Here we are in the 5th week past Easter and the scripture passage puts us right back to the days just before Jesus’ death. This passage in John is part of Jesus’ farewell message to his followers. It comes right after he has washed the disciples feet and taught them that being of service to each other is how to show God’s love in the world. In this section of the passage, we discover that Jesus has just ripped the rug out from under his disciples’ freshly washed feet.
After washing their feet Jesus tells his disciples that one of them is about to betray him, one is about to deny association with him, and that he is imminently leaving them, going away to a place to which they cannot yet come along. The disciples are disoriented, and rightly so. It is into this state of confusion, betrayal, anger, and grief that Jesus speaks the words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
They are lovely words of comfort, easier said than lived into.
I find my heart troubled a lot these days. I imagine you might as well. We too have had the rug of familiarity ripped out from under our feet. And while time has passed since the initial act, there is a lingering sensation of rug burn as we live with the discomfort and disorientation of continuously having to adapt to the ever shifting reality of what can and cannot take place in ways we expect or understand. Especially as we begin to accept that this state of unknowns, this season of limbo, has already been with us longer than we would have hoped and will be our companion farther into the future than any of us might like. In this state of confusion, betrayal, anger, and grief, we hear Jesus’ words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
They are lovely words of comfort, easier to hear than live into.
And just as we may not be sure how to live into this season with the trouble that is in our hearts, so too were the disciples uncertain of what exactly Jesus was trying to tell them. And they didn’t hold back in confronting him with that uncertainty. Jesus casually says: I’m going to prepare a place for you in the presence of God, and then I’ll come back and take you with me so we can be together in God’s love, and by the way, you already know how to get there.
Say what? Thomas speaks what they were likely all thinking – “we don’t even know where you are going, how do you think we know the way?”
Jesus replies with one of the most famous, overused, and potentially abused lines in all of New Testament scripture: “I am the Way, I am Truth, and I am Life.”
This phrase may be hard for some of our ears to hear. It is a phrase that has been spoken for a long time to build up walls of exclusivity in Christianity. It has been used as a threat, as a condition by which people enter into the love of God, rather than the statement of comfort and reassurance that was offered by Jesus.
This text was written down, like all texts, in a context. And the context of the writing of this text, finds a religious community in the throes of sectarian squabbles. Very simply put, it finds a subset community of Jesus following Jews [years after Jesus’ life/death] being displaced from their welcome within the larger Jewish community. They are seeking a path forward in a time of limbo, in a time of unknowns where what they knew is no longer what they will be able to live with as they move forward.
I think we can understand that, in light of that uncertainty, there was a deep need for words of comfort, for stability, for strong words of courage, and declarations of hope and faith. Resulting in this written down message of assurance and affirmation of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life pointing towards God’s love. And not just pointing towards God’s love – but signaling the very presence of God – I AM the way, I AM truth, I AM life. This echoes of God encountering Moses at the burning bush – the way of truth and fullness of life is in and with God.
This week I’ve been living with the challenge to listen back beyond the writing of this text, to try to re-hear this message straight from the mouth of Jesus, before it was written down. I have been straining to hear it as an echo directly from that gathering of Jesus with his beloved community, of Jesus reminding them and assuring them that they know the way to God’s presence because they know him. Not because he, the person, is the path, but because he exemplifies for them the way that people can live in the presence of God and they have witnessed that first hand.
Jesus said: “You know the way that leads to where I am going.” You have shared life with me and, as you have seen me live in God’s love, so you too know how to live in God’s love.
I have a strange gift – and gift may be a strong word for this – it’s perhaps more of a wonky skill. I have what we’ll call: mall memory. And this is one of those moments I miss preaching in person with you, I kind of wish I could actually hear your collective gasp of unexpectedness and possible confusion. What is mall memory, you are likely asking. Mall memory is this: if I have been to a shopping mall once and walked through it, I could go back to that shopping mall years later and guide you around it as if I were the mall map (now I might be an out of date mall map since a mall is a living organism of changing stores, but I can most likely guide you to some of the strongholds that will likely still be there). It’s not a super useful skill, especially in this season of life when malls are not even allowed to be open to the public, but this week I couldn’t help but remember that skill when I was thinking about what Jesus says here.
“You know the way that leads to where I am going.”
Jesus is reminding us that, when we live in his example and teachings, we have an internal map that leads us to God’s presence.
Simon and I recently reread the book: Berenstain Bears Blaze a Trail. In that story the bear cubs are trying to earn scout badges by successfully and safely taking a journey through the wilderness. One of the pages of their Bear Scout Guidebook tells them that when they travel a new path, they should be sure to mark the path for others that come after them. Those who come after can then follow the markers trusting that this is a known path that at least one other person has traveled before. The individual making the path and marking it for use by others is called a blaze.
In the non-fiction world there is also a practice of blazing and marking paths for others to follow. Official trails are marked with signs, or possibly color coded dots painted onto trees. Some trails are marked by cairns – which are piles of rocks. In Canada the Inuit tradition, as well as other peoples of the Arctic region, use large stone creations as markers called Inukshuks. Inukshuks serve multiple purposes – they mark a path for navigation, or to communicate a good fishing or hunting spot, they can be used to hide a human from sight for hunting purposes, and in some cases they mark sacred spaces.
The practice of marking sacred spaces with a pile of rocks is an ancient tradition. In the Older Testament we can find several instances of piles of rocks or stone markers being erected to commemorate a place of encounter with the living God. A place of encounter with God is a liminal space – liminal being a thin space of threshold where the Holy and the human draw close. A close encounter with the Holy is one not easily forgotten.
This is why Jesus doesn’t waver when speaking with the disciples about their ability to find their way to God’s presence. Even when questioned again – Philip this time says: “If you would just show us God, that would be enough for us.” Again Jesus points to himself, “I am in God and God is in me. You have seen God because you have seen me. You know God because you know me and the things I have done, all of which I have done in relationship with God. I have blazed a trail and that trail is one that leads to life.”
Life being what we experience when we abide in the love of God. If we look back to the beginning of this text we see that where Jesus is preparing a space and calling the disciples to is God’s house where there are many dwelling places. This is not some mansion in the sky that we might travel to eventually – this is the living and spacious presence of God’s love here in this place, in all places, accessible to us when we live in love. To live in love in the way, truth, and life that Jesus teaches is to live out love in community and in service to each other.
Abiding in love is to live in the presence of God, recognizing the presence of God within us and within each other, and sharing that love in service of each other. Mutual indwelling is the way of God in the world. This may feel unfamiliar to us in a time of social distancing. If we’re honest, most everything feels a bit unfamiliar in this pandemic season – it is a season of troubled hearts and uncertainty – reinforced this week by the transition of a local ice rink into a temporary morgue facility to make space for the dead, troubled by the persistent presence of racism in our country beyond the scope of the virus and the biased impact of this virus on communities of color because of embedded racism, troubled by political preference for power and money, troubled by the official closure of schools for the remainder of the year, troubled by reports that singing in person together is a particularly dangerous activity that likely will not be safe for a long while, on and on. We are troubled and weary in this space of limbo.
The lectionary Psalm for this week is Psalm 31 – hear verses 2-3:
[God] turn your ear to me! Hurry! Rescue me! Be the rock I hide behind; be the walled fortress that saves me! Because you are my rock, my fortress, and for the sake of your Name, lead me, guide me!
Over and over this week, after reading this Psalm, my spirit kept me singing: My God is a rock in a weary land, weary land, weary land, my God is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm.
As I sang, I pondered God as a rock, as a shelter and a refuge reinforcing the words of Jesus: do not let your hearts be troubled. And when that wasn’t so easy to hear and live into because the weariness, trouble, and uncertainty was too real, I also began to remember God as a rock marking a path, persistently blazing the trail towards love – I AM the way, I AM truth, I AM life – even in the presence of weariness and heartache. A rock reminding me that this space of limbo, this space of uncertainty and discomfort, is also a space of liminality where the Holy and the human draw near whenever we choose to live in love for ourselves and each other.