Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
10 May 2020
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
When Jackie and I were first married, we lived in Germany. After a couple of years we decided to return to Canada, i.e. Jackie returned and I applied for permanent resident status.
When I told my family about our decision, my father said to me, “I always knew that you’d do that.” I was puzzled, because I didn’t know how he could possibly know what I hadn’t known myself. I asked, “How did you know?” He replied, “Because that’s what I would have done.”
It seemed that at age 60 my father had just shared his boyhood dream. And as we talked more, I learned that in the years after the war, during his apprenticeship, my father had had the opportunity to go to England for one year. If he was 18 at the time, it would have 1949. He was dating my mother then and according to my dad, she was pleading with him not to go and not leave her. He had heeded to her pleading and it turned out that all these years later, my father still wished he had gone.
But I am telling you the story not so much to tell you about my father, but to tell you about my mother. I am not sure why she was pleading with my dad. Was it the memory of separation from her parents during the war years when children were evacuated from the cities? Her experience had not been a good one, at least in one of her placements, and I remember her telling us that story more than once. Or was it simply that a young woman was afraid to lose the one she loved? I do not know.
Separation anxiety is normal. Children suffer it on their first day of day care or school, or their first sleepover. Separation anxiety is normal because we are not meant to be alone. We belong together, which is one reason why this time of pandemic has been so difficult.
Separation anxiety is what the disciples experience in today’s reading. Our reading is from a section of John’s Gospel that we call the “farewell speeches of Jesus,” covering five chapters of John’s gospel.
The section begins in chapter 13 where Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, foretold of betrayal and denial, and given his disciples the new commandment, that they love one another as he had loved them. He said that this love would be a sign for people to know that they belonged to Jesus.
If he was not going to leave them, at least the part about people knowing by their love that the belonged to Jesus would have made little sense. And so Jesus spends much time preparing them for the time when he will no longer be with them in body. This is not unlike us preparing someone for our absence. I remember the first time we went on a holiday and the kids stayed home by themselves. It is also not unlike helping our adult child set up their own place.
There is separation but what happens before is an act of love.
What the disciples are about to enter is new territory. Their very discipleship is defined by the presence of the physical, embodied Jesus. They have no idea what it means to be a disciple with Jesus no longer with them.
There are certain things that, when I do them for the first time, give me anxiety. I took apart the plumbing under our bathroom sink a few weeks ago. If you have ever done plumbing you know that it’s not always super accessible and that lighting can be an issue. Now I had done a little plumbing before but I am an amateur. As I started the job, I found myself disconnecting a piece I did not think could be disconnected and immediately had visions of having to make multiple trips to the hardware store to repair the damage I had done.
It turned out that all was good. The piece was supposed to come off and it was easily reconnected, but for a moment I was worried because I had not done this before.
That’s where the disciples are at. They look at Jesus and think, “What do you mean, you are going away? That’s not what we signed up for.”
Thomas wants to know how to reconnect, perhaps in case something goes wrong, so he can call Jesus and say, “Help me out. What do I do now?”
Instead of providing his emergency contact information (in a way that comes later), Jesus emphasizes what they already have and what will remain.
Knowing Jesus means they know the Father. He and the Father are one. Jesus revealed God to us. If we wonder what God is like, we only need to look to Jesus. There are more assurances coming, but for our section this is it.
Jesus points out what is already a reality but he does not gloss things over. What Jesus says to them is fact, but it is also promise. It requires them to trust in him.
It is very much like a parent leaving a child alone for the first time. The child trusts that the parent will return, the parent trusts that the child will act in ways that not only expects the return of the parent, but in a way acts as if the parent were home.
Jesus promises to be the way to the Father. Jesus promises to give life and truth. And this promise alludes to Jesus somehow still being present in their lives.
All of this appeals to their relationship, which perhaps is why we find these chapters difficult to read. Perhaps we expect something more than a promise, but a promise it is.
The disciples, I think, have difficulty with it too. They want something more substantial, but Jesus offers them only the relationship with God through him. The relationship will enable them to do even greater works than his. These works are not the suspension of the laws of physics, but they are the works of love, because God is love, and this ties it back to the footwashing and the commandment to love one another.
While Jesus prepares them for his departure, he reminds them of the relationship they have with him and through him with God the Father.
Relationships are all about trust. Nothing can work without trust.
Jesus invites the disciples to trust in him. “Believe in God, believe also on me.”
They are able to have trust in him because he trusts them.
Perhaps, when we read these long passages in John, that at times seem circular and repetitive, we look for something that may give us certainty.
Jesus does not offer certainty, only the relationship with God, and that is enough.