For over a week now, I have had a troubled heart. My heart has broken with the death of my good friend and our sister in Christ, Mae Kniskern. In the minutes preceding her final breath, I sat with Mae and her family, offered prayers and anointed her. Together we celebrated her final communion, knowing that she would soon be with God. On Wednesday, as we celebrated her life, it was this gospel from John that Mae had chosen to be read for her funeral service…the beginning of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples. “In my father’s house are many rooms”.
The gospel for today (John 14:1-14) is located pre-crucifixion. Jesus is preparing his friends for what is to come—his death and eventual departure from the ministry they’ve been participating in. And Jesus begins this farewell with the words “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. He knows that his absence from their lives will be heart breaking, and he tries to offer words of comfort and consolation—he is going to prepare a place for them, a place with God, and that he will always be with them through prayer and service. Yet Thomas and Philip do not understand. Words of consolation are not enough to heal their grief and worry about the change at hand.
As I sat with Mae and her family in her final moments, the room was filled with grief and worry. Would she suffer long as she moved from this world to the next? What would be the appropriate procedures? Who needed to be contacted? How does the dying process work? Of course we were all too polite to ask these questions in the moment, and yet, our hearts were heavy and our minds unclear. No matter how many deaths I attend, these questions are always there—spoken or not. Rationally, we understand that the body begins to shut down, vital processes slow, and eventually breathing will stop. Spiritually we may say things like “go home to God” or “God is waiting”. Emotionally we may feel some relief when there is no more pain for our loved one. Yet, in the deepest places in our hearts, we wonder…what is on the other side? Will we indeed find that God is waiting for us and our loved ones? We are not that different from Thomas and Philip…there is a lot we do not understand.
Often scholars have criticized Thomas and Philip for not understanding Jesus in his farewell discourse. Scholars point out that Jesus’ question “I have been with you all this time and still you don’t know me” is a rebuke to Philip’s not only misunderstanding the situation, but also who and what Jesus was about. But really, Philip is human…with flaws and conflicts, with grief and anxiety…and in this moment before the arrest, trial and crucifixion of his friend, perhaps he just doesn’t want to say good bye. Imagine for a moment that when Jesus says “Believe me” that he is looking lovingly into Philip’s eyes. Imagine that when Jesus says “I will do whatever you ask” that he is holding Philip’s hands, trying to comfort him in a time of sadness.
Not only does Jesus try to offer words of comfort to Philip and Thomas, he also empowers them to continue in their ministry. He tells them that by believing in the work they have already done together, by believing in the divine connection between Jesus and God, they will continue on in the ministry of healing, teaching and preaching. They will become part of the household of God here in the present Kingdom, as well as in the life to come. This is Jesus’ blessing to his friends.
This blessing extended to Christians for centuries, and is for us and our children and grandchildren to come. It is not just a commission to continue in the work of the Kingdom, but a reminder that we are all part of the household of God. It is this blessing that helps us to move through times of grief and worry and heals our broken hearts. It is this blessing that helps us to understand all that is still a mystery of our faith. This blessing of Jesus during his farewell discourse helps us to say with confidence: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Unlike Philip and Thomas, we know how the story ended, and we still have hope because it wasn’t truly an “ending” but rather the beginning of the next phase of Christian life.
What we know from the post-resurrection stories and the stories of the early church is that this little group of friends chose to accept the commission and blessing of Jesus and continued in the ministry of the Kingdom. We too have a choice to make. We can remain in a place of confusion, worry and grief over the things that have changed, the things that have been left behind, and the times that have passed away, or we can live into the blessing that Jesus bestowed on us and continue to do our ministry. We can take comfort in God’ never-ending “promise to love us, make room for us, to know and be known to us” (Cynthia Jarvis).
Yes, my heart has been troubled this week. I miss my friend that made me laugh and gave me hope of growing old gracefully. But Mae taught me a lot about my own ministry—about patience, kindness, and presence—and for that I am grateful. And while I may be grieving, I also know that ministry continues on.
May our lives be as rich and as blessed as those members of the household of God that came before us, and may we be a blessing to others as they seek to know God more fully.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.