Saying the Most Important Things

by | May 12, 2023

Jesus said, “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.”
John 14: 1-8

Good morning. Thank you for your warm welcome. I’m very happy to be worshiping at St. Mark’s, a community for whom I hold great admiration. I am also glad to be with my long-time friend and colleague, Michele Morgan. I was thinking this week about the letter I wrote to our then bishop of Minnesota, commending Michele for ordination. I told him people like Michele don’t come along every day, that she would be one to change our church for the better. Please join me in giving thanks for her ministry.

It is the beginning of May, which means, among other things, that we are entering the time of year marked by celebrations and rites of passage. There are graduations and weddings; in the church, it’s the season of ordinations. Today at St. Mark’s we are celebrating Baptism, Confirmation, Reception, and the Reaffirmation of Faith.

While not related to the season, St. Mark’s has had its share of funerals of late, the ultimate passage from this life to the next. The gospel text we read this morning is the most frequently chosen for funerals, for good reason. They are comforting words to hear in times of grief: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. . . I am going to prepare a place for you.

One thing these services have in common is that the person speaking attempts to give words of inspiration, the best they can offer for those whose celebratory moment is at the center of the gathering.

In a moment, that’s what I’ll do–give the best I can say today about the Christian faith for those making commitments today. But first, I invite you to think about what it feels like to give someone the best you’ve got, to dig deep to find the most important words you have to say in a given situation.

I once knew a man who worked as a chaplain at an assisted living facility. He took it upon himself to encourage everyone there to write a love letter to their families. It wasn’t their will. It was an offering from their hearts, a means of sharing their most important life lessons and hopes for their loved ones.

We needn’t wait until the end of our lives to do this. We could write letters to our children or grandchildren, our friends, colleagues, and neighbors whenever they reach an important milestone, or when we simply want to bless them. I had dinner last night with a colleague who is experiencing a time of real disappointment, and he told me how much it meant to him that people have reached out to him with words of encouragement and affirmation. They have been a lifeline in what would otherwise be a very lonely season of his life. If there’s someone you know who is going through a hard time, or embarking on an adventure, or has accomplished something they’ve worked hard for, I wonder what you might say to them, in wisdom and in love? What you might express by way of gratitude to those who have helped you along the way?

Here is what I have on my heart to say on this occasion of Baptism, Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation of Christian promises. I speak as one who has been a conscious believer in Jesus, and a follower of Jesus, since I was a teenager. It’s been quite a journey, and I’ve learned a few things. There’s still much more for me to learn, but this I know:

First: There is a difference between believing things about Jesus and believing in Jesus, between knowing things about Jesus and Him. The two are related–you can’t believe in Jesus if you don’t know anything about Him. Of course our knowledge will always be imperfect, and we all run the risk of believing in, or rejecting for that matter, a caricature of Him, or assuming that our partial knowledge is complete.

There is also the difference between the knowledge we gain by reading the gospel texts that tell of his life, and the knowledge of first hand experience, an encounter with the living Christ. Again, the two are related. If the purpose of our biblical texts was simply to pass on knowledge, we’d read them once and be done with them. Instead, we read and meditate on them continually, in worship, study, private devotion, because through the stories of Scripture, Jesus sometimes speaks a direct and personal word to us.

Believing in Jesus, however, is as much a matter of the heart as it is one of intellectual conviction. It happens in ways not that different from what it’s like for us to believe in other people, as an act of trust. To believe in Jesus is to place our trust in the possibility that the mystery we call God–the Source of all this true and good and real, the wonder of life and the mystery of love–took on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to show us what divine love looks like in the flesh–unconditional, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, and compelling.

Moreover, the part of God that is the person of Jesus, now the living Spirit of Christ, is real for us, and is with us, and is at work in and through us in ways that defy human understanding. As the Apostle Paul put it, his Spirit working in us can accomplish infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine. Sometimes Jesus is there simply to help us get through the challenges and heartache of life; other times, He calls us to acts of great courage, forgiveness, and sacrificial love.

Second, and this is related to the first: whether or not we believe in Jesus isn’t entirely up to us. The faith experience begins with an encounter, initiated from His side. That encounter takes many forms, but the point is, the invitation initiates with Him–although our openness to receive Him is key, because Jesus is not a bully. The encounter can be as if we hear–if that’s the right word for it–our name; as if we’re being summoned somehow. It can come through a moment of beauty and inspiration. For many, believing in Jesus begins rather dramatically, with an experience of being rescued or forgiven; for others, it’s more gradual, and only in retrospect do they realize how much Jesus has been with them all along. However Jesus comes to us, we have the sense that He knows us for who and what we are, and loves us still, unconditionally and completely.

Often the experience of Jesus is mediated by another person, and His presence is sometimes palpable in Christian community. Faith, it’s said, is more caught than taught, and it is a shared experience. Sometimes, though, He comes to us in a moment of quiet. He meets us in the times of greatest joy and immense suffering; I experience Jesus most powerfully in the gap between what is needed and what I have to offer.

Good teaching in faith is incredibly important, yet another plug for Christian community. One of the critical turning points in my life of faith was when I was in the midst of a genuine faith crisis, caught between two very different ways of understanding what it meant to be a Christian. The people who mattered most to me at the time and who had initially introduced me to the faith leaned one way, and the way I felt was more authentic to who I was and what I knew to be true was leaning another way. I didn’t want to hurt or anger the spiritual authorities in my life, and yet, I no longer believed much of what they believed about Jesus and what it meant to follow Him. Their teaching no longer spoke to me.

That’s when someone gave me a copy of a book, now out of print, entitled Turning: Reflections on the Experience of Conversion by Emilie Griffin. It was her personal account of how she came to faith–a lifelong process of struggle and doubt and intellectual questioning. She wove in stories about well-known 20th century Christians whose faith journeys were anything but straightforward, among them Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis. That book freed me to trust my own experiences, to take my own journey seriously, and listen inside myself, for what the theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”

Which leads me to the third and final thing I’d like to say about having a personal relationship with God through Jesus. It evolves and grows and changes over time, and as a result we evolve and grow and change in ways that we can’t anticipate looking forward and that we may only realize looking back. Ideally, although not always, we grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and forgive as He forgives. Often, however, we fail in love and forgiveness, and we find ourselves as the one needing forgiveness, or healing, or both. Sometimes, in faith, our prayers are answered and our deepest desires are met. Other times, they are not, and we must learn to live with grief and sorrow. That’s when Jesus can show up in ways that make possible for us what would be impossible on our own–for we realize that we’re not alone, and that His grace will see us through.

So that’s what I have on my heart to say, some of the most important things I have come to believe about believing in Jesus. But I’d like to leave with what Jesus has to say, which brings us back to the Gospel of John.

This passage we read this morning–the one we are most likely to hear at funerals– marks the beginning of a long section in the Gospel of John that contains Jesus’s final words to His disciples before His death. It’s His love letter.

The setting is at their last supper together. He’s already shared bread and wine with His disciples, telling them that whenever they break bread together in the future, He will be with them. He’s just finished wrapping a towel around His waist, taking a basin and pitcher of water and washing each one of the disciples’ feet, saying to them, “Do you see what I have done for you? I have given you an example, that you might serve others as I have served you.”

Then He sits down and speaks to them—three chapters’ worth of wisdom and assurance. They are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture. It’s too much to read in one setting, for each sentence is enough to ponder for a day, or a lifetime. You won’t find His ethical exhortations here–for that, we would turn to the Sermon on the Mount. This is spiritual encouragement and consolation, an invitation to believe in Him, to trust Him as One who is with you and for you.

He starts off by saying: Don’t let your hearts be troubled. No matter what happens next, I’m going to be okay and so are you. God is still God. He says, in essence, although I’m going away, I will never leave you. And you know where I’m going.

The disciples have no idea what He’s talking about. They don’t know where He’s going; they certainly don’t know the way. Then He says to them: Don’t worry. Remember everything that you’ve experienced and keep your eyes on me. I’ll get you there.

Truth be told, by the time the Gospel of John was written, most, if not all, of the first disciples had died. So these words weren’t written for them. They were written for us. This is who Jesus can be for us and what He offers us, whenever we choose to believe–place our trust–in Him. What does that look like? Keeping our eyes on Him, and trusting that, no matter what, He’ll see us through.