Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Way of Jesus (Reflections on Easter 5)

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 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? 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 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”? 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. 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. 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:1-14)

I preach on this text a lot. Well, maybe not the whole text, just the first six verses. You see this passage is the recommended gospel reading for the Service of Christian Burial, and I get called to do lots of local funerals for folks here in Northeast Philly who haven't been to church since the Nixon Administration. And I'm cool with that because it means that I get to preach the gospel to folks who would not otherwise be inclined to hear it. I suspect that this passage was chosen to give the mourners comfort in the certainty of eternity with Jesus. “Where I am, there you may be also” is a promise of heavenly eternity and sounds pretty good to me. However, I tend to get a bit hung up on that “No one comes to the Father except through me” part.

I mean, it sounds kind of arrogant, don't you think? And I'm guessing that the Church has used this passage for centuries as a way to bludgeon folks into doctrinal conformity. It's as if to say, “Unless you subscribe to exactly the doctrine I preach to you, you're going to burn in hell throughout eternity.”

But I don't believe that doctrinal acquiescence was what John the Evangelist had in mind when he wrote these words. When John has Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he is talking about a process of relationship with the living God rather than about specific creeds or beliefs. Before Christians were called “Christians” we called ourselves those who belonged to the Way (Acts 9:2). The Way, I think, is not a static point. It's a process—day by day, situation by situation, relationship by relationship.

Now, as a good, orthodox Lutheran, I have to say outright that being a follower of the way in practice will not make you holier than you are right now. Nor will it make you more “spiritual” or more “saved.” You are as holy as you're going to get right now as you read this. So am I. And we're just as holy as we need to be. That's because Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has shown us the divine truth of the eternal God whose will is that all may be one in Him in eternity. You didn't do anything to bring this about. You can't make God love you more than God already does.

But by being in relationship with Jesus, you can become a more mature human being. You can become wiser, more content, and—gosh!—maybe even happier. As pious Jews are in constant dialogue with God's law, so we can be in dialogue with the way of Jesus.

And what is this way? First and foremost it's the way of love. Love that is generous, non judgmental, inclusive, and—most of all—forgiving. The Revised Common Lectionary pairs this reading from John with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Stephen, walking in the way of Jesus is able, even with his dying breath, to pronounce words of mercy to his enemies. How powerful is that?

But the way of Jesus' love is very specific. It is the way of sacrifice. When Christians worship, we do not focus on the image of a man who has just won the Power Ball. Rather, we see the image of a man giving everything away—his body, his freedom, his dignity, his life—for the sake of others. In the lesson from Acts, Stephen also sacrifices his own life in testimony to Jesus. I'm not suggesting we all go out and get ourselves martyred for the gospel, but walking in the way of sacrifice teaches us that we can give of ourselves because God is capable of giving us so much more. It's a way of letting go.

This means that the way of Jesus has to be a way of thanksgiving. On the crappiest day you'll ever have, God will still provide endless blessings—a sky above you, water to drink, the sound of the birds, the smell of the grass, the laugh of a child, the love of a friend, the kindness of a stranger. God does not cease to be good because we, in our circumstances, fail to notice God's goodness.

But the way of Jesus is also a way of suffering. If Jesus was not spared the pain of this world, we have no reason to expect that we will be either. We will grow old. We will die. We will lose loved ones. We will suffer disappointments. Even when we say, “I love you,” we will risk being hurt. But in the way of Jesus we courageously carry our own crosses. I do not wish to let my pain “trespass” onto your shoulders, because I know you are carrying enough pain of your own.

And yet the way of Jesus is to live in the way of faith, knowing that through all the joy and all the pain, I belong to my loving God. As Jesus says in the gospel lesson, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” I can only pray that my final years or days or (like Stephen) moments are testimonies to such certainty, and—to paraphrase Shakespeare—nothing in my life will so become me like the leaving of it.

Thanks for reading. I always enjoy having you stop by.

PS-Just three years and four months left to go until the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. If ol' Stephen can forgive those who stoned him, surely Lutherans and Roman Catholics can forgive each other. Let's celebrate this milestone by coming together at the Lord's Table. Sign my petition here.

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