Knowing the Way
Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 14:1-14 - “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know[d] my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me[e] for anything, I will do it."
When my son was first moving into the age of independent play there was a scene that repeated over and over in our house. He would be playing by himself in a different room, happily absorbed in this own little world, until he realized that he was alone – that he could not see me or hear me. This sense of aloneness would scare him, and suddenly I would hear from the other room this quavering cry:
“Hello? Are you there?”
Of course, I would immediately call back to reassure him: “Yes. I’m here. I would never leave you alone.” And that was enough. He would go back to happily playing whatever imaginative game had absorbed his attention before he got distracted by fear. He just needed to know that I was there – even when he couldn’t see me.
I remembered that plaintive quaver in my son’s voice as I pondered our gospel reading this week, because I think I hear that same quaver in the voices of the disciples… as they face the fear of being left.
That fear is what Jesus is responding to when he tells his followers not to let their hearts be troubled. But that was a lot to ask, because, in the verses that come before the start of today’s reading, Jesus had just told the disciples that he was going to leave them and go where they could not follow. And when impetuous Peter pledged to lay down his life to follow, Jesus responded with the prediction of Peter’s betrayal.
It’s troubling stuff. Jesus is saying goodbye, saying there’s nothing his followers can to do stop him from leaving them, and his confusing promises about going to prepare a place for them, and coming again don’t seem to help much. The disciples are scared of being left alone. And so they call out for reassurance with anxious questions.
“We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Can you just “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
In other words, how can we feel safe if we can’t see you?
When I asked you all for your hard questions for God, two of you asked questions that push back on Jesus’ promises in this story as well:
You asked if there is truly a heaven?
And you asked if Jesus will come again?
While handwriting does not easily convey a quavering voice, I read that same mixture of confusion, and longing, and even a little fear that the disciples expressed as they were trying to grapple with what it could mean to follow someone who is going away – someone who we can’t see. Because if we don’t have Jesus here with us, and all we have to hold onto are promises that he is coming back; that we won’t be separated forever.
That kind of anxiety can certainly make questions about heaven, and about Jesus’s return the most urgent questions to ask of God.
And if you feel that anxiety, I have good news, because this gospel is crystal clear about the reliability of those promises:
YES, there is a heaven, and while we don’t get details about what that looks like, we have the reassurance that Jesus will come back to take us to himself – to claim us as his own so that we never have to be alone, never have to feel without him again.
But, that’s not even more important that reassurance that this gospel offers – The most profound promise this gospel reading offers us is the revelation that we don’t have to wait. It tells us that even though Jesus is saying goodbye to the disciples, they were not actually losing him.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” Jesus says.
Several commentaries I studied this week noted that this verse has frequently been cited out of context – so often that it might actually be hard for us to hear what Jesus is really saying. So often this fragment of a verse is trotted out as though it were primarily a doctrinal statement… a proof text to pull out in theological arguments about salvation.
But in the context of this anxiety-laden conversation, Jesus makes this powerful statement as a way of clarifying what he meant when he told his followers “you know the way.”
Knowing the way doesn’t mean that you can clearly articulate the doctrine of justification.
Knowing the way doesn’t mean you have a map by which to guide yourself to heaven.
Knowing the way means, simply, knowing Jesus – it is a relational kind of knowing.
Back in January, I preached about Jesus as our GPS system - because having a guide is entirely different than having a map. Navigating by MAP requires you to plan out your route. You have to be very much in charge if you are going to get to your destination. In contrast, navigating by GPS requires you to trust your guide. If you have a good guide, you don’t need to know every turn and street name ahead of time; you just have to follow the instructions for each next step of the journey.
When Jesus tells the disciples “I am the way” he is saying you don’t need a map. You know me – I am your guide. I am the one you can trust to lead you. And if that is what it means for Jesus to be the way – then that means Jesus has not left us alone – we have a guide whom we can trust with our future, even when we aren’t sure what lies ahead on the road.
At Synod Assembly this weekend, Bishop Bartholomew summarized her message to the churches of our Synod in this time of uncertainty: “God is with us – Things are changing – Dare to go where Jesus calls us.”
“Things are changing” means – we don’t have a map. Church attendance, and bank accounts, and Sunday schools don’t look like they did in generations past, and that can be scary. We want to know how to get back to where we were before – but that map doesn’t exist, and maybe the destination doesn’t anymore either.
But instead of a map – we have a guide. A guide who is calling us to dare to venture into new places – places we can’t see clearly, or places that look unfamiliar – because that is where Jesus is calling us.
And just in case we are tempted to question that guide, our reading of 1 Peter today offers us a reminder about who we are, and where we have come from:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 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” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Once we were not a people… but God chose us and made us God’s own people. We follow a God who does NEW THINGS – we have benefitted from that before, so why should it scare us if God is leading us to new things now…whether those new things look like the unknown of a heaven we can’t quite imagine, or a new model for church life and ministry that is different than what we have always been …
If Jesus is the way, wherever he calls us to follow will be right?
Of course, that kind of trust is hard – just like a young boy playing out of sight of his Mom – we get scared when we can’t see or hear our source of security. But as we will sing in just a minute, Jesus is our mother hen – who gather us under her wings. And the “going away” that troubles the hearts of the disciples – the uncertainty that draws from them their querulous questions about not knowing the way, and wanting to be shown – that departure is the very way that Jesus can still be present to us
As Our way, Our truth, and Our life.
So, if you have a quaver in your voice today. If your troubled heart is crying out: “Hello. Are you there?”
Like any good mother, hear Jesus answer “Yes. I am here. I would never leave you alone.”
And if the uncertainty about the future has you asking, with the disciples: “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Like any good guide, hear Jesus answer “I am the way – trust and follow me.”
God is with us – things are changing – let us dare to go where Jesus calls us.
Thanks be to God