“These days, the words ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’ are not necessarily printed on signs posted in public places – but sometimes these words are heard implicitly. Sometimes, we are so caught up in our own ways of living and being, that we fail to be welcoming to people whose ways of living and being are different from our own. Sometimes, even our best attempts at inclusion are profoundly un-welcoming…. And yet the kingdom of God is only the kingdom of God if it is a place of love and refuge for everyone.“
Sermon Preached: Sunday, May 15, 2022 at Trinity on the Green
Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.
In this week’s gospel passage, these are the words that stand out to me: “Where I am going, you cannot come.” What difficult words for the disciples to hear. They are spoken on the evening of the Last Supper, an emotional foreshadowing that Jesus is soon to leave them. The disciples have followed Jesus everywhere – and now, Jesus is going somewhere they cannot follow, to the tomb and back.
Where I am going, you cannot come. I try to remember the times in my life when I have heard these words. They remind me of a young child, hoping to go with their parent to work. Instead, the parent has to say, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” These are somewhat melodramatic words to tell a two-year-old, but perhaps this sounds familiar to you, nevertheless. In fact, most of my associations with not being allowed to follow, or go with others, are related to being young. The quintessential example for me, for whatever reason, is that feeling of being told you cannot go on a rollercoaster at the fair, because you are not tall enough. Perhaps your older sister runs ahead of you in line, sing-songing some version of “where I am going, you cannot come!” as you shuffle off to a nearby bench. It’s a horrible feeling: that feeling of being left behind. That feeling of exclusion. Perhaps that is a taste of what the disciples felt when Jesus turned to them and said, “Where I am going, you cannot go.”
We might console ourselves with the observation that there are all kinds of reasons Jesus has to say this to the disciples. Of course the disciples cannot follow on the journey that Jesus is about to take – a literal journey from death back into life. The disciples cannot make the journey to the cross in Jesus’ place. Instead, Jesus has to walk this journey so that others may follow – eventually. Jesus has to trailblaze this path so that we human beings can also experience the resurrection, that journey from death into life, in our own lives. Our experience of resurrection may not be so literal, but it is true nevertheless. We experience resurrection when we hit a spiritual or emotional roadblock in our lives, and somehow find new life on the other side. We experience resurrection when we have that deep intuition in our hearts that death is not the end, for ourselves or for our loved ones.
Where I am going, you cannot follow. Perhaps these words were true on the eve of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. But the truth of these words has an expiration date – they are no longer true in the same way, after the resurrection. The whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is to overturn these words – so that wherever Jesus goes, we can follow. So that we can follow Jesus’ way of love every day of our lives. So that we can follow Jesus, even into everlasting life beyond our time here on earth.
I think it’s important to remember that the promise of the resurrection has always been two-fold. Jesus promises us new life in two ways: first, in this life; and second, in the life to come. I believe that God has that second part covered. Eternal life, beyond our time on earth, is a promise that we can trust in. There is very little that we as humans can accurately predict about heaven – but we can trust that it is there waiting, just as God is waiting for us with open arms. However, that first promise of new life here, in this life, is a bit more complicated. It’s more complicated because we as human beings, as followers of Christ, have a role to play in making it so.
Throughout the gospels Jesus tells parables about what the kingdom of God is like. They are stories of inclusion. Of banquets where the last are first, and the first are last. Of trees with enough branches for all the birds of the air to nest in. And Jesus also tells us that the kingdom of God is among us, in Luke 17, verse 21. That is a sentiment that we hear again in our second lesson for today, from the Book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3). The message is clear: God is with us, and the kingdom of God is among us. And yet we, as humans living in the world, can see how often it is that we fall short of this standard. Even in the wake of the resurrection, we fall short of God’s vision for the kingdom of God here on earth.
Take, for example, those same words that we considered earlier from our Gospel passage: Where I am going, you cannot come. These are pre-resurrection words. They are words of isolation and fear, doubt and exclusion. They are words that show us that there is still work to be done. Jesus overturns these words through the resurrection. And yet, how often have we human beings perpetuated a world in which these words of exclusion are spoken aloud, and painfully true?
My childhood example of a kid, turned away from a rollercoaster for being too short, pales in comparison to some of the examples we have throughout history. This week, I think especially about the history and present reality of racism in this country, where too often these words ring out painfully loud and clear: “Where I am going, you cannot come.” We might think of segregated buses; segregated drinking fountains; segregated schools. We might think of whole neighborhoods and housing developments where people of color were not permitted to live, due to racist policies that devalued real estate based on the color of people’s skin. We know that these policies still have an impact on our neighborhoods and communities today.
We might even think of examples from our own church, here at Trinity on the Green – where in the early 19th century Black parishioners were required to sit only in pews in a specific area of the church. I often think about where those pews were located, in the area where our Columbarium was built many, many years later. We now use the Columbarium as a space to commit the earthly remains of our loved ones. We use it as a space for healing prayer, during communion. I think about how the Columbarium represents the promise of resurrection that we have in the life to come – and the responsibility we have to make the promises of resurrection true in this life, as well.
While we have come a long way in broadening spaces where everyone is welcome, it is also true that we still have a long way to go. These days, the words “Where I am going, you cannot come” are not necessarily printed on signs posted in public places – but sometimes these words are heard implicitly. Sometimes, we are so caught up in our own ways of living and being, that we fail to be welcoming to people whose ways of living and being are different from our own. Sometimes, even our best attempts at inclusion are profoundly un-welcoming. Sometimes, we forget that what feels like heaven on earth to us, may not be heaven on earth for someone else. And yet the kingdom of God is only the kingdom of God if it is a place of love and refuge for everyone. And it is our calling, as followers of Jesus Christ, to constantly strive to make it so. It is our calling, as Christians, to continually ask ourselves what heaven on earth looks like – to be ready to change our expectations and assumptions (as Peter did, in our reading from Acts today); to be ready to be transformed through our relationships with others; to be ready to give up our narrow ideals for the sake of something more eternal and life-giving that we could ever imagine.
I want to return to those words from the Book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals.” If the home of God is among mortals, we might ask: where is it, exactly? Is it here at Trinity? Is it at the Baptist church down the street? Is it at the mosque, the synagogue, the school, the bus stop? Is it Woodbridge or Fair Haven; Westville or the Hill? In truth, God’s home is in all of these places – because God is here, with us. God resides in each one of us. Whenever we communicate to others, either explicitly or implicitly, those words “Where I am going, you cannot come” – when we convey that in any way, we are excluding God, and we are excluding others from the promise of Jesus’ resurrection.
The invitation contained within our Gospel passage today is for us to build up the kingdom of heaven here on earth, by working towards a world in which there are fewer boundaries of fear and exclusion. We aspire to a world in which we can lead and follow in equal measure – being Jesus to others and finding Jesus in others. It is a world in which we will not hear those words, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Instead, we will say to one another: “where you lead, I will follow.” And we will follow God with our whole hearts, and we will love one another as Jesus taught us to love. Amen.