May 19, 2011
This week’s lectionary reading leads us into the farewell discourse (John 13.31-17.26) as Jesus prepares the disciples for his departure. It can seem a little disorienting to follow up a month’s worth of post-resurrection appearances with Jesus preparing his disciples for his looming death on the cross.
After all, for the last several weeks we have celebrate that Jesus is alive and on the loose, appearing in locked rooms, in gardens and on the road to Emmaus. However, the day of Ascension is fast approaching and the lectionary readings of the next two weeks use the farewell discourse to prepare us for the Ascension of the resurrected Christ.
On the eve of their last supper together, as Jesus prepared his disciples for his death, the question looming over the young Jesus movement was how to respond to Jesus’ absence. The disciples had followed Jesus through every small town and village from Samaria to Jerusalem. But how do you follow a missing Lord? How could they carry on after his death? Jesus begins to answer this question with words of assurance and comfort. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” These words have become a standard in pastoral care. At funerals and death beds, in the face of floods, tornados and hurricanes, Christians have turned to these words for comfort, and with good reason as they are clearly intended to offer peace in a time of fear and doubt.
The source of the peace and encouragement offered is found in Jesus’ promise that his departure has a purpose. Though they can and will be troubled by the absence of their Lord, this departure is purposeful rather than tragic. Jesus is leaving to prepare a place specifically for his followers. The place is not geographical or symbolic and we can be relatively sure that the disciples did not dream of mansions in the sky. Rather Jesus promises “dwelling places” that is places to live with God. The promise that Jesus offers is a way to life with God, a place to dwell in the presence of the Father.
As a word of further encouragement, Jesus assures the disciples “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” In response to this offer of assurance, Thomas’ question “How can we know the way?” serves as the platform for Jesus’ sixth “I am” statement. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s here that Jesus most fully answers the question at the heart of the farewell discourse, the question of how the followers of Jesus will carry on. In response to Jesus departure, they must follow the way.
The ‘I am’ formula indicates that the way that Jesus refers to is not a geographical path or a way of life, but rather a person. And yet it is also a way of life. The way of Jesus is a way of life with God the Father lived so perfectly by the Son that it is inseparable from his identity. Thomas claims that the disciples do not know the way, but they should. Since the call of Philip and Nathan (1.43) they have followed the way, they have walked beside him, they have witnessed the way in Galilee, Capernaum, Samaria, and Jerusalem. Jesus is the way to the Father, “No one comes to the father except through me.” We may be reminded here of the previous ‘I am’ statement from John 10.7-10 “I am the gate.” Just as Jesus is the gate through whom we find safe pasture, here he is the way to the life with God promised as dwelling places in the Fathers’ household. However, Jesus is more than the way to the Father; he is also the way of the Father made incarnate amidst the brokenness of this world.
That Jesus is the way of the Father is made explicit in vs. 7 “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” The relationship between God the Father and Jesus is reiterated through Jesus’ response to Philip’s question “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus is not just the way to God but rather is the self-revelation of God.
Vs. 12 offers the final aspect of Jesus’ answer to the implied question of how we might follow a missing savior. “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 that these, because I am going to the Father.” This promise does not mean that the disciples will be able to heal twice as effectively as Jesus or walk on water even further. While deeds of power and healing certainly do mark the followers of Jesus after the day of Pentecost, this is only part of the way that they must continue to follow Jesus. The way forward is to follow the way of the Father made incarnate. Put differently, the life of the disciples after Jesus’ death must be patterned after the way of his life before, into and through his death.
Continuing the theme of comfort and encouragement, the lectionary offers us the account of Stephen’s death as a promise that following this way is indeed possible. Acts 7:55-60 brings us the last Stephen’s story which began with his appointment to serve in Acts. 6.1-7.
Acts 6.8 tells us that Stephen embodied the power that Jesus promised his disciples in John 14.12 by saying “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” It was not without reason that the way of the Father made present in this world led Jesus to a cross. Through Stephen we see that embodying the way of the Father in a broken world will meet resistance.
However, Stephens’ martyrdom offers him the opportunity to imitate the way of Christ, assuring us that such a life is possible. In Acts 7.59 Stephen offers his spirit to Jesus echoing Jesus’ words from the cross (Luke 23.46). Again in vs. 60 Stephen prays for his persecutors following the way of Jesus from the cross (Luke 23.34). This non-identical repetition models the way forward, a way marked by love, forgiveness, obedience, and witness. In short, Stephen lives before us the way of the one who said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Jesus’ response to Thomas makes his question seem foolish. And yet it’s a question with which the church continues to struggle. What is the way forward? The lectionary offers us Stephen as an example, and yet, the life and witness of Stephen can seem foreign to us. Stephen’s willingness to serve, his unflinching testimony before a violent crowd, his response to hatred and his willingness to follow in the way of Christ offer us a way that we often hesitate to take.
The United Methodist Church, like most mainline denominations, is struggling to find its way in a constantly changing world. In 2008 the Council of Bishops commissioned “Call to Action” committee with all the accompanying sub committees, reports, memos and conference calls. The Committee commissioned two secular firms to poll United Methodists, process data and recommend a way forward. I suspect Jesus received these efforts with the same disappointment that he felt at Thomas’ question. The way forward will not be found in market research, or television advertisements boasting of our ‘Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The people of the United Methodist Church.” We should already know the way because the way took flesh and dwelt among us. We do know the way because of the witness of saints and martyrs like Stephen. As we prepare to transition from the joy of Easter to the spread of the Gospel following the Ascension let us stand on the promise that by the powerful name of Jesus (vs. 13) we may yet be counted among them.