John 14:1-14

Soon this nave will be filled with young women and young men graduating from high school. Ceremonies from National Cathedral School and St. Albans School lie just around the corner. Listening to some of these seniors last week, they said, “I am so ready to graduate; to say goodbye to this place. I have great plans for this summer and I just want to get out of here, to get on with it.”

And yet looking closely on Thursday as the NCS girls gathered for their senior service, you could see tears; lots and lots of tears. Because although they excel at texting, and promise faithfully to keep in touch; truth is that one is off to Stanford and another to UVA, another to the military and another to a gap year, another to study abroad and another will stay home and work for a while. (Craddock)

We resist goodbye; that movement from presence to absence. And sometimes we pretend that it is easy. It isn’t easy.

A woman comes to see me. She wants to talk about placing her husband’s ashes in the church’s columbarium. She has kept them in her bedroom closet for seventeen years. We arrange for a small family service. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” I begin. And already she is weeping. As we leave the memorial garden, she says, “I never dreamed it would be this hard. After seventeen years, I didn’t think there would be any more tears.” Absence: a gaping silence; pain. We avoid it if we can.

A middle-aged man visits a beloved aunt in a nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s. She wears a colorful sweater. Her face is as blank as an empty slate. A bulletin board in her room holds pictures of her family. She stands among them smiling. Today, she does not smile. Today, she is gone. “I never thought you could miss someone sitting right next to you,” the man writes. “I was wrong.” We cling to presence; hold tight to those we love. For absence bring the experience of a vacuum and a void. (Wilson)

We resist moving from presence to absence. Our resistance rises from a place deep within. In the moment between holding and not holding; in the time between here and not here; in the moments between presence and absence, we need help. (Willimon)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus. “Believe in God, believe in me.” Jesus speaks to those who will soon face his absence most acutely.

In John’s Gospel, unlike the others, Jesus bids his disciples a lengthy four-chapter farewell; only fitting for a Gospel that opens with a magnificent testimony to Jesus’ presence. Remember? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. And the Word became flesh, and lived among us. And we have seen his glory; the glory of a Father’s only Son; full of grace, full of truth” (John 1).

“Something about Jesus made those near him think God. His character, his words, his work; what he did, what he said, the way he behaved. His presence: somehow in his presence people began to believe they had encountered the very presence of God.” (Craddock)

Not everyone, of course, experienced Jesus in the same way. Some fell away when following him proved too dangerous. Some feared him, some resented him, others despised him. Only a very few stayed with him through thick and thin. A smaller, more intimate group grew to love him and he them.

They promise never to leave him. “Where else would we go, Lord?” they say. “Only you have the words to eternal life.” And that is when it happens. They realize that this one they call friend; this one who calls them friend, reveals God. “No one has ever seen God; and yet the only begotten Son, come from the heart of God, makes God known.” (Craddock)

And then, suddenly, abruptly: absence. Just as he came into the world, Jesus must leave the world and return to God. “God with us is about to become God away from us.” He knows his departure will devastate them. He does his best to get them ready. (Wilimon)

“I must leave” he tells them. Listen! I am praying for you. Trust in God, trust in me. Listen! I have new work to do. I am going to prepare; a place for you; a place where we can live together forever. Listen! I am not leaving you alone! You will have the Holy Spirit as guide, as a presence to keep your life, as a comforter. Trust in me!

Jesus does his best. He does not succeed. They feel abandoned and angry; alone and afraid. And in this feeling they do not stand alone. They stand with servants and saints of every age who feel what they name as the absence of God.

Hear Israel in the desert. “God, where are you? Did you bring us out here to die?” Hear the Psalmist cry out. “Lord, please. Don’t turn your back on us. Don’t hide your face from us. Please don’t forsake us.” Many great teachers of prayer, many who have served God on the fringes of society and safety, many who fill the pews of this church—of any church—speak of feeling completely and totally alone; bereft of God and God’s presence. The feeling is undeniably real.

I do not find it hard to imagine that at times God grows so exasperated with us that God would like very much to leave us to fend for ourselves for a while. Reading the newspaper, looking out over the world, attending some church meetings—convinces me that sometimes we cause a wound and an ache to deep in the very bosom of God that God just might want a respite from us.

And I can also imagine that “sometimes God chooses to allow us to do something on our own; that we might develop some new strength”; strength to follow the way of holy love, to experience God’s truth, to join ourselves to the path of life; eternal and everlasting, accompanied always by the Spirit. (Craddock)

After a healing service, a woman came, requesting prayer. In a halting voice, she spoke of her son, murdered before his life really began. She spoke of the devastating effect his death on her own heart and on the heart of her husband. For a long time, neither could really pray. They cast about for a way to cover their son’s absence.

“It must have been a Spirit thing,” the woman said. “We found ourselves volunteering in the Virginia state prison. The chaplain’s office gave us our assignment: to befriend a convicted murderer. It seemed impossible, unthinkable: she said. “And yet we had made a commitment, so we decided to try.”

The three struggled to be present to one another; to build a friendship. Slowly, slowly, this couple grew to care for this man and for his life. They wrote letters appealing for his clemency. And when the State of Virginia executed him, they grieved.

“Just when I thought God had abandoned me forever,” the woman said, “that murderer came to me as God’s healing vessel. In learning to love him, Christ’s presence grew strong for me. Jesus helped me to love this man, helped me to say goodbye to my son. And in some mysterious way, in saying goodbye, I began to experience the presence of my Son in a powerfully new way.”

Because we most often read these verses in the context of a funeral, we have loosed them from their rich and more expansive meaning. More than a promise of heaven, a place removed from this life; Jesus speaks of an abiding place, present tense. God’s dwelling place, God’s arms, Christ’s presence—here and now.

I wonder if we can remember being a child, and after a hard day at play, falling asleep on the living room floor; only to wake up the next morning, snug in our own beds, in our own room. Strong and loving arms picked us up and carried us to a resting place. And we didn’t even realize it, until we opened our eyes and looked around.

In Jesus, the strong arms of God came to troubled hearts; hearts bruised, broken, and battered by life’s many, many goodbyes; offering an abiding place; a place to heal, rest, dwell. Jesus bids each of us to enter. And the way we enter, he says, “runs through what you see of God in me.” (Craddock)

For whenever we love the way, the truth, and the life that is Jesus, people see us and think God. And Christ’s presence grows strong in us. And he is not absent; he is not absent at all.

These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell

Resources

With deep appreciation for the words and work of Fred Craddock, one of the best preachers I know. Sermons at Cherry Log, Easter Series.

Craig Wilson, “The Final Word,” newspaper article, paper unknown.

William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, #2, Year C, 1998.

Weavings, March/April 1999.

Alive Now, May/June 1998.

Additional Resources: