May 22, 2022, I Am with You Always, John 14:23-29 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Looking back on our three-year cycle, I saw that the last time I preached on this gospel passage, I had just returned home from St. Louis, where I had been staying with my sister in the hospice center while she was dying of breast cancer. I talked about what it was like to wash and dress her body after her death, and that strange, terrible feeling that I’m sure most of you know that the person I knew and loved was gone, and that the body I knew, my sister’s body that I could still see and touch, really wasn’t her any more.
I could never have known at the time that the next time I read this passage about Jesus preparing his close friends for his death I would be grieving yet another loss. Less than six months ago, our daughter Ivy, who many of you knew as Nicholas, died in a hospital room in Odgensburg, quarantined because of Covid. My heart goes out to the thousands and thousands of people who have had loved ones taken from them over the past couple of years, like we did, without the comfort of being there to hold a hand or say goodbye. We’ve learned from personal experience how very painful, and just how bewildering it is to have a beloved person gone forever, and to be unable to see or touch or hear them in those last moments.
But I think that no matter what the circumstances of a death might be; no matter how many dear 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 it is a very hard thing to face that people who were such a big part of our lives are truly gone.
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 the loss of our loved ones. 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. 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 each other 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. But faith can be a challenge. Just ask Thomas.
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. Like the first disciples, we struggle to hold 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 those 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 constant reminders of God’s presence, aren’t we? We can’t open our eyes in the morning without seeing his handiwork: “All things were created by him, and without him was not anything made that has been made,” John writes. The flowers blooming in our yards, 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: God’s fingerprints are all over this world.
In the same way, I’m surrounded every day by so many things that remind me of Margaret and Ivy. I have beautiful hand-crafted things that my sister made, and vivid memories of our childhood. I have a cd of Ivy’s wonderful music, and, even better, my awesome grandchildren. 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 wrap myself in my sister’s hand-knit sweater, and to read the notes she sent me. I will always love to spend time with Cameron and Aubrey and Patience. But the thing my heart aches for, always, is to have my sister and my child back again, solid and real and alive.
What Jesus wanted his disciples to understand – what he wants for us to understand also – is that he promises us something more than memories and reminders: much more, much bigger, much more real, more lasting. Jesus promises us the one and only thing we really desire or need. He promises himself. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” he told them, “Don’t be afraid.” I won’t leave you as orphans, 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 he, himself, 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 am with you always, even to the end of the age.
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, 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 promises us that he is here for us. Now.
Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be everything he was to the disciples, Teacher and comforter, 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 can know that we’re 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. Because we know that we have this promise:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be crying no pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. +
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