In our gospel reading for this morning, we hear Jesus talking to his disciples – and the first thing we hear him say to them is: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I don’t know about you, but for me, as a person living in this particular moment of history, I have to admit that my knee-jerk reaction to this kind of statement is: “Easy for you to say, Jesus!”
My heart is deeply troubled these days. And even though I don’t know exactly what you all have been experiencing over the last couple of months, I can easily imagine that your hearts are pretty troubled also. This whole pandemic – and everything that comes with it – is a trauma that we are experiencing together as humans on a global scale. The constant, elevated baseline level of stress we are experiencing leaves us all feeling exhausted and irritated and anxious and afraid. And that’s even before you pile on the regular stress of work and home life, the grief of caring for loved ones dealing with illness, and just the regular human business of living and dying. What a burden! Can you feel the weight of all that tension that you are carrying in your body? I invite you to just take a moment and sit with that feeling; find where in your body you are most carrying that stress and just hold it for a moment.
This is the weight of the collective grief that we are sharing: our longing for things to go back to the way they were, our uncertainty about what is going to happen next. And this grief hardly makes it easy for us to hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” That is something that is much more easily said than done.
But if you look at the context of these verses from John, you’ll see that these probably weren’t actually very easy words for Jesus to say at all. These are the first words of Jesus’ “farewell discourse,” the words he spoke to his disciples in the upper room the night before his crucifixion. Jesus has just had a last meal with his disciples and washed their feet. He has been cruelly betrayed by one of his closest friends and he knows that another one of his friends will deny even knowing him before the night is over. He will soon be arrested and undergo terrible suffering before dying a brutal and painful death. He and his disciples have no shortage of reasons to have deeply troubled hearts. Yet it is in this moment, deep in the shadow of death, that Jesus says to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
And Jesus immediately goes on to say: “Believe in God, believe also in me.” This makes me think of what Jesus later says to “doubting” Thomas when he asks to see his wounds: “Do not doubt but believe.” “Do not let your hearts be troubled; but believe in God, believe also in me.” It seems that when our hearts are burdened by doubt and anxiety and fear, the best remedy for a troubled heart is to lean on our faith – to trust in God. And all of our texts for this morning seem to echo this.
In our gospel reading, as I mentioned, Jesus’ disciples are certainly pretty anxious. Judas was their friend too, and now Jesus keeps telling them that he’s about to be killed. Jesus is trying to comfort the disciples by promising them that he’s going to prepare a place for them and that they know the way to get there. But Thomas – the disciple who always says what everyone’s thinking and no one wants to say – says to Jesus, “What are you talking about?? We don’t know where you’re going; how can we possibly know the way??” And Jesus responds to Thomas’ question with some of the best known words in all of scripture. He says: “I am the way.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Trust in me.
In our second reading, the author of 1 Peter quotes a verse that Jesus himself has quoted: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Jesus is the living stone that anchors our foundation, giving us a solid place to stand in times of trouble. And likewise in Psalm 31, the psalmist cries out to God, proclaiming that God is his rock and his fortress – a rock of refuge and a strong fortress that will keep him safe.
God is our rock, our cornerstone, our refuge. God is our way, our truth, and our life. It doesn’t matter what this world may throw at us – nor how very troubled our hearts may be – God is always faithful. We can count on God to be with us, calming our fears, and giving us the strength and the resilience we need to keep on going when times are hard. God is our sure foundation, who will never abandon us or give up on us.
And no one knows this truth better than Stephen, who shows up in our first reading for today. Stephen was a powerful witness in the early church, with a deep faith that did not waver even when he was arrested and charged with blasphemy and stoned to death. In this text from Acts, we read about Stephen’s horrific death – and we see that, even in the midst of this intense pain and suffering and dying, Stephen keeps his eyes fixed on God. He prays to Jesus to receive his spirit. And with his dying breath, Stephen prays that God will forgive the very people who are killing him.
Such a profound act of grace can only grow from a faith that is deeply rooted in God. That is the faith of someone who knows in his soul that God is his rock of refuge, his strong foundation. Stephen’s heart was not troubled, even as he lay dying. He believed in God completely and his heart was at peace.
It is hard to find peace in the chaos of our daily lives, especially at a time like this. And it can be hard to stay grounded in our faith when we can’t safely gather to worship in one place or share the Lord’s Supper like we used to, or even strengthen our ties of fellowship and Christian community over coffee. And it really sucks that some version of this is likely going to continue to be our reality for some time to come – in and out of remote worship and limited in person contact – until a vaccine or a cure can guarantee the safety of our community.
And so it’s all the more important that we each find whatever ways we can to keep our faith strong. I hope that our ongoing worship life together helps you to do that. And I hope that you are finding ways in your daily life to pray and meditate, to dwell in the Word, or simply to stop and be aware of God’s presence and of God’s deep and abiding love for you. This is something that I myself am trying to work on and improve in my own daily life, and I am seeking out spiritual direction in order to grow even stronger in my faith. We are all walking together in this journey of faith – in this way that is Christ – and I am here to help you walk that journey however I can.
In that vein of journey, our readings for today offer us so many wonderful images for how God is the center and source of our lives – but there’s one more image I want to leave you with. There’s a story that often comes to my mind whenever I read this gospel text (which I’ve actually used before in a funeral sermon on this text!) that I’d like to share.
Many years ago, on the fourth of July, my family and I drove down to Norfolk from my home town to go see the fireworks show. There was a storm brewing and the show actually ended up getting cut short by a tornado warning, after a funnel was spotted on the ground. We got out of there as fast as we could – but by the time we finally got back out on the highway, the rain was pouring down in thick sheets and the wind was howling around us as it ripped through the darkness. It was pitch black and almost impossible to see anything, even the road. It felt like all I could do just to keep my car between the fog lines. I remember being so scared that I would be swept off the road at any moment and get stuck in a ditch or something in the middle of a tornado. But up ahead of me, I could just make out the reddish glow of lights in the darkness: the taillights of my dad’s SUV. I knew that if I kept my eyes fixed on those lights, they would lead me through to home and safety. And I knew, too, that even if I did slide off the road, there was no way that my dad would ever just leave me there in the darkness.
God is our dad, whose taillights we can follow through this time of darkness. God is our rock of refuge and our strong fortress. God is our way, our truth, and our life. Let yourself rest on the rock that will not be moved. Stand strong in your faith, built on the cornerstone of Christ. Trust in God. And do not let your heart be troubled.