May 10, 2020 The Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 10, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; I Peter 2:1-10; John 14:1-14

From the Gospel according to John, (Jesus said) “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, risen Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     It is probably safe to say that today’s Gospel reading is very familiar to most Christians. Jesus’ words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” are often heard at funerals because his words offer comfort and assure us that, as people of God, at life’s end we will dwell secure in the hands and presence of God. Indeed, these are wonderful, comforting words.

And yet, in the context of when they were spoken, comfort was probably the farthest thing from Jesus’ mind and the mind of his disciples. See, at this point in John’s gospel, it is Thursday evening in Holy Week, the night before Jesus’ brutal crucifixion. Picture the situation: Jesus has just shared supper with his disciples, washed their feet, given them a new commandment to love “as I have loved you,” and foretold that he is about to die. In fact, he has said one of themwill betray him and he has told Peter that he will deny even knowing Jesus not once, but three times. It is the context of this unfolding drama in Holy Week that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” 

     Well, I don’t know about you but, had I been there I am pretty sure my response would have been, “Are you kidding me? Don’t let your hearts be troubled? You just told us you’re going die and that one of us will betray you. My heart is deeply troubled, Jesus. In fact, I am scared. I am scared and I am growing angry.” But Jesus just moves on and begins to talk about going away, preparing places, and coming back again. And then, he implies we should not only know what he is talking about, but also, the way to follow him. And that’s when I picture the questions flying around the dinner table.

See, this is one of those classic moments of dinnertime discomfort. You know what I am talking about: One of those “uh-oh” occasions when someone at the table says something profound, thought-provoking or even troubling, and in the midst of our bobbing heads implying that we know and understand what they are saying, someone asks the question everyone else is thinking but is afraid to ask, “What are you talking about?” And it is Thomas who dares to speak up. You, know, for all the criticism of Thomas you have to admire his gumption. He says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way.”  And when Jesus says that he is the way and then asks that they trust him, Philip begins to squirm and jumps in to say what no faithful Jew would ever say. John records it as a statement. I see it more as a plea, a demand, and yet really, it is a question, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” In other words, “What does God look like?” And that’s when I imagine gasps rising from those at the table because the Old Testament is very clear: no one can look upon God; no one can see God and live.

      Moses, the great Patriarch and deliverer of Israel, once asked God, “What do you look like?” And God agreed to reveal God’s self to him but only after making Moses bury his face into the cleft of a rock. Only after God had passed by was Moses allowed to turn around and see what scripture describes as “the trail of God’s glory.” In the literal Hebrew, Exodus says that all Moses saw was God’s backside. Every person of faith new that no can see God and live. But, Philip still says, “If you really want us to trust you, to not be afraid, then show us the Father.” He is desperate to know that God is God, that God is in control of what’s happening around them, to know what God looks like. 

     I believe a lot of people in our nation share that desperation right now. These many weeks of isolation as a way to slow the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound affect upon our national psyche. This past week we saw just how evil that affect can be. A young man jogging through a neighborhood is hunted down and shot to death simply because of the color of his skin. An employee at a store – a deacon in his own church – asks a patron to wear a mask while shopping, to think of the safety of others and not just her own needs. The patron leaves and returns with her father who shoots the employee to death. In some state capitals, protesters have gathered to demand that “stay at home” orders be lifted. Protesting is their right. And yet many of those protesters have shown up brandishing assault weapons as a means of intimidation suggesting they will be violent if their demands are not met and met right now. And many have carried signs with Antisemitic and white supremacy slogans and Nazi symbols. What has troubled me the most about the shootings and the conduct of many of those protesters, is that the majority of those involved profess to be Christians. And it is in light of that reality that Jesus’ response to Philip gives me pause. Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

     John’s gospel begins by saying that God was in the beginning, created all things, and became human flesh to live and die as one of us, to redeem us, to reconcile us to God and one another, and in so doing, reveal what God looks like. John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God but the only begotten Son … he has made God known (to us).”  Now, years later, in Chapter Fourteen, Jesus affirms all that John had written about God. He says, “Whoever has seen me has seenthe Father.” In other words, Jesus is the tangible presence of God in this world and if we want to know, to grasp, what God truly looks like, Jesus is it: merciful, inclusive, loving, grace-filled, forgiving and also discerning and judging, but on the basis of God’s justice, mercy, love, forgiveness, and grace.

See, Chapter Fourteen with its statement, “no one comes to the Father but through me” is often used by Christians to put down other faith traditions. But this text is not concerned with other faiths. This text is about how we encounter and know God. Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  And that statement presents an incredible challenge for Christians as the body of Christ in the world today because Christianity is about more than knowing God; it is about living as God’s people. It is about seeking in every way possible to not only see Christ, but to be as Christ in this world so that whoever sees us, sees the Father.

     Peter, in his first letter to the Church, says God’s people live differently. They are an example of mercy and grace. Our reading leaves off verse 1 which calls every Christian to rid our own selves of all malice, all guile, all insincerity, envy and slander. But no, our reading begins at the second verse where we hear how nice it is to be born again/born from above and we tend to forget how difficult it can be to change our behavior. For many, giving up gossip or greed can be as difficult as living into our baptismal covenant promise to uphold the dignity of every human being including those we don’t like, or those who believe differently. Peter says that being born again/born from above isn’t just about our relationship with Jesus Christ or the assurance of redemption in Christ, but rather, we who have received mercy are called to be a new people: a holy nation; God’s own people chosen to continue Christ’s reconciling mission in this world like priests sacrificing and interceding not only for ourselves, but for the whole world, our neighbors and communities so that it might be said of us, “Whoever has seen us has seen the Father.”

Imagine what communities, this nation, would look like if it could be said of every Christian, of every Church, of every member of Holy Cross, that whoever has seen us “has seen the Father.” Isn’t that what being the body of Christ in the world today challenges us to be?

     St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, understood that challenge. That’s why his vision of the Christ and his own martyrdom is not the most important point of today’s story from Acts. It is Stephen’s response that begs us to sit up and listen; to consider what it might mean for someone to say whoever has seen us has seen the Father. Acts tells how at the very moment when his murderers seem to triumph over him, Stephen, just like Jesus on the cross, lifts his voice and prays to God saying, “do not hold my murder against them”. What gives Stephen’s death such profound meaning is not that he prays, but rather, for what and for whom he prays. Stephen lives his faith even in death calling upon God to forgive just … like … Jesus. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

     Acts goes on to say that Stephen’s faith and example of a forgiving, merciful and gracious God had an amazing result. A man named Saul watched Stephen die. Saul will become known as St. Paul who, from out of his ownexperience of God’s love and redemption, his experience of seeing the Father in this follower of Christ, will embrace and teach the depths of God’s redeeming power and grace. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Beloved, that needs to be true about us as well.

     Let us pray. In the words of this morning’s Collect, may God grant us in these days of fear and violence, to so understand and know Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we follow his steps in the way that leads us and, through our daily example of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love in Christ, sets others free from fear and leads them to eternal life. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” O God, God let this be true in us. Amen.