May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is fitting, therefore, that I should mention at the outset the interesting memoir titled, Just Like Someone without Mental Illness, But More So. In it, Mark Vonnegut, an outstanding Boston pediatrician and son of celebrated novelist Kurt Vonnegut, describes his struggles with bipolar disorder. These include several psychotic episodes that required hospitalization in his early adult years.
But he did not give up the struggle. He was determined to be a medical doctor. In spite of his undergrad 1.8 GPA in math and sciences and having been rejected by nineteen other medical schools, he was admitted, against all odds, and just four years after his hospitalization, to Harvard Medical School.
At a later point in his distinguished medical career, Vonnegut was appointed clinical professor of medicine at Harvard. One of his duties was to conduct admissions interviews for applicants to the medical school there. He came to complain about how all the candidates were the same. Nothing about any of them made one stand out from the other.
“They were all bright and serious and planning to help people,” he said. “I hurried them through all that, because I couldn’t tell one from the next.
Vonnegut became more and more impatient. “Yes, yes, I know, but what is being a doctor going to do for you?” he wanted them to tell him.
Eventually, the decided on a criterion for discerning between them. He writes: “what I asked myself about the applicants, was whether talking to them made me more or less lonely.”
The gift of presence is arguably the most precious gift that those in the healing professions can give. Jesus’ disciples can certainly attest this claim. They received this gift from Jesus. But that is why they are troubled now. For they fear they will not have it very much longer. In the preceding chapter, Jesus predicts that he is about to be betrayed by one of them, will be leaving them, and will be denied by one of his most dedicated disciples, Peter.
Trouble and distress is what they experience in anticipation of Jesus’ absence, an absence after being so very present with them.
Into each life, trouble will come. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus promises his disciples in John 16:33. No one is spared, regardless of how sheltered or privileged a life they may lead. But how do you respond to trouble when it does come? Do you come apart at the seams and fall to pieces?
For the Christian, with the trouble comes also God’s comfort. In fact, it has been said and even attested by many of God’s people that it’s during those times of trouble that we come to know God more intimately.
One of my cousins, who came out on this side of cervical cancer, confided to me that she never before experienced the faithfulness of God as she did when she was battling the cancer. “The words that I heard in church and read in the Bible came off the page and became real for me.”
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles…” Paul exclaims in 2 Corinthians 1:3.
Paul confided to the Corinthians that he was under an impossibly heavy burden. We don’t know what it was exactly, but it was so heavy that he despaired even of life itself. But through this trouble he came to know the power of God, which delivered him from so deadly a peril.
God comes to us in our troubles. Our troubles create the “inner climate” in which God reveals himself to us, to borrow a phrase from author and pastoral counselor Donald Capps.
This is what is going on here. Jesus comforts his disciples by revealing more of himself to them. Their troubled hearts provide the occasion for Jesus to open them up to the mysteries of his person.
Last Sunday Mary sung the Twenty Third Psalm, rendered beautifully by song writer Marty Haugen. The words of the third verse are as follows:
Though I should wander the valley of death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side,
your rod and your staff, my comfort and my hope.
Jesus the Good Shepherd was at the side of the disciples in an eminent sense. Here is the Word made flesh, the incarnate Son of God present with them. But how can their Lord continue to be with them, if he is going to his Father, which is to say he must die?
What we dread about death, whether the death of our loved ones or our own death, is the finality of separation.
The great Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx writes about death in these words:
“[Death], at least as it appears to me, is the end of my world, of a living relatedness…of all that I share in my humanity and being with my loved ones, as well as with all others, from whom I must depart, whether I want to or not.”
Jesus insists that his departure is only temporary. If I go, I go only to prepare a place for you. Then I will come back and take you by the hand and bring you there, so that where I am, you may be also (cf. John 14:2,3).
But where is he going, again? Of course, whenever Jesus spoke of where he was going, it gave rise to misunderstanding and confusion. To his enemies he once said: “You will look for me, but you will not find me. Where I am going, you cannot come.”
And they replied: “Where will he go and we will not find him. Will he go where our people are dispersed among the Greeks and teach the Greeks” (7:35)? But whenever Jesus uses this language, he always means his Father.
Jesus is about to go to the Father—to be more precise, his Father’s house, in which there are many dwelling places.
Again, recall the words from the Twenty Third Psalm that Mary sung. The last line of the fourth verse: “I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore. The Psalmist had an expectation of a permanent dwelling place in the house of God.
Jesus goes to prepare a dwelling place in this house for his disciples. He thereby fulfills this expectation of the Psalmist. The Psalmist’s expectation corresponds to the desire of God. God wants us to be where he is. And that is good news worth sharing.
Many people ask about the afterlife. The question becomes all the more urgent the closer the departure from this life comes. For the afterlife Jesus uses here the image of a house with many dwelling places.
However we are to understand this image, we should see that the afterlife is less about place than about presence. The word used here for “dwelling places” is related to the verb “abide.”
This verb appears in the discourse about Jesus as the true vine. “Abide in me, and I in you” Jesus tells his disciples in John 15. We are to draw our very life from Jesus Christ, a life that we receive from him in our union with him. If we begin to open ourselves to receive his life, his presence, into our lives now, then we can expect to experience it in the world to come. Only there we will know it fully, even as we will be fully known.
But some people, regardless of how old they are, think it’s pointless to ask about an afterlife. Life is for the living. This life is the only life there is. One of the YouTube influencers I watch begins each of her posts with these words: “Remember you are here now, and you have this one life to live. So enjoy it and make the most of it while you are here.”
People say that to reject the perspective reflected in her words in the hope of an afterlife is a form of escapism. It’s an opinion that many people hold today.
But life is goal-directed. It is always moving toward a goal. To reject this fact is also a form of escapism. And each step we take today brings us either closer to or farther from our goal. There is a goal; there is a destination. To borrow an image from last Sunday, The sheep do not wander in the desert aimlessly. The shepherd’s intent is to bring them safely through the gate into the sheep pen. And they trust that the shepherd knows the way.
Thomas asks Jesus about the way. He’s still confused. He correctly deduces that since he doesn’t know where Jesus is going, he cannot know the way.
Jesus reassures Thomas that he is the way. In fact, he declares “I am the way, the truth and the life,” (14:6).
Ironically, this claim, if we accept it, serves to shift our focus from the future to the present. The claim assures us that our future is Jesus’ responsibility, not our own. For this reason we do not need to concern ourselves with anything else except obeying him in the present. These great concepts, with which thinkers have been preoccupied through the ages, are concentrated here on the person of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples are to look to him, listen to him, get to know him, trust him, and follow him. After all, sheep are not expected to find the sheep pen on their own; they are expected only to listen to the shepherd’s voice and follow him.
Philip asks Jesus about the destination. If I am going to be welcomed into a home, then I at least want to know who the host is.
What follows here is critical to John’s gospel. John writes in the Prologue: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18).
Jesus is the self-revelation of the Father. He is the mirror in which we see the face of the Father reflected. He is the living portrait of the Father, to borrow John Calvin’s powerful phrase. Again, there is no need to be concerned. If we have known the grace, love, kindness and strength of Jesus, then we can expect the same in the Father, for they reflect his own attributes. Indeed, they are his attributes. For the Father is in the Son just as the Son is in the Father.
The mood shifts. If the lesson began on a note of trouble and distress, it concludes with a note of confidence. We know that when we are troubled and distressed, we aren’t really able to do much of anything. Anxiety can paralyze us. That’s why it seems strange that Jesus can talk about the great things that the one who has faith in him will do (14:12)! He goes so far as to say that they will do even greater things because he is going to the Father.
But is it really all that strange after what we have learned about him? Believing in him, trusting in him, gives us freedom to move, to take initiative, and above all find out what brings glory to the Father. And once we do discover it, we can accept the startling invitation Jesus extends to us to ask him to do anything in his name, and he will do it. For it is the Son’s desire to bring glory to the Father.
Our Eastertide lessons afford us the occasion to meditate on the mysteries of Jesus’ person. As we do, let us always remember that we stand on this side of his resurrection. That which Jesus sought to impress on the disciples about his going to the Father has happened. Jesus has gone to the Father. And he is the way to the Father. And until he comes for us to take us to be where he is, he remains for us here and now.
That we come to know and experience in a special way together whenever we come to the table, as we will do in a few moments. For there he comes to meet us and give us himself as real food and real drink to sustain us on our journey.
We can trust him to comfort and to guide, to encourage and to bring hope on this journey. How our world needs to hear this message today, amid all the fear and anxiety that is so prevalent in our world. Amen.