It’s been another eventful week. Anybody else having trouble keeping up with the news cycle? Tension among the various branches of government. The specter of armed conflict looming over several places around the globe. Four African and Middle Eastern countries on the brink of famine due, not to food production issues, but to war. People we know and love living in fear of being deported. Constant questions about healthcare coverage and the viability of social security. Worries that gains made in legal rights for LGBTQ folks might be rolled back. Worries about what will happen to the environment.
Just for fun, take a minute and write down one issue that you’re concerned about right now. It might be something I mentioned or something else.
If, after hearing that litany, Jesus were here and tried to tell us what he told his disciples at the last supper: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” I think I would groan or throw up my hands or ask, “What you talkin’ ‘bout Jesus?” If he posted it on Facebook, it would be an un-friend-able offense. If in these circumstances, Jesus were to tell us to “not let our hearts be troubled,” I would think he wasn’t in touch with reality and that the brand of faith he was selling was too superficial to do any good. “Come to the church of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy!’”
But Jesus is Jesus, not Bobby McFerrin (although Bobby McFerrin is very cool J). And this story comes from the Gospel of John and everywhere else in the Gospel of John, Jesus is way deep…so let’s look for a minute at the context in which Jesus tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. Maybe there’s more to it than first meets the eye.
Today’s passage introduces Jesus’ last “lecture” to the disciples before his arrest and death. It happens as they’re celebrating the Seder meal, after Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet. It caps off a tumultuous week that had run the gamut from cheering crowds to nasty encounters with religious authorities to death threats. Times were tense. The Roman government was oppressive, especially to those on the margins, as were Jesus, his disciples, and all the people flocking to hear Jesus. Feeling threatened, the religious authorities were doubling down on their rigid interpretations of religious law.
So, maybe the circumstances the disciples found themselves in the night before Jesus died were similar to what we’re experiencing. Perhaps they were living in times that were just as chaotic and troubling as the times in which we’re living. Probably moreso.
I wonder if, in those circumstances, any gathered around the table that night found Jesus’ words helpful? The religious authorities are breathing down our necks– “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We’re being exploited by an oppressive government– “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” The least of these are being thrown under the bus– “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I am about to be killed– “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Let’s see how they respond to Jesus’ statement. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith in me as well. In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well. You know the way that leads to where I am going.’”
Okay. Here’s our first response from a disciple. It’s Thomas. Of course. ‘But we don’t know where you’re going, Jesus. How can we know the way?’ Singer Susan Werner was right. Tom is the grooviest apostle of all. 🙂 He asks the question everybody else had but were afraid to ask. Jesus responds: “I myself am the Way–I am Truth, and I am Life. No one comes to Abba God but through me. If you really knew me, you would know Abba God also. From this point on, you know Abba God and you have seen God.”
Does that clear things up for the disciples? Apparently not. This time, it’s Philip who responds. “Rabbi, show us Abba God, and that will be enough for us.’
At this point, Jesus gets a little testy. He asks Philip: ‘Have I been with you all this time, and still you don’t know me? Whoever has seen me has seen Abba God. How can you say, ‘Show us your Abba?’ Don’t you believe that I am in Abba God and God is in me? The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is Abba God, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of God. Believe me that I am in God and God is in me, or else believe because of the works I do. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has faith in me will do the works I do–and greater works besides. Why? Because I go to Abba God, and whatever you ask in my name I will do, so that God may be glorified in me. Anything you ask in my name I will do.”
So, it’s the last day of class. You’ve been teaching for all you’re worth for three years. “I and Abba God are one.” “If you see me, you’ve seen God.” “If you believe in me, you believe in God. If you believe in God, you’ll believe in me.” You’ve been saying these things over and over, a thousand different ways, trying to get these important lessons to stick in the minds of your students. You arrive at the last day of class thinking, “Ah! They’ve finally got it! Today I get to see the fruit of all this work I’ve done teaching this class.”
Then one student asks a question, then another…and you get this sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach–They haven’t gotten any of it. They’ve missed the whole point of what you’ve been trying to teach them. The class is all but over, you’re moving to a new school, they’re moving to a new school, a school where your students are going to fail because they haven’t learned a thing you’ve taught them.
“Have I been with you all this time and still you don’t know me? Whoever has seen me has seen Abba God. Don’t you believe that I am in Abba God and God is in me? The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is Abba God, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of God.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I consider everything that’s going on in the world and in our country, I get overwhelmed, terrified…hopeless. In the context of everything that’s happening, it’s easy to forget about faith. And when the promises of faith do come to mind, they seem a paltry—laughable—response to any of the issues we’re facing.
Healthcare. The environment. Discrimination for LGBTQ folks. Rampant racism. Mass incarceration. Sexism. Heterosexism. The dwindling repute of truth. Famine. War. Cyber-war. The possibility of nuclear war. Terrorism. Exploitation of the vulnerable. The rapidly widening gap between rich and poor.
I’m going to stop. This list is getting depressing…especially because the problems seem too big for faith. I mean, seriously. How can being a follower of Jesus make any difference to any of these issues?
But…maybe it’s not that the problems we face are too big. Maybe the problem is that our faith is too small. Or too superficial. Or too disconnected from the one we say we follow.
Remember that “What Would Jesus Do?” fad a few years ago? WWJD? If that was helpful for you, I am grateful. Anything that helps us reflect on our faith can be meaningful. I confess, though, that I was kind of annoyed by the whole thing. And then, of course, I felt guilty for feeling annoyed…because being a follower of Jesus means doing the things Jesus did, right?
But it just seemed like there wasn’t a lot of thought that went into figuring out what Jesus would do in any given instance…Like, Jesus wouldn’t cut someone off in traffic…or Jesus would share his ice cream with his sister…or Jesus would take out the trash…
Maybe it wasn’t so much the question itself I found annoying. Maybe what concerned me was the instantaneous answers people always seemed to find. Figuring out what Jesus would do in any context….Man, that takes a lot of work. First, you have to learn something about the historical and political context of 1st century Palestine. Then you have to look at the literary context in which Jesus’ stories are told. He does different things, acts in different ways in each of the Gospels. Then you have to do some deep theological reflection…Everything that’s recorded in the Gospels Jesus did before the resurrection. Any issues we might face are happening after the resurrection. What difference might that make?
And once we’ve analyzed the historical, political, and theological contexts of Jesus, we have to analyze our own historical, political, and theological contexts. And then we have to become poets. By that, I mean that once the analytical work is completed, the metaphorical work begins. The life of faith is a life of imagination. As followers of Jesus, we are called, not to obey a set of rules, but to experience community and Jesus and Scripture then imagine how to live as people of Christian faith in the 21st century.
Let’s try it. Think about the issue you wrote down a minute ago. What are the societal issues? What are the political or economic issues? What are the spiritual issues? Now think about Jesus, you might want to think of a particular story of Jesus. What was going on in his historical/political/spiritual world? What was he trying to accomplish in the 1st century?
Now. In your imagination, put the two contexts together. See what emerges. And when whatever it is emerges, get to work acting the world or the person into wellbeing. That’s what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century. That’s how to reduce our stress level and increase our hopefulness. That is what it will take to soothe our troubled hearts.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2017