge will pass from him to us through Jesus in a way that is both life-giving and life-changing. As Jesus himself says, “This is eternal life: to know the only true God” (John 17:3). And finally:
- The Father works through him. “These words that I’m speaking to you come from the Father,” Jesus says, “and these works that I’m doing come from the Father. Believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, but if you can’t believe that then believe because of the works themselves. I’m telling you the truth, those who believe in me will do the works that I do, in fact, they will do greater things than these.” And again, there’s that reassurance. Jesus seems to be telling his disciples in every way he can that if they will just hold onto his hand, if they will just stay connected to him, then they will also be connected to the Father. They will end up in the same place where he is—his “house” if you will; and they will get to know him, intimately, even as Jesus knows him intimately; and they will find his power working through them even as it has worked through Jesus.
At the end of this passage Jesus says, in essence, “Listen, I’m going to the Father, but that doesn’t mean you are going to lose your connection to me or to him. In fact we will be more “connected” than ever before. I will be with him, so that all you have to do is ask me for what you need, and I’ll ask him. You will have access to the Father, who is the source of all power, and the answer to every prayer.
So, how do you keep your heart from being troubled? You put your faith and trust in Jesus, who puts his faith and trust in God. You hold onto his hand and he holds onto the Father’s hand and the three of you cross the street together. And you, for the first time in forever, don’t have to watch for the lights to change, or look to the left and right, or worry about getting hit by a car. You just hold onto Jesus’ hand, which leaves you with perfect freedom to look around, and take in the sights,
And maybe even see a squirrel hopping along a power line.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.