What troubles your heart these days?
There’s plenty of stuff to trouble us: wars popping up all over the globe, crime rising here at home, the economy, politics … and on a more personal level, trouble can haunt us in our families: our marriages, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives, our own health – there’s plenty of trouble to go around.
I grew up in a fundamentalist church. We were convinced we had the Right Answers to all the Big Questions, and most of the little ones. We knew without a doubt that once you were saved, you were always saved. But if you weren’t saved the way we were saved, you probably weren’t really saved. We practiced “closed communion” for church members only. This meant observing the Lord’s Supper on Sunday nights, when visitors were less likely to show up. We had the Rapture and the Second Coming all figured out. Ours was a very exclusive community of faith, and we were proud of it. We knew who was In and who was Out. We did not let the things of this world trouble us. Or at least, we wouldn’t admit it if they did.
We were nothing at all like the community of faith gathered around the table in the Upper Room on the night Jesus was betrayed.
We had answers.
The disciples had questions.
We were full of assurance.
The disciples were full of fear.
We allowed only bona fide church members to receive Communion.
Jesus offered bread and cup to all his followers, even Judas, and said, “Take and eat. Take and drink.”
We were certain: we knew who was In and who was Out.
The disciples were confused: they had thought Jesus would become the King Forever. Here he was talking about dying. And it sounded like he meant “soon.”
As those confused and fearful disciples gathered around the Table, Jesus talked openly with them. He knew it would be his last chance to help them understand what was about to happen, and what they would need to know after he was no longer with them. But his words were not comforting to the disciples. They were troubling words. So Jesus gathered his friends closer, and 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. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. John 14:1-14
It may seem strange to hear these words in the middle of the season of Eastertide. We should be celebrating the risen Lord, not going back to the gloom and doom of Holy Week, right? And many of us may associate this particular passage more with the sadness of funerals than with the joy of confirming young people in their faith. In fact, many of us heard these very words read on Thursday, as we gathered here to remember our friend Joleen, sorrowing in our loss while rejoicing in the hope of resurrection.
But Jesus wasn’t only teaching his disciples how to deal with his impending death, nor was he only concerned with a far-distant heavenly future. Jesus was preparing his disciples for carrying on the ministry he had begun. The Kingdom of God had broken into the world, and it would be up to Christ’s followers to continue the work of bringing it to full reality.
So here we are, a couple thousand years later, about to confirm these young people as Christ-followers, welcoming them as full members in the Body of Christ we call the church. What better words can we hear than the ones Jesus spoke to his close friends that night?
These words are rich, and they give us many ideas to ponder. Let’s focus on just two: the verse that gets quoted the most, and one that often gets overlooked.
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. No one comes to the Father except through me.
This year, Pastor Ric Jacobsen from Oakwood UMC and I combined our confirmation classes and taught them together as one group. We encouraged the students to be thoughtful and honest as they answered the questions of the Baptismal Covenant, in preparation for today. As we talked together about faith, we pondered Creation, and the Sin that quickly followed. We discussed what it means to Renounce evil, to Repent of our sins, to Ask Forgiveness, to Confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, to Discern God’s will, and to lead a Holy Life. We talked about Grace, that love we don’t deserve, and we took a closer look at John Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace, the grace God offered us before we even knew we needed it. We recognized justifying grace as the work Christ did for us on the cross, and we began a journey toward sanctifying grace as we practiced the disciplines of Bible study, prayer, worship, and service. For the confirmation students, the question “who are we following?” never even came up. We all knew from the beginning that the faith we were exploring was Christian faith.
Those early disciples didn’t have it so easy. They were still caught up in the history of Judaism, thousands of years of interwoven spiritual and physical DNA. Like my fundamentalist childhood church, they thought they had it all figured out. They knew how the story was supposed to end. And they knew it wasn’t supposed to end like this, with the Messiah preparing them for his own death. The question they were all asking themselves, but no one wanted to say out loud was this: Did we make a mistake? Did we follow the wrong guy?
So when Jesus promises to come get them later, and tells them that they know the way to where he is going, our good friend Thomas blurts out, “You’ve got to be kidding! We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?”
Can’t you just see Jesus, shaking his head? “Thomas, Thomas, look me in the eye and listen to me. I AM the Way. I am the Truth, remember? The Word was made flesh – that’s me, buddy. I am the Life. You don’t need to look for another Messiah. You got it right the first time. I am the only way you can get to the Father. Believe me.”
At that moment, Thomas might not have known how the story was going to end, but he must have recognized that Jesus wasn’t declaring a threat – “Believe in me and me only, or else!” – but was offering a promise. And that promise was not only for the future, it was a promise to be with the disciples in the here and now, as they figured out how to carry forward the ministry Christ had begun. Thomas must have been paying attention, for we know that a week after the resurrection, he declared, “My Lord and my God.”
And that is what these confirmands are about to do. Over the past few months, they have each explored what it means to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They have followed John Wesley’s four-part path to discernment, examining the Word of God in scripture, exploring the traditions of the faith as it has been handed down through generations of believers, using their gifts of intellect and reason to think through the questions that only faith can answer, and finally seeking a true experience of faith, as they reach the point when they can say with full assurance, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and I want to commit my life to following him as my Lord and Savior.”
As Samantha wrote in her confirmation paper:
“God has a plan for everyone and I’m ready to commit to his plan for me. … There will always be times when I make mistakes because living a Holy Life isn’t just about being perfect and not making any mistakes but I will continue to do the best I can. John Wesley believed that each of us were given the grace of God to move on toward Christian perfection.”
Each of these students recognizes that accepting Christ as Savior is not the end, but the beginning of a life where Jesus is Lord. Hunter wrote, “I am ready to publicly say I am a Christian. I am on the journey. Christ helps me go on the right path.” And Kyle added, “I will always continue my journey toward Jesus Christ because there is always room to grown further in my faith.”
Kyle also expanded on that Wesleyan idea of experience as a way to know God’s will for the whole Body of Christ. He wrote, “Experience means to live together in a Christian community that helps each other, like guides for life in Christ.” And Christina explains the idea of church even further: “Church is not a specific “place.” Church is where you talk about God and the Bible and everything that happened within the Bible [with other people]. You need to have people to bounce your ideas off of, and a church is a group of people, not an actual building.”
Each of these confirmation students have found Jesus to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They are ready to latch onto the promise Jesus offers, to be present with them through the Holy Spirit, as they grow deeper in faith, stronger in their love for God and neighbor, and more and more like Jesus. They are ready to become, as Peter wrote, “living stones, a royal priesthood,God’s own people,” in order that they may join us in proclaiming the mighty acts of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy,” Peter quotes the prophet Hosea (1 Peter 2:10). As full members of the body of Christ, these confirmands are ready to participate in the life of the church with their presence, their prayers, their spiritual gifts, their service, and their witness. Which brings us to that other verse, the one that we often skip over on our way to asking for the things we want “in Jesus’ name.”
Jesus tells his friends, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
As we welcome these young people into faith, we need to remember with them that becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work. Just as Jesus healed the sick, cared for the poor, and preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, so we are to continue that ministry, until all the world has been introduced to God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ. We are to bind up the broken-hearted, feed the hungry, and share God’s love. Accepting Jesus as Savior is only the beginning of eternal life. Living into the grace we have received, we grow into a more and more holy life.
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people,” Peter writes. “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” But it doesn’t stop there. We have been given a purpose, a reason to keep moving forward on our journey toward Christ-likeness. Why are we here, in this place at this time, as Christ’s church? “in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Thanks be to God.