April 28, 2013

Where I am Going, You Cannot Come

Passage: Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-7, John 13:31-35

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”


The school of my childhood was a one-room country school.  You can see these school buildings as you drive along township roads—many have been turned into homes.  You will recognize them by their shape; steep-pitched roofs with tall matching windows on opposite sides.  We used to play a game that involved throwing a baseball over the roof of the school.  Like a pitcher who throws an occasional wild pitch, as I attempted to throw the ball over the school one day its flight path instead crashed through a pane of glass of the window on one side of the school and then through another pane of the matching window on the other side.

In the midst of such incidents it becomes clear that you can’t go back; the broken glass in on the floor.  You can only forward.  The panes of glass need to be replaced; some device for protecting the glass installed; the game moved or reinvented to avoid such outcomes.  In our experience of living there is no going back; only going forward.  Hindsight is the only time we “see” the events of life with anything close to 20/20 vision; yet hindsight won’t change the past—at best, it can serve as a help for the future.

1. In the sermons during this season of Easter (Easter to Pentecost) I have been exploring the theme that the resurrection of Jesus forges a world on meaning in accord with its own reality.  We are ever trying to push the event of Jesus raised from the dead into our world views; shaping it in accord with the prevailing philosophies of our day.  Jesus raised from the dead forges his own reality over our lives by his living presence among us; boundaries set by our perceptions of things are revealed to be inadequate to give account of the reality of being encountered by him.

One of those boundaries that the risen Jesus renders inadequate is our human experience that you can’t go back.  The resurrection of the crucified Jesus casts its light in both directions; such that the categories of past and future take on meaning shaped by the resurrection.  In two of our scripture readings we read of the future—future in relationship to the resurrection of Jesus.  We read in book of Acts about how the good news of the risen Jesus transcended ethnic boundaries; in the Revelation we read of the coming consummation of all things—the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.  Everything about the future is changed and reshaped in the bright light of the risen Jesus.

But our Gospel lesson today takes us back; back to the upper room when Jesus said “Where I am going, you cannot come” and taught that we are to love one another as he loved us.  So if we can’t go back why do we keep going back?  Why don’t the stories of Jesus travelling with his disciples—all the pre-resurrection stuff—simply fade into the background?  Is the written witness of Jesus’s life with his disciples simply lessons of history we preserve for the sake of what hindsight will teach us as we move forward?  The resurrection of Jesus Christ explodes this category we take so for granted; the category that you can’t go back—what is past is over and done with.  Think of the way that death casts its shadow on life—when you die it’s done.  Death’s shouts “you can never get it back”; a shout that echoes all throughout life that you can’t go back.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, sheds it light on the past.  The disciples’ life with Jesus prior to the resurrection is never merely somebody’s history lesson.  The resurrection says they are alive today still very much part of the church and their life with Jesus never becomes some forgotten yesterday.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ assures the believer today that our present life is not destined to be simply someone’s history lesson as if our life were just one more stone soon to be heaped on history’s rubble.  Think of the forgiveness of sin; the sin of our past is forgiven not because what is done is done and it is time to move on; rather because the whole of our life is regarded and known by God whose image we bear.  Just as in the lives of those first disciples, so too today, God is working something profoundly eternal in a through our lives lived in service to him.

The resurrection creates its own meaning and challenges us to rethink and align our “worlds of meaning” to the world of meaning revealed in the risen Jesus.

2.  Simply put, the gospel of John would never have been written unless the crucified Jesus was raised from the dead.  For that matter, neither would Matthew, Mark or Luke have written their gospels.  Nobody is ever going to stick with their story that somebody they hoped was the messiah who ended up a crucified criminal really is Israel’s long hoped for messiah.  If the tomb was the end of the road for Jesus, no one is going to run around the Roman world of the first century insisting that this Jesus who was crushed by Roman imperialism really is the world’s true sovereign—really, really he is!

There is nothing remarkable about the story of a first-century Jewish messiah who ends up executed by Roman authorities in crucifixion; nothing remarkable in the sense that it was an unusual occurrence.  There is nothing remarkable about someone being crucified; Roman authorities crucified thousands of people they deemed deserving of death.  Crucifixion was a purposely cruel form of execution designed to strike fear of Rome’s might in the hearts of occupied people.  A Roman citizen convicted of a crime was, generally speaking, exempted from crucifixion as punishment; crucifixion was aimed at the people annexed by Roman imperialism.

The crucified Jesus now raised from the dead changes everything for these followers; everything they had experienced in their life with Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem is revisited as it is now understood for what was really happening.  The resurrection of Jesus casts its light over the whole of his earthly life such that the whole thing now forges its own truth and reality on to the world, creates its own world of meaning.

The facts of Jesus’ crucifixion in and of themselves don’t lead the disciples to say, ’look, our sins are forgiven.” Rather the facts of the arrest, trials, and crucifixion lead them to desert Jesus and go into hiding.  It is the risen Jesus who reveals the meaning of his death that is for our sakes.

The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus belong to a constellation of events of his life that cannot be separated; it is as they are together in Jesus that his full identity is revealed.  The world of meaning that the bright light of the resurrection shows with respect to the crucifixion of Jesus is because of who it is that was crucified.  The crucified Jesus raised to life is God’s vindication of the son; he was the one who lived in perfect obedience to the Father; as a son of Israel he did fulfill all the God intended for Israel as God’s covenant partner.  The resurrection is God’s great Yes; yes to all that God purposed to do in the Son for our sakes is in fact accomplished. Sins are forgiven, new life has begun.

This is why we keep going back over Jesus life tracing the itinerary of his sacrifice for us in his own flesh and blood.  This is why we are again in the upper room re-examining what Jesus said in the light of the risen Jesus.  We are here because Jesus, now raised from the dead, has a word to say to us today; his word wasn’t merely for the upper room but anticipated all that would unfold, even each of us gathered here today.

3. So, with the light of resurrection shining the way, we return again to visit the upper room.  We listen afresh to Jesus say, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”  Where is he going that we cannot come?  Peter asked that question; Jesus said you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.  Peter insists he can follow now; Jesus knows he will deny him.  Then Jesus goes on to utter those marvelous words of hope that he is going to prepare a place for us; a place in the Father’s house so we can be together with him.  Where is this place of preparation he is going for our sakes?

These words of Jesus follow immediately after Judas’ departure from the room.  Jesus’ reaction to the departure of Judas evokes a response similar to that a day before when some Greeks at the Passover festival requested an audience with Jesus.  The departure of the one and the arrival of the others signified the beginning of the end; in Jesus consciousness the inevitability intensifies at these moments.  On Judas’ departure, the actors in the unfolding drama are now committed to their courses of action; Judas to betrayal—Jesus to the cross.

Jesus says something very odd sounding to us.  When Greeks asked to see him he spoke of how it evoked turmoil in his soul; should I ask the Father to save me from this hour—no if was for this hour I came. Father, glorify your name.  After Judas left he said “If God has been glorified in me, God will glorify me in himself and will glorify me at once”.  We would not attach someone’s glory to their crucifixion but Jesus does and so do the Apostles in the witness to Jesus.  John in following this theme of glory in his gospel sees it culmination in the cross.

To be glorified means to acquire a good reputation.  The cross of Jesus Christ is where Jesus is glorified; it is here we see most fully the heart of God’s love poured out for humanity.  The reputation of God is revealed most clearly in this act.  Would you look at someone hanging limp on a cross, executed as a criminal, and rejoice in their reputation?   This is precisely where the resurrection shines its light; it is God’s “yes” that here at the cross he is glorified.

Only Jesus can do this; “where I am going you cannot come”.  To which I would add, and neither do you want to go.  At the cross we are all rendered spectators.  What is taking place for our redemption is taking place between the father and the son.  Only he can go here.  The just judgement on human sin is being born by him; God’s great “no” to human sinfulness.  At the same time God’s wonderful “yes” of redemption is being procured.  Clearly the depravity of my heart is oceans deeper than I ever suspected.

In the light of risen Jesus, yes the same Jesus who was crucified the gospel forges its own world of meaning; a world of meaning we could never anticipate.  We might characterize it this way; he went to a place only he could go to bring us to a place we could never get to.

4.  I have said all of this in an attempt to say something—just a little something—of the world of meaning the risen Jesus forges for life; we have explored just one of Jesus’ sentences—where I am going, you cannot come—and in that have caught a glimpse of this incredible world of meaning.  For the believer, this is how all that Jesus said is to be regarded—in the glorious scope and magnitude of his life, death, and resurrection that is reality itself.

Just a few sentences later Jesus would say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Do we not hear that differently in resurrection light?  The love Jesus commends is typified in the self-giving self-forgetfulness of Christ on the cross.  “As I have loved you, you also should love one another,” said our Lord.

There is a story in Isak Dinesen’s book Out of Africa about a boy named Kitau.  He appeared at the author’s home one day to ask for a job as a domestic servant.  She hired him but was surprised when after three months he asked her for a letter of recommendation to Sheik Ali bin Salim, a Muslim who lived in a nearby town.  Dinesen offered to raise Kitau’s pay in order to keep him, but money was not his interest.  Kitau had decided to become either a Christian or a Muslim, and his purpose in working for Dinesen had been to see, up close, the way a Christian lived.  Now he would go to observe Sheik Ali to see how Muslims behave.  Then he would decide.  Dinesen recalls how she wished Kitau had told her that before he came to live with her.

Hasn’t Jesus already told us?

5.  The theme of John Ortberg’s book about Jesus titled, Who Is This Man, is delineated in the book’s subtitle: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus.  In it Ortberg explores the impact Jesus has had on human history.

Ortberg explored the way children were treated in the Roman world.  Unwanted children were often simply left to die, a practise called “exposure”.  The head of the household had the legal right to decide the life or death of other members of the family.  The decision was usually made during the first eight or so days of life.  Plutarch wrote that until that time the child was “more like a plant than a human being.”

The most common reasons to subject a child to “exposure” would be if the family lived in poverty, or if  a wealthy family did not want the estate divided up, or if a child was the wrong gender (meaning a girl), or if the child were illegitimate.  The Jews opposed the practise of exposure.  But in much of the ancient world children were abandoned to a dump or dung hill; this happened often enough that hundreds of ancient names are variations of the Greek word for dung.

Babies that were disabled or appeared weak were often disposed of by drowning.  An ancient Roman law said that a boy who was “strikingly deformed” has to be disposed of quickly.

In a few moments we are going to read the story of Jesus welcome of children.  Children were brought to him; the language indicates they couldn’t bring themselves; they were dependent.  The disciples rebuked the parents.  Jesus rebuked the disciples.  “Let the little children come to ne; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Caesar Augustus tried to limit the practise of exposure because the state needed more workers.  But it was the influence of the church that led to this practise being forbidden in the Roman Empire.  Saint Ambrose of Milan said the church must care not only for babies, but also for the poor because poverty often destroys their ability to care for children.  Such is the impact of the sayings of Jesus as the church continued to revisit these words in the power of the risen Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.