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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Finding Tomorrow Today

John 14:23-29

6th Sunday of Easter - Year C

May 13, 2007

Life was about to radically change for the disciples. You might add the word again. They were men who apparently had been very successful in their lives. Some had been fishermen, who had been called to drop the nets of their trade to follow Jesus, and another who had been called from his tax table to start a whole new life.

When they started to follow Jesus, they found their world radically changed. For months they had sat at the feet of Jesus as he opened up God's truth in a new and thrilling way. They had witnessed miracles that are still talked about 21 centuries later. Now Jesus was preparing them for another change in their lives. He was very conscious that his time with them was about to come to an end.

The other Gospels record Jesus taking the bread and cup from the table to be his body and blood. John adds the scene where he washes the feet of the disciples to demonstrate his love and care for each of them. Now he begins to give his final instructions. The instructions he gave still speak to us when our dreams don't come true, when the directions that we are following change, when doors are slammed in our face, or new doors opened. What should we do?

His words in today's lesson are to prepare the disciples and the rest of those who believe for the time when they would live without the physical presence of Jesus. He knew that for them it would be a shattering experience, one that would shake the foundations of their lives.

C.S. Lewis described in his own life a very similar experience on the death of his mother as he wrote in the Joyful Christian. "With my mother's death, all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures with my life with Joy, but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands, the great continent had sunk like Atlantis." For Lewis a major part of his world was gone. Jesus knew this same disorientation was about to happen to the disciples. He was giving them keys to moving on.

Our reading for today is actually in answer to the question in the verse before where our lesson for the day begins. Judas, not Iscariot, said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not the world?" Why do we who believe in Christ see him so differently than others? Recently the news was filled with stories that challenge the very heart of the Christian faith. Claims that the bones of Jesus had been found and claims that Jesus had children and a family tree that reaches into our world challenges the doctrines of the resurrection and the incarnation. In this season of Easter, why do we believe in a risen savior while some do not? The question reaches over the centuries, "Why do we see differently than the world?"

First a warning: Stay faithful to what we know to be true. "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them." The novel theories that would change the Gospel as recorded in scripture are not the same as scripture. We need to treat them as the trivia they are. We must not give the reported find of the bones of Jesus or such theories as found in the DaVinci Code any credence.

Of course there is room for disagreement among those who believe in Jesus. We know from our own experience that the branches of the church will see issues like the sacraments or church authority differently. We even approach the interpretation of scripture differently. But we must hold fast to the heart of the Gospel and not allow the world to rob us of the word Jesus has given us. We must decide which battles are worth fighting. Dean Smith, a hall of fame basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, once said, "If you make every game a life-or-death proposition, you're going to have problems. For one thing, you'll be dead a lot." Pick your battles but do not give up on the core of the Gospel. If we love him, we will keep his word.

In a "Man for All Seasons," the play about Thomas More, More is explaining to his daughter that he can't go back on his oath. "When a man makes a commitment, Meg, he puts himself into his own hands. And if he opens his fingers to let it out, he needs not hope to find himself again."

The disciples, to keep their identity, to keep the core of who they were becoming, would have to hold to their commitment. And Jesus was warning them because he knew what they were about to face in his death, and eventually in their own.

Then Jesus makes the promise if the disciples would hold true to the word, "we (referring both to himself and the Father) will come to them and make our home with them." God would be with them in the journey ahead. Whatever major changes the future held the one thing not changeable was God was with them.

On Feb. 23 there was a terrible bus accident in Atlanta, Ga. Early that morning, a bus carrying the baseball team from Bluffton University in Ohio was headed through Atlanta on its way to Florida for a baseball tournament. At about 5:30 a.m. the driver for some reason mistook an exit ramp for the expressway and, apparently going at highway speeds, went up the ramp and across the overpass before plunging back onto the road. Seven people, including the driver, were killed in the accident.

The president of Bluffton University, in responding to how the medical and emergency personnel had responded as well as the community of Atlanta in general, spoke of "seeing the hand of God in the people of Atlanta." In such a terrible tragedy to his relatively small university, he saw the goodness and grace of God at work in this response. The promise Jesus is making is God is not going to abandon us even when everything turns against us.

While the normal reaction to Jesus being taken from them and the disciples being on their own would have been one of fear, Jesus is assuring them that God will not abandon them. Later he would add, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." You might ask how will Jesus dwell with us, how will Jesus give us the peace we need.

Barbara Brown Taylor in Good News for Orphans wrote, "I am a little fuzzy on the details as John himself is, but abiding seems to involve becoming a part of a large extended family, and a holy one at that. When God and Jesus move in with us, apparently, they made lots of keys-keys for the Holy Spirit, keys for the other disciples, keys for all kinds of indwelling cousins in Christ. Coming and going, we learn to recognize each other and to call upon each other for everything that people who live together do.

Remember that old spiritual, "Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley," where in the second verse it says we have to walk this lonesome valley by ourselves and repeats the thought in the third verse when it says one must go and stand their trial by themselves. John in our Gospel today is saying just the opposite. If we seek to live in his love and keep his word, we will not be alone but he will dwell in us. Someone has written a fourth verse for that old spiritual as a part of an anthem. It simply adds this:

We will walk this lonesome valley,
But he is walking close beside;
Oh, never alone in this dark valley,
For He is walking by our side.

Jesus then cautions the disciples that the test of love is whether they keep his word or not. "Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from God who sent me." We can live with the mystery because we can trust the one who is making the promise. The caution is not to lose what God has given us. To walk on in trust that we are not alone but that he is with us.

On this second Sunday of May it is our custom to honor our mothers. For those still blessed with their mother, we treasure the lessons we have learned or are learning in her love for us. For us who no longer have our mother, we treasure the memories that become more precious with each day.

For the disciples it was the same with Jesus. They would be pulled in many directions, but they would hold fast to what God had given through Jesus. To love him was to stay true to his word.

There is a contemporary hymn written in the l980s by Natalie Sleeth as she worked through her grief dealing with her own mother's death. The words speak of both the potential that is love and the truth that holds the future as well as our ability to trust beyond our understanding. It is called the Hymn of Promise. The words say this:

In a bulb there is a flower, in the seed an apple tree
In cocoons a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there's a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
There's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future, what it holds a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity
In our death, a resurrection; and at last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

We can live with this mystery of what the future holds because we trust the one who holds the future. We are finding tomorrow today as we find the one who will go with us into all our tomorrows. For Jesus then gives the key to this hope when he calls for us to be open to even greater things to come. "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you."

Mark Twain is quoted as having said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." We are not limited to the world we know but can with open hearts and minds seek a world that still will be revealed to us. The disciples had some great challenges ahead of them, and the gift they were being given was one that would go with them and lead them in ways they could not fully understand. They knew they were not ready. Perhaps this is one of the reasons they prayed and worshiped together for 40 days before Pentecost. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the church would struggle so as it reached out to the Gentiles. They had to believe in a world that was still coming.

But we don't start over every day. The future brings the joy of new experiences with God, but they are based on what Jesus has shown in his teachings, in his life, and in the days following our lesson in his death and resurrection. One of the great works of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is to reinforce what Jesus did and is doing.

For in the face of uncertainty and change, Jesus gives us the gift of peace. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives." It may seem a strange gift to speak of in the middle of this talk of leaving, of death, and of persecution. But there it is. And it's far more than what we mean by peace being the absence of conflict, more than mere calmness or tranquility but rather the wholeness that is captured by the word Shalom. Unlike the world that would give a peace that is only a pause in the conflict. The gift that Jesus would give would keep on giving in the hard days ahead.

And with that promise of peace that would hold came the words of assurance that have spoken to countless souls through the ages, "Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." Like the kiss of a mother on a child's hurt, it may not solve all the problems, but it brings an assurance that all will be better.

Jesus was telling them of the future. Sure he would be taken, but he was coming to be with them. He wanted them to be assured of his presence, his peace, and his power before their world was torn apart. There was a center that would hold if they would believe.

While in France, the German poet Heinrich Heine and a friend were touring a stunningly beautiful cathedral. As they stood in admiration before the church, the friend said, "Tell me, Heinrich, why can't people build like this anymore?" The poet replied, "Friend, in those days people had convictions. We moderns have opinions. It takes more than opinions to build Gothic cathedrals."

When the peace of Christ is at the center of our lives, then we have the strength of our convictions to let go of what has been and to receive the promise of what will be.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, give us the strength of our convictions that whatever the storms of life that may surround us, we know the center of who we are in you will hold strong. Amen.


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