A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Iffley by Andrew McKearney on Wednesday 16th May 2023
Whenever I’ve preached in the last week, I’ve pointed out that at this time of the church’s year, as the Easter season draws to a conclusion with Ascension Day tomorrow and Pentecost in 10 days’ time, in the readings at church we’re taken back to chapters 14-17 in John’s gospel.
This is teaching that’s set round the meal table on the night of Jesus’ arrest, which gave rise to these chapters being called the Farewell Discourses.
One of the themes of those chapters is about saying goodbye and parting.A theme relevant to the disciples before Christ’s death;a theme relevant to the church preparing for Ascension Day;a theme relevant for ourselves too.
In those chapters in John’ gospel there’s a deep sense of intimacy between Jesus and his disciples. With his imminent arrest and death, he’s concerned for how his small group of disciples will fare:
‘A little while, and you will no longer see me’
he says – and he was right.
As Ascension Day approaches, the appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples now conclude, and the disciples have to live with the assurance of Christ’s presence with them in a new way. He’s ‘parted from their sight’, as we shall celebrate tomorrow, and in one sense the disciples have to say ‘goodbye’ to their Lord, but of course now in a very different frame of mind and with a deeper understanding and experience of Christ’s risen presence.
As we know, saying ‘goodbye’ is hard. Turning to the teaching contained in these chapters in John’s gospel we find a rich spiritual resource to help us in such times when we have to say ‘goodbye’.
Today we heard how the disciples were bewildered. They turn to each other and say:
‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while,
and you will no longer see me, and again a little
while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am
going to the Father”? They said, ‘What does he mean
by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is
Jesus then uses a very readily understandable image of a woman giving birth. The image suggests pain and struggle giving way to joy. In the time of pain and struggle there’s weeping and lamenting, but in the time of joy, the joy will be so overwhelming that the anguish and difficulties will be forgotten.
We heard Saint Paul use the same image of a woman in labour and in much the same way as Jesus does. For Paul it’s the whole creation that’s groaning in labour pains.
Birth and new birth follow the same pattern and its one that echoes deeply with the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Like a midwife, Jesus is beside his disciples, urging them not to give up in their difficulties, not to let their pain and anguish lead to despair, something new and transformative is coming to birth.
And that is always the case, even in a place of deep darkness and death. Something new and transformative is coming to birth. For us as Christians, this is who God is.
It’s teaching that invites us to dig deep, to go with the process as courageously as we can, to let go and trust that a deeper joy awaits us and that deeper joy no-one will be able to take from us.
As the Psalmist says:
‘Weeping may endure for a night,
but joy comes in the morning.’