“The Way . . .”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, October 30, 2022
Reading: John 14:1-14
Happy Halloween tomorrow. A great day to dress up and scare neighbours and eat our kids’ candy. I love Halloween movies because they know something many of us claim we don’t believe: Evil is real and it’s loose in the world. You might think folks aren’t much interested in faith anymore unless you watch horror films. Where else do they get holy water and crosses and all that accoutrement to fight evil? You’re welcome world. They should send us royalties. Halloween is really All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints Day is November 1, when the church commemorates all the saints to make sure we don’t forget any. The legend grew that some of those saints turned up the day before to make sure we don’t forget them. Some say Halloween is anti-Christian, but we Christians accidentally birthed it. Again, you’re welcome world. Tomorrow is also Reformation Day. The day in 1517 when Martin Luther lodged his protest against the church selling salvation because salvation is a free gift from God that no one can buy or sell. There’s a lot more going on in heaven and on earth tomorrow than just kids in masks and adults eating most of their candy. There’s more going on in heaven and on earth every day than we can see with our physical eyes.
I love that passage from John you heard. For some reason . . . it gets me thinking about space. One of the generation-making moments for my parents was seeing people walking around on the moon. My dad took pictures of the TV in 1969. That got baby boomers thinking about the future. So, my generation, their children, grew up with entertainment like Star Wars and Star Trek, imagining not only living in space, but fighting intergalactic evil. More than 50 years after the moon landing though we’re not in space as much as we’d imagined. That’s okay, there’s enough evil to fight here on earth.
Wiser minds than mine point out that talk about aliens is really talk about God. Think about it. One of the first things we would ask another intelligent species . . . hey, what do you guys believe in? A friend of mine puts it this way: we’re always asking whether we’re alone in the universe, and we act like meeting aliens would answer that question. But would it? We might just realize we’re alone with the Martians. To ask whether we’re alone in the universe is really to ask about God. Is there any purpose to human life? Or alien life? To life at all? Those are religious questions, not just scientific ones.
I mostly hear the passage from John referred to in one of two ways. One is at funerals. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” as it is traditionally said. Or, here in our more humble translation, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Whether Jesus is promising a luxurious mansion or a modest dwelling place, he is certainly offering someplace, large or small, to live forever with God. The other context is in discussion of Christianity and other religions. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus sounds pretty unequivocal there that he is right, and everything else is wrong, right?
What troubles me about both these uses of this passage is that they direct our attention away from Jesus and toward something else. At funerals we tell people their lost loved one has a mansion, and suddenly we’re off thinking about heavenly real estate and life after death, and not so much about Jesus. Those who appeal to the “way, the truth and the life” to say why Hinduism is wrong, or whatever, are suddenly arguing the failures of other religions and the superiority of ours, instead of thinking about Jesus. We take a passage about Jesus and turn it into a description of our coming mansion, or our rightness and other religious people’s wrongness. In the Bible, Jesus is hard on those close to him, and tender with those far away. We usually reverse that: we make him our mascot, and a critic of those we know little about.
But this is a strange passage. And our desire to make clear teaching out of it is understandable. Jesus is a bit long-winded in John. My wife Jaylynn and I watched a terrific Gospel of John movie that came out in 2003, narrated by our fellow Ontarian, Christopher Plummer. This one, unlike Mel Gibson’s movie, that really follows the script of the gospel word for word. And the speeches in John are long. They go on for chapter after chapter—four chapters in one case! Jesus was halfway thought yet another long speech and my beautiful wife, who loves Jesus, turned to me and said, “Will Jesus ever shut up?” That’s the Gospel of John—long speeches, not altogether clear. And the disciples want a little clarity. Is that too much to ask?
My heroes in this passage are Thomas and Phillip. Jesus talks on and on about the way, the place where he’s going, preparing a place for them, and Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” Jesus talks on and on about the Father, and Phillip has an idea: “Show us the Father, and we’ll be satisfied.” Notice how straight to the point these questions are, no nonsense, what a chance for Jesus to clear up misconceptions, to put any lingering doubt to rest. Where are you going Jesus? And show us the Father, Jesus. Sensible questions, completely fair and reasonable.
New census data suggests that one-third of our fellow Canadians claim no religion at all. Quite a change from a century ago when Canadians were more religious than Americans. But these questions still haunt you whether you claim to have a religion or not: What is the way to life that outlasts death? Seems straight-forward enough. And we can respond by talking about how to be religious, why a reasonable person might think there’s a God. But notice how Jesus responds to these questions. How can you say you don’t know the way, Thomas? I AM the way, Thomas. How can you ask to see the Father, Philip? If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father! It’s like the common expectation of a children’s sermon where the answer to every question is Jesus! So, the teacher asks, “What’s gray and furry, climbs trees and makes funny noises?” And all the children squeal “Jesus!” but one skeptical little girl says, “It sort of sounds like a squirrel.” The answer is always Jesus.
So, when we talk about a way to God, about how to see God, and are tempted not to talk immediately about Jesus, we should remember the children’s-sermon-rule: The answer is always Jesus. And there’s no need to try and convince our neighbours to be more religious. Religion can be a great way to hide from God, whether it’s our religion or someone else’s. Let’s talk about Jesus instead. He’s the way to hide in God.
Are we alone in the universe? The answer is . . . Jesus. No, we’re not alone. God is with us in Mary’s child, Lord of all.
One of my favourite writers is Mary Doria Russell. She wrote a fantastic book called The Sparrow that is about, you guessed it, Martians. Intelligent life is discovered and all the religions in the world race to build a spaceship to evangelize the Martians. The Jesuits, the Catholic church’s most energetic order, get there first. The Jesuits go to try and tell the Martians about Jesus and it doesn’t go well (for the Jesuits that is, not the Martians). One reason I love Russell is she’s a convert to Judaism. She was raised Catholic, but decided the incarnation made no sense to her. How can God squeeze down into a human body and still be God? She decided, nope, and became a practicing Jew. I admire it. If I decided against the incarnation, I’d become Jewish too. Sister gets it.
When I heard her speak, I borrowed the public library copy of The Sparrow, had her sign it, and turned it back into the library. I hope someone notices someday. But I digress.
Her book shows that what we really want is some solution to the problem of evil. There is no solution. Evil is a mystery, not a problem to be solved. The answer is an even greater mystery: Jesus, dying on a cross, rising to save. Let evil stay a mystery, don’t try to solve it. Just immerse yourself in an even greater mystery than evil: God knows you. Loves you. God even likes you. Saves you. But first, he’ll make you mad.
Jesus likes to muddy the water when we want clarity. It’s not that there’s any confusion here over whether Jesus is God—he’s clear enough on that. The mystery is over what the word “God” means. The divine presence is so full in Jesus that it overflows on the rest of us. We come back here to God’s house weekly to try and fathom the mystery of the one who flung stars into space present with eyelashes and toenails and a face in a Jew from Nazareth. And we’ll never comprehend it. St. Augustine said, “If you understand it, it is not God.” A God you and I could understand would be an idol, a work of our hands, and not the living Lord of the universe. So, the eternally existing one got born, and the fleshed God is standing in front of Thomas and Philip. No wonder they don’t understand. Or that we don’t.
Typical of us, of Thomas and of Phillip, to want information from Jesus about God. When our loved one dies, we want information about where they are, and whether it’s a dwelling place or a mansion. When the question is about other religions, we want information about who’s right and who’s wrong. But the answer is Jesus. We want a weapon to brandish against our enemies to win an argument, or to make ourselves feel better when we don’t. Remember that story when a bunch of Buddhists approach Jesus and he tells them they’re wrong? No, you don’t because there is no such story. The only story we got is Jesus. Not a mascot we can put in our pocket, or a trump card in a game, but some one, who stands over and against us in judgment and in grace, who won’t be reduced to our petty agendas, who is our Lord and our brother, who judges us and loves us. To look at Jesus this way is to see ourselves unsettled and judged, in the position of Thomas and Phillip, who are confused but starting to catch on—the answer is always Jesus.
So instead of judging some other peoples’ standing before God we should attend to our own. When we think of God we ought not think of a big, impressive figure in the sky who might pay attention to us or might not with a lightning bolt, that would be Zeus. We ought not think of a God who blesses armies and grants victory, that’d be Mars. We want God to give us our every desire, but that’s someone else’s credit card at the mall, the idol of consumerism. We ought first and always to think of Jesus Christ. He’s who God is like, who God is. However much we don’t know, we do know God is present to save us in this man, as God is present in the water of our baptisms and in the bread and wine we share at his table. It’s very easy for us to misdirect our worship elsewhere than toward Jesus. Mansions, dwelling places, the sort of comfort we offer those who mourn the dead is that of moving to the suburbs, a private place of one’s own to live in comfort, like winning the lottery. When first we should think of Jesus—his resurrection and his promised return are the final words of Christian hope about death. Or being right and someone else being wrong. But Jesus only saves the wrong people. That’s disorienting. But it’s such good news.
The most important words in this passage may not be the most famous. They may be these: “Be not afraid,” Jesus says. He says it a lot. They are, I’m told, the most frequent command in the entire Bible—be not afraid. We have reason to be afraid: nuclear tensions are back for the first time since the 80s. Our economy may be collapsing. Popular culture presents us with one disaster looming after another: the zombies are coming; no, dragons are coming. No, something is coming to hurt us. Where do you see any vision of the future in our culture that’s got hope in it? Well, the Bible has hope in it. Jesus promises hope. “Be not afraid,” he says. Because of him. Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish author and moral conscience, liked to say, “When an angel shows up and tells you not to be afraid, you’d better watch out—a big assignment is on the way.” So, “be not afraid” might not be comforting. It might be a summons to be a different sort of people, filled with hope not despair. Our media and culture are sure that whatever is coming its going to be worse than we fear. But the church can be a place that says no. What’s really coming is Jesus. Take heart.
Why shouldn’t we be afraid? Well, I already told you the answer to every question, it’s Jesus. Be not afraid because of Jesus. Maybe it’s appropriate to draw comfort at funerals from this verse as it instructs us not to be afraid. Our loved one is with Jesus. If we’re worried about those of other religions, the answer is, be not afraid. There are many dwelling places in the place where Jesus is going—if there weren’t he’d have told us! There’s a spaciousness to this God, a graciousness that astounds, we know this is true because we have seen God’s gentleness in Jesus. The thing to be afraid of is our own tendency to remake God in our image as one who is pinched off, ungenerous and unkind. The great Anne Lamott says you can be pretty sure you’ve remade God in your image if you think God hates all the same people you do. But the true God is Jesus! Don’t be afraid, there’s an answer to every question, and that answer is Jesus. Other religions? Learn from them. Honour them. Show our differences in good faith. And don’t be afraid. Jesus is Lord. So, we can relax and be generous and patient. He is good and loves, and he’s the only judge there is.
The other most interesting, non-famous part of this passage is the end: “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Now, by my rough memory, in John’s gospel Jesus turns water to wine, heals crippled people, raises a dead friend, and rises from the dead himself, just to name a few of his works. And we’re to do greater works than these. This is like the bit about the mansion, it’s hard for us not to hear it with consumerist ears—I get a mansion? I can do miracles? I can get whatever I want?
But remember the answer to every question is Jesus. The thing we’re to ask for in prayer is Jesus. The form of the great works we’re going to do is Jesus. What we can always get more of is, you guessed it, Jesus.
I stayed away from the comedian Jim Gaffigan for a long time because I heard he was religious. I do religion all day long and twice on Sunday, and a religious comic sounds like a boring one. I was so wrong. He may be the most hopeful voice we have. He is a practicing Catholic, which just means he knows how to make fun of his own church even better than outsiders. Anyway, he points to space programs being run by billionaires. It used to take governments to launch spaceships, now individuals are worth more than governments. And Gaffigan has this reaction: are these guys paying all their taxes? He imagines little Jeff Bezos at eight years old saying one day he’d make a bajillion dollars and have his own space program. His parents: that’s nice Jeffrey. Well, here we are. We started out going to space to see if we were alone in the universe, we end up with billionaires showing off. This is not progress. Meanwhile we have an answer to the original question. We are not alone in the universe. God is with us. Not far away in space. But down here with us, lower than us, starting out right underneath Mary’s ribs, working to scramble his way into each one of our hearts. Don’t be afraid. Really. Don’t. God is with us. And will never leave us.
And not only that, God with us and in us makes us Godlike. Most of us can’t have private space programs, that’s okay. We can, scripture promises, do greater works than Jesus, we can even forgive those who mistreat us. Turn betrayers back into friends, and sinners into saints. Raise the dead, heal the sick, forgive sins, all the Jesus stuff. In fact, you and I can have whatever we ask—as long as what we ask for is, Jesus. A Baptist pastor from my home state put it this way: God gives us what we want. After God changes our wanter around. The only thing we should want is Jesus. He’s all there is, and there’s always more of him, and he alone satisfies.
Let me ask you again—what’s the answer to every question? Jesus. Now, it’s our job to figure out what the next question is. Amen.