Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Feast of Pentecost, 5th of June, 2022
‘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.’ (John 14:1-3)
Today the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost, the ‘birthday’ of the church, the day when the tiny Jesus Movement stopped hiding in upper rooms and took their message to the streets. Ordinarily, this is a day for loud and raucous celebration, with tongues of fire and rushing winds and people speaking in every language under the heavens. I had half-prepared a Reflection on the story of the tower of Babel, and how being ‘scattered … abroad over the face of all the earth’ might not actually be a punishment. But this week this community has experienced two significant losses in the deaths of Maurice Mathers and Enid Williamson, and so instead I want us to focus on the much quieter Pentecost reading we are given from the Gospel according to John.
It is late in the evening. The meal is over. Earlier, as the meal ended, Jesus had knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. He now begins to prepare them for life without him. Jesus knows that he is about to go to his death. This has been clear since he raised Lazarus from the dead. From that day on the chief priests and the Pharisees had conspired to put Jesus himself to death; the death and raising of Lazarus had foreshadowed the forthcoming death and resurrection of Jesus himself. And so now Jesus warns his disciples of what is coming. ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”’ (John 13:33)
This horrifies his disciples. Where is Jesus going that they cannot follow him? Why is he talking about betrayal and denial? What are these ‘dwelling-places’ that he says he will prepare for them? From their perspective, Jesus’ death can only mean the triumph of Jesus’ enemies and their own bereavement. How then can Jesus say to them, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’?
It is in this context that Philip now says, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus is prophesying his betrayal and death, what seems to the disciples to be the absolute failure of his ministry and mission. But let him show them God, and then they will be able to believe in God, and him, and in the dwelling-places that he is going to prepare for them. Then they will be able to keep their hearts untroubled.
For Jesus’ disciples, for John’s community, and for us, the question that this passage addresses is the same. What happens to the community of Jesus’ followers when Jesus, the creator of the community, is no longer physically present with them? The answer that Jesus gives is that he is always and will always be with them, after his death through ‘another Advocate’, the ‘Spirit of Truth’. Just as Jesus himself is one with the Father, and so anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the Father, the Spirit is one with Jesus and the Father, and anyone who experiences the Spirit knows both the Father and the Son. The God who was present in the person of Jesus during his life is still here in the Spirit, and since the Father and Son are one, that means Jesus himself is always with us.
We hear this reading on Pentecost, the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, to remind us that the Spirit who comes as tongues of fire, rushing wind, many languages, is not just any spirit, but the Spirit of the God revealed in Jesus’ life and death. Just as Jesus himself was a window into the life of God and the truth of God, so the Spirit is with us as a witness to Jesus. Because we have the Spirit, Jesus dwells within us, and we live in him.
Next week is Trinity Sunday, and I will say now what I am going to say in more detail then: what the otherwise-confusing doctrine of the Trinity means is simply the mutual in-dwelling of the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit. The God who created the cosmos is the God we believe we have seen in Jesus and the God we believe is with us here and now as Spirit. That is what the doctrine of the Trinity affirms: that in Jesus, and in the Spirit present among and within us, we see the One God who created the world; that the three are One; that God in Godself is a community of love.
God is a community of love into which we are invited. In today’s reading, Jesus tells his disciples ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ and that when the Spirit comes ‘he abides with you, and he will be in you’. In Rublev’s icon of the Trinity the viewer joins the circle created by the three Persons of the Trinity. That is what we believe happens at death. When we die we are drawn fully and completely into the community of love, the mutual in-dwelling, that is God: Father, Son, and Spirit.
Modern mainstream Australian culture is very bad at facing death. This may partly be because so few people die at home and so in Australia it is possible for people to live quite long lives without ever seeing a dead body. I suspect that we are also bad at facing death because we fear it. You may have experienced funerals at which death is not even mentioned. Instead, people are said to have ‘passed on’ and poems are read telling those left behind not to mourn, because the person they love is simply ‘in another room’. In one way this is of course true. If God’s Spirit is always with us, and those whom we have loved are also with God, then not even death can divide us. I profoundly believe that those who love us are still with us, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, ‘we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’. (Hebrews 12:1) But Christianity is equally clear that death is real. We, and everyone we love, die. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept with Martha and Mary. (John 11:35) As I say at every funeral I conduct, a funeral service is not simply a celebration of life, it is also an occasion of mourning, a time to mark the end of the living presence among us of someone we love.
But as I also say at every funeral, Christianity does not believe that death is the end of the story. We do not need to comfort ourselves with the thought that death is not real, because we know that death is not the end. At every Christian funeral we remember the resurrection of Jesus and commend those who have died to God, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. The pain of death is real. Outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus began to weep. Here on the last night of his life he warns his disciples that where he is going they cannot follow. But the hope of resurrection is also part of our faith. ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ (John 14.27)
Of course, despite the Farewell Discourse, despite Jesus’ repeated reassurance of his continuing presence through the Spirit, despite his gift to the disciples of peace, Pentecost still finds his followers gathered in private, in a house. After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and ascension, while the disciples have gathered for prayer and have praised God in the Temple, they have not shared the gospel beyond the community of believers. It is not until fifty days after the resurrection, at Pentecost, when filled with the Holy Spirit that they do, and it is notable that the first sermon preached, the explanation of this phenomenon, is given by Peter. In the Gospel according to John we see Peter’s forgiveness and reinstatement at the breakfast on the beach, which we heard on the third Sunday of Easter. But the last time Peter was mentioned by name in the Gospel according to Luke was when he was weeping bitterly, remembering Jesus’ prophecy of his denial. The last words we heard from Peter’s mouth, to someone accusing him of being with Jesus, were, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ It is only now, at Pentecost, in Luke’s Part Two, that Peter stands before the great crowd of Jews and says, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and listen to what I say!’ It is only now that the disciple who denied Jesus becomes the spokesperson of the Jesus movement.
Today, as we reflect on the deaths of people we love, we may be in any one of several different places, and in each of those places Jesus’ first disciples accompany us. We may be sitting with them on Jesus’ last night, listening to his Farewell Discourse, his promise that he will still be with them after death, but utterly uncertain of what it all means. Or we may be sharing with the disciples all the agony and pain of Easter Saturday, grieving those we have loved who have left us. Or we may be living in the fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, filled with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, but uncertain exactly how Jesus and those we have loved can still be with us after death. Or we may be joining Jesus’ followers on Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit, certain of God’s continuing presence within and among us, knowing that those we love are also with us because they, like us, dwell in God.
There is no wrong way to feel when people we love have died. But my prayer whenever I sit by the side of the dying is that they may go gently and peacefully into the loving hands of God, and I believe with every fibre of my being that as we say good-bye to someone we love we are giving them into the arms of the God who has loved them all the days of their lives and who continues to love them after death. Because I believe that: that the love of God surrounds us; that Jesus is present with us through the Spirit; and that we have the sure and certain hope of the resurrection before us, I am confident to say, as Jesus said twice in his Farewell Discourse: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ Amen.