Sermon May 7 2023: 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 Janet read for us earlier – 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. Each one of them, his own little clutch of sycophantic hangers-on, ready to do his bidding. Which is 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, 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 that passage that Janet just read for us, 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, 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.
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. Thousands fed with a few loaves and fish. 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. It’s been about seeing God’s love in action. Daily. In healings, in welcome, in every interaction.
So… 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 health care and someone else needs a tax credit and someone else needs a home? What would Jesus do.
The point of all this is that if what Jesus would do is what WE want to do, on the way, because it makes lives better – what Jesus would do is not always easy to figure out. So help is good. And this is meant to help. This is meant to be where we get reminded and encouraged by his example on the way. Guiding our footsteps into his in a sort of distilling of his operative principles.
Always, first, not only one’s own needs but the neighbour’s too, alongside and just as important. And always, first, the most vulnerable. And always, first, non-violent. And always, on principle, restorative, healing, forgiving, building up.
Following Jesus ON the way. What’s the point of all this? Jesus says to his disciples in that conversation in the upper room in this passage from John, yes – that’s been the point of all this. Living in a way that makes the world better. So remember, when I’m gone, he says to them, remember the good works I did on the way, so that you’ll have that guidance yourselves as you continue on the way. So your living can continue to make the world better. That’s exactly it. That’s the point of all this.
Except, he continues, to them, to us, there’s also this. Because I also want, he says, to twist that metaphor of ‘the way’ just a little bit too. I want you to also try to grasp a bigger point to all this, too. That’s not just about following my example ON the way, the path through life, as you’ve been doing all this time, but is also about following me 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.
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. It doesn’t only need to be that you have a yearning to live with generous love and to make 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, that there’s something in you that seeking. Something in you that wants to understand, and to connect with, and to feel filled by, 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, to the Spirit, to a sense of connectedness with life, the universe, and everything.
And if that’s so, Jesus says to his disciples, to us, then draw 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 says. I am that way it is when all the Godness of God is squished up into a person. My manner, my fierce love, 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, that God is. Draw nearer to me, in story and in community, in other words, follow me AS the way, and you draw nearer to the Source and Spirit of everything. Follow me AS the way, and you draw nearer to the holiness that inspires the better angels of your nature, that connects you with creation around you, that floods you with gratitude.
That can be, he says to the disciples, to us, also part of the point of all this.
Which maybe it already is. And he hopes it already is. As he hoped it was or eventually would be for some of those first disciples. Because as they’re gathered together in that upper room? The world outside is pretty chaotic. Pretty bewildering. Pretty upsetting. Which may sound a bit familiar. So thanks be to the Way who guides and guards our footsteps on the Way through it. Amen.