Text: John 14:1-7
This is the first in a series of sermons for Lent, "Travel Essentials for the Spiritual Journey." Themes are suggested by Paul Gooder's book, Lentwise.
Like many of you, I like to travel. I have always liked to travel. When I was a kid, for a time I wanted to be a travel agent – maybe because my family never traveled very much. I would send off for travel brochures and I can remember some of those brochures in my collection – brochures for Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Olympic National Park in Washington. I collected road maps, including some really old Cities Service gas station road maps that were my grandma’s. I don’t think my grandma ever drove a car, but she had some road maps at her house.
As it turns out, I did not become a travel agent, but I still have that interest and sensibility. When we went to Europe a few summers ago, I had a field day getting ready for the trip – researching air flights and rail passes and car rental and hotels and coming up with an itinerary. We read about the things you should take on such a trip and we were prepared; I even had a small screwdriver with some duct tape wrapped around the handle, just in case.
Right now, we are working on plans for our spring break mission trip to Tennessee. Again, there is a lot of planning involved. What route will we take, what vehicles, where will we stay, what about food? Not to mention thinking about how we might keep from getting on each other’s nerves on a long trip. And then there is packing. We are hoping to fit everything into one rental van, but it’s going to be tight. I told the group that we don’t need to duplicate items – we don’t need to bring 8 hair dryers. In fact, Buck and I have sacrificially volunteered to go without a hair dryer altogether for the trip.
We all have those items that we like to bring with us when we travel. I have my Swiss Army knife on my keychain and the scissors and knife and other gadgets can really come in handy – but of course you can’t carry something like that with you when you fly. What about you? What are your travel essentials? What can you not travel without? Your iPod? A camera? A book? A crossword puzzle? A favorite stuffed animal or a versatile, dependable sweatshirt? Or maybe a thermos of hot coffee or a cooler filled with Diet Coke or Mt. Dew?
We often speak of our faith as a journey. We are traveling through life, making our way through this world. Just as there are those travel essentials we take with us on vacation or on a business trip, there are essentials for our spiritual journey.
Each Sunday in this season of Lent, we will be looking at passages from the Gospel of John that point us to some of those travel essentials that are crucial for our journey of faith. Today we have read from the 14th chapter of John. It is a widely known passage, a widely loved passage. It can also be a problematic passage.
Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will soon be leaving them. He says this in a variety of ways but they don’t quite understand. They don’t quite get it. Jesus says, “I am with you only a little longer,” and Peter says, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus says, “Where I am going you cannot follow me,” and Peter replies with “Why not? I’ll lay down my life for you.” And Jesus tells Peter, before the cock crows there times, you will deny me. You probably know how that went.
Then we get to the passage that we read a few moments ago. Jesus says, don’t worry, don’t be filled with anxiety, trust in me. Believe in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places, and I am going to prepare a place for you. I’m going ahead of you and you will join me later. You can feel the exasperation in Thomas’ voice when he says, “We don’t even know where you are going. How can we possibly know the way?”
Jesus says to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
I remember this verse from my childhood; in the youth choir at church, we sang a song – I think it was from a 1970’s youth musical – based on this verse. Jesus is the way, Jesus is the truth, Jesus is the life. It’s a beautiful verse. But over the years this verse has been used to prove that Christianity is the only true religion and everyone else is in deep, deep trouble.
This doesn’t seem Jesus’ style – to make some grand pronouncement about other world religions. And in John chapter 10, he says “I have other sheep who are not of this fold.” But before we get too worked up about this, we need to look more closely at this passage and see what it really is saying.
First of all, to whom is Jesus speaking? He is speaking to a few of his closest followers, and in fact this statement is made to Thomas. Not to all people everywhere, but to Thomas. At the time, there are but a handful of people on earth who are followers of Jesus. Not even known as Christians yet, they are a tiny minority. Jesus is not speaking of the relative merits of Christian faith as compared to Buddhism or Hinduism or Judaism or Islam.
What Jesus is doing is answering Thomas’ question. Thomas did not ask him, “Where does Christianity stand among the panoply of world religions.” Thomas asks, “How do we go where you are going? How can we know the way?”
It is a very personal and intimate conversation. The disciples are worried, they are scared, they are troubled. Jesus tells them he will not be with them much longer, and there is separation anxiety. How can they go where Jesus is going?
Jesus says to Thomas, “I am going to the Father, and if you want to know the way, I am the way. I am the way and the truth and the life.” He speaks to Thomas and to the other disciples and says, “No one, none of you, comes to the Father but through me.” What Jesus is saying to his disciples is not exclusive – leaving others out - so much as it is very particular. For these followers of Jesus - and for us, Jesus is the way. If you want to know where Jesus is going, Jesus himself is the way. In a sense, Jesus is both the destination and the way to get there.
To be with Jesus’ Father, the way is Jesus. Jesus and the Father are one, we read in John, and in a sense Jesus is both the way and the destination.
This verse does not address the issue of other faiths, but we can be so focused on that question – a question that Jesus is not answering – that we miss the power and the beauty and the comfort that Jesus gives. Do not be troubled. Do not be anxious. Have trust in God. Have trust in me. I am going ahead of you, I am preparing a place for you, and if you want to know the way, I am the way.
All of us are searching for direction. At some level, we all are wondering what kind of choices to make, which path to follow. We have choices to make every day, all kinds of choices. In fact, we have more choices before us than any generation that has ever lived.
A coffee executive was asked how many beverage choices were available from the menu at his chain of coffee shops. He replied, “82,000, give or take.” I have a hard time going to Starbucks, because I just want a cup of coffee and I’m not sure how to order it. There are so many choices.
Diana Butler Bass wrote,
Americans, even those of modest means, exercise more choices in a single day than some of our ancestors did in a month or perhaps even a year. From the moment we awaken, we are bombarded with choices – from caffeinated to decaffeinated, to flipping on any one of a hundred television stations as we ready the children for school, to getting news in print, online, or via a mobile device, to what sort of spinach to buy to go with dinner (local, organic, fresh, frozen, chopped, whole leaf, bagged, or bunched).It is not just the mundane choices. We have choices about our lives, all kinds of choices about vocation and where to live and where to go to school and choices about the commitments we make and the involvements we want to take on. Choices about how to spend our money, how to use our resources, how to use our time. We have choices about civic involvement and political affiliations and actions. And we have choices about church, choices about worship, choices about the spiritual path we will follow.
When it comes to our spiritual journey, we need direction. And the thing is, we don’t get a GPS. We don’t get a detailed map. The life of faith is not that precise. A GPS wouldn’t be that helpful. As we grow in faith, as we grow in understanding, as we grow in maturity, as we change and as the world changes around us and needs change around us, the place we are moving toward doesn’t stay completely still.
If we think of our faith as a journey, it is not like one of those pre-packaged trips – it is not like a group tour organized by the credit union or a package tour offered by AAA. In that kind of travel, all you do is buy the ticket and everything is decided – where you go, how you go, where you eat, where you will stay, what you will do.
Some people look at faith in that way – you just join the pre-packaged group tour – but for me, there is a lot more to a vital, authentic faith than that. There is a lot more freedom and a lot more commitment and a lot more imagination and creativity and a lot more asked of us, and there is a lot more joy than just following a path decided on by somebody else. And the journey of faith is not always smooth sailing, to use a nautical metaphor. There are storms and there are powerful waves. Conditions can change quickly, like an Iowa snowstorm sweeping in. There is no way to be completely prepared for what might be coming. Someone said, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
So to me, a GPS or a detailed map is not the best symbol of the direction we need. Life is more like an expedition. It’s a lot more like Lewis and Clark exploring the west than it is a Trafalgar European tour of 9 countries in 10 days. We aren’t given all the details, and there are all kinds of choices we have to make. We sometimes have to shift course based on changing conditions and new information. There was a book written many years ago about the life of faith with the title “Marching Off the Map.” That can describe our spiritual journey; we often find ourselves in unknown territory. We don’t always get a map, but what we get is a sense of direction. What we do get is something like a compass.
Jesus is our compass. We orient our lives by looking to Jesus. Jesus himself is the way. For those who follow him, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
The question, maybe, is what does this mean? What does it mean to say that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life?”
To say that Jesus is the Way means that we follow the Jesus Way. We live a life of self-giving love. We practice sacrificial giving. We don’t just live for ourselves. We offer grace. We work for hope and healing for all people. We see needs around us. We listen. We are attentive. We respond in love.
This is not easy. It would be a heck of a lot easier to just take the Trafalgar tour. William Willimon says that following Jesus means going where Jesus went and among the people he went among. As it turns out, these are not always people that we are interested in or places we are really comfortable following Jesus to.
To say that Jesus is the truth means that we are living by a different kind of truth. It is not an e=mc2 kind of truth, not a “Helena is the capital of Montana” kind of truth. It is not an Apostles Creed or Westminster Catechism or even “We Are American Baptists” statement kind of truth. These things may all be true, but to say that “Jesus is the truth” is to say that truth is relational. It is a different kind of truth altogether.
This means that truth is found in commitment and relationship, and that the truth of Christian faith is not just words we assent to but something that we experience. We discover truth in relationship, as we are related to God and to one another. For us, more than in creeds and statements and dogma and doctrine, Jesus himself – his way and his example and his love and his grace – this is truth.
And then, Jesus is the life. Jesus said, “I have come so that you may have life, and life abundant.” The kind of life Jesus gives is real life.
The theology class has started a new study, using a curriculum called Living the Questions. Last week in the video we used, Tex Sample was talking about our approach to the Bible. Some of you may know Tex; he was at our church many years ago. Tex recalled a time when some friends got him to go hear a certain evangelist at a revival. The evangelist was preaching about the Bible. The preacher said, “I believe every word in the Bible. I believe it backwards and forwards. If I found that there was even one error, even one mistake, even one contradiction in the Bible, it would be worthless to me because I couldn’t trust it; I couldn’t believe it. And if I didn’t believe the Bible, you better believe I wouldn’t be here. I would be out somewhere having fun.”
For this preacher, the scriptures, and the Christian faith, were there to get in our way. If not for our commitment to Jesus, we would be out there having fun.
What a pitiful understanding of Christian faith. Faith in Jesus does not make our world smaller; it makes our vision more expansive. Following Jesus is not confining; it is freeing. We are called to abundant life, joyful life, meaningful life. We are called to really live, to really be with people in their pain and hurt, as Jesus was, and also to really experience joy and celebration, as Jesus did.
Jesus is both the destination and the way we get there. Saint Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to Heaven is Heaven, because Jesus said, 'I am the Way.'”
As we travel through this journey of life, this journey of faith, we need direction. Jesus is our compass. Jesus himself is our way. Amen.