Sunday, May 22, 2011


St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
May 22, 2011

Year A: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5; 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about farewells.

Partly that’s because it’s been so quiet around the chapel with most of the students away on summer break – or off beginning the next chapter of their lives after commencement.

Partly, I guess, it’s because of all the attention given to the prediction made by Harold Camping, the founder of Family Radio, that the Rapture was certain to begin yesterday, May 21, 2011.

We’ve seen this before. Every once in a while people come along making these bold predictions with what seems to be complete certainty. In the paper I saw a photo of a man who believed that the end was at hand holding a sign that read in part, “The Bible guarantees it.”

This time around the prediction of Judgment Day seems to have convinced more people than usual. Maybe it’s because of the extreme weather experienced in many places lately. Or maybe it’s because we are living in a time of great political and social change that is unnerving lots of people.

Or because of the tough economic times, maybe people just want Jesus to return and make all their troubles go away.

Mostly, I think people fall for these kinds of predictions because we crave certainty.

On the front page of Friday’s New York Times there was a poignant, disturbing and a little bit funny story about the seemingly normal Haddad family of Middletown, Maryland.

Robert and Abby Haddad, parents of three very skeptical teenagers, were among the many people certain that the Rapture was going to occur yesterday. In fact, they were so certain that nearly two years ago Abby left her job as a nurse to devote herself to spreading the word about the approach of Judgment Day. The couple stopped making home improvements and quit saving for their kids’ college educations.

Perhaps hedging their apocalyptic bet just a little, Robert held on to his job as an engineer at the Department of Energy.

For their part, the kids managed to hold on to their sense of humor.

One of the children said, referring to her mother, “She’ll say, ‘You need to clean up your room.’ And I’ll say, ‘Mom, it doesn’t matter, if the world’s going to end!’”

That’s funny, but the parents’ certainty created real pain their family. One of the skeptical teens was quoted as saying, “My mom told me directly that I’m not going to get into heaven. At first it was really upsetting, but it’s what she honestly believes.”

It’s surprising me that Bible-believing Christians can fall so easily for these people who predict with such certainty the precise date of the Second Coming. It’s surprising because here’s what Jesus himself had to say on the subject in Mark 13:32:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

If Jesus himself doesn’t know, then it seems pretty unlikely that Harold Camping or Robert and Abby Haddad or anyone else would have any way of knowing about the date of Judgment Day.

I’ve also been thinking about farewells because of today’s gospel lesson, which is part of what’s known as the “Farewell Discourse” in the Gospel of John.

Remember that John is the last of the four gospels to be written, probably around the end of the First Century.

So, the Gospel of John is the product of divine inspiration working through several generations of Christian reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

One of the distinctive features of the Gospel of John is what’s called the “Farewell Discourse” – Jesus’ lengthy good-bye to his disciples.

Jesus knows that time is growing short for him on earth. During his ministry Jesus has tried to teach his disciples through parables and through his own example. Now, though, there’s not much time left, and, as we all know, the disciples have often been clueless.

So, in these last hours Jesus wants to give his disciples – wants to give us – confidence by passing on what’s most essential.

We can’t be certain about when the world will end.

We can’t be certain about when we will die.

We can’t be certain about the many things that only God knows.

But, because God revealed the way, the truth and the life in Jesus, we can be confident about what’s most important.

We can be confident about the kinds of lives God wants us to live.

We can be confident that God wants us to give away our lives in loving service to one another, especially to the poorest and weakest among us.

We can be confident that we are loved more than we could ever imagine. We can be confident that God loves us enough to live among us. We can be confident that God loves us enough to rescue us from our sin. We can be confident that God loves us enough to die for us.

Because God revealed the way, the truth and the life in Jesus, we can be confident that, in the end, love is stronger than death.

We hear that kind of confidence in the story of Stephen, deacon and martyr.

Stephen confidently preached the Gospel to an unfriendly audience not certain of how it would be received. When his message was violently rejected, to the end Stephen remained confident. The author of the Acts of the Apostles describes Stephen as imitating Jesus in his life and death – confidently giving away his life for the Gospel.

In a less dramatic way, I encountered that kind of confidence about ten years ago when my grandmother was dying in the hospital. At one point she looked at me and said, “I know where I have come from and I know where I am going.”

I’m not sure she knew that she was quoting Jesus. (It’s John 8:14.) But, in her own “farewell discourse” my grandmother was expressing simple but profound confidence. She wasn’t expressing the certainty of someone who believed that she had her theology in perfect order or who had said just the right religious words or who was in on some secret knowledge derived from biblical calculations.

No, my grandmother was expressing the simple but profound confidence in God’s love – the love that had shaped the way she had lived her life – the love that she had shared with me and so many other people during her life.

My grandmother was expressing the quiet confidence that the God whose love she had felt throughout her life in good times and not so good would not abandon her now in her hour of need – and would not abandon her in whatever awaited her beyond death.

Faith is that kind of confidence.

Faith isn’t about certainty.

Faith isn’t being certain when the world will end or when we will die.

Faith isn’t being certain about who’s “saved” and who’s “left behind”.

Faith isn’t being certain about who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell.

Faith isn’t being certain about the many things that only God knows.

Faith is confidence in what’s most important.

Faith is confidence in God who reveals the way, the truth and the life in Jesus.

And, finally, faith is confidence that we can never really say farewell to God – and that God never says farewell to us.