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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Easter 5A/23

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

May 7th 2023

Darkness to Light

On this 5th Sunday of Easter, perhaps surprisingly, we find ourselves at the Last Supper with a pre-crucified, pre-resurrected Jesus. He has just finished washing the feet of his disciples; then “deeply disturbed in spirt” he foretells his betrayal and says to Judas: What you are going to do, do quickly. As soon as Judas leaves the room, Jesus begins to say goodbye to his disciples in what is known in the Gospel of John as his Farewell Discourse (John 14-17). An air of anxiety hangs in the room, and Peter asks the question on all of their hearts: where are you going?

Jesus answers with all the tenderness and assurance of mother to her fearful children: Do not let your hearts be troubled. I think too he is speaking to his own troubled spirit as he knew what was coming. 

Our gospel this morning is a passage often read at funerals, as it was yesterday at Marilyn Marbrook’s funeral, because of Jesus’ reassuring words and promises: believe in God he says, trust in me; in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places;  I am the way, the truth, and life. No sooner though do we bump up against John 14:7, and its exclusionary tone: No one comes to the Father except through me; sadly, when taken out of its context, this single line of scripture has been exploited and weaponized against persons or groups who are non-believers or non-Christians. We must understand that the mystical poetic language of John’s gospel, which I love, is also “insider” language, directed at the turbulent Christian community of the late first-century about the meaning of Jesus for them and their world. Indeed, the Incarnation radically changed the world and its course of history. But no one comes to the Father except through me is a “forceful high-stakes Christological claim” that is not a conditional or definitive statement against other faiths and paths to God; “to interpret it this way is to do violence to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings and words” (Elisabeth Johnson). 

When I first read through the scriptures for today, my heart was indeed troubled at the violence either depicted or implied in them. In our first lesson from Acts, Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew who had became a deacon in the early church is charged with blasphemy by the High Council in Jerusalem and stoned to death by a willful hateful mob. I was as equally troubled by the witnesses who laid their cloaks at Saul’s* feet—for ease of stoning perhaps—or to pay homage to him as the person who authorized Stephen’s execution as we read in Acts 8:1 *(Saul who would became known as Paul; Acts 9-19; Acts13:13)

This scripture and its back story (Acts 6-7) is an echo of Jesus’ life and own death, in which he prays on the cross and forgives his executioners. As the first Christian martyr, Stephen’s faith in the face of death, a gruesome brutal death, is meant to be exemplary, perhaps even inspiring. Still, I find the literal violence difficult to digest, as I do its undercurrents of antisemitism. 

Each of the three great monotheist religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—share a fundamental belief in God as compassionate and just, and yet have committed heinous acts of violence against each other in the name of one same God; as Jesus teaches, these seeds of hate are sown within our hearts, and in the repressed or unconscious shadow that is then projected out into the world and onto “the other” who is different in faith, color, gender, sexuality, and on and on. The “inner community” of our psyche, and its many and varied thoughts, feelings, dreams, narratives, and experiences that have shaped our understanding of reality is as much a part of our lives of faith as is the actual religion or faith community we may belong to. 

In our Epistle, Peter alludes to and quotes a number of Hebrew scriptures as a means for understanding Christ and the nascent Christian community. At the end of the passage, he adopts the language of the prophet Hosea about the choosing of God’s people and applies it to the church, calling the church, and we who are the church a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation—God’s own people—who God has called out of darkness and into his marvelous light. 

Out of darkness into marvelous light—beautiful, meaningful, saving; and yet 

the language of a chosen race, a holy nation, troubled my heart once again; as the notion of “chosen-ness” and a chosen race is implicated in the Holocaust and every genocide of human history. Who is “chosen” is not meant to be a source darkness but of light. And, is not the whole of creation chosen by God and precious in his sight? And as poet priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: the world is charged with the grandeur of God; every little flower, every singing bird can say to us, “Who sees me sees the Father.”

In the gospel of John, there are over 100 references to the Holy One who Jesus calls the Father, and who we come to know in Jesus—not factually but faithfully and truthfully—with eyes of the heart and the heart of the soul. At Jesus’ trial Pilate asked him: what is truth? (John 18:38). For Jesus, truth is nothing less than who he is in the Father and who the Father is in him. Jesus’ inward-most self and outward-most life—his thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions—knew no separation. I and the Father are one (John 10:30).  For us then, truth is the realization of who we wholly are in in the Holy One, and is a lifetimes work.

So eager is Jesus to give to us this truth, that we come to know our unity with the Father, that he once again yields his will and says to the disciples: I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

To paraphrase Br. Curtis Almquist from SSJE: Invoking Jesus’ name in prayer is for one reason, and one reason only: for the sake of love; that we may love Jesus, be loved by him, and then love others as Jesus loves them. Whatever you ask in my name speaks then to our collective need for love, truth, and unity. It’s not that we shouldn’t ask for our own personal needs, but that we should ask for more; which means we need to know a great deal about Jesus and the enormity of the God’s love.

As Fr. John said in his sermon yesterday, as Christians, we must always keep before us three key attitudes of being: to trust, to love, and to unite; ways of being that have their origin and first expression in God, but that we are continually called to live into in our own lives, now. This is the resurrection life.  

When we cherry pick scripture and read without an understanding of its context, we are in danger of appropriating the words and using them to prop up our own biases and agenda, or worse. All of us read scripture through a cultural lens, and unconsciously so. And so we must undertake the long hard work of learning to see in the dark, with Easter eyes, the many spheres and dimensions of our consciousness; each of which is a house, a room, and dwelling place of the Holy One*—in here, in the heart—who is there waiting for us to arrive; drawing us step by step, door to door, breath by breath into the ever evolving new life and ever expanding love of God *(see St. Teresa of Avila’s understanding of this in The Interior Castle).

May we have the courage to abide in our troubled hearts with Christ, and steadfastly follow the way, the truth, and life that will lead us from darkness to everlasting light.