“A Rest by the Way” Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1780. Public Domain.
John 14:1-14* New Revised Standard Version
Jesus said to his friends, “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.”
Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. You come to the Father through me. If you really know me, you also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Philip, I’ve been with you all this time, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Don’t you 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.11Believe 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.
12Very 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. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
This world’s not my home, I’m just a passing through My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue; The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
I remember singing this hymn a lot during worship services at the small bible church in Ohio, where I grew up. The lyrics were written by Albert Brumley, a prolific southern gospel shape-note composer in the Churches of Christ tradition. Likely, the hymn was written with 2 Corinthians 5 in mind:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
The ideas that our bodies are temporary vessels, and the world is a brief stop for our eternal souls is perhaps part of the context of today’s gospel lesson. John chapter 14 is a common reading at funerals. In it, Jesus is speaking to his disciples with words of reassurance. If he goes away, he does so to prepare a permanent place for them in his father’s house. For many, this language evokes thoughts of heaven.
But this passage is a dynamic one, located within the larger story of John’s gospel. And at this moment, a lot of trouble is brewing.
By this time in the story, Jesus’ life is in danger. What seems to instigate the plot to kill Jesus is the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11. Jesus is gaining power and influence among the crowds, and some leaders worry that an insurrection will take place, resulting in another violent response by the Roman occupying forces. In chapter 12, Jesus enters Jerusalem with much fanfare but sneaks away to talk privately with his disciples. In these private moments, Jesus tells his disciples about his impending death, washes their feet, and gives them the new commandment to “love one another,” as he has loved them.
But this time is also filled with tension. Jesus accuses one of his disciples of betraying him. Judas then sneaks away to do just that. Jesus then tells Peter, his most devoted follower, that he will desert him once he is taken into custody in the following days.
We can imagine that our passage takes place in the upper room after dinner. Judas has left. Peter is sulking. The rest of the disciples feel awful. They don’t know whether to believe Jesus about all of this. After all, it’s terrible news. Maybe escape plans begin to form in their heads. “If Jesus really gets arrested, how do I get out of dodge before the authorities find me?” Maybe their thoughts are more machismo, telling themselves that they would never let anything like this happen, that they would fight for Jesus to the death. All of this, of course, takes place within the safety of the locked room. Perhaps they’re simply shocked. All the good that took place is about to come to a screeching halt.
Jesus reads the room. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” he says. “We’ll make it through this. In fact, we will come out on the other side of this calamity in a better place. And, even though it doesn’t sound like it, we will even be together again.”
Philip is trying to figure this all out. How will Jesus make it out of Jerusalem? Where did his father live again? What does the guy even look like? “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how do we get there, where you will be?”
But it’s not about geography. Jesus can’t really draw a map. But he has spent these last few years showing them the way. You start at compassion and take a left at justice. Stay straight until you expose corruption, and then turn right on inclusion. You know you are on the right path if the sick recover and the hungry are fed. The road will be smooth in some places and bumpy in others. Keep moving and let the love you have for each other, for me, and for others guide you.
One of the strangest aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, from my perspective as a young pastor, is the reality that there is no map, manual, or ecclesiastical treatise that explains how to navigate all of this. We did not learn how to navigate a global pandemic in Divinity School, and I cannot call up a more experienced pastor and ask, “So, how did you handle this all when you first experienced it twenty years ago?” This is a novel experience for all of us.
I resonate, then with Philip, who is trying to pin Jesus down a bit during this troubling and chaotic moment. He wants Jesus to answer a direct question with specifics on the route, walking time, and set expectations upon arrival. When Jesus obfuscates the first go around, Philip presses, asking for a guide, saying, “Show us the Father.” But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, what Jesus says is, “You already have what you need.”
We are not at the end of this pandemic by any means, but in many states, we are experiencing the slow and gradual reopening of businesses under specific conditions. Folks need to return to work to pay bills. Companies need to produce goods and services, or they will go under permanently. And there is considerable risk in all of this. In some states, this is happening while COVID-19 numbers continue to climb.
Local churches, too, have felt the pressure to reopen internally and for financial reasons. It’s been difficult to not gather for two months, to cancel or postpone concerts, service trips, and direct-action events. Many of our local churches serve as an unofficial community hub for social and service activities. AA, 4H, scouting organizations, pre-schools, food pantries, book groups, WIC, after school programs run out of our churches. Our local churches serve an aggregate of vulnerable populations from elderly members to young children and people of differing abilities. How do we move forward? What will the church look like when June rolls around? Will everything be back to normal by the fall? What way do we go, and how do we get there?
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” says Jesus. I wish he could be more specific. I really wish that Jesus had pulled out a whiteboard and developed a solid action plan that assigned responsibilities to each of the remaining disciples with a set of start and end dates, a list of milestones, and clearly defined desired outcomes. But he doesn’t do this. Instead, he reminds his disciples that they can figure out how to move forward when they remember him.
In the coming weeks, we will be working on what church might look like in the coming months. Already, a handful of national denominations have released guidelines for local churches that describe best practices for when churches eventually reopen. Maybe as we localize these guidelines, keeping in mind the specific communities we serve, we can remember this interaction between Jesus and his disciples. Where is Jesus’ concern for the poor addressed in our plan? Are we protecting the most vulnerable? How can our plan speak to Jesus’ inclusive nature and sense of justice? Is there room in the plan to speak out against abuses of power and corruption? Are folks being fed, physically, and spiritually? Is love our ultimate guide?
Perhaps, Jesus has already gone ahead of us. Not to prepare some half-open relic that doesn’t live up to our memories. Instead, Jesus goes to make a new place for us, a church that is a little more agile, a little more hopeful, a little more inclusive – you know, a little more Christ-like.
May we be guided by the way of Jesus in all we do, for the sake of our communities and the health and wellbeing of all. Amen.