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05-21-17 - How Can We Know the Way?

How Can We Know the Way?

May 21, 2017



John 14:1-14


            I am not a fan of GPS. I much prefer a map and written directions. With a map, you can view your starting and ending point, as well as what lies in between. And with written directions, you can see all the steps needed to get from point A to point B. But with GPS, you are only given one instruction at a time. It's no secret that I am technologically challenged. However, it's not so much the technology of GPS that I dislike, it's that I want to have every step of the way clearly laid out before I embark on my journey. I like to know where I am going and the way to get there. In today's reading from the Gospel of John, Thomas voices a similar desire to know the way: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"


            Thomas' exchange with Jesus comes from a section of scripture known as Jesus' farewell discourse. Jesus' farewell address to the disciples begins in the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of John and ends with Jesus' prayer in Chapter 17. The speech takes place at the conclusion of the last supper, when Jesus and his disciples are gathered in the upper room just before going to the garden, where Jesus is handed over to his enemies. In his parting words to the disciples, Jesus announces his imminent departure, consoles his followers, gives them directions for the future, and promises to be with them again.


            Just prior to where today's reading picks up, Peter asks, "Lord, where are you going?" When Jesus tells Peter that he cannot follow, Peter's response is plaintive: "Lord, why can I not follow you now?" In today's verses, Jesus urges the disciples to not "let their hearts be troubled.” What has troubled the disciples' hearts? It is the very real sense that their time with Jesus has come to an end. When we are faced with the loss of a loved one, we too have troubled hearts. What would free our hearts from being troubled? While the world has a multitude of answers. Jesus has only one: Believe in God, believe also in me. Bible commentator Cynthia Jarvis writes, 


            In response to the First Commandment, Luther asks what it means to have a God and answers     that God is what you hang your heart upon. The heart that is troubled is a heart not hung upon            God but hung rather on all the things the world peddles to soothe a troubled heart. Jesus tells   the disciples in their time of deep uncertainty, Hang your hearts on God; hang your hearts on          me.1


            Jesus softens the blow of his imminent departure by telling the disciples that they can hang their hearts on God, and on him. He assures them that his relationship with them is going to continue, even as it changes. Even though they cannot follow where he is going, he will continue to be with them. They will not be forgotten. The imperative, "Do not let your hearts be troubled," is a command to stand firm, because the bond of love and fidelity between Jesus and those who believe in him cannot be broken, even by the separation of death.


            Jesus assures the disciples: “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.” The word translated “dwelling places” is the noun form of the verb “to abide.”  The promise is that Jesus will abide with his followers. His death and departure will not sever but rather will fulfill his relationship with the disciples, and with us.


            The disciples have been with Jesus nearly his entire ministry. They have committed their lives to him. But now he is leaving them, and they don't understand. They want the reassurance of knowing where Jesus is going and how to go there with him. And so Thomas asks, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"


            The question, “How can we know the way?” is no less apt for modern-day Christians as it was for those first disciples who are left to continue in the world without Jesus.  Jesus' words are not just for the disciples gathered in the upper room, but also for us, those who are trying to make a go of it in the world with Jesus gone away. As twenty-first century disciples, we find ourselves without Jesus in a world of religious apathy, political disillusionment, social divisions, economic disparity, and global conflict. As we navigate this difficult terrain, we wonder which path we are to take, what direction we are to go, what course we are to follow. In the midst of the uncertainty faced by Jesus' first disciples and by those of us living in the age of high-tech information, we need direction and guidance as we discern, “How can we know the way?”  


            What is Jesus' word of comfort to those he leaves behind, to those he commands to follow faithfully in his absence? Jesus proclaims, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In this statement, Jesus declares the divine name for himself and fuses it to our human longing to know the way. For the gospel writer John, believing is an outward and active commitment to the person of Jesus. The purpose of John's gospel it to reveal the profound meaning Jesus holds for Christian faith and for the destiny of the world. The emphasis in this promise is on oneness between Jesus and the “Father.”  UCC Minister Matthew Laney writes,


            For inclusive, interfaith-minded UCC folk, this verse (I am the way and the truth and the life)      can be like fingernails on our theological chalkboard. I mean, who hasn't heard these beautiful            words of Jesus twisted into a pitchfork by hell-bent Christians to skewer people of other faiths       or no faiths?2


            Cynthia Jarvis agrees that the Gospel of John should not be construed as a definitive comment on whether there is any validity to other ways to God beyond Christianity. She writes,


            Instead of hearing the exclusivity of the Christian claim in John 14, consider the pains Jesus          takes to assure us that we come to God by God's initiative in Christ. What we know of God in      Jesus Christ is that God has chosen not to be God without us. In this is love, the love that is            God. God's promise to love us, to make room for us, to know and be known by us, never ends.3


             How can we know the way? For the gospel writer John, Jesus himself embodies the way to God and the "way" of discipleship. John's Jesus is also the "truth," evoking the revelatory nature of Jesus' mission. Finally, the entire purpose of Jesus' mission in the gospel of John is to bring "life" to the world. The "life" promised by Jesus is "eternal life,” which is participation in the very being of God. Rev. Laney writes, “For John, eternal life begins now by living the Jesus way of nonviolence, doing justice, telling the truth, defending children, forgiving one and all; in other words revealing peace, love and heaven with every step.”4  And Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way: “There is no way to peace, peace is the way. Heaven or hell is available right now depending on how we walk.”5 


            How can we know the way? Jesus not only instructs us on the path, he also promises his followers that they will do greater works than him: “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.” When we “ask in [his] name,” Jesus' assures us that he will grant what we ask. We are not to understand that praying in Jesus' name means following a certain formula to produce the desired results of our prayers.  According to Biblical commentator Molly Marshall,


            A superficial interpretation of the privilege of praying "in Jesus' name" is that if the formula is       used, this is tantamount to effectual prayer. To pray "in the name of Jesus" is to align one's        spiritual longing with that of one's Lord. When one believes in Jesus, one begins to believe in   God with the same depth of trust and hope, out of which mature prayer flows.6


            As Jesus way-farers, it's up to us to reveal the way, and the truth, and the life by becoming a living prayer aligned with God's purposes. As Jesus has been "sent" by the Father to proclaim God's love to the world, so too are we sent into the world to love and serve in Jesus' name.


            Jesus' words and his works reveal the very heart of God. Jesus' instructions direct us on a path of action and witness, with his promises carrying a commission and his commands implying a promise. Jesus promises his followers an abiding place with God, a sure and clear way to reveal God's love in the world, and a power to sustain the community of the faithful, enabling us to do even greater works than he did.  Through an interweaving of promises and commands, Jesus shows us how we can know the way.


            In our modern, technological world, GPS can locate the nearest gas station or fast food restaurant and provide us with instruction to get there. Yet, we discern the way of life by following the living Christ. When we live as people of the Way, we seek the truth in Christ's words and share new life in the Spirit. And when we live lives that incarnate the love and mercy of the living Christ in the world around us, we become the way to God for others. When we gather for worship, stand for justice, welcome the stranger, and care for our earth, we become the path that leads to life for all God's children. When we host homeless families through the Family Promise program, assemble pantry packs to feed children in our neighborhoods, and collect items for the Bountiful Food Pantry to be shared with those in our community who are hungry, we are acting in Jesus' name, and our lives become a living prayer.


            Jesus reassures us that his death is not the end. He promises us that the God on whom we may hang our hearts "has room" for all. He tells us that he is the way, and the truth, and the life. Therefore, we need not let our hearts be troubled. This is Jesus' promise. This is Jesus' command. This is the good news of the living Christ!


            1Cynthia Jarvis, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.


            2Matthew Laney, Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, UCC, Hartford Connecticut.


            3Cynthia Jarvis.


            4Matthew Laney.




            6Molly Marshall, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.