19 February 2017

Sermon – “What does he mean?” (John 16:16-24)

I wonder how many of you may have seen Martin Scorsese’s film Silence when it was showing earlier in the year. Sadly, it has received far too little attention and was a failure at the box office. Yet I believe it is one of the most profound films to have been released in years. I won’t tell you too much about it, except to say that it is based on a novel by Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo.
The story takes place in the late 1600s, with two Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe journeying to Japan to try to find their former mentor and fellow priest, Father Ferreira, who is rumoured to have abandoned his faith in the heat of the vicious persecution unleashed against Christians. Suffice it to say, the film is gruelling to watch, as the situation becomes bleaker and bleaker for the two priests, not to mention the Japanese peasants and villagers who have embraced the Christian faith.
Here at First Congregational you have been making your way through what are almost Jesus’ final words, spoken to his disciples as they shared their last supper together in the upper room. I can’t help but think that, as in the film Silence, there must have been an overpowering, almost palpable, sense of foreboding, indeed of bewilderment, as Jesus donned a servant’s towel and washed the disciples’ feet, as he warned that there was one among them who would betray him, as sent Judas Iscariot off into the night, and not least as he used the bread and wine of Passover to speak of his own body being broken and his life’s blood being shed for them.
No wonder, then, that the evening was filled with confusion and questions: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” “Lord, who among us would ever betray you?” “Lord, where are you going that we cannot follow?” “Lord, how can we know the way?” “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” And now, in this morning’s passage, “What does he mean? We can’t make head or tail of what he’s saying.” (Notice that at this point the disciples’ confusion has reached the stage where they don’t even bother to address their questions to Jesus any longer, but to one another.)
So it is that into the midst of this gloom and confusion Jesus speaks once more: “In a little while you will see me no more…” “You will weep and mourn…” “You will grieve…” Hardly words to instill confidence and hope! Yet I believe that as we look into them, as we take time to examine them, we will find that they are words bursting with a richness that is scarcely possible to fathom. So let’s turn in our Bibles to John 16, verses 16 to 24.

The Wonder of the Cross

The passage begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more…” As I’ve suggested already, these words must only have added to their confusion. Twenty centuries later we have the advantage of hindsight. It is clear to us that what Jesus was speaking to them about was his death on the cross. Within a few short hours Jesus would be forced away from them to be humiliated in a series of mock trials before the religious council and the secular authorities. He would be savagely beaten and then subjected to the cruellest form of execution the Roman Empire had managed to devise—the slow, painful process of hanging exposed on a cross gradually to asphyxiate to death. By the time it came to that, however, all but one would have left the scene. Both through the wicked actions of the authorities and through their own weakness, the time was swiftly coming when the disciples would indeed see Jesus no more.
In my mind’s eye I can picture them on that first Good Friday going back to the places where they were staying or possibly to the upper room, their bowed heads and stooped bodies bearing silent witness to the profound dismay and utter bewilderment that filled their hearts. “You will weep and mourn,” Jesus warned them. “You will grieve…”
Yet little did they know that as their hearts were being ripped apart, so too was the veil of the Temple, the thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies—revered as the very dwelling place of God—from the rest of the Temple. So holy was this place that only the high priest could enter it, and he only once a year, on the Feast of the Atonement (Yom Kippur). He would have a rope tied around his waist, so that if he happened to die or become incapacitated while performing his duties he could be dragged out and nobody need enter to rescue him.
What happened that day on a physical level, dramatic as it was, was only a sign of what was also taking place on a cosmic level. Through his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus had breached the separation between God and humankind that had been a reality since the days in the Garden of Eden.
Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you…” (Isaiah 59:2) Now, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, the church can proclaim, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain…, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings…” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Clearly all of this was far beyond the grasp of the disciples. Indeed theologians today still ponder over it with amazement. American preacher Fleming Rutledge spent eighteen years working on her more than 600-page book The Crucifixion. New Testament scholar Tom Wright, who himself has just published a book on the crucifixion, has written, “I am under no illusions that, even if I were to write a thousand pages on the subject, I would never exhaust it.”[1] Surely in the end our response to Jesus’ death on the cross can only be one of amazement and praise. In the words of Isaac Watts,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The Wonder of the Resurrection

However, back to the disciples in the upper room… Jesus had warned them that their hearts would be filled with sorrow. But he also promised that they would be filled with exultation. “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me… You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” And so the scene shifts from Good Friday to the first Easter morning, from Calvary to Joseph of Arimathea’s garden. If those first disciples could not come to terms with Jesus’ crucifixion, how were they to handle his resurrection?
It was only with great difficulty and after considerable persuasion that they came to believe the reality of Jesus’ resurrection after it occurred. They dismissed the women’s reports of the empty tomb and the angels as old wives’ tales. When Jesus appeared before them in the upper room, they at first assumed he was an apparition. So no wonder Jesus’ words about their sorrow being turned to joy and about not seeing him and then seeing him only left them befuddled and confused! I know for certain that I would have been.
Yet within a few short weeks they would be proclaiming, “You … put [Jesus of Nazareth] to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:23-24,36). The resurrection points to Jesus as an individual utterly unique in the course of history. And that alone would have been enough to blow the disciples’ minds—or anyone’s mind for that matter. But dare I say that that is only the tip of the iceberg?
Look at what Paul writes in his famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). You see, Easter was only the beginning. Because of Jesus’ resurrection we can look forward to that day when, as Paul again writes, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
It’s Jesus’ resurrection that assures us that all the injustices, all the seemingly pointless suffering, the atrocities and the horrors that human beings are subject to will one day be gloriously, mysteriously redeemed. Climatologists warn us that human existence may come to an end when our pollution of the environment reaches the point where human life is no longer possible. Astronomers warn of a collision with a comet of the proportions of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Still others see us all being sucked into the oblivion of a black hole. None of them is a pretty picture. But Jesus’ resurrection tells that there is more, that God has greater plans for his creation than we could ever imagine—in Paul’s words, “that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Now that does not mean that we are not to seek justice, to minister to the downtrodden, or to care for the environment. Quite the opposite: Jesus’ resurrection calls us to be outposts of that new creation that is to come, to be glimpses, even if ever so weak and glimmering, of the light that is to be revealed.

The Wonder of Communion

If all of that were not enough, Jesus reveals a third point of wonder for the disciples. The first is the wonder of the crucifixion; the second, the wonder of the resurrection; and I was going to call the third the wonder of prayer. But on reflection I think it is better to call it the wonder of communion. Listen to Jesus’ final words in this morning’s verses:
Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
On the surface it almost seems like some magical formula—the kind of thing we read about in fairy tales: “Make a wish and all your dreams will come true.” Yet I suspect that all of us have had enough of an experience of prayer to know that that just isn’t the case. Nor is it what Jesus is speaking about here. For prayer, as we all know, is not some mechanical formula—put a loonie in the slot and down slides a candy bar. No, prayer is a conversation, and like all conversations it is an expression of a relationship.
When we begin to see it in this way, we also begin to recognize that asking something in Jesus’ name is not just a matter of tacking those words onto the end of a petition—“… in Jesus’ name. Amen”—as though that makes our prayer valid in a way that it wouldn’t be without them. No, it seems to me that to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray the prayer that Jesus himself would pray. And that in turn means that a significant element of prayer is seeking his will. It means coming to him and allowing him to come alongside us, and to be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane as the disciples soon would be, where they would hear him utter, “Father, not my will, but yours, be done.”
In that gift of prayer, that gift of communion, of being able to come into his presence, of knowing that he is with us even when we are not conscious of it, Jesus has given us something again that we will never fathom, never understand, yet to those of us who have entered into its mysteries, a gift more precious than words could ever express.
The disciples asked, “What does he mean?” And like them, our minds will never fully grasp the mysteries into which our faith in Jesus leads us. But more importantly he who has died for us, who is the first-born from the dead, and who is ever-present with us—he has grasped us, and he will never let us go.

[1]     “The Cross and the Caricatures”, Fulcrum, Eastertide 2007, https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/the-cross-and-the-caricatures/