A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2023. The scripture readings are Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, and John 14:1-14.
Many of us watched the Coronation of King Charles III yesterday, or perhaps have seen parts of it. Some seemed surprised by how religious the service was. One commentator pointed out how much it felt like a wedding, while a friend of mine thought it felt like a funeral, at times. Indeed, the joy and celebration was like a wedding. The gravitas, a bit like a funeral.
The Coronation liturgy, of course, is an accumulation of centuries of tradition. From early times, it was important to show that the new monarch was strong, had armies and wealth and power, and even had God on his or her side. And yet, for me, anyway, some of the symbolism almost works against a living Christian faith. The show of power can undercut the reality of a simple faith that, by itself, through God, can move mountains. Christ gives us what we need—whether the challenges come through trying to rule a nation or just going through our day.
Today’s Gospel gives a word of hope and assurance in the face of grief and uncertainty. But Jesus’ words also work for the day-to-day, the nitty-gritty, and any time and any place where trouble threatens. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But he doesn’t just say that so that we might have a roadmap to heaven. He’s giving us a roadmap for living, a roadmap that involves a having a choice, finding a place, and never being left alone.
“Let not your hearts be troubled” can sound so pious and “stained-glass-like” that we can miss some of the nuance in its meaning. “Don’t let your heart be troubled” suggests that we have a choice in the matter, and that’s good news. We can LET our hearts be troubled, but Jesus encourages us not to. We’re not spineless victims when trouble comes. We might not have any power over the situation or the thing, but we can choose how we react. We can choose how we let it get to us. We can choose whether to let it trouble our heart or not.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have the culmination of chapters 6 and 7. Stephen is chosen as the first deacon, someone to coordinate the distribution of food and care for the widows. But the religious leaders of his day don’t like the new arrangement. They feel threatened and plot to do him in. They throw together a mock trial to accuse Stephen of blasphemy. But there, even in the midst of the trial, Stephen makes a choice. He lets himself be emptied, so that the Holy Spirit has room to work. Stephen lets go of his will, his cleverness, his resourcefulness, his connections—and he let’s God take over. And there in the middle of his trial he receives a vision, a vision of heaven opening and God offering welcome and power and love. The mob can’t handle this, and Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the Church’s very first martyr.
Most of us are unlikely to be put in Stephen’s situation, but some of the binds we find ourselves in can seem just as tight, just as hopeless. St. Stephen and countless others have CHOSEN not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God, and to believe that God has a way.
Jesus talks about a place for us. And I think we respond to that so deeply because perhaps, there’s something in us that longs for another place, a better place. But that place is not just physical. It’s not geographic. It’s psychological, it’s intellectual, it’s spiritual. We long for a place where our hearts, souls, and minds are free to grow and develop as God intends, unrestricted by custom or expectation or background or any other thing.
When Jesus says, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he’s not talking public housing. He’s not talking retirement villages in some ideal state or country. He’s talking about SPACE, space that has the unique qualities both of being expansive and of being safe. Jesus goes before us to prepare a way, if we follow him, he leads us where we need to be.
When trouble comes, there’s a choice involved (as to how we respond) and there’s a promised place up ahead (where all becomes clear) but perhaps even more important; in addition to being promised a choice and a place, we also have a people.
But those early apostles were called together as a people, a family, of sorts; but more than a family. They were given authority by the Holy Spirit. One by one, the disciples ask Jesus where he’s going, how do they get there, what do they do about this or that, and each time, Jesus answers with relationship. You have seen me and known me, you have known God the Father. Believe and we are in you. You have all you need. You have one another. Thomas asks more questions. Philip asks more questions, but later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, they begin to see what Jesus means. They have each other—they have a people—but it’s a special band of people who’ve got your back, and when they get tired, the Holy Spirit steps in. We’re covered, we’re good to go, we’re protected, strengthened, and enlivened for the mission of God in our world.
One thing I enjoyed about watching the Coronation yesterday was knowing a little about some of the people whose lives were busy preaching all during that carefully scripted liturgy. The Rt. Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilken, the Bishop of Dover, who was just in New York last week, presented Queen Camilla with part of her regalia, but Bishop Rose’s life is the thing that preaches: as a little girl from Jamaica, she felt called to be a priest, even though the church didn’t ordain women. Now she’s the first Black female bishop in the Church of England. The Rt. Rev. Sarah Mulally, the Bishop of London, heard God’s call interrupt a successful nursing career, and she became a priest, and now one of the most powerful bishops in the Church. And even the Archbishop, felt Christ’s call to choose and change, as he left a lucrative family career in the oil business in order to try to help the Spirit breathe new life into the Church.
We don’t need a mounted army, special regalia, or a gold carriage to be faithful. We are called too, and whether the path is clear or murky, easy or challenging, we have a choice, we have place, and we have a people. W. H. Auden reminds us of the mysterious Christ who leads us forward and never leaves our side:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.“For the Time Being” (A Christmas Oratorio)
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.