Fifth Sunday of Easter
What would you do if you knew it was your last night on earth? Who would be there? What would you say? What would you do?
Remember with me back to Maundy Thursday. Jesus was troubled, John tells us. 1 So many things moved towards this moment, as the disciples made their way to an upper room. It was that last supper, before His arrest, the beatings, his tragic death the next day. And it was His last chance. John sets aside chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 for this farewell discourse, for these things Jesus says to his friends around the table. He sets the tone early on by taking off his outer robe, wrapping a towel around his waist, pouring water from a bowl over their dusty feet. He warns them of the coming trials, of one of their betrayal, and offers a new commandment, that they love one another: “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.” 2 After that comes the interchange recorded in today’s text.
And while it is a wonderful one, too often this is a text you hear shouted. At a gathering last fall a friend of the family sat down, eager to pick the brain of the preacher. ‘What do you think of the Muslim threat?’ he asked. When I told him I didn’t feel particularly threatened as a Christian in the southeastern US, and that people of all faiths needed to work together to root out radical elements within all of their communities, a confused look spread over his face. I had not satisfied him. And then it came. ‘Well, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,’ he said. And the verse just sat there, hanging over us.
Because everyone is scared. He knew it, so he begins with words of comfort. Do not let your hearts be troubled, he says, by your fear, by the guards you know that are coming. Believe in. Trust in. Lean into my strength as the bills mount and the doctor calls back. In my Father’s house, he says, hospitality abounds, as does grace. And there are many dwelling places, he says, plenty of room, Lamar Williamson says, for those who find in Jesus the way to God. 3 He reminds them of promises made – that He is preparing a place, that He will come and take us to Himself. That Christ will gather us all together. This is welcoming, invitational language spoken at table with his dear friends. You know, he says to them, you know.
And then comes Thomas’s question. Thomas has gained a reputation because of his later questions, after the resurrection, when he needed to know if Jesus was really alive. 4 Thomas knew this was important. So much swirled around him, violence, economic anxiety, pressure, pressure, pressure. Lord, tell me. So much is unclear. Tell us. We HAVE to nail it down. We have to be sure. We have to know. This is the point at which I am sure Jesus smiled. He knew these friends, knew who was going to ask the question, who was going to shy away. Like the committees we are on – we know who is reliable, who has great ideas but forgets things, who is always fired up about something that no one else worries about. That’s what it’s like working with people, and we love them, we do. And Jesus leans in and looks him in the eye. Thomas, I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. I have been here with you the whole time. In what is an amazing statement, He says that you don’t find God any other way, through something different that what you have known of us together. “There is an exclusive quality to this love,” Williamson says, again. “Like Israel’s walk with the God who would not tolerate the worship of other gods, and like life together in a faithful marriage whose partners forswear intimacy with all others.” 5 Not everywhere, not anywhere, but here.
We, as followers of this Jesus, are caught in a difficult bind when it comes to texts such as these. We want, so desperately, to be faithful to what we believe is true, but we also don’t want to shut ourselves off from the world He is even now transforming. We don’t want to compromise what we believe – nor should we. But too often Christians have used this text to put up walls instead of to break them down. I have a hard time believing that the most important thing this text has to tell me is that the Mormon family I sat with at the baseball game on Tuesday, or my Jewish friend from college, or my neighbor who confessed shortly after we moved in that she couldn’t remember ever actually walking in a church, are all destined for eternal damnation. That is why I will readily proclaim, with the church, that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him.” But we must also say, right after that, that “Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.” 6 We work as hard as we can, and we trust. This text comes as good, good news, and it is important that we let it be that good news, and not try and make it something it isn’t.
That is why the rest of the conversation, often left out, is so useful. After Thomas’ first question, Phillip keeps pushing. Show us, he says, and we’ll be satisfied. I have been with you this whole time, Jesus says. Whoever has seen me has seen God. And then comes something extraordinary. Jesus says, even if you don’t believe because I say so, if that is not enough; believe because of what you have seen – of blind healed, of lepers cleansed, of Lazarus walking out of the tomb. Believe, he says, because you have seen my work, because it is unmistakable, as children sing, as youth ask great questions, as we work in the shelter line and sawing up trees in yards in Raleigh, as we hammer nails for Habitat. Jesus looks into the disciples’ eyes, and says, “Thomas, you have just seen the way when I knelt and washed your feet. You have felt the truth in the Spirit at work around this table as we ate together. You have experienced real life through the words I have spoken. Phillip, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Live like I do, love like I do, and you will experience everlasting life.”
I don’t know how to explain love to you. I don’t have the words to describe it. I don’t know anything about love apart from the way the way my parents cared for me, from the embrace of a good friend, what I know from the feeling that gripped me when I saw my wife begin to walk down the aisle. When Ella Brooks, then Heath, were placed in my hands. As far as I know you can’t know love in theory, in any meaningful way, at least. I wonder if Jesus is saying something similar to His disciples here. Maybe that is what He is trying to help Thomas and Philip see. God is not something, someone far, away, Jesus says. God is here. I am here. You don’t get God any other way, out there – God in theory. That cannot be the way. God cannot be understood in isolation from the depth of human relationships, as God is, in the essence of God’s own self, love in action, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this Christ bears fruit among us as we gather together, laughing over meals, clutching each other in hospital rooms or beside the grave. When we sit together and listen and talk through something hard. The way isn’t out there, Jesus says. Look at me. Hold my hands. Feel, in your gut, our relationship. That is love, He says. And that is God.
I can think of few better ways that God’s love is made flesh than in the teachers we appreciate today. Those of us up front tend get all the glory, but it is these folks, on Sundays and Wednesdays, that form the backbone of faithfulness here. That way becomes real as art supplies are gathered, as behavior issues are tended to, as a teacher sits up late on a Saturday with curriculum and bible, struggling, learning. I learned of Jesus as the Truth through folks like Gene and Smith Wilson, and Tommy and Ed Hay. These retired couples sat with me, often the only kid in Sunday School those first few years in Black Mountain. In 5th grade, and much of 6th grade. I don’t have any idea what we talked about, but I know of their faithfulness as they kept showing up, over and over again. One summer, years later, when I was escorting some 6th graders of my own in clubs in Montreat, a car pulled up alongside. It was Tommy, Ed’s wife. He had just died. And she rolled down her window and held out a book, an old Greek Lexicon, well used. Ed was a retired Presbyterian minister, had taken Greek at Davidson and done so well they asked him to help teach it when he enrolled at Louisville Seminary. She wanted me to have it. I think he would want you to have it, she said, and drove off quickly as the tears came. And we feel this life embodied in those relationships. I know how much my kids adore guitar man, how Heath looks forward to Daddy and Sissy Ketch, as he calls Susan and Jim, as Ella Brooks sits with Helen and Muff, Julie, Angela and Alice. These relationships are so meaningful, and they change things.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” He says. He does not say the church is the way. He says He Himself is the way. And He says that the truth is not words, neither his nor anyone else’s. It is love embodied – love in action – that comes to us, and to the world, most fully in the person of Jesus the Christ. And through it all, as the unanswered questions grow, I believe that we are still called, each day, to follow. Not to hurl these words as a dart, not to decide things for others that are not ours to decide. But to lean into His promises, to trust, to believe.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- I am grateful to Lamar Williamson, who pointed this out in his book, “Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 178. When his friend Lazarus died (11:33), as His own death approached (12:27), and knowing that one of His disciples would betray Him (13:21).
- John 13:34.
- Williamson, 179.
- John 20:19-31.
- Williamson 182.
- From “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ”, a document commended to the church at the 2002 General Assembly, lines 155-168. http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/hopeinthelord.pdf