Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Easter 2020

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Fourth Sunday after Easter, May 10, 2020  Canon  Claude Schroeder.

At the time of his death in 1984, the distinguished biblical scholar, G.B. Caird,  who earlier in his career, taught at both in Edmonton and Montreal,  occupied the  Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. According to Bishop Tom Wright, a former student of his,  “Caird loved words, and how human beings enjoyed using and abusing them. He insisted that both the Old Testament and New Testament be permitted to speak with their own voices and that modern ideas, presuppositions, and biases not be allowed to get in the way.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._B._Caird)

By way of analogy, Caird pointed out, “when a speaker declares, ‘I am mad about my flat’ it helps to know whether they are American (in which case they are angry about their punctured tire) or British (in which they are enthusiastic about their living quarters!)” (Caird 1997 (1980), 50.

If there is some confusion inherent in the statement, “I am mad about my flat,” how much more confusion is inherent in the statement of the New Testament that “the Messiah, Jesus, was raised from the dead on the third day?” 

What on earth did the New Testament writers mean when they wrote this, beyond a reference to an empty tomb and unusual appearances of Jesus to the apostles? What does Resurrection mean and do for us? This has been the question that we have been exploring throughout the season of Easter.

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus has just finished washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, and has foretold both Judas’ betrayal (John 13. 21) , and Peter’s threefold denial (John 13.38) , and now seeks to is comfort his  understandably shocked and distraught disciples with words that are oh so familiar to so many of us through the Order of Service for the burial of the dead in The Book of Common Prayer.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 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? 3 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.” (John 14. 1-3)

What does the average person in the pew today have in mind when they hear these words? I think it goes something like this. By his rising from the dead, Jesus prepared a place for us in heaven when we die. There is a room for us in the Father house. Our death marks the moment when Jesus comes back to take us to Himself, so that where He is, we may be also.”

“She has gone home to be with the Lord!”  Isn’t that what we say? 

For us who are grieving the loss of our loved one, this is supposed to come to us a word of comfort, and an invitation “to believe in God, and believe also in Jesus” so that when we die, we too can “go to heaven.”

This is the Christian faith.  End of story. 

Or is it?

What if, as G.B. Caird pointed out, we have allowed our modern ideas, presuppositions, and biases to get in the way, such that that we don’t actually hear what Jesus is saying, and therefor have misconstrued and misunderstood the meaning of  “Resurrection?”

In our reading today from Acts, St. Stephen, one the first deacons of the Church, is bearing witness to the Resurrection.  “Filled with the Holy Spirit he gazed into heaven, and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7.55,56). We modern people imagine Stephen was given a glimpse of this  place  called heaven on the other side of death.   But this is only because we didn’t listen or hear what Stephen said earlier in his sermon in a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, where God says, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool.” (Isaiah 66.1) In other words, “heaven” and “earth” are not two separate ‘places,’ but two aspects of a single reality, with “heaven” referring to the invisible, spiritual reality governing the visible physical reality of life and events here on this earth. 

What then was  Stephen referring to when he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right of hand of God?”  I want to suggest to you that what Stephen was referring to here was the Cross, which was the last visible public image of Jesus Christ on this earth.  It was on the Cross, where Jesus manifested the glory of God, and it is by virtue of His Cross, that, as St. Paul wrote, “God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above all names, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2.9-11). By his death and resurrection, God has invested Jesus with Sovereign authority, as the One who will judge the living and the dead. This in part is what the Resurrection means.  And this explains why the congregation “covered their ears and with a loud shout rushed together against him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. (Acts 7. 57,58) If all Stephen was talking about was going to heaven to be with Jesus after we die, it’s hard to see why they their reacted with such hostility.   Makes me wonder why more people don’t throw rocks at me at funerals…

“In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?” ( John 14.2)

What is Jesus saying here? 

This is where it helps to know that Jesus and His disciples were not American nor British, but were, in fact, Jewish. In speaking these words, Jesus was not making something up, but actually quoting from the standard speech which a Jewish bridegroom gave to his bride-to-be at the Jewish betrothal ceremony.  (Bell 2007, 169) This is where the bridegroom would make a public marriage proposal, and, if his bride accepted, they would celebrate by drinking together from a cup of wine. But before they would be truly married something still had to happen, or rather, something still had to be built and prepared: a room in which they would live as husband and wife: the bridal suite.  It was the job of the bridegroom to now go away and build and furnish that room which would have been in “his father’s house.” And so turning to his bride-to-be the bridegroom would say, “Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. IN my father’s house are many rooms, if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 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.” (John 14. 1-3) 

What does figure of speech tell us about Jesus’ death and resurrection? The first thing it tells us is that the Gospel is a marriage proposal from God. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has come to unite God and Man together in a communion of love, never to be separated, just as a the Bridegroom and Bride are united to one another in a communion of love in holy matrimony. Easter is the celebration that “ the bridegroom cometh.” This is where the Church lights her lamps and goes out to meet Him.  

Secondly, Jesus is telling his disciples is that his departure from them, that is his death,  will be temporary.  The reason Jesus departs is in order to come back and take us to Himself.  But this return, this coming back of the bridegroom for the bride is not something that takes places on the other side of our death. It is something that takes place on the other side of His death, with the sending of the Holy Spirit.   If, as St. Stephen and the Scriptures teach us, heaven and earth are two aspects of a single reality, and also that  “the Most High does not live in buildings made by human hands, ( Acts 7.48) , then the Father’s house is nothing more and nothing less than the new dwelling place of God in the Spirit constituted by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and which now encompasses the whole of creation. As the Psalmist wrote, “Where I shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139. 7) By his resurrection Jesus has inaugurated a new possibility that in our life here on this earth, while we are still on the way, we can already taste the joy of the journey’s end, which is the joy of lovers meeting, the joy of being with the Lord.” .(Newbiggin 1982,180)

Our little church here on the corner of 15th Ave and Montague is one such dwelling place in the Father’s house, where lovers meet and know the joy of being with the Lord   in Holy Communion. By his resurrection, however, Jesus also transforms the many rooms where we live and are meeting this morning, to be rooms in the Father’s house, according to the His promise,  “whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be with them.” (Matthew 18.20)

So the good news of Jesus’ Resurrection is not simply the announcement of life with God in heaven after we die.  It is the good news of the life of heaven come down to earth, where in the face of a very uncertain, fearful and unknowable future, we already have the presence that is promised at the end.

One of the things that we are all struggling with in this midst of  global shutdown precipitated by the pandemic is the fear and uncertainty of not knowing if and when things are ever going back to normal, and what the new normal is going to be. This is what people experience towards the end of life. We just don’t know.  In the Gospel, we are not given a crystal ball, which enables us to see into the future.

What we are given, however, is a way and a path to follow. What is that way and what is that path? Jesus said,  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” When in Holy Baptism and in Holy Communion we identify ourselves with Jesus, and are made one with Him in His dying and rising, and when we live out the meaning of our baptism and communion in daily love and obedience to the Father, although we do not see where we are going, we can know that we are in fact on track, and have not lost our way. . (Newbiggin 1982,181)

Why do we say Jesus is the way? The reason Jesus is the way is because He is the truth and the life. Jesus is the truth because in Him all the promises of God find their “yes” and through Him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God   (2 Cor. 1.20,21). Jesus is the Life because in Him that very life of God was poured out in love for us.  “This is my Body given for you. This is my Blood shed for you.” ( Luke 22, 19,20)

It is through trusting and believing in this Jesus that we come know God as “ Our Father” for it is the Father who lives, speaks, and acts for us in His Son.

This is the Christian faith. 

End of story? Not quite. As it turns out, it is just the beginning!

Jesus went on to say, “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.” ( John 12.14)

Jesus’ return to the Father by way of suffering, death, and resurrection sets in motion a vast movement in which the glory of the Father will be shown and extended through the whole creation by faithful disciples acting in His Name. It is the Resurrection which launches the mission of the Church, which in the first instance is a matter of doing anything, but rather of praying.

“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14. 13)

To be sure, we have in this time of world crisis no shortage of things to pray for, and we offer all our prayers to God for the manifold needs of the world. 

But we must remember that the immediate context of Jesus’ words here was the Last Supper, which we commemorate in our service of Holy Communion. This is where we unite ourselves to the self-offering of Jesus and plead His sacrifice so that “ we and all thy whole Church may obtain forgiveness of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.”( BCP, 83).

Forgiveness. It’s what we and the world need the most.

And it was St. Stephen, who after the example of Jesus Himself, prayed for his murderers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” who shows what it means for us in our suffering, and in our dying to bear witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Amen.

Works Cited

Bell, Rob.2007.  Sex God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Caird, G.B. 1997 The Language and Imagery of the Bible.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Newbiggin, Leslie, 1982. The Light Has Come. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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