Sermon - Easter 5 - Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
I go to prepare a place for you
[Note: This sermon, in its original form, was first preached on the Sunday following the Port Arthur massacre, when 36 people were shot dead by a single gunman at a peaceful tourist site in Tasmania, which happens to be my home state and where my brother was at that time a leading member of the state government with direct responsibility for dealing with the emergency. The media was full of reporting and comment on this worse-in-the-world case of mass shootings, which had happened in a neighbouring state. Our mid week parish prayer meeting was crowded with several times the normal number. I deliberately chose that Sunday to stay with the main theme of the gospel for the day, rather than to take up directly the type of social comment which might have addressed the situation directly,such as the need to support the Prime Minister's call for greater gun control (and people were invited to sign a petition for that purpose), but it will be evident that in the concluding paragraphs I did address the anxieties people had in terms of the gospel. I have made revisions at some points to generalize or to omit some specific references; and I am conscious at the same time of some other tragedies of a similar kind since then and of much greater loss of life in the context of war, the atrocities of "ethnic cleansing", terrorism and civil disorder in various countries. I maintain that what might appear to be an otherworldly escape has within it a message of the utmost relevance to life in this world, as our hope comes from just such a horror in the death of Christ.]
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? -- John 14:2
Jesus knew that he was going to die. He talked at length with his disciples to prepare them so that they would not lose faith when the terrible things he warned them about did actually happen. In John's gospel what we call "the farewell discourses" follow the Last Supper, when he had just said to Judas "Do quickly what you are going to do" [John 13:27]. After Judas had gone out he told them he would only be with them a little longer [John 13:33]; he commanded them to love one another and, after saying that they could not go where he was going [John 13:33b and 36] he then told Peter, who had said he would follow him and lay down his life for him, that in fact before the night was over Peter would deny him three times. It is no wonder that they were disturbed by all this; so his warnings were followed by words of understanding and assurance:
He recalled them to their fundamental belief in God, asking them as they trust God to trust him also. They had come to know God through him. They did need to be reminded of that, as he reminded Philip a little later in the conversation, although it seemed they hardly knew him after all:
It was because he was who he was that he had special work of God to do, and that was why they could not come with him then; but they would follow him later:
We know now that he was going through death, allowing the powers of evil to do their worst, and then to triumph over both sin and death as God raised him from the dead. How could the disciples be prepared for that? He wanted to assure them that it was for their good that he was going to die. If he left them in apparent defeat it was to prepare the way for them to follow him and share in his glory. As he was to pray later that night:
It was to give eternal life to others that he went ahead through death to prepare the way for others to share the life that he once had with God the Father, and to which he was now to return, taking to heaven a "human brow" as the old hymn said:
Being confident that of the power and the love of God to include them with him he gave them the assurance:
There is plenty of room -- many dwelling places, or many rooms -- in his Father's house. He was telling them that he would prepare a place for them, precisely because he was confident of the generous inclusive love, or the hospitality, of the Lord of heaven. It is the same undeserved generous hospitality that we will enjoy at the Lord's table today, in which we anticipate that great fellowship with him.
Yet if they were not able to follow him to the cross, though some were later to go to a martyr's death, how were they to follow him to the place he was to prepare for them? His way of going was unique. His sacrificial death was not to be repeated, but they were to follow him to his father's house nevertheless. How were they to find their way there? He promised to come back for them, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. That promise appears in this context to refer to the resurrection but it might also point to a second coming: in any case, he would take the initiative to come to them and take them to where he was, just had told them of the good shepherd who gathers his flock even at the cost of his own life. And he added,
Not only would he seek them out and take them with him, but they knew the way already. But it was all too much. Typically, it was Thomas in his somewhat resigned enthusiasm mixed with exasperated skepticism who said,
Then we have those immortal words, about his being the way, the truth and the life calling for faith through personal knowledge of Jesus. It is an expansion of what he said at the beginning about there being plenty of room, when he had said Believe in God, believe also in me. To believe in him was to know him as the way to the place where he was going.
Let me leave aside for today any detailed discussion of the important question of what is meant for non-Christians by the phrase No one comes to the Father except through me. We believe that eventually all who know God will recognize Jesus as the Lord who was with God at the beginning, the Word through whom the world was made and who gives life to all. The intention here was not to warn people that they might be left out, though indeed they might as he appears to have warned on other occasions, but rather Jesus was at this time encouraging his followers to have confidence that if they knew him they would know the way to God. It was a call to faith with a promise of fulfilment.
The hymn we sang before the sermon sums up the way of faith expressed in thankful love of Jesus, for what he did in going ahead of us through death to open the way of life for us to follow. It is hymn of great devotion that used to be attributed to St. Francis Xavier, but we are not sure who wrote it.
My God I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby ...
Thou, O my Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear
and manifold disgrace,
and griefs and torments numberless
and sweat of agony,
and death itself, and all for me
who was thine enemy.
Then why, O my blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven
nor any fear of hell,
not for the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward,
but as thyself has lovèd me,
O ever-loving Lord.
It is in the mystery of faith that we are bound up with him who opened the way for us to eternal life. The way is still open. It is way you can choose to take. All who love the Lord are assured of a place with him in the presence of God. That was the faith and the vision of the early believers who knew him when he came back to them after he rose from the dead. The faith that after his resurrection and ascension he was already with God and ready to receive them was so strong that they were not afraid to die. So we read today of Stephen's martyrdom and the vision he had just before he died, seeing Jesus with God in Glory:
So when the disciples remembered what Jesus said at his parting they really did believe it: I go to prepare a place for you. That is the good news and I urge you to respond to it in faith, commit yourself to him who prepared the way for you.
That is enough, it is in every sense "sufficient". But I would have you see that we make a faith response in the midst of life in this world, which we sometimes have dramatic and horrifying reason to know is far from a perfect world. The life of faith is lived out in this imperfect world.
Why, indeed, is the world imperfect? If the massacre of innocent people does not prove that there is evil in the world, what could? Yet if God is good why does he allow such evil? Indeed it is unavoidable encounters with the reality of evil that have led some people to reject belief in God altogether, as sometimes happens to soldiers who go away to war with a naive trust in God and country. You might even accuse me, in preaching on the gospel for today of dodging the hard questions and offering pie in the sky instead. An escapist religion is no answer.
If we are bewildered by horrifying events, so were the followers of Jesus when he died. All the preparation he gave them did not shield them from the horror and loss of confidence in God, at least until they met him risen from the dead, as we were reminded last week in the story of those who walked with him on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-35]. God does allow such things to happen and we learn also that just as God brought Jesus back from the dead to give new hope to humanity, so he always has power in the end, and the will, to bring good out of evil. We can hope that in our situation today too some good will come out of evil: we see some signs of that, a greater sense of community emerges when disaster strikes, more people acknowledge a sense of responsibility for the life and welfare of others and the need for good and courageous government, and even a wider sense than usual of the need for prayer and the place of the church in society. That response should continue and must be made as effective as possible.
[This paragraph relates explicitly to the circumstances in 1996 following the Port Arthur massacre:- I have felt the public responsibility as well as the immediate trauma keenly. Only yesterday I talked about how it happened, how it affected people and what can be done about it, with my brother, who after serving in the Tasmanian Government for a good many years, some as Deputy Premier, was recently given what he had expected to be a less demanding role as Minister for Police among other things. Oddly, also, one of his sons was the doctor responsible for treatment of the alleged gunman when he was first taken to hospital, and other members of my family have been involved in this tragedy in other ways. I know too that other members of congregation have some personal contact with families and friends amongst those who died. We have all been affected by the general impact of senseless random violent death. It is in the nature of these things that they are beyond our comprehension; but acknowledging that as true, I also know it is true that the love of God shown to us in Christ is a deep mystery which we can accept but not fully understand. I believe, in fact, that it is good for us, when we tend to think that humanity is, or should be, in control of whatever happens on this earth, to realise that there is more to it than we can understand. We live in a necessarily uncertain world, in which there is both good and evil.]
But the good news is that good can come out of evil; that is one of the ways of God with humankind. Yet it does not mean that it is the will of God to visit evil things upon innocent people in order of bring about some good. It is not as simple as that. He did allow even his innocent Son, our Lord Jesus, to suffer death unjustly, and then he raised him up; yet Jesus himself had a choice in the matter, and so did Pilate and the chief priests, the soldiers and others who took part in killing him. I do not pretend to fully understand these mysteries, but it is clear that God has placed us in a world in which people have the power to choose and that they may do bad things as well as good. I believe that such things are possible for good reason. It is not possible to fulfil our potential as spiritual beings who have the capacity to form a relationship with our Creator unless we learn the ways of love and acceptance through the exercise of human freedom. True love is freely given. The price of freedom is the capacity do what is evil as well as what is good; and if the choices we make we can be influenced by human and spiritual powers of good so also we can also be subject to evil influences as well. One of the things we have learned is that we are not entirely self-sufficient individuals who can order our own lives with complete autonomy. We are free, but we are weak; we depend on others, and ultimately we depend upon God.
There is another sense in which we live in an imperfect world. Apart from that evil that is obviously exercised through human agency, many bad things happen to people in natural disasters and other uncertainties. It is as though random elements are deliberately designed into creation, so that in the long run there is no guarantee that our lives will not be affected by things beyond our control. Even where human responsibility for evil is clear, as in a case of mass murder, there seems to be a degree of randomness in who happened to be there at the time. Is that all pre-ordained by God? I do not think so. It is something that happens in an incomplete world in which not everything is determined; it is not all fixed in advance, and it is not all brought about by deliberate intervention from God to harm or to help those who happened to be there. It is part of the imperfection and incompleteness of this world, which for good reason does not have a fully pre-determined future but which is moving towards an end when it will all be completed and evil will be banished. We share in that openness to the future, and so we experience both hope and fear.
We live in a world of uncertainty and imperfection. It is not our permanent home, but rather, we believe that it is the will of God that our lives will be brought to completion and perfection in the fulfilment of our destiny to become children God. To make this possible God does bring good out of evil. He allowed Jesus to go to his death and then raised him up, opening the way for us to follow, and setting a pattern for transformation of the world with the coming of the Kingdom of God. It was something the apostles learned to accept but could not fully understand. It was in preparing the disciples for what they could not comprehend that Jesus said:
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