Reading John 14.1-14
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
If you walk down George Street towards the station – ignoring all the overpriced bakeries that seem to be proliferating round here – you’ll go past a couple of travel agents – Trailfinders and Flight Centre, if you can’t quite remember what they are.
You’ll also pass a bureau de change as well as Marks and Spencer and the Post Office where you can also get foreign currency. And for good measure you can buy your suntan lotion at Boots.
I can remember the days when almost no-one went abroad for their holidays – not where I come from anyway. But now it seems almost obligatory. And it’s big business – Brits going abroad and people from abroad coming to the UK. For some countries tourism is simply essential to their economy.
Most of us like travelling – just so long as it’s not too exciting. We like to keep the experience under our control.
Prior to the dialogue that we hear in our gospel reading Jesus has just announced his imminent departure from his disciples – much to their consternation and dismay. Hence those opening words: Do not let your hearts be troubled. They aren’t said in a vacuum. The disciples are worried: what on earth are they going to do if Jesus is no longer around. The very idea puts the frighteners on them.
Travel can be a kind of metaphor for change. Some people seem to thrive on change, while others do everything they can to avoid it. Maybe it’s possible to avoid change for a while – significant change at least – but none of us can avoid the change that comes, say, with ageing and in the end all of us have to submit to that most radical of changes, which is death.
It has sometime seemed to me that life is a bit like a train journey – but a train journey with a difference. On this train all the doors are locked and cannot ever be opened. There’s no escape. It may sometimes seem to slow down and sometimes to speed up but it never stops. You may see some fine scenery through the windows, you may eat some splendid meals in the buffet car but everyone knows that sooner or later you’re going to reach your destination and there isn’t a blind thing you can do about it, even though no-one wants to go there. There’s no getting off this train until you reach the buffers. This journey isn’t at all under our control. We don’t even get to choose whether we embark on it in the first place.
But in the face of death – his own and actually that of his disciples also – Jesus says Do not let your hearts be troubled. That of his disciples because Jesus says that at some point in the future, having prepared a place for them, he will come again and will take them to himself, so that where he is, there they may be also.
This passage is often used at funerals – the first six verses anyway. And rightly so. In the context of death Jesus’ words Do not let your hearts be troubled are ample justification for that. But Jesus also says that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places. The Father’s house has room enough for all. That too is a consolation – to know that there is a place for all of us. It’s indicative of God’s ability to keep things under control, to keep any number of balls in the air at the same time. God’s infinite capacity is a token of our safe arrival.
Last Monday the church celebrated the mystic Julian of Norwich. She’s a wonderful guide in so many ways but she’s most well-known for the insight she was given that all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. God’s infinity is the guarantee that all shall be well. As well as being boundlessly loving God is also boundlessly creative and boundlessly patient – loving, creative and patient enough to bring us all safely to our destination
We sometimes, I think, underestimate the infinity of God, or perhaps we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe it. We can’t get rid of that idea of God as an old man with a long beard up there in the sky. We may mock the idea of such a being, but all of us probably have a inadequate idea of who God is. Perhaps that’s inevitable. It’s certainly not surprising. The otherness of God is immense. We are earthbound creatures and all our thoughts are moulded by the things that happen in space and time. We literally cannot even conceive what it might mean to exist beyond space, beyond time, beyond matter.
And yet the otherness of God is not total. We have Jesus. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it: he is the image of the unseen God. He is our icon of God. Jesus is something, someone, we can relate to at the human level.
Last week we heard about Jesus the good shepherd. He was also the gate by which the sheep enter. Jesus has a kind of dual role too in today’s reading. He is the destination – the disciples will be where he is – but he is also the means by which they get there. I am the way, and the truth, and the life, says Jesus. He is the track as well as the destination.
The disciples are worried because they don’t know where Jesus is going or where they are going and travelling to an unknown destination – especially an ultimate one – is inherently troubling. God may be, as St Augustine put it, nearer to us than we are to ourselves but he is also infinitely beyond us. The disciples haven’t yet cottoned on to the fact that Jesus is some mysterious way to be identified with the divine, so that to know Jesus is to know the Father. I and the Father are one, he says.
But the disciples did cotton on eventually. And it’s the same for us. Sooner or later the penny drops. Jesus becomes the one who makes God real and who is with us on all our journeys.