In our gospel reading today we jump back in time, before Jesus death and subsequent resurrection. Jesus is trying once again to prepare his disciples for his imminent death.
He tells them “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
These words are often read at funerals to give comfort to the recently bereaved, that Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place for us in heaven. But the disciples had no benefit of hindsight when they heard Jesus’ words. He was trying to reassure them in a time where they didn’t really know what was happening. To place Jesus words into context – Jesus and his disciples have been preparing for the final Passover feast. They are having what will be their final evening meal together before Jesus death. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, much to the chagrin of Simon Peter. Jesus has boldly announced that one of the disciples is going to betray him and Judas has gone on his way to find the chief priests to be able to betray Jesus later in the evening.
Then Jesus begins to teach his disciples again. He explains to them that he will shortly be glorified. He tells them that he won’t be with them much longer and that they can’t come to where he is going. He tells them that they must love one another, because that is how it will be known that they are Jesus disciples. He tells Peter that he can’t come where he is going, and Peter tells Jesus that he will lay his life down for him. And Jesus has to tell Peter, that actually in the next few hours, in fact before even the cock crows again in the morning, Peter will have denied Jesus.
Jesus’ heart must have been absolutely broken. Not only has one of his disciples set out to betray him to his death, one of his closest friends is going to deny even knowing him. In just a few short hours time Jesus will be praying in Gethsemane, with his sweat dripping as if it were blood, that his father would take this cup away from him. He must be suffering from absolute desolation and yet, he takes the time, the care, the compassion to try and comfort and protect his disciples.
Peter you might be about to deny me. Deny me three times! But… do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.
Trust me. Whatever your circumstances. Even if you deny me. Trust me. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Things aren’t great right now, but I will make it alright again, not because everything that is bad is going to disappear, but because eventually we will all be together again.
Then, Thomas pipes up. I rather like Thomas. Jesus has just given a wonderful vision of his father having many houses, and ensuring that a place will be made ready there for each of them. Jesus reminds me a bit of my husband. A person with amazing ideas and visions, he can see the finished product. Thomas is rather more like me. A bit more practical. Errr, woah, woah, woah, wait up Jesus, we don’t even know where you are going, how are we going to get there? You’ve not thought about X or Y and you certainly haven’t considered Z. We need to think about those before we can get on board with your wonderful vision and ideals. And Jesus replies to him “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” And here, however, we do have the wonderful vision of hindsight, we know that just a few days later Thomas declares that Jesus is his Lord and his God. He is totally on board with Jesus vision. He knows where he is going in leading the newly forming church.
The disciples regularly do not understand the bigger picture. They can’t grasp why Jesus acts the way he does, or says the things that he says. They can see that things are rapidly going pear shaped, that it is likely that Jesus is going to die. But they can’t see from the middle of the situation how Jesus can possibly talk about being the way, the truth and the life. How it is through his death that we can in fact truly live. How it is through Jesus death that we can have a relationship with God as our Father.
But they had enough to cling onto, to get them through the situation. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me. You believe in my father and his awesome might saving power, he saved your Israelite ancestors so many times in your history. Believe in me too. I am in control. I will save you, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
And even though they don’t really understand them, the disciples do cling to his words. They were scared. They don’t come out of all the events to follow in any way appearing squeaky clean. They do deny Jesus. They do run away. They do fear for their lives. But they do also discover that Jesus doesn’t deny them. He doesn’t run away from them. He continues to love them dearly and forgives them.
And it isn’t long before this band of disciples is leading Jesus church, after his ascension into heaven. But it also isn’t long before they too start to be martyred. These same disciples who are scared and confused and running away before his death, become willing to stand up for what they believe in. We heard in our reading from Acts of Stephen. This man was not one of the inner 12 disciples, but even he was willing to die for his faith. Stephen, even at his point of death was able to proclaim the gospel of Christ. He preaches one of the longest sermons recorded in the New Testament, and is rewarded by a vision of Jesus, stood at God’s right hand in heaven ready to receive his spirit. Suddenly he can see the bigger picture. And so as he is stoned by his accusers he doesn’t call down curses on them, he calls for God’s forgiveness for them as they don’t know what they are doing. Echoes of Jesus’ words upon the cross.
But the story didn’t stop with Stephen’s death. Luke as he writes the book of Acts recounts how as Stephen is stoned his accusers lay their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. A man who went on to persecute many of the early Christians, before he too comes to faith in Christ and becomes one of the best evangelists for the good news of Jesus.
None of these peoples’ lives were easy. Jesus didn’t tell them Do not let your hearts be troubled because everything is always going to be fine and easy. He told them
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” He told them that ultimately everything would be alright because he would be there with them again. That he could see the bigger picture, the vision of eternity as God the Father wants the future to be.
He told them “I am the way the truth and the life” and as time went on they came to understand how through his death and resurrection that was true. That through his death and resurrection we could have a personal relationship with God.
So where does that leave us today? We live in times of great turmoil a time where we need to hear Jesus words “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me”. Life isn’t going to be easy, Jesus isn’t going to make all the bad stuff just magically disappear. But he will be there with us, giving us the bigger picture, a vision of life with God the Father. A life worth living. A life worth sharing with others. A life where we all do our bit to help God’s kingdom come, to make the vision of his will being done on earth, a reality.