Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A) – May 17, 2020
It’s very hard to have a relationship with someone you can’t see! I suspect that’s why we find ourselves longing to return to public worship where we can physically see people again. This is why although Zoom meetings let us “see” people virtually, it just doesn’t feel the same as when you can “see” them face to face.
This is actually one of the things that makes being a Christian and having faith in Jesus so difficult. After all, how can we know Jesus and trust him if we can’t really “see” him? How can we be sure we are actually doing his will if we can’t check it out with a face to face encounter? It may surprise you, but this is not a new problem!
After the resurrection, when Jesus was no longer physically present with his disciples, each of the synoptic gospels attempted to provide some response to these difficult questions. By the time the Gospel of John was written, somewhere around the end of the first century, probably all the eyewitnesses to the events described in the gospel narratives were dead.
So this last gospel gives an interpretation of Jesus that is meant to sustain the faith of those early Christians who could not see Jesus, as well as all those countless believers who would follow after them. John uses many images for Jesus: he is “the Word of God” and “the bread of life” that we meet in the Eucharist. Jesus is identified as “the Good Shepherd,” “the light of the world,” the one who is “the resurrection and the life.”
And yet, Jesus seemed to be aware that when he was no longer with his followers, they might well feel abandoned. In our Gospel for this Sunday Jesus reassures them: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” But if the world cannot see him, how can we see him? Aren’t we right back where we started?
In the very next chapter in John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself with yet another image: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (15:5) Now take note that there are “branches,” not simply “a branch.” It is the community of the faithful that is connected to the vine—to Jesus—and when we are connected to Jesus, we find that we are also connected to one another. Christ’s spirit flows through us like juicy sap through the vine into the farthest branch. It’s what is needed for the vine to be alive. Similarly, the Spirit carries the life of Jesus and the Father into the community of the Church.
The second image that helps us understand our relationship with Jesus is the idea that we abide or live “in Christ.” In a typical power-packed sentence John has Jesus speak of his continued presence with his disciples: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” It is as if Jesus is like the air we breathe, both inside our lungs, but also surrounding us with a life-sustaining presence.
Both these images suggest things about our relationship with God in Christ which are pretty far away from our ordinary way of thinking. They suggest an intimacy between Jesus and his disciples, a closeness in relationship that is considerably more radical than we might be comfortable with. Usually we expect to learn about Jesus, not to actually be immersed in Jesus. But that is precisely the deeper, richer understanding of this image that was held in the early church.
Those early Christians believed that as the Body of Christ, God “entered” them; they spoke of being “divinized” through baptism. They became, quite literally, God—incompletely and in a sacramental way, of course, but they believed that in baptism their identity with Christ was irrevocably established.
In the third century, Tertullian described the water bath of baptism as “the sea of God’s love in which we swim.” But this type of language was too much for later generations, who preferred to speak of being “made like” God, or “imitating” Jesus, instead of being “made” God and “being incorporated” into Jesus.
So today I want to share with you a story about just what the implications of such a close relationship with the Risen Lord might actually mean, here in our own community of faith. The story is called simply, “The Rabbi’s Gift.” Sit back, relax and enjoy!
There was a famous monastery which had fallen on hard times. Formerly its many buildings were filled with young monks and its big church resounded with the singing of the chant, but now it was nearly deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. Only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised their God with heavy hearts.
On the edge of the monastery woods, an old Jewish rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there from time to time to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.” And for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.
One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heart to him. So after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. It was as though he had been waiting there for some time. The two embraced like long-lost brothers. Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain.
After a while the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter. In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the scriptures open on it. They sat there for a moment in the presence of the book. Then the rabbi began to cry. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and began to cry too. For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out. The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their sobs and wetting the wood of the table with their tears.
After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet again, the rabbi lifted his head. “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you this teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that, no one must say it aloud again.”
The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The messiah is among you.” For a while all was silent. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.
The next morning, the abbot called his monks together in the chapter room. He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods,” and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the messiah!”
The monks were startled by this. “What could it mean?” they asked themselves. “Is Brother John the messiah? Or Father Matthew? Or Brother Thomas? Am I the messiah?” They all wondered what this could mean. They were deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching. But no one ever mentioned it again.
As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, whole-hearted, human quality about them now which was hard to describe, but very easy to notice. They lived with one another as a community who had finally found something. But they prayed the scriptures together as people who were always looking for something. Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks, while young men were asking, once again, to become part of the community.
In those days the rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. But somehow or other, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his prayerful presence.
Now what would happen if I told you that here at the Church of the Resurrection, “The messiah is among you!”? Startling, isn’t it? But that is the message of these great fifty days of Easter. The presence of the risen Lord is alive and active in this community of faith. We are the branches connected to the vine of life. We have been incorporated into the Body of Christ. When we are with one another, virtually or face to face, we are in the presence of God, because God lives and moves within us and is at the heart of our very existence.
What would happen if we really believed, “The messiah is among you!”? The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is confident that God’s presence can be revealed in us. God is in our hands and our hearts; God wears our face, as well as the face of the stranger. In such weakness is God’s strength; in such immediacy is God’s universality; in such immanence we experience God’s transcendence. With such a God, the only way to show our faith in God is to show it in one another. With such a God, the only way to love God is to truly love one another.