August 01, 2008

How Can We Know the Way?

by Erin Martin
It’s become our routine. No sooner have I strapped my two year-old son, Elijah, into his car seat and started driving us on our way than my son pipes up from the back seat, “Hey mom, where are we going?” I always answer him very clearly. “We are going to the grocery store,” I say, or “We are going to the library.” To which Elijah always responds, “Hey mom, where are we going?” This kind of back and forth, repetitious toddler-talk used to frustrate me until it finally dawned on me that it was not as if Elijah hadn’t heard me or hadn’t understood me. Instead, like a child needs to do, Elijah needed to ask his question more than he needed to hear me give him an answer.

I think about my two year-old son when I read Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

Jesus is saying good-bye to his disciples, telling them exactly where he is going. He says to them, “In my Father’s house 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 take you to myself so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the place where I am going.” To which the disciples seemingly respond, “Hey, Lord, where are you going?” Thomas goes so far as to say to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Considering that Jesus has just told the disciples that he is going to the Father, I wonder if this kind of repetitious “toddler-talk” didn’t frustrate Jesus so that he felt he had to repeat himself using the plainest terms knew how to use. “How can you know the way? I am the way, the truth, the life…” Like my son, I have to believe that the disciples heard Jesus. They probably even understood him. I just think they needed to ask their questions more than they needed to hear Jesus give them answers, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Isn’t that what Christian discipleship is, a life-long process of asking questions in the context of a community of believers where we question one another, “Where are we going? How can we know the way?” Recently, a gentleman who has been regularly visiting my congregation as a Methodist himself stopped me one Sunday after church. He had seen on our projection screen that the mission of the United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” This gentleman said to me that morning, “I don’t think the mission of the United Methodist Church should be to make disciples of Jesus Christ. I think the mission of the United Methodist Church should be to become disciples of Jesus Christ.” I was immediately defensive. I thought to myself, “doesn’t he know that our mission is the Great Commission from Matthew 28!” Thankfully, I stopped myself and thought instead, “He is right.” The making of disciples only happens in our own becoming disciples first. Christian discipleship is an on-going process of our own becoming. We ought to always be asking one another, where are we going? How can we know the Way?

In his remarkable book, Jesus For President, Shane Claiborne includes an excerpt from a letter written from Aristides the Athenian to the Roman Emperor in 137 A.D. In the letter, it is clear that the early disciples understood the Christian life as a process of becoming, a process of devoting themselves to the Jesus Way. In taking on particular practices, the early Christians set themselves apart from life in the Empire. In this way, the Christian Way was remarkable. In his letter, Artistides writes:

It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. They do not keep for themselves the goods entrusted to them. They do not covet what belongs to others. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make themselves friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. They live in the awareness of their smallness. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger, they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother…If they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed for the sake of Christ, they take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.

Over the centuries we have wandered quite a ways away from this Way. Finding our way back again begins in the asking of the question, “Lord, how can we know the way?”

(Originally published Sunday, April 20, 2008)

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