May 26, 2019, Grief and Belief, John 14:23-29 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Most of you know that I was gone last weekend because I went to be with my sister, who passed away Saturday morning. I think that no matter how many people you have lost; no matter how many bedsides you have attended at the time of death; no matter how natural and universal a thing death is supposed to be; the fact remains that death is a strange and alien thing to us. For me, as I washed my sister and dressed her in clean clothes for that last time, I had a powerful feeling that she just wasn’t there any more. My sister, Margaret, the person that I loved, the person that loved me, was gone. And the body I was caring for, the body that had served my sister so well for so many years – and also the body that had failed her so spectacularly in the end – that body was just an empty shell, something she didn’t need any more. My sister was truly gone.
But in spite of that, in a thousand small ways, I continued to feel my sister’s presence. After my sister died, I stayed at her house for a couple of days, and I slept in a sweater that Margaret used to wear a lot. I wore it because it had that wonderful scent that uniquely belonged to my sister. The house was full of the things she loved – dishtowels that she had woven and hats and sweaters that she had knitted and pictures she had drawn. Her little Scottish Terrier, Llewie, slept by my side every night, and when I sat on the couch her cat, Lefty, curled up in my lap just like he always used to curl up in Margaret’s lap in the evenings. Just being with Chris, her husband, and my niece, Meagan, and so many of Margaret’s close friends, looking at old photographs of us when we were little kiddos together, all those things helped me to feel a little bit like she was still with me, or at least a little less far away.
This coming Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension, forty days after Easter Day, when we commemorate the moment Jesus left us to return to the Father. We proclaim that Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter morning, and that death did not have the final word with him. But he left this earth, bodily – his disciples stood and watched him go – and in a very real way, his physical absence affects us just as surely as my sister’s death affects me. We don’t see Jesus walking alongside us. We can’t reach out and grab the hem of his robe. We don’t know what his voice sounds like. We don’t know his scent. There are times when we only hear the angel’s first words to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb: “He is not here.” We, who are so used to knowing one another by sight and sound and touch, we can’t know Jesus in the way his disciples did. That’s one reason following Jesus is a matter of faith.
When we read John’s account of the last meal Jesus shared with his friends, you can hear the fear in their words. “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked him. And Thomas said, “Lord, if we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” In that upper room, on that very last day with Jesus, as they shared the Passover meal, it had finally dawned on them all that Jesus was really about to leave them, and they were everything you or I would have been: sad, and anxious, and confused. They were terrified. They certainly didn’t feel ready to lose their Master and Teacher. That was absolutely the last thing they wanted to hear.
As for us, we’re no different from those disciples. We are just simple creatures of flesh and blood, struggling with the idea of holding fast in faith when our Teacher and Master is no longer present in the flesh. On the Feast of the Ascension, we find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the disciples, staring up into the empty sky, wondering how on earth we are going to find the way that we should go. And we are in good company. All the saints through all the ages have wrestled with the problem of living by faith, learning how to love and serve and follow a God we can’t see or hear or feel or touch. In this life, faith and fear are always two sides of the same coin.
If we are paying attention, we are surrounded every day by myriad reminders of his presence, aren’t we? We can’t set one foot outside those doors without seeing his handiwork: “All things were created by him, and without him was not anything made that has been made,” John writes. The tulips blooming in front of the church, and the new crops coming up in perfect green rows in the fields, trees and mountains and rivers and stars, the infinite variety of furred and feathered creatures, not to mention you and me: his fingerprints are all over this world.
Just like all the beautiful hand-crafted things that fill my sister’s house, but infinitely more so, the whole earth is full of the glory of our Lord. Everywhere, all around us, there are constant reminders. But we all know from our personal experience that memories and reminders are not enough to really satisfy our grief or our loss. I love to smell the scent of my sister’s sweater. I love to remember our good times together. Those are wonderful things, and I’m thankful for every memory and for every reminder. But the one thing I really want, of course, is just my sister, herself.
What Jesus wanted his disciples to understand – what he wants for us to understand also – is that he promises us something much more, much bigger, much realler and more lasting, than memories and reminders. He promises the one and only thing we really want or need. He promises himself. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” he told them, “Don’t be afraid.” I am going to prepare a place for you, and I will come and bring you to be with me. I won’t leave you as orphans, he promises, I will come to you. If you love me, you will keep my word, and my Father will love you, and we will come and make our home with you.
If you remember the story about when Lazarus died, and Jesus arrived too late, Martha came out to meet him and to pour out her grief. And Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” she answered Jesus, “I do know that he will rise again on the last day.” You see what she was saying. “Yes, I know it will all be well in the end. But don’t you understand, Jesus, that is pretty cold comfort at the moment? I want my brother now.” And we know, of course, how the story ends. We know that now is exactly what Jesus had in mind. He called Lazarus to come forth, and Martha’s brother walked out of the grave, fully alive, and was restored to his sisters.
It is just the same with Jesus’s promises to come to us. We can believe that we will be in the presence of God in the end. But it’s right here and right now that we need him, if we are to find our way. And the promise of his presence in the Holy Spirit is a promise for right here and right now, not for the sweet by and by. That is perfectly clear in what he says to the disciples. I give you my peace, not like the world gives, giving one day and taking back the next, as changeable as the weather. I give you peace that remains forever. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. He says that twice. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Don’t be afraid. I will come.
As children, when we had bad dreams there was only one thing that could drive away the fear that stayed with us when we woke up. We needed someone, our mother or father, a sister or brother, to be there with us, someone to be present so we knew we weren’t alone, someone to reassure us everything was OK. Can you remember how the fear would melt away then, and the memory of the dream would fade, and our little bodies would relax back into peaceful drowsiness. Jesus promises his presence with us, not someday if we’re good, and worthy, and follow all the rules, but now, in our time of need. “We will come and make our home with you.” He promised us that he would be here for us.
Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be everything he was to the disciples, Teacher and friend and guide – and more, because, being spirit, the Holy Spirit can be fully present with every person at all times. “The Father will send the Holy Spirit in my name,” Jesus promises, “the Helper, who will teach you all things – everything! And she will bring to your mind everything that I have said to you.” Just like David wrote in the 23rd Psalm, there will be nothing, not a single thing that we lack, because God’s Holy Spirit abides with us. When we hear that still, small voice of comfort, or direction, or encouragement, we know we are not alone.
But at the same time we never stop longing for the fuller reality when Jesus returns in the flesh, when all of creation is healed and restored to its proper glory, when Jesus and all the beloved people we have lost are present to all our senses again at last. Paul wrote, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” And Job proclaimed, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”
Let us pray:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.