May 11, 2020
Comfortable words – J. Barry Vaughn – May 10, 2020
In today’s gospel reading Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” There has never been a time in my life when people more needed to hear those words.
In my parents’ lives there were a couple of times when those words would have answered a great need in people’s hearts. In the depths of the Great Depression, when 25 to 50 percent of US workers were unemployed or when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor those words would have been a great comfort.
But this is the most challenging moment through which I have lived. There have been other dangerous moments in my life. Like many of you, I remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when ships of the Soviet Union steamed toward the blockade that the US had set up around Cuba, and the world was on the edge of nuclear war. The Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 were a terrifying moment, but in hindsight they did not represent an existential threat the way that the missile crisis of 1962 did.
We are good at dealing with short-term crises such as the missile crisis or 9/11, but what makes this moment uniquely difficult is that we do not know when it will end. It seems to stretch out as far as the eye can see.
I do not know whether or not we are facing an existential threat today, but I do know that this is a moment that is full of fear.
The oath of office for federal officials (except – and this is interesting – for the president) are asked to swear that they will defend the United States against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” The enemy we face today is neither foreign nor domestic. For that matter it is not even visible, and that, I think, greatly adds to our anxiety. How do we defend ourselves against an enemy we cannot even see? How do protect ourselves and our loved ones against an invisible foe?
Immediately after the General Confession and absolution in the old Anglican liturgy the priest was to pronounce the “comfortable words”: “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Jesus Christ saith to all who truly turn to him: Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”
“Comfortable” in that context did not mean the kind of comfort we get from an old pair of shoes or a sofa. “Comfort” is a combination of two Latin words and means to strengthen and encourage.
But the command not to let our hearts be troubled is not what makes this statement of Jesus so “comfortable.” What makes Jesus’ words here so powerful is what he says next: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…”
Rusty Fortier likes to say that she was devastated when Father Vince told her that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” should really be translated “in my Father’s house are many rooms.” She got downgraded from a mansion to an efficiency!!
Jesus is responding to a question that Peter asks in the previous chapter: “Lord, where are you going?” To which Jesus replies, “I go to prepare a place for you… that where I am you may be also.”
When Jesus says, “Where I am you may be also,” he is restating what he says at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Lo, I am with you to the end of the age.”
There is no place we can go where he is not.
In baptism we were made part of the body of Christ, or as the first reading tells us, we were made members of a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
“Where I am you may be also” is the promise of baptism. Jesus will never leave us because he has made us a part of his body. He can no more leave us than he can forget where he left his hand or his foot.
And that is a comforting word, a word of strength and encouragement as we face this pandemic, this lockdown.
This challenging time stretches out before us as far as our mind’s eye can see, but God’s love for us stretches even farther. It goes out to the end of the age, the end of the world.
“I go to prepare a place for you…so that where I am you may be also.”