May 14, 2017
Holy Wisdom Sunday Assembly
Today’s Gospel is a part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse with his disciples on the night of his arrest. There’s a dark shadow hanging over Jesus. His conflict with the authorities has come to a head and it’s evident they are about to act against him. He is trying to prepare his disciples for what is to come and equip them to continue his mission after he is no long physically present with them. He speaks of his death as a journey to God. He tells the disciples that they can come too and that they already know the way. But the disciples have no idea what he’s talking about. As so often in the gospels, they understand Jesus literally, as though he were talking about a physical journey from one place to another like the many they have made with him over the past years. They’re especially confused when he tells them that they know the way. Thomas speaks up for them all, “We don’t even know where you’re going. How can we possibly know the way?” he says. The disciples want specific directions to heaven, to the house of God.
Of course, Jesus is not speaking about a trip. He’s talking about relationships. The Greek word that is translated “rooms” or “dwelling places” in today’s Gospel gives us a clue to this. It is a noun formed from the verb meno, which means “to remain” or “to abide. Jesus uses this word often in the Farewell Discourse to speak about relationships. “God abides in me and I abide in God. You abide in me and I abide in you,” he says. Jesus is referring to mystical relationships between himself and God and himself and the community. These relationships have been centered on the physical presence of Jesus. Now he wants them to know that they will continue after he is no longer physically present among them. Even death cannot end these relationships. They are eternal. These relationships are the dwelling places in his Abba’s house that Jesus refers to at the beginning of today’s Gospel. And we don’t have to wait until we die to inhabit them. We can live in them now.
No human effort can create these relationships. God alone makes them possible. But the community has spiritual practices to nurture and deepen them. Prayer, meditation, reflection on scripture, and compassion are among them. But from the beginning the Eucharist has been one of the most important of these practices. In the Eucharist Assembly, we listen to the voice of God; eating and drinking and embracing one another in a sign of peace, we ponder the presence of God and of Jesus in the Eucharistic meal and the eucharistic community. In this Assembly we abide in the presence of God, Jesus and one another. But this presence is not confined to the Eucharistic Assembly or to the Church. God is also present in the world. We are sent out into the world to discover, strengthen and be strengthened by that presence and to work with all people of good will to order the world in a way that more clearly reflects it.
But there’s one verse in today’s Gospel that has frequently been used to prevent people of good will from working together to strengthen the sense of God’s presence in the world. In response to Thomas’ request the Jesus provide a map of the way to God’s house, Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Too often the church has interpreted these words as a declaration that only the Christian religion offers a way to God. All other religions are at best false and at worst evil. In his blog on today’s Gospel, Presbyterian pastor, Mark Davis, insightfully points out that this fundamentalist interpretation really means, “Our doctrine about Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.” That’s entirely different than saying Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Other interpretations have been offered. Let me suggest one. Jesus’ words “I am the Way,” reminds me of all those New Testament stories of Jesus and his disciples on the move along the roadways of Galilee with Jesus always in the lead. They also remind me that in the early church Christians were known as the “People of the Way.” Perhaps when Jesus says, “I am the Way,” he’s talking about a Way of living, his Way, the Way of unconditional and inclusive Love that embraces even the enemy. Perhaps he’s saying, “This Way of love is the only Way to come to God.” He taught this radical love in the Sermon on Mount. And he walked this Way of love every step of his life, even after he realized it would cost him his life. The cross was his great test and he passed it. Bleeding and dying on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” He walked the Way of love to the End. Then he could say, “It is finished” and give up his spirit.
Jesus wasn’t the only one who walked this way. Some of his followers followed him on it. Today we see Stephen on the Way. With his last breath, he gasps a prayer. “Do not hold this sin against them.” Through the centuries we’ve seen other followers of Jesus walk this Way, right up to our own time– people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. I have no trouble believing that Jesus’ as the Way of radical love is the Way, the Truth and the Life and that no one can come to God except by travelling along this Way.
I’d like to share one other thought about today’s Gospel. Throughout this Discourse it seems that the disciples were eager to turn the conversation to religion. They wanted to talk about heaven and speculate about God. But Jesus kept bringing them back to earth. He wanted to teach them how to live here on earth. When Thomas asked for a map of the way to heaven, Jesus said, “I am the Way. Follow me.” Then Phillip then tried to divert the conversation to religion. He heard the word “Father” in Jesus response to Thomas and jumped on it. “Oh, show us the Father then we will be happy,” he said. But Jesus didn’t take this metaphysical bait either. He kept the conversation rooted in real life on earth. “If you want to know who God is and what God is doing, look at me. My words are not just mine, but God’s. My work is God’s work. My Way, the Way of Love, is God’s way. That’s all you need to know. Walk this Way beginning right now and you will abide in God and God in you now and always.”
Before we end, I think we should be honest and admit that this Way is beyond us. We are bound to fall again and again. But that’s no reason to give up the walk, especially when we remember Pentecost, which is just around the corner. This Feast in honor of the Spirit reminds us that we do not walk this Way on our own. The Spirit of God dwells within us. Theological tradition has often understood the Spirit as the Love that binds the Three Person of the Trinity together as One God. At Pentecost, we give thanks that that Spirit, is poured out on us and that she abides within us. Perhaps this metaphor of the Spirit as the very Love of God abiding in us can help us understand one of the most difficult things Jesus says in today’s Gospel— “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, do greater works than these.”
That we may always be aware of God’s presence in us, in others and in the world and be guided by this presence in all that we say and do, let us pray to God.
That we, like Jesus and Stephen, may boldly witness to your Way of love in what we say and in the way we live, and that we may love and pray for all who despise, hate, and seek to harm us. Let us pray to God.
That we may have the confidence to risk bold acts like those of Jesus that make God’s presence and love more real and more powerful in the world, let us pray to God