On Sunday, May 14, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, the Rev. John Hartnett, of St. Elizabeth’s in Ridgewood, NJ, was our guest preacher at the 9:15 service; his excellent sermon can be heard here. This sermon was preached at the others.
Collect: O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
“That where I am, there you may be also.”
This phrase is often overlooked as Christians meditate on the more famous sections of this passage: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” Or, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” But I am certain that there is no concept more central to the Gospel than this: “That where I am, there you may be also.”
We read this passage from John on this Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Easter, as we prepare to celebrate the Ascension in another week and a half. We’re getting ourselves ready to mark the day when Jesus ascended into heaven and left his disciples on their own, aided and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, to carry on the work of the Church. And this passage, from the Last Supper the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion helps prepare us just as it helped prepare the disciples for getting on with the work of the Gospel in a world where Jesus is not physically, personally present with his people anymore in the familiar way he had been.
“That where I am, there you may be also.” It’s a word of comfort to the disciples, as their Lord is about to be taken from them: first to Calvary, and then to the right hand of God in heaven, that he will take them to himself; that their life in this world, that our life in this world is not the end, that there is more for us beyond the veil of death, above the sphere of this mortal world, that our true home is with him in glory, and we will not be at home here on this earth our whole lives through; that we will not be at home until we meet God face to face in heaven.
It’s tempting to regard this world as the end, and even Christians get embroiled in it: we fight, we worry, we are desperately concerned with the success or failure of the mighty work with which we are entrusted, with the way the church seems to be going (whichever way you think that is), with the way our lives seem to be turning out.
It’s tempting to regard this world as the end, because it’s what we’ve got to work with, because it’s hard to see past the all-consuming day-to-day tasks of managing our lives in this world. And yet Jesus here at the Last Supper tells his disciples that he goes to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. This place where Jesus goes is our home, and he goes so that “Where I am there you may be also.”
If we feel as though this world can’t continue, or that our lives can’t continue as they are; if we feel uneasy with “the way things work” or that we simply aren’t at rest, it’s because this world is not our home; and our home is where Jesus has gone. In large measure the greatest challenge of our lives as Christians is to behave here as if we were already at home there, to make this world, our lives, reflect as much of that world, of that life as we are given the strength and the grace to achieve; but at the same time, if the work never seems to be finished, not to despair, because this world is not the end. Christ goes on ahead of us, “so that where I am, there you may be also.”
At the same time, our first lesson from Acts recounts the martyrdom of Stephen: Stephen the Protomartyr he’s called, because he is the first and the prototype of all Christian martyrs after him. It’s always remarkable to me that Stephen’s death mimics so closely the events of Jesus’s own. Stephen faces a mock trial before the Sanhedrin, he speaks almost the same words Jesus did from the cross, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And finally he forgives his persecutors even as they stone him to death. Before he goes to his death he sees Heaven opened, and Christ himself standing at the right hand of God.
Jesus says to his disciples, that he leaves them in order “That where I am, there you may be also.” Stephen lives the promise more fully than nearly anyone else in Scripture. Christ is certainly enthroned in glory, and we worship him as King of Heaven. But in this life, in this world, he suffered injustice and crucifixion. That is where Stephen found him, and saw him most clearly: in Stephen’s own moment of suffering, in his own unjust execution, there he encounters Christ most profoundly, there he found him strong to save.
Yes our Lord has gone ahead of us into heaven. But he goes in order that “Where I am, there you may be also.” It’s a promise and a challenge both. This world is not our home. And while we work to make it reflect what we know of heaven, the irony is that the clearest reflection of heaven can’t be found in the halls of power or glory, but rather in humiliation and defeat; in forgiveness rather than vindication; in death, in resurrection, rather than in any kind of earthly victory. These are the places where Christians will find Jesus most clearly present, most mighty to save. These are the places which are the seedbeds of the kingdom of God.
I don’t mean somehow to glorify suffering, or sin, or death, but only to point out that these are the places where Redemption happens, these are the places where we begin to see and know the goodness of God. If you know music at all, you’ll recognize that there is a dissonance at work here, whose resolution we will not hear in our lifetime. And yet the more we lean into that dissonance, the more we are people of prayer and mercy and love even in its midst, the sweeter the resolution will finally be, the more richly will the full vision be revealed to us, the more clearly we will know the love of God in our lives and in all things.
“That where I am, there you may be also.” Our challenge this Easter is to long for the fulfillment of our Easter hope with Jesus in his Father’s house in heaven. But even as we long for that world, we strive to live the life Jesus lived in this world: going to the places where he himself went, doing the kinds of things which he himself did, not being distracted by whatever difficulties we face, not being afraid of darkness or pain, but following him even to ignominy and death if need be.
Like Stephen, let our own moments of fear and struggle be occasions to offer forgiveness, unasked for and undeserved — so that, with Jesus in his cross and passion, we might share with him the glory of his resurrection.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.