The Great Fifty Days of Easter
Sermon IV: Now What?
The Rev. Dr. Ross M. Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017
Text: John 14:1-14
The Great Fifty Days of Easter. It was during these fifty days the Risen Christ appeared to his followers. It was during these fifty days that the first believers grasped the staggering good news that our Lord lives. It was during this time that their despair was turned to joy. It must have felt like waking up from a terrible nightmare.
At some point during those fifty days, they began to ask: All right – now what? The Lord Jesus is alive. What does that mean for our lives? How shall we then live? In other words, they began to turn their attention from the initial experience of meeting the risen Christ to the business of following him. They began to focus on discipleship. This sermon is about the movement from the experience of Easter to the life of discipleship. I want to talk about what it means to follow the One who is the way, the truth and the life. I want us to hear Jesus’ staggering promise to us: “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12).
With this perspective in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading for this morning.
Jesus said: Let not your hearts be troubled. Do you believe in God? Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.
We probably associate those words with Christian burial. When someone we love dies, it is of incomparable comfort to know that there is a place for them – they exist somewhere! – and that in this place, they are with Jesus.
But I hope that we can hear this word from Jesus as a word to us for now; a word for our active life. So I would like to approach this passage from the perspective of discipleship.
The word discipleship does not occur in the Bible. It is a word that we have created to try to capture the dynamic relationship of life with Jesus. Discipleship includes the call to follow Jesus Christ and our response to that call. It includes loyalty to Jesus and a life of obedience and trust. The German language has a word for discipleship that captures the New Testament meaning: die Nachfolge, literally, to follow after someone. In French, the translation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, is Vivre en disciple (Le Prix de la Grâce), meaning, to live as a disciple.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” With these words, the Risen Christ calls us to lives of discipleship. Jesus is the way, in the sense that he is life’s destination, life’s purpose, and goal. The purpose of our lives is to love, serve, and glorify God as Christ’s disciples, in this life and in the life to come.
Jesus is also the way to the goal. We are like Dorothy, in search of Oz. Our ultimate home is life in perfect fellowship with God in his coming kingdom, a destination that remains mysterious to us, because it is beyond our ken. What we have is a way to follow – not a yellow brick road, but a person, the Lord Jesus Christ, who has already walked the way.
Imagine that you are traveling to some unknown destination and that the way there is full of delightful and interesting discoveries. You might say that the journey is as important as the destination. Christ is our life’s destination. Christ is also the way to the destination. So what matters is life in Christ: being united with Christ through faith. That means that resurrection life, life with Christ, really begins now – as we follow him along the way.
So, we are People of the Way, to quote the title of a recent book about life in The Episcopal Church (by Dwight Zscheile). We are on the way with the risen Christ. The ancient practice of pilgrimage is an attempt to express this reality through a concrete spiritual practice. On a pilgrimage, you walk to Compostela, Spain, or to Canterbury. As you travel, you pray and sing and meditate on the way of Jesus Christ. These are arduous walks. They require you to give up your normal creature comforts. But along the way, there are little shelters where you receive hospitality, where you rest and refuel for the next stage of the journey. These remind us of Jesus’ promise: “In my Father’s house are many resting places.”
When Christ calls us, he also gives us our marching orders. And this takes us to the conclusion of our passage.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Jesus has commissioned us to continue the work that he began. Here, it is important to distinguish between his unique, unrepeatable work on the cross and the work that he shares with us. Only one person can die for us. Only Jesus can open the way to the Father. God has reconciled the world to himself in Jesus Christ.
God’s work is to open the way to the Father through the Risen Son. Our part is to announce this good news to the world. The Lord has commissioned us to bear witness to his risen presence right here in Forest Hills. That is why what we do here Sunday after Sunday is so important. Remember what St. Paul tells us about the Eucharist: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). So, one way that we fulfil our commission is by gathering for the Eucharist, Sunday by Sunday, to praise God, to hear his word, and to pray for ourselves and for the world. Never underestimate what a small but committed congregation can do to bear witness to the resurrection.
In addition to what we do here on Sunday morning, there are the other six days of the week. There will be opportunities for each of us Monday through Saturday to bear to the resurrection. For example, since this is Mother’s Day, think about how often mothers have passed on their faith in the risen Christ to their children. How many of you would say that your mother was critical to your embracing the Christian faith? Never underestimate how your witness to the risen Christ can influence your family, your friends, or your co-workers.
But how can Jesus say that we will do even greater works than he? Jesus’ works were limited by time and space, by his short life of 33 years, and by the remarkably small geographical area in which he travelled. He could be in only one place at a time, even in his glorified, resurrection body. Within 10 years, of the resurrection, there were communities of believers in Jerusalem and Antioch (current day Syria), where St. Paul based his early missionary work. From there, communities sprang up all over the Mediterranean Basin: as far south as Egypt; as far north as present day Yugoslavia; the movement spread westwards through present day Turkey to most of the major coastal towns in Greece, and then to Spain. Today, there are communities bearing witness to the resurrection in one third of the world’s countries and ethnic groups. Jesus said: You will do “greater works than these [works that I do], because I am going to the Father.”
Or think about Jesus’ ministry of healing: how he opened the eyes of the blind; opened the ears of the deaf; caused the lame to walk; and cast out evil spirits. With these miraculous healings, Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. Now think of all of the hospitals throughout the world that have been established in the name of Christ. Think about Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Mercy, caring of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, and the countless acts of healing and mercy performed by believers throughout the world and over the centuries since that first Easter morning. Or closer to home, think about Stop Hunger Now, which feeds hungry mouths in the name of Christ. In these and countless other ways, we share in Christ’s work and bear witness to the resurrection. This work comes with a promise from the risen Christ: whatever we ask in his name and for the purpose of his glory, he will hear.
To sum up: In the course of our Christian lives, the Lord gives us experiences of his risen presence. These spiritual breakthroughs can be some of the most joyful, life-changing events in our lives. The purpose of these experiences is to propel us forward in the Christian life. One mark of an authentic encounter with God is that it leads to deeper loyalty to the Lord; more robust engagement in God’s work in the world; and most of all, greater love for our neighbor. May the risen Christ grant us new experiences of his presence that lead to deeper discipleship.