Sermon given by Revd Sue McCoan 21st May 2017, at St. Andrew’s Ealing
Psalm 115; John 14:15-21
If you’ve ever spent any time with small children, or of you were ever a small child yourself, you will very likely at some time in your life have played the game of Peep-bo, or peekaboo. I think we used to call it hidey-boo. You know – when the adult covers their face and goes ‘hidey’, and then uncovers and goes boo. We play it because it’s fun, because it always makes little children smile. And most of us will never think that this is an important bit of psychological development, but it is.
For a very small child, if you cover your face, you have disappeared – never mind that the rest of you is still there large as life. So you disappear – and then you come back, really quickly. And the child learns that it is safe to let you out of their sight because you will come back. So then when you are away for longer, they don’t panic. They learn to trust, not just in their parent, but in life in general. When they’re older, children will hide themselves so you can ‘find’ them – and that leads on to longer games like hide and seek. (Don’t let this spoil the fun – it’s still a great game).
You hope that somebody played these games with the disciples of Jesus when they were little. Because if ever there was an occasion for separation anxiety, this point in the gospel story is it. Jesus knows that he is about to be taken away from them – that the authorities won’t be satisfied until he’d dead. And he knows what that will mean for these closest followers. Not only will they have lost someone they love and trust – and most of us know from experience that that is more than bad enough. Not only will they be very vulnerable, because it could be their turn next, and uncertain, because Jesus was the one who told them what to do. On top of all those things, they will also, in the eyes of the world, look really stupid.
When Jesus dies, as he knows he must, it will look, in the eyes of the world, as if his mission has failed. In the eyes of the world, it will soon look as though the good things he did were just a fluke. He was nothing really. Oh, and you disciples, look at you now. You heard those nice stories and you fell for it. You were so gullible, you gave up your jobs and homes for this con man. Well ha ha ha. And this in a culture where shame is a really serious matter.
Jesus knows what the eyes of the world will see. But he needs his disciples to see things differently, so that they can find the strength and courage to carry on when he is gone. He tells them things that they almost certainly don’t understand at the time, like God sending the Spirit, and Jesus coming back himself – they have no idea what this means, and when it does happen they are completely amazed. But that doesn’t matter. The details are not important. What matters is that they know, from this, that Jesus has got it all in hand. Whatever happens, Jesus is expecting it, he has plans to deal with it, he is speaking to God about it. They can trust in all that.
And they will find, as they trust, that they can see things that the eyes of the world will never see. They will see Jesus, when he comes back after his resurrection – but these appearances will only be for them. The world never gets to see the risen Jesus, and wouldn’t recognise him if they did. The disciples will see, when the Spirit comes, they will see and know that this is the Spirit of Truth, sent from God. We celebrate Pentecost in a couple of weeks’ time and boy did they know. They knew then exactly what Jesus meant. The eyes of the world didn’t see it – people thought the disciples were drunk, speaking in all those languages – but the disciples knew. They hung on, and trusted Jesus through all the turmoil of separation, until they could see again.
Now. It seems to me this is a reading for our times. Because, in the eyes of the world, the Christian church in this country is not doing too well. Attendance is falling, fewer people are training for ministry and if more did come there wouldn’t be the funds to pay them. And for many people outside the church that would be no bad thing because they think religion is something that intelligent people grow out of.
I read an article this week, in a serious newspaper, that quite upset me. You know that there is this notion going around that in a few years’ time, robots will be doing all the work, and then, assuming that we all have enough to live on, the big question is, so what will we all do with our time? I can remember people saying very similar things about computers thirty years ago, and we seem to be working harder than ever, so I’m not holding my breath.
This article was proposing that the answer to all this spare time was virtual reality. Give everybody a headset, and they will have all the excitement, all the emotional engagement they need, and probably more than they would get in everyday life. That’s shocking enough – it seems so isolating – but that wasn’t the worst bit. The worst bit was his reasoning: after all, he said, billions of people have been playing virtual reality games for thousands of years, only in the past we have called these games ‘religions’. He explained this by saying, religions create imaginary laws, and people gain ‘points’ by keeping those laws which eventually moves them on to the next level i.e heaven.
I was shocked. I’m fine with people having other faiths; I respect people who are agnostic and have sympathy with those who say ‘faith is fine for you but it’s not for me’. I am curious about the militant atheists like Richard Dawkins who go to such trouble to rubbish religion, and probably devote more time and effort to studying the Christian faith just to debunk it than many of us do who sincerely believe it. But this really floored me. This is not somebody saying ‘it’s not true’, this is somebody so missing the point about religion, and spirituality, and so unaware of the basic needs of humanity, that I think, where would you even start to have a conversation with such a person? How can you talk about finding Jesus to somebody who thinks that’s just the same as looking for Pokemon? Only we use a bible, he uses his smartphone.
This writer is looking at religious faith through the eyes of the world – not just the Christian faith; he’s quite inclusive – and seeing nothing of any substance. He’s not hostile; he just doesn’t think faith has anything real to offer. This writer lives in Jerusalem and he mentions, as an example of people who already do no work for a living, the ultra-orthodox Jewish men who are supported by their wives and by the community so that they can devote their lives to studying scripture and performing religious rituals. He notes that these men report higher levels of life satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. But does he draw from this that these are people who love God, who keep the commandments, and that gives their lives meaning and purpose? No. He goes straight on to say, well, if you had a teenage boy, and you provided everything for him and left him alone with computer games all day, he’d be happy too.
At least in the short term.
When you look through the eyes of the world, you do not see the love of God.
The gospel reading reminds us that there have always been people like this – people who were ready to laugh at the disciples for being taken in by Jesus, people who are ready to mock the church, people who will never understand what we are about. And it reminds us that this is normal and there is no point us getting distressed about such people. The key thing for the disciples, and for us, is that we don’t start seeing things this way ourselves.
If the disciples start thinking that Jesus has failed, they will give up. If we look at the church and see decline, we might be inclined to give up too, or at least to hold back on any further commitment. If we see things through the world’s eyes, we may well be discouraged. But Jesus says, look with the eyes of faith. And he gives two very practical instructions to help us do this.
The first thing Jesus tells his disciples is, ‘if you love me you will keep my commandments’. That’s how love works: we choose to do the things that will please the person we love. Because you love me, you will find yourselves obeying my commandments…
So that’s the first thing: keep holding on to what you know, which is that God loves you and that you love God; keep holding on to what you know God calls you to do, which is to keep loving, and keep spreading the kingdom. Never mind what anybody else thinks: do what you know is right, and give thanks to God.
The second thing is, to remember that you are not being asked to do this alone. Jesus says, ‘I will ask the Father, and the Father will send the Spirit, to be your advocate, who will be with you for ever.’ The disciples will not need to keep running to Jesus for guidance any more, because the Spirit will be with them wherever they go – and it won’t be long before some of them travel a very great distance indeed. The Spirit can do what Jesus in person could not, which is to be everywhere, attending to every person, in whatever situation they find themselves.
So that’s the second thing: keep trusting that the Spirit is with us, keep looking for the guiding of the Spirit, for the quiet prompting, for the encouragement. And look also for the subtle changes of direction – we may not be asked to do what we have always done.
So let us remember to see through the eyes of faith; let’s hold on to the love of God; and look for the guiding of the Spirit. And let’s remember that through all this, we have the promise of Jesus, that holds good for us now as it was for the disciples then: ‘because I love, you too will live. You will know that I am in the Father and you in me and I in you’. Let us live in that promise. Amen.