Sunday April 24, 2005
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead
Freedom from Fear
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God; believe also in me; in my Father’s house are many mansions…I go to prepare a place for you.
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This Gospel is the one most frequently chosen by mourners planning funerals and memorial services, and rightly so. Jesus’ phrases throughout the passage come through time after time, whether the deceased was a devout churchgoer or at most a nominal Episcopalian. They comfort.
People seem especially to love the “Father’s house, many mansions” part. However, when we get to “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me,” some have uneasy associations of this text being used to exclude or intimidate those unprepared to recite a required formula or creed on demand.
“No one comes to the Father but by me.” If this seems offensive or disrespectful of other faiths and religions, let it first be borne in mind that at the beginning of John’s Gospel the one who said it is announced as the incarnate Word of God, by whom all things are made and who became flesh to dwell among us -- in order to supply a direct avenue of approach to the God he called his Father. In today’s reading he was speaking softly and tenderly to Thomas, addressing his fear of losing his way. Jesus’ claim, understood in the light of the Gospel and in the specific context in which he said it (the night before he died), is all inclusive, not exclusive. Whereas no evil or error are in God and are purged away (for God is light and in him is no darkness); all truth stems from the Word of God and leads back to him. But the Word was made flesh in Jesus, a claim made nowhere else by or about anyone else. Jesus Christ is the only name under heaven given to man by which we may be saved.
This claim about Jesus is by no means unique to Saint John’s Gospel. It runs through the entire New Testament. Saint Paul, for example, says that Christ, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, is the one in whom all things, the whole creation, hold together and by whom all things in the cosmos are redeemed and reconciled to God. The Son of God, in other words, is not simply our Savior; he is our Creator come in the flesh to help us back home.
On Easter morning here, we heard a story from the Book of Acts, Saint Peter preaching to a group of Gentiles who wished to hear the Gospel. Peter, who had before this kept company strictly among his fellow Jews, was moved and said, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” This is not to say that all religions are equal or that creeds do not matter. It is to say that all faiths have a certain relation to the Word made flesh, particularly when a person fears and seeks God and tries to do the good. If in the ancient world all roads led to Rome; then in the realm of the spirit all truth leads to God’s Word which was made flesh in Jesus Christ. This is a reason for deep respect, not disrespect, in the Church’s genuine dialogue with other faiths. This is also a reason for the word, catholic, (whole and universal) as a description of the faith of the Church.
Today’s Gospel is most certainly a comfort at funerals and for all of life. The Gospel sets forth a great safety net, in this fallen and broken world, for all good will and good deeds, all intentions and desires for God, saving them from loss and gathering them up in Christ the Redeemer. People sometimes feel, especially in New York, that life involves walking on a tight rope. Christ calls us to follow him, but salvation is not a matter of skill and balance; salvation is that safety net which stands between us and the spiritual abyss. Jesus guides our feet in the way of peace and holds us when we fall. We are not saved by attaining excellence or perfection; we are not saved by doctrine or theology; we are not even saved by morals or religion. We are saved by Christ, God incarnate who lived our life and died our death, in order to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house. As we embrace that incarnate love of God for us, fear is cast out.
Thomas asked the question that brought the answer concerning the way out of fear. Philip asks a further question: Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied. To which Jesus replied: Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me? To see me is to see the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me: See it in my words or my works.
As a priest I know a good number of people who have had a brush with death. The older I get, the more I know. I have had one myself, at least close enough to reflect seriously on the imminent possibility of departing this life. One of the greatest blessings, I think the greatest, in such moments is faith in Christ and the freedom from fear this faith brings. This is precisely what Jesus wants his disciples to have. The old evening hymn, “Sun of my soul, thou Savior dear,” has a powerful, memorable verse: “Abide with me from morn till eve, for without thee I cannot live; abide with me when night is nigh, for without thee I dare not die.” Jesus has taught us that God is love. There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear. When we trust the love of God as embodied in Jesus, nailed to the cross and raised from the tomb, we are set free to live or to die, let circumstances happen as they may.
Jesus’ fulfillment of his word, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” comes in his promise of his presence. Reflecting on the possibility of dying, I remember asking the Lord for more time -- [I have things to see, errands to run, goals to pursue – for the love of my family and of my larger family, the Church! Please, Lord!] But then I also thought: if this is “it,” that’s ok too – because you are with me.
All this Eastertide, the Church proclaims the good news that Jesus lives; he is risen; he is our living Lord and God. Today the Gospel assures us that in his own death Christ has most certainly prepared a place for us, a dwelling place, a mansion, in his Father’s house; and that he has come again from the dead to receive us. Now we can let go of the old way of living, chasing after illusions, and get on with real life (what Jesus calls eternal life). Do not be afraid. Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in Jesus. Our trust is well placed.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.