Grace be unto you and peace from God our father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, on this, the fourth Sunday following the glorious Resurrection
During my young years in the Navy, I served in the Mediterranean. It was a different time in Italy in 1960. Evidence of wartime destruction and poverty remains everywhere. Modernization and prosperity are yet to come. Occasionally, while on liberty from my squadron, I took the train from Naples to Florence or Rome.
Departure from the railroad station at Naples was a scene to behold. It is an all-family event. The entire family accompanies the traveler to the station. They bring food for the journey. Baskets of it. They raise song and prayers to send and bless their loved one on the way. It is a joyous occasion.
Today, I sense a darker implication to those family send-offs years ago. In those days, travel from one’s home town in the rugged hill country of Southern Italy was rare. Those gathered at the station send their loved one to a far-off, unknown place where none of that family have traveled before. In their songs and prayers they live into the possibility this may be the final time they see their son or father. They live into their ancient tradition of sharing food and protection of family. Baked into their Calabrian DNA they act to ward off the threat of the malocchio, the ancient curse of the evil eye.
And now, in the upper room sharing their final meal together Jesus prepares a loving farewell for his family. Jesus knows the hour is soon arriving when he must depart this world and go to the Father. (13:1) He breaks bread and offers them the shared cup in this final act of devotion. They will not share another meal until they meet for a breakfast of bread and broiled fish on the shore of Galilee after the Resurrection. (21:9-14) The disciples are desperate. They don’t know where Jesus is going. They want to stay on with him. They don’t understand where he is going, or why they must remain behind. (13:33) Thomas speaks for the twelve. Thomas asks: ‘we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?’
Feel the desperation in the questions the disciples put to Jesus. There is an unspoken awareness that this may be their final gathering. They fear that the life they have shared together is drawing to a close. There is a sense of denial…no, this cannot be happening! This dinner is to celebrate our departure for Jerusalem. There our Messiah is to be embraced by cheering crowds. There, in power and glory our Messiah will break the bonds of Roman oppression. How can Jesus leave us now when all is about to be accomplished?
Jesus knows this is the final time they will all be together. Judas has been set out into the night. The countdown for the Divine purpose is now in motion. There is no turning back.
“Where Are You Going?”
Simon Peter asks the question that none had the courage to ask so directly before. “But Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answers: “I must leave you soon. Where I go you cannot follow, not now. But you will follow afterwards.” (13:36-37) And so I go to prepare a place for you…that where I am you may be also. “I am going to my Father’s house,” Jesus declares. It is a big place. Trust me, there is room for all of you to abide with me. I will be there to welcome you.
And then Philip asks the 64-dollar question: ‘OK…you are going to the Father. Show us where the Father is. Then we can know the way.’ Where has Philip been during their travels together? Has he not been listening or observing? Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus performs signs and miracles that testify to him as the Son of the Father. He has transformed water into wine (2:11); he has fed thousands with only a few loaves and fishes (6:10-13); he has raised Lazarus from the dead (11:43-44). Finally, in a confrontation only a few days earlier Jesus discloses himself to the Pharisees: ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father. (8:19) ‘The Father and I are one.’ (10:30)
Initially, Jesus responds sharply to Philip: ‘even after all our time together, you still do not know me?’ And then he turns lovingly to offer words of comfort to Philip. He reminds all within hearing of what they have seen during their travels together. ‘Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. If that is more than you can truly comprehend, believe in the signs and miracles that you have witnessed during our time together.’ Only the Father could have performed such works. If you come to me, you come to the Father.
Reflect for a moment on a time of great loss. You are keeping watch at the bedside of a loved one with whom you have shared your life. You cannot accept the fact that death is about to separate you from each other. It seems only yesterday that you shared that meal together at your favorite Italian restaurant. You cannot accept the awareness that was your final moment together. But slowly, or perhaps in the realization of an instant, your life is transformed. You know there will never be another meal together. You will never again be together as you have been these many years. It is a loss that shatters comprehension. Why are you being left behind?
Juliet’s expression of farewell to her Romeo misses the mark. “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Perhaps her parting is such sweet sorrow, but only because she expects to rejoin Romeo on the morrow.1 True farewells are heart wrenching. As I live into the farewell at the bedside of my departing wife, Josephine, my heart is aching. I know that we shall no longer be together in our old familiar way. In the haunting lyrics of that most popular song describing war-time separation of lovers, Vera Lynn speaks to our hearts: “We’ll meet again, Don’t know where, Don’t know when, But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”2 So true, I meet Josephine at every turn onto a familiar road. I meet her in every dream of shared experience.
Jesus understands. I do not abandon you. I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house, where there is room for all. He offers us these words of comfort to soften the pain of our incomprehension. Jesus reminds us, we will meet again. We meet Jesus again on every sunny day as we live in the glory of God’s Creation. We meet Jesus again on every stormy day when we are unutterably broken and helpless. And as he prepares to depart, Jesus leaves us his speed dial number. It takes us directly to him. ‘Show us the way,’ asks Philip. ‘You know the way,’ Jesus says. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’
This is a sermon delivered to the congregation of Emmanuel Church, Newport, RI on May 7, 2023.
I am indebted to the following for their insights into the passage from John: J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, Eerdmans (2010) (pp 764-782); John T. Carroll, Jesus and the Gospels, Westminster John Knox (2016); N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2, Westminster John Knox (2002); I am grateful for their work that enriched my understanding of the lectionary for today.
Roger C. Bullard, MDiv