Monday, May 19, 2014

All the Way

When I was a home health nurse I really got to learn my way around the Keys. I had patients who lived in broken down trailers and patients who lived in housing projects and patients who lived in apartments and patients who lived in mansions. I had patients who lived in Key West, Marathon, Tavernier and parts in between. I had patients who lived in gated communities, in trailer parks and on dirt roads in the woods. I learned that there is not a path in this archipelago that someone doesn't live on. Finding them could be a challenge. And so, when I worked for Staffbuilders, whichever nurse opened the case would write down the directions to the patient's place. This would be photocopied and given to any nurse, CNA or therapist who had to make a visit. Occasionally I would make corrections on the original when they were inaccurate (“left” accidentally written down rather than “right”) or vague (I might add an obvious landmark at which to turn if, say, the street had no sign or had one hard to spot while driving down US 1 at 45 miles an hour). We didn't have GPS or the Waze app back then, so this was the next best thing. The very best thing, though, was those rare occasions when a colleague would actually go with you and show you the way to your destination.

Today's gospel (John 14:1-14) takes place after the last supper. Jesus is giving the disciples vital teachings they will need for the rest of their lives, but especially for the next few days, after his death.

Though Jesus has warned him that he will be arrested and killed, they can't believe it. He is the Messiah. He will liberate God's people from the Emperor the way Moses liberated the Israelites from Pharaoh. He can't possibly die. So when Jesus says he is going some place, they are not thinking about his death. To us, Jesus' talk about going to his Father's house is obviously about his going to heaven. But the disciples might simply think he is going back to the temple, God's house, again the next day. They've accompanied him there before. Why is he saying they can't come now? So if he is not going there, where is he going? And why does he insist they know the way? Thomas straightforwardly says, “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

To which Jesus famously replies, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What did he mean by that?

When Jesus says he is the Way, it means, as William Barclay points out, that Jesus doesn't merely point out the way or give us directions to God; he is the way. Because coming to God is not about following a bunch of rules but following Jesus. He is our Sherpa. He guides us through the hazards of life, protects us from getting lost and takes us to the heights. And our ultimate destination is not a place, as if God were limited to a certain location. Our destination is a state of being; it's about becoming a new person, a person through whom others can see God. We are to be, as C.S. Lewis put it, little Christs. We are anointed at our baptism and incorporated into the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his ongoing presence on earth.

When Jesus says he is the Truth, it means he is God's living Word, his expression of who he is. As J.B. Phillips put it, Jesus is the expression of God in terms we can grasp—space and time and humanity. As Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Indeed, we see him in action, facing the stuff we face: family problems, rejection, being deliberately misunderstood, betrayal, violence and death. We see how he acts when rules get in the way of doing the right thing. We see how he acts when confronted with mental and physical disease, disability, hunger, and prejudice. We see how he approaches sticky situations where religion and politics are too cozy and when they are at odds and when religion is being used to cheat or harm people. And Jesus often does this through asking pointed questions, some of which are rhetorical where the answer is obvious and some of which are open and are meant to make us think deeper. As Jesus said, the Spirit will lead us to the truth, which is to say, he will lead us to and deeper into Christ.

When Jesus says he is the Life, it means not merely that he is the source of life but a particular kind of life. It is the divine life of self-sacrificial love. That is the life we see him live and the life he offers us. Eternal life doesn't just mean a infinite amount of ordinary life but a different quality of life. It is the life of the Trinity: the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, which spills over into his acts of creation and the redemption of those people and creations that he loves.

The interesting thing is that these descriptors of God requires us to respond. What good is knowing that Jesus is the Way if we don't embark on that journey? What good is knowing that Jesus is the Truth if we don't explore that truth? What good is knowing that Jesus is the Life if we don't avail ourselves of that life and truly live it?

If we acknowledge Jesus as the Way, we need to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow his way. It is not the way of the world, the way of putting oneself, one's desires and prerogatives, ahead of others. It is not the way of following numerous religious or ethical rules, as if we were capable of reaching God through our own efforts. It is not the way of mere intellectual recognition of God's existence, as if by simply asserting that God is gets you to God. It is the way of trusting Jesus and then letting that trust naturally lead us to imitate his loving way in the world. For us it it the only way.

If we acknowledge Jesus as the Truth, we need to commit ourselves to that truth. We need to see all things through the lens of Jesus. We need to see all people as created by God in his image. We need to see everyone as a person for whom Christ died. That rules out dismissing, denigrating, dehumanizing or demonizing anyone. It rules out bullying others, calling them names, reducing them to a sin or a syndrome, or characterizing them as merely an example of a larger or more abstract problem. We do this all the time. I myself have done this. I frequently used the late Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, as an example of hate disguised as Christianity. But did you know that Phelps started out as a civil rights lawyer? He represented African Americans in many racial discrimination law suits against school systems, police and utilities. He represented 2 female professors in discrimination lawsuits. He received awards for his work including one from the NAACP. None of this excuses his later picketing funerals or his theology. But it does show that even someone like Fred Phelps cannot be reduced to a purely evil stereotype. He deserved our prayers that he find grace and learn from the Bible which he said he took literally that Jesus meant what he said about loving both our neighbors and those we construe to be our enemies. People have come out of Nazism and the KKK and other hate groups to find true repentance and the love of God. Phelps also reminds us of how obsession with one small thing in scripture to the point where it obscures the larger message of the gospel of Jesus Christ can lead a good man into bad theology and bad behavior. Had Phelps kept his focus on such verses as John 3:17--“Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that world might be saved through him”--or Ezekiel 33:11--“As I live, declares the Lord God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live,” he might have spoken and acted differently. I do not know how Fred Phelps went from someone who helped the oppressed to an advocate of oppression, but the only Christian response to him and any other person is to love and pray for him. The truth is that God is love and so, as 1 John 4:20 points out, to hate others is to contradict the very heart of Christianity.

If we acknowledge Jesus to be the Life, we need to start living that life. As I said, this is God's eternal life into which we are invited. So it is a life ultimately without limits. All too often, we limit ourselves. We tell ourselves that we can't do this or that because of our upbringing or our education or our race or our gender or our income or our looks or our addictions or our temperament or our body or any number of reasons. But Paul wrote in Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And in today's gospel Jesus says, “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 than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” These are rather amazing statements. We will do greater works than Jesus'? He will do anything we ask in his name? What should we make of these astounding promises?

Let's take the second promise first. Jesus says that if we ask anything in him name, he will do it. Anything? That sounds contrary to both what we know of God and what we know from experience. God is not a genie who must grant our every wish if we use the right magic words. I have heard Christians talk as if God will be compelled to do anything so long as we claim it “in Jesus' name.” But he is the Lord and does not take orders from us. And indeed we see in both the scriptures and in our lives that this is not so. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that his Father let “this cup,” that is, his crucifixion, pass him by. That did not happen. And I'll bet not a few of us have asked God for things that did not come to pass. I prayed long and hard that a friend of mine not die and leave her 2 children without a mother. That prayer was not answered with a “Yes.” So how can Jesus say that he will do anything we ask him for?

Context is really important in understanding any statement. “I killed tonight” means a very different thing when said by a comedian than it does when uttered by a serial killer. In the first of the two verses I quoted, Jesus is talking about us doing his works. I don't think Jesus suddenly and unexpectedly switched from talking about his mission to talking about us getting everything we personally desire. He is still talking about his work. So it is only when we ask for things we need to carry out the Great Commission and the good works that he has prepared for us to do that he will give us whatever we ask. It's like a soldier being sent on a mission and being assured he will be given whatever he requests to accomplish it. That is not a promise to give him booze or prostitutes or anything else he wants to indulge in. It is a promise to equip him to do whatever is asked of him. Which is why Jesus was not given a reprieve from the cross when he asked. That was his primary objective. And Jesus himself qualified it with the condition that “not my will but your will be done." That overriding concern, that his mission be brought to its proper conclusion, was answered in the affirmative.

But even so, will we do greater works than Jesus did? The Greek word translated “greater” here literally means “larger.” It's not that Jesus is saying that we will do works of a better quality than his but that we will do bigger things than he did in his earthly life. Jesus fed 5000 hungry people. The universal church feeds millions around the world daily. Jesus only healed people inside his homeland. The church has set up hospitals and clincs and sent doctors and nurses out to heal folks all over the globe. Jesus preached the good news to those who lived in an area the length of the Keys. Christians have preached the gospel in just about every country in the world. When we act as the Body of Christ, the fellowship of all those who have heeded Jesus' call, we can and have done amazing things.

Jesus is the way to God, the truth about God and the life of God. He is our path through life, our goal in life and the power to get us from the one to the other. He is how we are going, where we are going and why we are going. He is the Alpha and the Omega and it will take every letter in between in every combination to spell out all he is to us, his companions on the way.

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