The passage from John we read is part of a long conversation Jesus had with his friends a few days before he dies. In it Jesus responds to questions. First to a question from Peter, then to a question from Thomas and finally to a question from Phillip.
Questions showing his friends are confused, insecure and anxious and have little understanding as yet of what is going to happen to Jesus and what this will ultimately mean for them.
Peter asks: Where are you going? And: why cant we come too? Thomas asks: If we dont know where you are going, how can we know the way? And Phillip asks: Show us the Father and we will be satsified.
They are questions children may ask when faced with death: Where is grandpa gone? Why cant we go there? How will we find him after we have found our own way there? How do we know there is something more than what we can see and feel, here and now?
This is no coincidence: Where Jesus suffering and death are concerned the disciples, in all of the gospels, are very much portrayed as children who dont have a clue and ask the most basic of questions without moving an inch to a deeper understanding until well after Easter day. To understand what Jesus is talking about is, literally, beyond them.
What Jesus tells them about his immediate future frightens and confuses them, and instead of supporting him they get entangled in questions whose answers, on the whole, remain beyond their understanding because their minds have not yet seen and experienced enough of the future to understand them.
What happens to the disciples is something common to most of us when we are confronted with the death of a loved one: Confusion, questions, anxiety and a desire to know: where he or she will go, what will happen, and what guarantees we have that weve got the right answer to all of the above.
The answers Christianity has come up with over the centuries are answers that have often stemmed more from a desire to avoid confusion, offer certainty and smooth over anxiety than from what scripture has to offer us. Scripture is very vague and even contradictory about what happens after death, where we go and what it will be like. There are no definite answers, there is only trust.
Trust that death is not the end, but a beginning.
When Jesus talks to his disciples he doesnt say: I am going to heaven and when you die you will join me there to eat with silver cutlery from golden plates. Just hang on in there and all will be fine!
He doesnt say: I am going to die now, but just wait, in a couple of years we will meet again and we will all be friends just like we used to be.
He says: Where I am going is plenty of space for you too. I am on my way to where God is, if you follow me, you will get there too. And even better: if you follow me youll do even more than I have done with my life, before you join me.
Jesus does not respond with a description of what heaven will be like, he responds with a dual promise: On the one hand he assures them that where he goes is a place where God is, a place that is also accessible to them after they die.
Plenty of room!
On the other hand he tells them that after he has gone, because he has gone, with the memory of who he was in their hearts, they will be capable of greater things than they have been up till then. He bends his answer to their question about the hereafter right back to where they are in the here and now: More and better is yet to come for them, not in the sense of heavenly delight, but in the way of earthly achievement.
Jesus finishes with another promise. He says: I will not leave you orphaned, I will send you another advocate who will help you and support you.
Another advocate. Not Jesus who has been there advocate in the time he has been with them, but another one, the Spirit of truth they will only be able to receive after Jesus is gone.
To understand what that means you may want to think of a loved one you grieve for. Someone you miss because you loved them and cared for them. And think of what has changed in you because of that person while they were still alive. What this person has meant to you and how he or she is still influencing your life now.
Because you see, if you have loved someone and someone has loved you, death will come as a devastating, painful reality, but it wont be able to kill the love and strength you received from them that is in your heart.
On the contrary: over the years, as the immediate pain of grief ebbs away the goodness of what they left behind in your heart will only gain strength and depth of understanding. The unpleasant bits which are also part of every human relationship will fade and what will remain will contribute to the love you yourself are able to give and bring into practice.
Life after death in scripture is not only about a life hereafter, a place where we trust God to be in some way or another, even if we, here and now, with our limited understanding, cannot imagine what that may be like. It is not only about the cross not putting an end to all Jesus is but believing that what he was and stood for lives on, with God, somehow, someplace.
Life after death is as much about the here and now, where love proves to be stronger than death, where the bringers of love, justice and peace sow seeds in our lives that live and expand long after these people themselves have moved beyond our reach.
With Jesus this meant that his suffering and death was not the desastrous end of a prophet, but the beginning of a movement that lived out and expanded the love and values he stood for in his life to the ends of the earth.
This however does not only go for Jesus, it goes for all of us: death may come, but the love that was sown in life will not be destroyed by it. On the contrary: that love will live on long after a person has died and expand where it inspires others to love in turn.
We are part of an ever expanding death defying movement where we let the love we share break down the barriers death tries to throw up around us. Let not confusion, questions and anxiety determine what we do with the experience of loss and death, but let love and meaningful living expand through us as our response. Amen.