Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are about a half dozen home-bound people to whom I take Holy Communion each month and with whom I have a time of conversation. One of these people (and don’t ask me to give any identifying information or try to speculate who I’m talking about, because you’ll guess wrong) knowing that she’s not going to be in this world for too much longer has become increasingly concerned about how she’s not done enough to merit entrance into heaven. She says things like “I’m relying on you to put in a good word for me, Father John.” She has a relative who sends her bible readings or devotionals or something on a daily basis, and her take-away is something like “it’s telling me all the things I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m not doing them.” I want to say that either this can’t be the point of these things you’re getting or else it’s based on tremendously bad theology and should be ignored as much as possible, particularly at this point in her life.

It all reminds me that as much as one can say that the Gospel is about God’s free gift to us, our reconciliation to him by nothing more nor less than Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, enslavement to the Law and reliance on works-righteousness is a pernicious evil which even my most strident defenses of the sufficiency of Grace are hard-pressed to begin to dispel from the anxious soul of one being continually reminded that he or she must just “be good.” Whatever form our moralism takes, and whether it’s directed against others or creates anxiety and scrupulosity in our own souls, the message of Grace is offensive in the most wonderful, liberating way. Thus can St. Stephen pray with confidence that even the sin of those who martyred him would not be held against them.

This is the Good News we hear in today’s Gospel, taken from the fourteenth chapter of John. Jesus spoke these words at the Last Supper, the very night before he was himself to be killed and to pray with confidence to the Father that his own murderers would be forgiven. This is one of the options for the Gospel at funerals in this church, and perhaps the most popular for obvious reasons. Christ’s comforting command “let not your hearts be troubled” and his promise that he himself goes to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house are not, however, immediately understood.

Both Thomas and Philip seem to me to be caught up in the same anxiety as my friend I mentioned at the outset of the sermon. Show us the way. Show us the Father. We do not know the way. I think that these demands are a way of saying, “Lord, tell us what to do to be good enough to join you in heaven.” Give us a road map, give us step-by-step instructions on what good works we must do to merit a place in your Kingdom. How do we earn this?

Jesus rejects the premise of the question. Instead of a set of rules or a to-do list he gives them himself. “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” Yes, he promises that in coming to him, in believing in him, in being in relationship with him, the apostles and we would be empowered to do great works. But the way to the Father’s house would already be secured, and the works would not serve for self-justification but to display glory of God.

I want to ask you to think of a place that feels like home to you. It could be the town you grew up in. It could be a grandparent’s house. It could be your college campus. It could be a place you went on vacation and have fond memories of. It could be this church, and I hope it is for some of you. It could be anywhere. Does that place feel like home to you because the weather was pleasant or because it had nice amenities or because it was selected as top micropolitan area by Site Selection Magazine a thousand years in a row or whatever it is? I suspect not. I suspect it’s because of relationships with other people you had or have in that place. The city I grew up in was determined by a Gallup poll a few years ago to be “one of the eleven most miserable cities in the United States.” But it still feels “homey” to me because of the relationships I had with people there.

Why is heaven our home? We know precious little from scripture about what the life of the world to come will be like. One thing we do know, is that we will be there with each other and, most importantly, with Jesus for ever. He’s gone to prepare a place, not because we’ve earned the right to attend a graduation party or a retirement party or something. Why? “So that where I am you may be also.” Because he wants to be with us for eternity. Because he loves us, and because with what little love we have, we love him too. I’ve not earned that love. Frankly, I’ve not earned anyone’s love. That’s not how love works. That’s not why we’ve been given each of us to each other in this life. We have, rather, been created and redeemed simply to share unearned love with each other in reflection of the only one who ever earned it, in preparation for the fulsome experience of that love in eternity.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.