“Religious Platitudes in a Time of Pandemic”

~ John 14:1-14 ~

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” One of Jesus’ more famous lines from one of the more famous passages in the Bible. I ask you, this morning: How do you hear that? In this time of pandemic, of tedious isolation, of constant, everyday news of people dying, does Jesus’ word comfort you or does it just hit you like one of so many empty platitudes? What good are such spiritual sentiments, really? Reminders of God’s presence through the tough times? Songs of heaven where we’ll finally feel no more pain, cry no more tears? Promises that whatever we ask, God/Jesus will do it! Seriously, I want to ask you, today, how you experience religious platitudes in this time of pandemic?

This passage Deb read to us today is filled with such sentiments. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” “I go to prepare a place for you.” “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Quotes to assuage fear. Quotes to give the correct formulas for spiritual success. Quotes to make sure that you know that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Quotes that make Jesus a spiritual Santa Claus? Indeed, this 14th chapter of John has been much abused, misunderstood and misused for a variety of religious agendas.

For instance, when you hear “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” what might come to mind is the King James Version: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” And you think heaven, with grand mansions and streets paved with gold, like the old gospel song,

I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop,

in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.

And some day yonder, we will never more wander,

but walk the streets that are purist gold.

Except that when Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” he was not speaking of heaven. In his speaking to the disciples in that moment, Jesus, as John writes it, is talking about going away to the cross. They know where he  is going because he’s told them over and over in the previous weeks and months; he is going to die. They can’t go with him there. But in that event of his death he is preparing a place for them.

But where is this house with many rooms, with many dwelling places? Well, I believe Jesus is saying that God’s house is now the community of his followers. The house of God is not a building but a relationship among those who hear God and follow. Amazingly Jesus is saying that God’s house with many rooms is us. This is where God lives. By being in this community we live in God’s house. We all, God, Jesus, his followers, live together in a relationship that makes for a house with many rooms. There is plenty of room for all of us. Come in! There’s plenty of room.

And then we read this: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except through me.” Some Christians interpret this saying in an exclusive way. They claim that this is a concrete truth statement that means if you don’t believe in Jesus, and Jesus only, you are going to hell, because there is no other way to God. It’s quite obvious, they say. An absolute statement for all time and all peoples. Belief in Jesus is the only way to God, to salvation, to get to heaven and avoid hell. Therefore all other religions are not just false, but completely false. Only Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. All other paths end up in, well, hell.

Thomas asks Jesus, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” But if Jesus isn’t talking about heaven in the first place, how, really, is Jesus the way? Thomas’s question isn’t really about whether future Buddhists and Hindus will go to hell. In other words, this statement by Jesus has been taken completely out of context and has been twisted into an exclusivist belief about who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t.

Jesus has this extended back and forth with his disciples trying to help them understand. But the essence of what he says to his disciples is that in seeing Jesus  they see in God. This is an incarnational Gospel – Jesus embodies what can be seen of God in a human life. What we (we who live and move within the Christian tradition) are saying is that, for us, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In Jesus we see a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress the world, a life centered on a God who loves all of humankind with a generous and gracious heart.

Is Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life? If we’re talking about how to get to heaven – well, it’s just the wrong question. These words were never meant to answer that question. But given that, the question remains: Is Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life. For those disciples sitting with Jesus in that upper room the answer was definitely “yes.” Is he for us? If we’re following Jesus the answer is also “yes.” What about those who don’t follow Jesus? Can adherents of other religions know the way, the truth and the life apart from Jesus? Yes, I believe so, in so much as they too embrace the way of nonviolent love and inclusion.

Given all this, how do these truths, these words, comfort you or reassure you in this time of pandemic? Does hearing Jesus say, “don’t let your heart be troubled” help? What do you find helpful? What do you go to for comfort, for solace, for reassurance?

Some folk find assurance in an arrogant proclamation of judgment. These are folk who are convinced they alone know the truth, they alone have the only right religion, they alone know why we are experiencing this pandemic. And out of that arrogance they are sure that God is judging the world for a whole variety of reasons – secularism, godlessness, a list of specific sins that often include abortion or homosexuality. And in their self-righteous judgment somehow find comfort. It is sad, really.

On a more positive note, some folk, past and present, find solace in singing about heaven. The spirituals that came out of slavery often spoke of ‘over yonder’ as a message of hope in the midst of pain and misery and oppression. And the resultant gospel music of the African-American church sung with such intense fervor during the civil rights movement brought those ‘heavenly’ sentiments of peace and freedom into the here and now, this side of heaven. Indeed, the music is a powerful source of comfort in the midst of struggle.

This is poignantly brought home in a documentary that was first aired this past week on KQED called One Voice. It is about the Oakland Gospel Choir which sang at Brian and Austin’s wedding. I highly recommend it. Powerful.

So, I ask again: Where do you find encouragement? Comfort? Assurance? I’d like you to talk about it. For our prayers of the people today we are going to break up into chat rooms. I ask you to share with the others in your group: what do you find helpful to get through all this? Or not; maybe you are really struggling to find anything of encouragement these days. As the community of Jesus in this place and time I encourage you to share as an act of prayer.

So, in a moment here Christine will unmute you all and you’ll suddenly find yourself in a chat room with a few other folks. Take your time. Explore you feelings and thoughts. We’ll come back together in about 10 minutes. God bless.

 

 

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