First of all, let’s be clear. This is not a passage dealing with the question of who is in and who is out, of who gets a mansion “just over the hilltop in some bright land that’ll never grow old,”, as one old gospel song from my childhood sang of it,[i] and who doesn’t. This isn’t a text about what to do with other spiritual leaders and other ways. In fact, the scriptures are filled with a bunch of perspectives when it comes to those questions. This just isn’t one of them.
John is addressing something that is much more significant for us today. It has to do with whether this life of discipleship, this life in the way of Jesus is reliable, if it pays off—especially when all signs seem to say otherwise. And it has to do with home. A good image for Mother’s Day, wouldn’t you say?
Those are some words in a time like ours.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, and believe in me.
Jesus is saying goodbye, you see. “Where I am going you cannot go,” he tells them. Where he is going is to a cross and to his death for a way that he constantly proclaimed leads to life. You can imagine why his disciples might be troubled. He’s been making a case all this time for what makes for the kind of home that you and I and our neighbors crave, and how he’s leaving it.
So as he says goodbye, hinting at his departure as a criminal, willingly executed despite his innocence, you can imagine how that might have created something of a stir, raised a few doubts among his disciples, caused some to question whether they had hitched themselves to the wrong wagon.
It certainly isn’t the kind of message we are inclined to lead with if we are concerned with church growth—big letters on the marquee: “Come and Die with us.” That’ll draw a crowd!
And yet, I suspect we can relate as we watch broad shifts away from what many of us regard as progress in our life together as a nation among a world that has grown smaller and closer and, seemingly, more deeply divided. It is a scary, unsettling time. We find ourselves looking for comfort. We’re searching breathlessly for something to believe in.
We could be forgiven for looking for comfort wherever we can find it, even if it means looking toward fake news and away from the harsher truths that compel us to ask hard questions about an arc of history bending away from justice.
Let me offer just one example. News broke this week that Jeff Sessions, our Attorney General has ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against crime suspects. This is a reversal of Obama administration efforts to ease penalties for nonviolent drug violations. It’s a stunning reversal given the mountain of evidence that demonstrates long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses in fact do not promote public safety, do not deter crime, and do not rehabilitate people.[ii] It does, however, fill the jails and the pocketbooks of the ballooning number of for-profit private prisons that prey on people of color and the most vulnerable in our societies.
This should not be ok with us. If you haven’t yet read Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow, you should. She makes a powerful case for the prison system as just the latest chapter in our story of systematized, institutionalized racial oppression that has taken so many boys from their mothers. No matter how much we would prefer to ignore the ways white privilege is maintained through policies that target and disenfranchise communities of color, it is real. And if we are to be a people of faith, we cannot ignore it.
According to the Pew Research Center, by the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—that’s one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.[iii] There are more people in prisons and jails today—about half a million people—for drug offenses than the 41,000 who were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. And consider this. Since the war on drugs began during the Clinton era, ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino.[iv] Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.
The good news is that, thoughtful evaluations of the data led to new policies under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder who encouraged prosecutors to exercise discretion when considering nonviolent drug crimes. And this is what resulted. From 2010 to 2015 the nation’s rate of imprisonment dropped by more than 8%, although it is still among the highest by far of any civilized nation. And, again, according to the non-partisan Pew Center, rates in the 10 states with the largest declines in prison populations saw crime fall an average of almost 15%.[v] Releasing nonviolent offenders back to their homes was actually linked to reducing crime levels overall.
And yet, against the evidence, our current Attorney General is demanding a return to these ill-informed and inhumane policies that disproportionately hurt people of color. Why would we want this? What good could it possibly do?
This is a troubling time. It is a time when we too may have a hard time believing in this one who went to his execution saying “believe in me.” We could be forgiven for doubting that this way is a true way. We could be forgiven for being troubled.
And the thing is, John knows it. This text reaches across the millennia to us, because like his community, we find ourselves wondering how to hold on amidst so much evidence that seems to undermine the promise of this self-giving way of believing, against a tsunami of behavior that denies the sacrificial, mothering love that we celebrate today.
Believe in God and believe in me.
“Where I am going you cannot go,” Jesus tells them. Yet. But the story of Stephen in Acts reminds us that it happens soon enough. Stephen goes there. And many of the other disciples after him. And despite this, or because of it, there is power and hope here. There is something to believe in here. Because this story in Acts really isn’t a story of Stephen, is it? Stephen shows up nowhere in the gospels and only in Acts, and there, hardly at all! He’s this specter that disappears as quickly as he appears, with a singular role. He introduces us to Saul, who becomes Paul, and what we now have is an ending that is really a beginning—just as Jesus is suggesting in John. Or as First Peter says it:
10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.[vi]
You see if our gospel is a story of anything, it is a story of the power of God’s Spirit to bring life and possibility to precisely those rooms where we think death is in charge. The witnesses lay their coats—perhaps the same coats they laid down for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey—this time at the feet of Saul, who became Paul and gave his own life for the gospel that he took beyond Judaism to the world.
Believe in God and believe in me, Jesus tells his beloved disciples. Believe, trust, have faith. The word is the same and it shows up 98 times in John. And it is always as a verb; never a noun. It is without exception a word of action. Act as if you believe. Trust me, not because of a mountain of evidence—although you can find that too if you look in the right places—but because you know me. Trust me because you have seen and heard how we belong together. Trust me, because living as you do is faith, it is the Way, it is what brings what you long for to life. It is what changes the world. It is what makes for home.
Warmth. Safety. Security. Love. Hospitality. Bread to share to anyone who hungers. Laughter and trust and warmth and purpose and belonging.
You see, it gets lost in the English, but even as Jesus is talking to all of his disciples: you plural, you all, heart and home are singular. One heart. One home. We are in this together. Home is where they have to take you in. There isn’t a white church and a black church or a white nation and a black one or a red one or a purple one in Jesus’ promise. There is only home. And it is ours to make with Jesus as our guide and our hope.
Believe in God and believe also in me. You know me because you know home. You know love. You know giving and sacrifice and generosity as the way. You know that a life for others is a life that knows the way home.
[i] “Mansion Over The Hilltop.” Words and music by Ira F. Stanphill, 1949.
[ii] See “Attorney General Orders Tougher Sentences, Rolling Back Obama Policy” by Rebecca R. Ruiz. New York Times, May 12, 2017. Retrieved on May 12, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/us/politics/attorney-general-jeff-sessions-drug-offenses-penalties.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.
[iii] Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009).
[iv] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow (p. 58). The New Press. Kindle Edition.
[v] See “U.S. Correctional Population at Lowest Level in Over a Decade” by Timothy Williams in New York Times, December 29, 2016. Retrieved on May 12, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/us/us-prison-population.html.
[vi] 1 Peter 2:10.