Sermon May 17: John 14:1-11 The Way, The Truth, The Life Rev. Betsy Hogan
What, for you, is the point of all this? I found myself, after reading and reading and reading and thinking and thinking and thinking about that passage from John’s gospel that we heard just now – the gospel of John is so impossible to pin down --
I found myself in sheer self-defense going back in my head to the very beginning.
To the moment at which Jesus actually calls his first disciples to follow him. Peter and Andrew, James and John the sons of Zebedee. All of them there by the Sea of Galilee, mending their nets, and suddenly Jesus says to them ‘follow me’ and up they all get and they do. But why?
Because I know that Jesus says to them “and I will make you fish for people”… but honestly, and in that moment, could that really have been what compelled them? Because honestly, think about it -- “I will make you fish for people”. It’s not, in and of itself, obviously emotionally compelling. It really doesn’t seem, in and of itself, to be quite the thing to arouse an immediate response of total commitment.
Unless, of course, each of those first disciples had long secretly harboured a fantasy of having people. Which I realize that for us – newly granted the enchanting magical gift of bubbles – the idea of having people may sound for us like the ultimate in gloriousness...
But for the disciples? Had they really – all of them – been secretly wishing they could have people? Each one of them, his own little clutch of sycophantic hangers-on, ready to do his bidding? It's possible, I suppose, and we really don’t know --
But at the same time, what are the odds -- all twelve of them? So it seems unlikely that it was “I will make you fish for people” that’s what got them on their feet. Certainly not for all twelve. Maybe one or two with delusions of grandeur, but the rest? “I will make you fish for people” just doesn’t seem compelling enough to make them all stand up and say yes.
So what was it? What yearning, what desire, what hope, lifts the first disciples up out of everything they’ve ever known and propels them headlong into life with Jesus?
What for them was the point of all this? We can really only imagine.
The cool thing, though, is that when we try to imagine what it might have been – what inner yearning or purposeful hoping it might have been that resulted in each one of those first disciples hopping up and saying yes and following Jesus –
That’s virtually impossible for us to do without somehow referencing, somehow extrapolating from, our own possible inner yearning or purposeful hoping in choosing all this.
And I do say choosing. Because no matter how deeply entrenched “church” may be for some people nowadays in their life, including some people here, there is absolutely nothing in our current culture here in this place, for adults at least, that either enforces our opting in, or precludes our opting out.
In other words, for each of us there’s been a choice. Which makes the ‘why’, the ‘what for me is the point of all this’, utterly fascinating. At least as fascinating to contemplate and consider as whatever it was that compelled each of those first disciples to hop up and say yes.
Which judging by their conversation with Jesus in the passage we just heard, they’re still sort of trying to figure out themselves, even having been following Jesus already now for several years.
It’s a curious thing, but in the lectionary cycle of readings the way it’s laid out for us to follow, even when I get weeks five and six after Easter mixed up – which I did -- this passage that we read a few Sundays AFTER Easter actually takes place BEFORE Easter. Before Jesus’ crucifixion. Even before he’s betrayed and arrested.
It actually takes place on what we usually call Holy Thursday, the night when Jesus and the disciples gather in the upper room to celebrate Passover together. The calm before the storm, as it were, since it’s right after this nice meal and cosy conversation that chaos takes over. Betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, death.
But that’s all yet to come. Which is why, in fact, this conversation takes place. Because what it is, the passage that we heard earlier, is it’s Jesus trying to prepare his disciples – to whatever degree preparation is actually possible – it’s Jesus trying to prepare his disciples for what they’re about to be hit with.
Violence, terror, danger, confusion – all these things – but worst of all by far is straight-up loss. He’s trying to prepare them for his loss. For the moment which WILL come, which is at hand, when where he was he is no longer. And there’s a Jesus-shaped hole in their world.
So What for you is the point of all this... If in that moment, Jesus had asked his disciples that question? Every single one of them would have said “well, without you there IS no point”. Every one of them.
Why did they hop up to follow Jesus when he called them to be his disciples? That we don’t know. But why did they stay with him and keep following him? Because traveling with him meant that every day they had interactions with people that were miraculous. Every day there’d be someone who’d been blind from birth – who was healed! Or a little girl sick unto death – and suddenly alive again! Lepers cured of leprosy, the lame standing up and walking, a woman beset by seizures completely freed – water could even be turned into wine. Every day, something miraculous.
Every day, the disciples have been kneedeep in God’s power doing amazing things. Every day, the disciples have been kneedeep in people’s joy. What for them is the point of all this? That for them is the point of all this. Their days used to be about witnessing fish caught in nets flapping around in the hulls of boats. But for the past few years it’s been about witnessing miracles.
No Jesus? A Jesus-shaped hole where Jesus used to be? Without him there won’t BE a point of all this. That’s how the disciples are feeling in this moment, in this passage from John’s gospel. And so that’s what Jesus is trying to stretch them past, now that the “every day on the road with him, witnessing miracles” is coming to an end.
Because, what is the point of all this? If just being with him on the road, for the disciples, was ever the point of all this for them, there was always actually a bigger point to all of it. Which Jesus is really hoping that maybe the disciples will now start to grasp. Just in time, as it were, with his crucifixion looming.
And it all hinges on the twist of a metaphor. And I really do mean twist.
Because this is the conversation, in our passage this morning, in which two answers to ‘what is the point of all this’ collide in one single metaphor that twists in two directions. Following Jesus ON the way, and following Jesus AS the way.
The disciples, of course, have been following Jesus ON the way. They’ve seen, as Jesus himself notes in this passage, they’ve seen all the good works he’s done. They’ve followed him, essentially, on a path – a way – of goodness and Godliness. A way of healing encounters, and life-giving miracles, and feeding the hungry, and welcoming the rejected, and embracing those in need.
It’s a way of living in the world that’s intentionally engaged and responsive to all people as God’s people. As beloved and worthwhile and deserving of care when they’re in need.
It’s a way of living in the world that looks to Jesus’ example as a good example, a good path, to actively follow. Because it makes lives better. It frees people from oppression and desperation. It lifts people up. It’s selfless and generous and caring and righteously justice-seeking.
And so, what’s the point of all this? Why follow? Why choose it? It’s about wanting a life that includes actively making the world better. Less oppressive, less desperate, more caring. It’s about being reminded and encouraged and strengthened to travel in Jesus’ footsteps, as it were, on our OWN way as we’re trying to get through this thing called life.
Someone’s hungry? What would Jesus do. Someone’s crying? What would Jesus do. Someone needs shelter in a blizzard or support to battle addiction or the discipline and purpose of learning new skills and feeling stronger and being trusted by their peers? What would Jesus do.
The point of 'all this', of churchness, is how it helps us – literally enables us – to actively do what Jesus would do. On the way.
We get reminded and encouraged by his example, guided by his principles -- not only our own needs but our neighbour’s too, and first remembering the most vulnerable, and always non-violent, restorative, healing, forgiving, building up –
But the point of churchness also is literally that it's part of the physical and metaphorical infrastructure that enables a lot of our active 'What Would Jesus Do' DOING. Whether that's the community outreach of the Lunch Bunch or free potlucks or free breakfast, or mutual care or emergency support, or it's provision of space for shelter in poor weather or addiction support or programs for youth at risk.
It's just PART of that infrastructure –for many of us it might be a BIG part of what enables our active 'what would Jesus do' doing – and one of the hardest bits of this pandemic for many people has been that it's created kind of an outreach-shaped HOLE where our sense of being able to DO SOMETHING USEFUL has always been.
I keep thinking up brilliant ideas. I'm sure most of you do too. And all of them keep falling apart due to the "oops, this could KILL someone" factor.
Which is depleting. To the spirit. And I think maybe why Jesus in this conversation with the disciples in the Upper Room kind of anticipates that point that's about to happen for them where they're not going to be anymore following Jesus ON the way. With all the daily doing.
And instead, in a shift that can maybe be our shift too – in this in between time when we're still working out degrees of risk and what's possible – he reminds them to follow him AS the way.
As the answer to such weird and bewildering questions as What’s God like? God is this way. How is God? This way. What would it be like if all the goodness and Godness of God were squished up into a person? It’d be this way.
Because what I really want you to grasp, Jesus says to his disciples, to us, is that the point of all this isn’t just guidance ON the way. An example to follow in your day to day 'doing' and your making the world better -- though that’s great, he says. By all means, he says, do it, go for it, and hearty applause all around.
But the point of all this can also be, he says, just that there’s something in you that's seeking. Something in you that wants to understand and to connect with the big and everywhere and 'beyond but also within' Spirit and Source of life and love and goodness. The point of all this can also be that there’s something in you that’s seeking. That wants to draw closer to Godness.
Because if there are many ways, paths by which that can happen, one of those ways is by drawing nearer to ME, Jesus says to his disciples, to us. Drawing nearer to me AS the way. The way God is. The way it would be if all the Godness of God were squished up into a person.
Because that’s what I am, he's saying to them, to us. I am that way it is when all the Godness of God is squished up into a person.
My manner, my wideness of embrace, my hunger and thirst for justice, my unshakeable capacity for forgiveness, my absolute conviction that no one is beyond redemption – I am the way, Jesus says to them, to us, God is.
So draw nearer to me, in story and in community, and you draw nearer to the Source and Spirit of everything. Draw nearer to me AS the way God is, and you draw nearer to the holiness that inspires the better angels of your nature.
Because that can be, he says to the disciples, to us, also part of the point of all this. Which is good news. Because at a time when our doing – our following ON the way – is so limited, maybe what we're being called into is instead to see this pause as an opportunity for following AS the way. Deepening – by seeing Jesus AS the way God is, what God's like, what God's about – deepening in this way our understanding of and our connection to the Source and Spirit of everything.
It doesn't feel useful. And we like be useful. But there's a reason Jesus has this conversation with his disciples in the Upper Room. Because as they’re gathered together in that moment on Holy Thursday, the world outside is already kind of fearsome. Pretty bewildering. Really uncertain. And the usual useful just isn't going to be possible for a while.
So there's this 'in the meantime' he points them toward. He points us toward. Take the pause. Follow AS the way, and we'll be that much readier when the doors open, to go back out and follow ON the way. Amen.