Sermon, May 14, 2017 – Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
A few weeks ago I talked to you about the comments of Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, who had declared “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas was having a very human reaction to the reports of the resurrection of Jesus, indeed a reaction that each one of us here would have probably also had.
In today’s gospel, Thomas strikes again. Actually though, the events in today’s Gospel took place before the events in the Gospel from a few weeks ago. But, it is still Thomas. I am beginning to think that the role of Thomas in John’s gospel was as the set-up guy to give preachers material for their sermons. So what is Thomas up to today?
Jesus had just finished telling his disciples that they need not worry when he leaves them because he is going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them, and that he will come back to take them there. Jesus concludes by telling them “You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas asks what would appear to be a very reasonable question. He says “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” If you look at the first four verses of chapter 14, you see that Jesus talks about his Father’s house, but where might that be located? Thomas, quite reasonably, simply wants to know the way so that he can get there when the time comes.
This is quite sensible, isn’t it? I mean if Sheree tells me that she has prepared a lovely garden for me to come and see, and says “you know the way” but I don’t, isn’t it very reasonable for me to say to her “I don’t know the way. Can’t you tell me?” And Sheree would give me the driving directions so that I could get there. Or suppose a guest needed to use the restroom here and asked one of you how to get there. Wouldn’t you instruct them on how to get there?
Thomas simply wants to know the way to the Fathers’ house which Jesus talks about, so that he will be able to get there. And this is his mistake. And it is an easy one to make. In fact, it is one that Christians make all the time. This is, on its face, a very reasonable thing for Thomas to ask, right? And yet think about what it does. It turns the focus away from Jesus and on to ourselves, in two key ways.
First, it leads to an emphasis on our effort, as if we could find our way to the Father’s House if only we are given the correct road map and directions. Second, it can make Jesus into something that is little more than a signpost or treasure map for us. He is something that serves us in getting what we ultimately want. This way of thinking sounds far more like the Kingdom of this world than the Kingdom of God.
I think that this erroneous way of thinking has seriously undermined the church’s witness in America today. In fact, what strikes me is that much of the conservative church and much of the liberal church have taken this same basic error and gone in two different directions. On the one hand, how many people in America today – whether they are Christian or not, believe that the basic message of Christianity is this: Christians accept Jesus as their personal Savior, which then earns them a place in heaven for all eternity. A little bit of pain in the here and now, in exchange for an eternity of bliss if only we say the sinner’s prayer, try to attend church a couple of times a month, follow the ten commandments and tithe. It can sound very contractual. Jesus can become our tool to get what we really want – which is to escape hell and make it to heaven.
On the other hand, we hear from others that it is much too arrogant and exclusive to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, because it excludes those who don’t follow Jesus. Instead, we are told that Jesus is simply our way to God, but that there may be other ways as well. If Jesus is just simply a way, and an unnecessary way at that, he can’t very well be the central focus. That turns back on us and our quest. Once again, Jesus might be simply the tool we use to get what we really want – some sort of union with the divine.
I would like you to think about it this way. Imagine your best friend has come to you to tell you about a young man who has expressed interest in marrying her. You care deeply for her and want to be sure that she doesn’t make a mistake. Now imagine how the following might affect your views of this young man and what his intentions are for your best friend. What if you hear him say “I really want to marry her because she’s got a lot of money, and once we’re married, I get half.” Or how about “I want to marry her so that I can get a green card and stay in the country.” What would you say to your friend? You’d warn her away because the fellow would obviously have an ulterior motive in marrying her. She would just be a tool for him to get to his ultimate goal.
What you want to hear the young man say is “I really want to marry her because I love her so much and I want to be with her and be her help mate for as long as I live.” She should be the ultimate goal for the young man. Not a way to achieve something else, but the ultimate goal.
And so it is with Jesus. He is our ultimate goal. He is not the way to our ultimate goal. He is the goal. And so Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Our passage expands on what this means. Listen again to what Jesus says to Thomas: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
What does Jesus mean here? Let’s go back to the words of Jesus at the beginning of our passage. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” If we asked Christians today to paraphrase this, most would say that this means that Jesus is preparing our place in heaven for when we die. But this isn’t what Jesus meant and it isn’t what Jews of that day would have understood him to mean.
Jews, including Thomas, believed that when the Messiah came, he would establish the Kingdom of Israel as the predominant earthly kingdom. And God would then come to Jerusalem and dwell in His Temple there. And so, for Jews of this time period, the “Father’s house” would be the Temple where God would forever dwell with his people. The rooms would be in the new Temple, where only undefiled servants of God would have a place.
What Thomas didn’t understand yet, was that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that he was expecting. The kingdom that Jesus was going to establish was not a political kingdom in this world. And the Temple that Jesus was going to raise in three days was not a building, but rather himself. When Jesus spoke of the rooms in his Father’s House, he was referring to how his followers would dwell in Him. What the disciples didn’t yet understand, was that Jesus is the second Temple and He and the Father are one.
And so Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” Jesus is telling his disciples that he is the second Temple, and that if we are in Jesus, then we are dwelling with God the Father even now.
Jesus came to earth to die for our sins and then rise from the dead and defeat death. His resurrection is the vanguard in God’s plan for the new heavens and the new earth, when all who belong to Christ will be resurrected and dwell with him forever. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”
And so, in today’s Gospel we hear that if we belong to Christ, then we know Christ and know the Father also even now. But what’s more, Christ’s resurrection is our sure promise that when he returns, we will all be resurrected and, in our resurrected bodies, take our places with God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in the new heavens and new earth. This is the Father’s House. In the book of Revelation, John writes “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””
This is what our Gospel reading is pointing us towards. If we know Christ today, then we know God the Father as well. If we dwell in Christ, then we dwell with the Father. We are already part of the Kingdom of God. But there’s more! The resurrection of Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection of all who are in Christ. Jesus is telling us in today’s passage that when he returns to earth for the second time, we will all be resurrected in him, and we will then be fully in the Father’s house – with our resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth. In one sense, we’re there already, because we are already in Christ. But in another sense, we still have a way to go, because we have not yet been resurrected in Christ. But Jesus has both shown us the way and he is our way. And our truth. And our life.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, your Son our Lord Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life. Amen.