SERMON 14 MAY 2017 Mothers’ Day
I have so many memories of my mother, and I am blessed because they are almost all good. She had a fairly extraordinary life though always thought of herself as a very ordinary person. She was born in Java to her very Scottish, Glaswegian parents. She lived there until she was 5 when she was brought back to Scotland to go to school, living with her mother’s family. My grandmother was heartbroken to leave her behind as she set off on the ship back to Java. My mother saw very little of her parents for the rest of her schooling, though they did make a couple of trips back. She was sent to boarding school away on the south coast of England for high school. Later on she would meet my Scottish father on a ship traveling east. He had a job in Bangkok. They married and my sister was born there. War came, my parents were evacuated to Australia as the Japanese threatened to invade Siam, as Thailand was then called. My brother was born at Waverley Memorial Hospital. My father was sent back to Bangkok by his accountancy firm and then spent 4 years in a Prisoner of War camp. My mother, left in Sydney with no support eventually got a passage back to England where her parents now lived as her father had an office in London. She crossed the Pacific and the Atlantic with two young children in terrible conditions. They were lucky to get through. They arrived into the bombing blitz. At the end of the war my father returned and then I arrived. But the marriage did not survive more than another decade or so. My mother found herself looking after her own mother for the next 30 years, and me, until I left home for university. I never heard her complain of any of this. My memories are of her setting her alarm for 6am every day and spending half an hour reading her Bible and praying, as she drank her early morning cup of tea. She was always supportive and encouraging. My most painful memory is of sitting with her, surrounded by family and other friends at Edinburgh airport and then kissing her goodbye as I went through the Departure Gate on the first stage of my journey to New Zealand to get married to Clive. Rona and Alasdair, her two closest grandchildren were by my side. She freed me up to do that. I was in touch with her every week and came back to see her, bringing baby Andrew, but it was never the same of course and she died three years later.
There will be many people here who, like me, have tearful memories of goodbyes, whether of our parents or children or other loved ones. It is through our relationships that we learn and grow, whether those relationships are positive or negative. If we are fortunate, we learn as we have to stand on our own feet. When the relationships are good, we feel strong. When they are difficult, we know we need other good ones. We thrive on love. We lose ourselves when it is absent.
Tim Costello, head of World Vision for more than 12 years, has written a new book called “Faith”. He tells a lot of stories which are about people and relationships and what sustains him. He says “Love is a universal grammar….. my faith gives me joy and love as it lingers. As CS Lewis says ‘Joy is the serious business of heaven’….. But you might ask why I assume God is benevolent. Is there not enough evidence of suffering in the world to suggest that the Supreme Being may be malevolent? Some readers may even be annoyed that I seem to be too exclusively Christian in my talk about Jesus. But the reason is that my faith in benevolence is only solved by being specific. Only if I can tie the word ‘God’ to the story of Jesus can I make this leap of faith.”
Peter, in his Epistle, knows all about this and he encourages the Christians scattered across a wide area of what we know of as Turkey. He knows they struggle and yet he talks about rejoicing, rejoicing as they build their faith on Jesus, who himself knew all about suffering. These people had never known Jesus as Peter had, but they had been drawn into relationship with Jesus through what they heard of him, through what they saw of him in the lives of people like Peter, and through what resonated deep within them. They learned about the power of love that strengthened them in times of hardship.
The disciples were learning that through the Jesus we see in the passage we heard from John’s gospel. He is with his friends at a very emotional time of endings. He has washed their feet. He has shared a meal with them for the last time. He has told the friend who will betray him to go and do what he must. Now the rest are gathered around him. He has told them that they must love one another. He has told them that he is going and they can’t come with him, though they protest. They cannot know what lies just ahead. But they know that this is a farewell. We can imagine the feelings. What Jesus says to them has become a much loved and very familiar passage. It is often read at funerals because it talks about life beyond what we have here. But the whole reading also challenges us. How can we understand it?
It begins with words of strength and comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” The word that is translated as ‘believe’ also means ‘trust’. Trust in God. Trust also in me. That gives it a slightly different emphasis. Trust is fundamental to living our lives in faith. If we trust, we can hand all our problems, as well as all our joys, all our loves and hopes, over to God. We can trust when we know we are loved.
Jesus goes on to reassure them that the relationship they have with him will not be broken or lost. He will always be with them. Indeed, that is what the hereafter, what heaven is all about, being together with Jesus, being in the love of God, together. Jesus gives them an image for belonging together, dwelling together. The word that is translated as ‘mansions’ in many older texts, and which, for me, I’m afraid, conjures up images more like Kellyville than heaven, really indicates simply a place to dwell. The disciples struggle to imagine this. How, where is this place to be? They don’t know the way. But Jesus tells them that they do, because they know him. This is not about any kind of GPS reference. We have to give up our spatial thinking about place and find, instead, the person of Christ. “I am the Way, the truth and the life” he tells them. It is not easy for them to grasp this, but that is all they need to tell them the way. He knows that the way, for him, means suffering. He is about to turn towards the cross. The way, the truth and the life go together. Before he gets to the cross, his truth will be questioned and he will be accused of lying, but he will be steadfast in holding on to the truth he has always lived. That is what his life has been about, demonstrating this. It has to be enough. It is. This is his way, his truth and his life. It is God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life, seen in him. There was no swerving aside when coming up against difficulty, no compromising his integrity. That is why we can trust, why, like Tim Costello, we can hold onto faith in the face of severe questioning by the malevolence around and by the suffering we experience. We can trust because we see Jesus’ story, his life, which is still being given to us. It is offered to us to accept, here and now, for our lives and our times, because he is all about a relationship of life and truth. He is about love.
I don’t know that we can ever really understand what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that others in the future would do greater things than he had done. All we can know is that he understood that he didn’t do anything in his own power but through the Holy Spirit of God, whose work is unceasing, maybe sometimes hidden, but never overwhelmed. And we are all part of that.
When we think about Jesus and his friends, gathered together for this one last time like this, what we see is love. His words are offered to them to sustain them through the confusion and loss that lay ahead. And so he speaks to us too. John, in writing this, wanted people to know that the Christ, this holy one, was not just a significant, wise teacher, healer and leader for those who followed him at the time. What he continued, and continues to offer, are words about life that transcends our small moment in time, our place. Jesus transcends all of this because he is about love, and love never lets anyone go. In this we can trust, in this we can believe. Our hearts tell us so.