On 1 May, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:1-10, 22–22:5, John 14:23-29.
It’s really difficult to work out what’s going on if you arrive in the middle of a conversation. Those who’ve been present all along obviously know the context of what is being said as you arrive but without some understanding of what went before a newcomer can find himself or herself totally confused.
Today’s passage from John is buried in what is called Jesus’ Final Discourse which took place on the night before Jesus died. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and commended his example to his disciples as one to follow. A long conversation followed this. It’s apparent if you read the whole section that the disciples, despite being there for all the conversation, were thoroughly confused and needed to ask questions.
The confusion began when they wanted to know who was going to betray Jesus. The idea of Jesus being betrayed was completely beyond the disciples’ understanding. John asked who was the betrayer and was told how to recognise him in the one receiving the piece of bread.
Even worse, Jesus then said he was going away. Imagine the dismay of the disciples on hearing that. They had been with Jesus constantly for three years; they had left their livelihoods to follow him and suddenly Jesus was leaving and they couldn’t go with him. Poor Peter wanted to know where Jesus was going but instead found that the answer he received was that he would deny Jesus.
Later it was Thomas’ turn to ask a question. Jesus asserted that his disciples knew where he was going but Thomas was sure they didn’t know the way at all. If that was the case, how were the disciples to find the way? Then Philip was baffled as Jesus told them that they knew the Father. He couldn’t work that out at all.
The short passage from this discourse that we have today starts with Jesus answering yet another question but the question itself is not included, which is hardly helpful! Carrying on his theme of going away, Jesus told the disciples that when he did that the world would not be able to see him but the disciples would be able to see him. Understandably, Judas (the other one, not Judas Iscariot) could not fathom how they would see Jesus but everyone else wouldn’t. It seems that he asked a very reasonable question: Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?
Probably the disciples were still expecting Jesus to be the kind of Messiah who would come with great power to overthrow the Romans and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. Jesus was not intent on being like that. He had refused the worldly ways of making an impact when he was tempted before his ministry began. His way was far more subtle than the way of military might. There can be an illusion of control by great might but it’s short-lived. Alexander the Great had conquered vast areas of the world, forming a huge kingdom, but when he died it all fell apart, fought over by his generals. The Roman Empire was huge also but it began to implode and was soon demolished by invasions of tribes from outside the empire. In more recent times, countries which have been artificially formed and held together have fallen apart once a strong leader has died or been successfully challenged, descending into ethnic conflicts.
Jesus knew that the way to conquer the world was not to oust the Romans from Palestine and impose his will by creating an empire upheld by military might, but to conquer one person at a time by loving them into his kingdom. He would not be revealed mounted on a great horse and leading a host of soldiers but would be seen in the life of every person who chose to follow him.
Jesus’ answer to Judas seems just as confusing as the rest of the conversation but it shows how he intended to be revealed to his disciples. As each disciple showed love for Jesus by following his commandments they would find Jesus revealed to them by his living within them. Jesus and God would make their home within that disciple. In doing that, God was doing as the reading from Revelation shows that he wants to do. Ultimately he will make his home among mortals, we are told, when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, when there is a new heaven and a new earth. Each disciple with God living in them would be a little taste of what was to come at the end of time. This was Jesus’ plan, a plan that those who stuck with their own ideas of what power looks like would not be able to understand.
As Jesus was speaking to his disciples we know they were confused and probably quite frightened. They had no idea what their future would be like. They had no real understanding of what was going to happen to Jesus despite all the times he had tried to explain to them. In the midst of that fear and confusion Jesus promised two gifts to help his disciples. The Holy Spirit would come and teach them, answering their questions and reminding them of all Jesus had told them. With that knowledge they would be able to love Jesus by keeping his word and so have Jesus and the Father living in them. The second gift was that of peace. This peace was not just a lack of war or of conflict in everyday life. It was shalom, total wholeness which would be there whatever was going on around them. Jesus knew the challenges his disciples would face after his death. We know from reading the Acts of the Apostles that their lives were not characterised by peace but by opposition to their message, imprisonment, torture and violent death. But, they still had Jesus’ shalom.
Jesus’ strategy for creating a kingdom one person at a time has worked. The movement of the early church, such as we are told about in today’s episode from Acts when the church first ventured into Europe, has continued. Now there are approximately two billion followers of Jesus in the world. Each one, including those of us gathered here, has the same promises given to us. First, if we keep Jesus’ word we are loving him; Jesus and God will live in us. Second, the Holy Spirit is given to us to help us learn what Jesus taught, to show us how to apply it to our lives. Third, whatever outward circumstances we face we have Jesus’ peace, his shalom, promised to us which allows us to face the confusion and challenges of life.
Jesus told his disciples that he was informing them ahead of time about what would happen to him. In that way, when it did happen they would have reason to believe that he could be trusted. It must have been very difficult for the disciples to begin to work out what Jesus meant but it all happened as predicted. Jesus did go away by dying though he returned by rising again. He went away again when he ascended into heaven, something we will celebrate on Thursday, and he sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to help the apostles with their task of spreading the Good News.
Whatever our circumstances look like, this should give us confidence that Jesus can be trusted to do as he said, just as he did for his first disciples. If they could begin conquering the world one person at a time, we can surely continue that work both here in SL and in our offline world.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor