“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Now there’s a Gospel word for our time. Put it on your fridge. Post it on your page. Write it in chalk on a sidewalk or path where you live. Add the words to a heart and paste it on a window. Share it with a friend, family, maybe with a stranger.
They are indeed a right and salutary word of good news for our time that Jesus says to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.”
And in case we thought or want this to be an easy and certain word to solve all our fears and doubts in this time we’re in, let it be known that this word of Jesus comes in the face of fear and uncertainty, impending tragedy and death.
First, about the story of Stephen in the Acts reading today. Described as the first Christian Martyr, we witness the terrible and tragic scene of Stephen’s death by stoning. Stephen, arrested and accused of speaking against the beliefs and history of the people, is asked by the Council to respond to the charges against him. What follows is Stephen’s speech or sermon, a sweeping review of the people’s history and the leaders rejecting, again and again, God’s messengers, and, in Stephen’s words, their “forever opposing the Holy Spirit.” Not surprisingly, these words “enrage” the leaders and they “grind their teeth at Stephen.” But as we heard, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” Stephen speaks of a glorious vision of Jesus at the right hand, at home, with God. But the crowd will not hear it and rages and rushes against him, dragging him away and stoning him. Among those present is a young Saul, whom we come to know as Paul, whose own life will be turned upside down and ultimately martyred for proclaiming this same Jesus, crucified and risen. And in an amazing scene of tragedy and triumph, Stephen, faithful follower of Jesus and filled with the Spirit of Jesus, speaks similar words that Jesus spoke at his own violent death, “receive my spirit,” and, falling to his knees, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In his violent death, Stephen witnesses to a gracious and unfailing trust in God, in Jesus, to receive his spirit in death as in life, and to a gracious and uncompromising love and mercy, asking for the forgiveness of those who stone him to death. This is why Jesus died and was raised. To expose the fallacy and failing of human violence and killing, in the face of God’s love and peace in Christ Jesus’ victory over death to life, for Stephen and for us all. And by God’s grace, to live as witnesses and participants in the Spirit’s work of grace and forgiveness for all the world to receive. This is why Jesus died and was raised, to end human violence and death, through love and forgiveness and life in God.
Two weeks ago, on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, our Synod held a virtual Study Conference for rostered leaders. As in previous years, it was planned for Loon Lake north of Maple Ridge in the UBC and Provincial research forest reserve. Of course, gathering was not possible this year, but our speaker, Paul Nuechterlien was able to give his planed three lectures and question and answer time over Zoom, with about 45 or so people from our Synod participating. It was good to focus on some theological reflection and discussion in the midst of everything that has been happening in this extraordinary time.
Paul spoke to us about the French anthropologist and philosopher, Rene’ Girard, and the application of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and sacred violence, scapegoating and sacrifice, as the source of human failing and self destruction, and a way of understanding the purpose or atonement in Jesus’ suffering and death to redeem, free, save, all humanity, and all creation. Jesus, the incarnation of a completely non-violent God, willingly becomes a victim of human violence in order to free humanity from cultures, economies, religions of sacred violence, exposing and undoing them, and in Jesus’ resurrection, offering a gracious new way of being human, a new creation, redeemed from violence to bring justice, healing and restoration, especially for the least; not all verses all, not all verses one, but all in all in the Spirit of the risen Christ Jesus.
It was compelling to hear this application of Rene Girard’s theory once again, further explained and applied to our Christian tradition and our understanding of the purpose of/atonement in Jesus’ death and resurrection, for the healing of humanity and all creation. As part of his presentation, Paul quoted American Black pastor and leader, Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, first begun by Martin Luther King; who said recently, “those in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.” That phrase brought all this theory of Rene’ Girard about sacred violence and scapegoating and God’s submitting to human violence in order to expose and undo it to save humanity from itself, into focus; and has given a lens to see more clearly what is happening in this time, in the midst of this pandemic, and before, that sacrifices others, especially those on the margins, for the comfort and wealth and protection of those with power in the centre, who are quite comfortable with other people’s deaths; and to expose how I, in my privilege participate in that suffering and sacrifice, and can become comfortable myself with other people’s deaths, the deaths of those in tents, those who are addicted and more vulnerable in this time, the deaths of elders and healthcare workers, deaths of indigenous and other people of colour, migrant workers and new Canadians, those on the front lines being paid minimum wages, that happens all the time, but more exposed in this time of a pandemic and death and grief it has brought to us all.
I give thanks for signs of this human violence being exposed and undone, and actions by people and governments to counter it, to be uncomfortable and to make unacceptable other people’s deaths. And to work together, not all verses all, not all verses one, but all in all for the safety and wellbeing of all. God, Jesus, let it be so by your gracious Spirit, please! And our prayer, that we might participate in this in-breaking of your dominion of grace and peace on earth.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Now there’s a Gospel word for our time. A right and salutary word of good news that Jesus says to his friends. It is not an easy and certain word to solve all our fears and doubts in this time we’re in or any time. Because this word of Jesus comes at a time when the earth is moving beneath the feet of Jesus and his friends, when all that seems certain is that everything is changing, it’s fear and loss and grief upon grief.
The context for these words in the Gospel of John is Jesus’ farewell. Jesus has shared a last supper with his friends. He has washed their feet and given them a new commandment to do the same in love for one another. Jesus has warned Peter of his denial and exposed Judas’ betrayal. And now Jesus tells his friends he must leave them to go to a place they cannot go. Everything is shifting beneath them, and Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.”
We have been watching and experiencing the shifting beneath us of many things we thought certain – health and safety, home and community, contact with family and friends, work, income, school, classes and teaching, freedom of movement, consumption and recreation. And we are entering another time of unknowns as we open some of what has been restricted, slowly, by stages and in steps, yet to be determined in many cases, with the provision that we may have to step back, stop and isolate and close off again if things shift back and the threat of the pandemic returns.
Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. In God’s household there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And Jesus’ friends and followers ask questions in uncertainty and fear: “We don’t where you are going or the way.” And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And they ask, “Show us God and we will trust and believe you.” And Jesus answers that God and Jesus are one. Because we have seen Jesus, we have seen God, and God’s good and life-giving purpose for the world. The dwelling place with God that Jesus promises to prepare is as much in the present life as in the next. It is the future, any and every future of uncertainty and fear, violence and death, Jesus goes before us, prepares a place for us and others, and will take everyone to himself that where God/Jesus is, we and all humanity and all creation might be also. In that promise, that hope, realized in Jesus’ rising from death to life, we trust and treasure life and the lives of all others, and pray and work to realize the same, now, in this world, by God’s gracious Spirit, hearing and living by Jesus’ words: Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe Jesus. Let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.