So, how are you feeling these days? Is your soul weary? Are you losing patience with your loved ones? Has sheltering in place made you a little stir crazy? Are you having trouble sleeping? Do you find yourself cycling between emotions with the speed of a gerbil on a wheel?
You might find it comforting to know that you’re not alone! Trust me, your pastor has felt and experienced all of these things and a few I didn’t mention. You need to know that feeling and experiencing all of these things is not a sign of spiritual weakness, or a lack of faith in God. It’s a sign of being human. Congratulations! You’ve passed the test!
As we face this global pandemic, you might find it comforting to know that Jesus’ first disciples didn’t fare any better than we are doing. In fact, there is a lot of freaking out, in both our gospel lesson, and in the chapter which precedes it.
I like it when the disciples totally freak out! It gives me comfort. It lets me know they didn’t have supernatural powers. They were completely and totally human, just like you and me.
If you’re interested in knowing the full story, the freaking out began when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Peter flat out refused, saying to Jesus, “You will NEVER wash my feet.” In other words, Peter thought this act of service was beneath Jesus. It was a job for the hired help, not the master of the house. But, eventually Peter allowed Jesus to wash his feet.
Jesus reminded him that the greatest among us does not show their greatness through welding power over others. The greatest among us are those who show compassionate service to their neighbor. I don’t have to spell out for you how this contrast of images plays out in the midst of this pandemic. We’ve all seen countless examples of both those who wield power over others and those who have shown compassionate service to their neighbors. Enough said.
The important thing to notice is that Peter freaked out because he did not understand what Jesus as trying to teach him. I’m afraid there are followers of Jesus who STILL don’t get the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us.
But let’s get back to the freaking out! The next thing Jesus did was tell his disciples that someone would betray him. They freaked out and “looked at one another, uncertain who the guilty party would be.” Then Jesus really shook them up when he said, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer…Where I am going, you cannot come.”
“Say what? What do you mean you’re going to leave us? We have left everything to follow you. And now you’re going to abandon us?”
Peter was the first to express what he was feeling: “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”
Peter hastily responded, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Then Jesus tells Peter the crushing truth that he will deny even knowing Jesus three times before the cock crows in the morning.” Ouch! you know that had to hurt.
This brings us to our gospel lesson. Since you’ve mostly heard this scripture read at funerals, you may not know the events that happened just before it, but they’re important. We clearly see that the disciples are having an existential crisis, much like many of us are having an existential crisis right now.
Perhaps, for the first time in our lives, we really understand what the disciples are feeling. We sympathize with their confusion and uncertainly of what the future will bring. We resonate with their anger, their pain, their fear and their wish that things could just go back to the way they were.
The good news is that Jesus KNOWS they are feeling all of this. All. Of. This. And so, he tries to offer them comfort and encouragement as they face their dark night of the soul.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. (Don’t do it.) You believe in God, (You’ve believed in God all your lives) Believe also in me. (Trust that I’ve got your back. I’ve got a plan to lead you into this new and uncertain future.) In Abba’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.”
How loving. How parental are these words that Jesus spoke to his scared and stressed out disciples. But they brought no comfort to Thomas, who provided the next freak out of the evening, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Apparently, he did not understand what Jesus was trying to tell him. I fear that we don’t always understand these words of comfort either. The issue is that we usually hear them spoke at a funeral, because of this, all we can think about is heaven. Dwelling places become literal “mansions” as the KJV puts it. In other words, Jesus is preparing condos for us in the heavenly realm.
Is it any wonder that Thomas freaked out if he thought this was all Jesus was talking about? Great, they would be together in heaven, but how was this going to help him NOW? How was this going to calm his fear, and feelings of abandonment?
Well, friends, I’d like us to consider another way of understanding what Jesus said to his disciples. According to Karoline Lewis in her masterful commentary on John: “These dwelling places are really no place at all unless the words mean being in the intimate presence of God, or better yet, being at the bosom of the Father. The root of the term is MENO (abide). It’s John’s favorite and most often used word to describe being in a relationship with Jesus.”
So what Jesus is describing here is that he is going ahead of us to create “abiding places” for us. i don’t think this text us meant to be understood solely in terms of heaven. Jesus is creating abiding places for us right here and right now. The Kingdom of God is not something we only experience in the sweet by and by when we all get to heaven. The kingdom or reign of Christ is among us now, at this very moment, in the midst of our freaking out and uncertainty of what the future might bring.
This may be the good news in our gospel lesson that we really need to hear today. What I hear the Spirit saying to God’s people is to keep our eyes focused on the “abiding places” that Jesus is preparing for us in the midst of this pandemic. It’s easy to focus on our anger, our pain, our fear, and our desire that things would just go back to the way they were.
But if this is all that we’re doing it’s a recipe for disaster. It will leave us feeling exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. So instead of functioning in freak out mode all the time, Jesus is inviting us to actively seek out the “abiding places” he is preparing for us.
Can we trust that he is doing this for us? Can we give ourselves permission to “sit a spell” as we say in the South, to rest in the green pastures beside still waters that Jesus is leading us to? I hope so. Because we cannot function in panic mode all the time. We have to trust that Christ is leading us every step of the way. So take heart, my friends. Don’t freak out. Christ is with us! Amen.