Fifth Sunday of Easter
Gathered together in an upper room with Jesus, the disciples give Jesus their full attention. They’ve just shared this meal with him and watched him kneel and wash everyone’s feet. They’re shocked to hear that one of them is a betrayer and they’re highly aware that outside the doors of their small room, the powers are organizing to put a stop to their small movement that only a few days before looked like it might become a successful revolution. Now, things look dire. To top it all, Jesus tells them that he is leaving them and they can’t go with him. So when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it is because their hearts are troubled.
These are the well-known words read most often in the church during the troubled times of funerals and grief. These are words of comfort. Jesus comforts us just as he comforted his disciples in that room long ago, and to comfort us, Jesus tells his disciples to trust. To trust him. When he says, “Believe in God, believe also in me” (14:1 NRSV) he is using the Greek pisteuo, usually translated as “believe” but we have so thinned this word that to most listeners it conveys the sense of intellectual assent. Pisteuo has more of a connotation of trust and fidelity, of personal involvement and participation. Not so much intellectual assent or getting the facts straight; pisteuo is about relationship. Not what you know as much as who you know. This is a conversation of intimacy and tenderness: “I know you’re troubled and afraid, trust God. And trust me, too.”
Then Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (v. 2). “Dwelling places” or “mansions” in the old King James is the noun form of the word “to abide.” Furthermore, the word for “house” can also be translated as “household.” So Jesus is reminding us to trust him and to trust that in God we will not be left alone but will continue to have a household or community in which we will abide. And all this is not premised upon one’s private intellectual beliefs as it is in all of us together in the household trusting Jesus.
Jesus then starts talking about us knowing “the way.” And Thomas, whom Johannine scholar Jaime Clark-Soles calls the Eeyore of the disciples in the Gospel of John for his realistic/pessimistic approach, speaks up and says, “Jesus, what are you talking about?” And Jesus replies with one of his famous “I am” statements, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6).
Here’s where things get sticky in many of our modern churches. Folks in the pews immediately start asking questions like, “Is Jesus the only way to God or are there many ways?” Or “In our world of anger, violence and religious bigotry isn’t this a little too exclusive sounding?”
But let’s remember the context. Far from being the dominant (and dominating) religion as it is in much of America, here is a small band of friends, huddled together behind closed doors with a growing sense of trouble, fear, and grief. They’re hanging on by their fingernails and Jesus is telling them to trust him, that he’s the way to God. When their fears distract them, Jesus says “Listen to me. Look at me. I am the way to God. You can trust me on this; God has a place for us and I’m going ahead to get everything ready.”
I think of other beleaguered communities of faith like the Confessing Church in Germany during the mid-1930’s who faced the popular theology of the day which said, “God speaks in new and various ways and is speaking to us today through Hitler.” They responded with “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Jesus Christ.”
Or African-American youth standing against the police dogs and high-velocity water hoses of segregation in 1963 because of the call and claim of Jesus. Or the college student who told me of her resistance to drunken parties and “hooking up” for casual sex because, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.” Or the young Keystone XL pipeline blockader standing against a billion dollar corporation knowing with almost certainty that she (and this earth) will lose, but she keeps on because of her trust in “Jesus and his way and his resurrection.”
For all of these disciples barely hanging on, Jesus says, “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Keep looking at me. Trust me. I am the way.”
Are there other ways to God? “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (10:16) Jesus already told us. And he also just told us that the household of God has a lot of rooms, so there is much going on here that we don’t know about. I do think it is safe to say that God’s household is bigger than we realize. But for the household I’m a member of, our very inclusivity is based upon trusting this particular Jesus. We’re not inclusive because we’re nice liberals but because of Jesus and his way.
Years ago I was at a party surrounded by gay men. Many of them had started coming to our small church. One guy, Nat, told me, “You know why I’m coming to church? It is because there among all of you I’m discovering that Jesus has enough room for me.”