The good news as the gospel of John outlines it is that we have been given a way, a spiritual path, on which we can travel through life further and further into the heart of God and our true home, our true nature, our true purpose.(Easter Five, May 10th 2020, Revised Common Lectionary, John 14:1-14)
The good news as the gospel of John outlines it is that we have a way, a spiritual path, on which we can travel through life further and further into the heart of God and our true home, our true nature, our true purpose. But the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus does not save Stephen from martyrdom (Acts 7:55-60) nor us from the slings and arrows of human experience. We are still in the Easter season and supposedly unpacking what it means to be a resurrection people – which sounds very uplifting and positive - and yet here we are being asked to think about martyrdom and suffering and for comfort and wisdom we are directed to the gospel reading we so closely associate with funerals and final homes!
But this is where we are as a world in so many ways at the moment. Good people, people of faith and who have been prayed for by many have died from the pandemic and sadly more yet will die. Just as good people, people of faith who have been much prayed for have and will die of cancer and traffic accidents. Faith does not protect us from the fully ordinary human experience of joy, pain, fear, suffering and death. And yet we are told that in our relationship with Jesus we are invited into a living way, onto a spiritual path, which will lead us deeper and deeper into the heart of God and that will carry us closer and closer to our true home and destination.
Unfortunately the beautiful verse “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” has so often been used to make a comparison between Christianity and other religions with Christianity winning that we have almost lost sight of its original context and therefore message. I think it is useful, indeed essential, to look at it in the context that it was first given to us.
Chapters 13 to 16 in John’s gospel tell the story of the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. It starts with the last meal they shared and a long night of conversation, teaching and prayer by Jesus in which he tries to convey his most urgent teachings. In many ways it is the gospel of John’s executive summary of Jesus’ life teaching and his urgent last instructions to his disciples on how to live and grow without him physically being there to lead them. Immediately after the meal Judas leaves the gathering and Jesus begins to teach that his time is now here and that the disciples cannot come where he is about to go. Peter wants to know where Jesus is going and insists that he will follow him there and if need be lay down his life for him. This is when Jesus foretells that Peter will deny him. Jesus then speaks to reassure them that where he is about to go that there will be room for them at a later time ... “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” To which Thomas says “Lord, we do not know the way?” So the famous verse 6 “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” was Jesus’ answer to the confusion of Peter and Thomas and all the gathered disciples about where Jesus was going and about where the disciples were going and how they were going to get there.
Jesus was talking to his disciples urgently about all the really important things and to reassure them he tells them there is a dwelling place for them in the heart of God. Thomas speaks the confusion of the group and says he doesn’t know how to get there. Jesus effectively says ‘Yes you do Thomas, you know me, the things we have talked about, the way we have lived, and the path you have already started on with me is how you get there. Keep going with all I have taught you and you will find yourself growing further and further into the truth that is God, and the life God has given you. You are already on the way, keep going. And because I will no longer be with you in person I will send the spirit to help.’
I think this is true at least at three levels. Firstly Jesus was telling his disciples, and is therefore telling us, that if we see and hear his words and actions in the visible human one we are seeing the invisible God. Throughout Jesus’ last teachings he keeps reiterating that ‘The Father and I are one’. He is not only making a claim about his relationship with God but also teaching that the disciples are already in intimate relationship with God because of their journey with Jesus.
Secondly I believe that Jesus is saying that the disciples were already on the way. That what was ahead of them was a continuation and an expansion or fulfillment of the relationship they already had with Jesus and therefore with God. This is important for us in hard and confusing times when we look for information and rescue from beyond our current situation. I think we are being told that we are already on the way, on the spiritual journey, in the relationship in which we have all that we need. We may need to understand it better. We may need help to see more clearly. We may need help to take courage and compassion to live more fully in our situation but that we are already in relationship with God and therefore on the way, in truth and life.
Thirdly I do believe that in this verse, in this final teaching session, that Jesus is promising us his companionship on the way. Thomas, and the others, were still confused and so Jesus promised them another helper and guide , a gift of spirit, that would help them know that they knew God.
We are never really separate from God, or we need never be separate from God, whatever is happening, whatever befalls us. Only our own fear, confusion, theories and doubts, make us seem separate from our Creator, our Father, our Source and true home. And at these times we might hear the voice of Jesus reminding us that we already know who we are, to whom we belong, and to where we are going. Indeed his voice will tell us we are already on the way; we are already growing in the presence of the true God, and already living the life that is filled with God. Sometimes we need the gift of spirit to know this, to remember this.
And I find it strangely comforting that even those who had direct physical experience of Jesus struggled to understand the gift that was being revealed in their presence. Maybe they were less confused and more simply desiring a different and easier answer than being told they already knew the way.
I certainly know that sometimes I wish there were a more magical spectacular truth. I wish Jesus were more like a magician and less a suffering servant. I wish that salvation were more like a rescue helicopter that would airlift me from all the painful confusing unpleasant aspects of life and less like initiation into life in the midst of death. I don’t want to live in a world where people we know and love become martyrs or collateral damage and I don’t want anyone to die of anything other than old age in their own beds surrounded by those they love.
But we do live in a world that is filled with delight and despair, sweetness and sordidness, where disease and violence take the good and relatively innocent and yet seem to spare the guilty. In the midst of all this reality that is sometimes so confusing and distressing Jesus says that we do know the way to the Father, to the Source of all love and goodness. They are not separate! The life and death of Jesus makes clear that there is no protective divide between this world and any other. In him there are no longer divides, in his own flesh all is held together. It is both a wonderful and a dreadful answer as to where he was going and how to get there, and therefore where we are going and how we will get there. And yes at the end of this life there shall be room for us to dwell in God forever.
“The gate of heaven is everywhere” says Thomas Merton. That is easier to appreciate when surrounded by beauty in nature and reminding ourselves that everywhere we see the hand print of a loving Creator. I suspect that we are also being challenged to see a gateway to heaven, or the way, the truth and the life in the darker messy parts of our life and our world. After all Jesus taught in parables drawn from the most ordinary and murky aspects of life in his times – from stories about fathers who had lost their sons and then found them, servants who wouldn’t forgive others, seeds that fell among the weeds or stony path as well as the few that fell in the good earth, guests who wouldn’t come to banquets, women who had lost coins, and other women who stood beneath the window of the powerful and kept demanding justice. Jesus’ own life showed a preference, or at least a comfortableness, with the dubious and marginal. And in his own person he knew loss, fear, betrayal, denial, torment and death. And in his own person he knew resurrection and new life out of the midst of death and defeat. This is the way, this is part of the truth, and the life into which we are called and affirmed as already belonging.
And yes upon reflection you may do well to change jobs or retire early, break a silence or let go of a memory, choose one person over another for your partner, make any number of decisions in order to live most truly the life you believe is your right life. But life itself is the way and we who are in relationship with Jesus are on it already. Not alone but in the company of the risen one who falls in step beside us. And each other.
Come Lord Jesus Christ, come be our companion on the way.