“Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.”
As Jesus prepares his disciples for the difficult times to come it is hard to know whether to hear this saying of his as promise or as warning. The way he is about to follow passes through his suffering and death on the cross; “you shall follow afterward”.
These passages from John’s gospel are probably most familiar to us from their use at funerals. “In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
When Jesus speaks at the Last Supper and we read or hear his words the thought of death, of the death of our saviour and of our own death, can never be far away. In fact my feeling is that, despite ourselves, the thought of death is never very far from us. We are all afraid of death, of our own dying and of the dying of those we love.
Death is the great enemy for us. It cuts us off from one another and from all that we value. When we die all that we have achieved, all that we have meant, all that we have valued, all of it will fall away. When those we love die we can remember them but we know that to be no real substitute for encountering them in life, being surprised by them, being amazed by them, being comforted or being accompanied by them.
So the disciples must have felt about the man Jesus, for whom they had abandoned homes and families, whose presence had meant everything to them. In following him they were seeking the final answers to all the most important questions. They hoped for knowledge of, for relationship with, God himself, they sought the final salvation in which everything would be as it should be, all suffering ended, all disease healed, all sin forgiven and all brokenness mended. They had no more idea than we do of what that would really be like but it was what they expected from Jesus, this man who was more than a man, this teacher whose authority was more than human, this healer who could even restore the dead to life.
So when he says to them; “Let not your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me.” He is saying this in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Facing what is about to come, his arrest, trial and public execution, the end of their dreams, the breaking of their movement, their loss of the one to whom they have given all they have, they are to be untroubled.
How would we feel when, overcome by grief, by anxiety or by fear, someone were to say to us: “be untroubled”. Many of us have faced the prospect of this kind of loss. We have sat by the bedside of one dear to us as their life drew to a close, or we have sat at home consumed by worry about their whereabouts and well being. At these moments the advice or command “let not your heart be troubled” wouldn’t help, in fact it would be more likely to enrage. One cannot help worrying, it is impossible to stop and telling somebody to is insensitive and stupid.
So what about Jesus? “Trust in God”, he says, “trust also in me”.
His command not to worry, given here and elsewhere, rests on this other, more basic command: “trust in God”, which is the heart of his teaching as it was the heart of the teaching of Moses and the prophets. “Trust in God”. It is extended and amplified by “trust also in me”.
He doesn’t tell us not to worry because of some vague assurance that “it will be all right”, or the equally unhelpful, “worrying won’t do any good”. He tells us not to worry because God can be trusted.
It would be hard for those who heard him on that evening to follow this instruction. Peter would draw a sword, try to stand between Christ and his destiny when they came to arrest him. Peter would, as predicted, deny him during his trial. Mary would stand weeping outside the empty tomb. They would hide inside a locked room, fearful of what might happen next. They thought themselves abandoned and alone. They thought that Jesus’ mission and their lives were a failure.
What saved them, what restored them, what founded the Church through them and made them the most important group of people in the history of the world, was not anything about them. It wasn’t exceptional determination or even exceptional faith. It wasn’t great strength of character or extraordinary intelligence. It wasn’t a deeper love than we know or profound spiritual depths and holiness. What saved them, what lifted them up, what made them victorious over all the befell them was the action of God.
As he promised Jesus came back to them. God raised him from death and he came and found them. God acted, he raised Christ. Jesus acted, he came among the confused and hurting disciples and showed them that death was nothing to be afraid of because God could be trusted and had power over this greatest of enemies. He showed them that he could be trusted, that even death could not stand in the way of his promise to return.
It’s no easier for us to believe in this promise than it was for the disciples. We have the millennia of the Church to vindicate it but then we have never encountered the living Christ face to face. We hear the promise across thousands of years, not across a supper table. But it’s no harder for us than it was for them. What were they to make of it, that evening? They were bewildered and confused, they wanted to trust but they didn’t even really know what they were to trust in.
When we pray, when we hope, when we yearn for the restoration to us of all that we have lost; of those we have loved who are passed from our lives, of our youth and strength and hope, of our health and our enthusiasm, when we yearn for these things we have only these reported words to go by. “Let not your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me.”