"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one will come to the father but through me."
I can remember when these words from John's gospel first bothered me. I was about 10 years old. A group of foreign visitors had come to our town for a weekend visit. Somehow our little Minnesota river town was on their tour of the United States. Several families hosted them, and my family hosted one of the Russians, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with us to our Lutheran Church on Sunday. I was sorry when the visit ended. But something that Yuri had said during the visit troubled me. I asked my mother about it: "Yuri said he doesn't believe in Jesus. He doesn't even believe in God. I'm afraid he's not going to go to heaven. What's going to happen to Yuri when he dies?"
I remember her reply, "Christianity's not a club, Anne. It's not about who's in and who's out. It's about how we live."
I think Jesus is telling his friends the same thing. He is telling his friends goodbye. The words of the fourth gospel writer paint a picture of Jesus at a last supper with his friends. The political climate is heating up, and Jesus knows his alternative way will get him in big trouble with the Empire and the temple.
Jesus offers his friends a metaphor-just like he always does. This is the metaphor for aplace, a place where they will be able to find him. He calls it a dwelling. John's words about dwelling are not about a future place, but rather a present reality: God already dwells here, with them, on this earth. That's the reality Jesus has told them about time and time again. The kingdom has come near, God is here.
Thomas, ever the literalist, wants to get it right. He hears the words about dwelling, but he wants a map. He wants to get to this place that Jesus is talking about. But Jesus is not talking about geography. Jesus is talking about being connected, about being with each other, and with God, in life, in the eternal life that is beginning now. He is talking about something that we claim to be the very essence of Christianity: being in relationship with God, and with each other.
Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, the Life." He does not say: 'here is a list of things you must do to get to God, here is a list of beliefs you must sign on the bottom line, here is a recipe, a confession, a creed'. He says, "I am the way. I am Truth. I am Life. You know me, you've been living it with me, this way, this truth, so you already know God."
But Philip wants more. He wants thunder on the mountain, a burning bush, an earthquake maybe, a window through the clouds. He wants to see God.
Jesus answers him: "Okay Philip. If it is too much for you to look at me and realize that in knowing me, traveling with me, eating with me, through all of this you have seen God present and active and real-in-the-flesh right in front of your very eyes, then do this: Don't just look at me, look at what I do."
"Look at how we live: See who has traveled with us, see who sits at this very table tonight: the ones from the roadside, from the edges--the ones without names, without titles, without power, the women unwelcome in the synagogue, the prostitute valued here for her heart, not her body.
"Look at all this, Philip, and see God active and present and real-in-the-flesh right here and right now. Trust what you have seen. This way, this truth, this life, this love does not end."
These words, recorded long after any kind of conversations between Jesus and the first disciples, gave comfort to the ones who came after Philip and Thomas and Mary Magdalene and the rest. John's community, living at the end of the first century, needed assurance. Their hearts were troubled by the chaos of their day. The temple walls had tumbled down. The persecutions were in full swing. They were afraid of the Romans. They were confused by all the new religions that were springing up, all the people who claimed a corner on the truth. And they were confused by the claims of their friends and family who clung to the old traditions, who rejected their new way to be Jews.
So in the midst of all this, with the swirl of questions around them and everything up in the air, this little Christian sect at the end of the first century needed to name their way as THE way, the path of light through the darkness of their time. For their very survival these frightened and embattled people needed to claim their way as the ONLY way. Out of this fear comes the gospel of John. John's version of the Jesus story, with its ringing tone of exclusivity, helped them do this. When they heard John's story about a last supper, they heard that they were on the right track, and they could muster the courage and the strength to go on.
They heard that the Jesus who healed and fed and freed the captive and welcomed the outsider had shown them God, the very Goodness at the ground of all life.
They heard that whenever and wherever healing and feeding and releasing and reconciling and welcoming would happen, wherever and whenever love would happen, there again was God.
They knew that whenever they were afraid, whenever they felt inadequate in the face of the day's challenge, there again was an opening for God.
They knew they could see Jesus again, in all his astounding glory and all his common humanity, in these places of need and longing, all the places of feeding and releasing and reconciling and welcoming. In these places he was alive and active and real-in-the-flesh, divinity let loose in the world.
They knew that these real-life meetings were more important than any doctrine, any claim to exclusivity. They did not define the Way of Jesus as a special set of beliefs or some sort of correct doctrine. The Way was about recognizing need, and doing something about it, in the name of love. The Way of Jesus was about love incarnate, love in-the-flesh.
Our day is different than that of the early disciples, but we still sometimes want the same assurance that Thomas wanted; we want the path of light through the darkness, even as we see more than one path. We want the same assurance, but we are gunshy: we have seen too many centuries of slaughter in the name of religion, we have seen the cruelty of exclusivity, we reject the limits of literalism, and we know we cannot be satisfied by relativism. But we still want the assurance of some place, that dwelling place named in these mystical parting words. We want to know, if not THE way to God, SOME way to God, even as we believe that there are many ways to know God in our world today. We want, with Philip, to see God.
So what might we, along with Philip, hear in these words of the Fourth Gospel?
"Look," Jesus says, "when others see us, they don't see the texts we read, the creeds we recite, the words we use in our worship; they see how we live. God shows up in our lives, Philip. We are signs of God made real-in-the-flesh. Like it or not, we are known by how we live, by how we live together, by how we treat one another, by how we spend our time, our money, our selves."
We know this, don't we? We are known as a church-as Christians-by whom we welcome and by whom we turn away, whom we heal and whom we hurt, what we nurture and what we ignore. We are known as Christians, as a sign of Jesus here in our day, by our love for each other, for the stranger, for our fragile warming planet. We are the ones, now, who show the Way, we are the ones who become for the world around us the Truth--or the lie. We are the ones, the Life through which our Christian faith is perceived in our day.
We are the ones who can choose to reflect Jesus to the world around us-or not. We are the ones who can show the world a Christianity that is rock solid compassion at its core and porous at its edges-or we can show the world a Christianity that is all about hard-edged exclusion, encrusted in ancient creeds. We are the ones who can choose. Our text this week gives us that opportunity.
Echoes from the Edge
By Anthony Sandusky, Beatitudes Fellow - May 13th, 2014
The Underground at Concord is moving! We are gathering to experience Real Talk, Real Community, and Real Soul Music in Central Brooklyn. In large and small group settings, we have engaged in dialogue around themes of love, forgiveness, and redemption . Discussions have taken place during the groundbreaking, a portion of the Underground service featuring a short sermonic message. We have also drawn on the soulful sounds of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Bob Marley to aid in our discussions together.
So far our gatherings have been fraught with much excitement and ambiguity. As we continue putting the word out about what we are doing in the community, it is impossible to imagine what or who to expect. Lessons from the parable of the sower have inspired me through this process. I remain encouraged to continue planting seeds, not knowing the harvest the seeds will produce.
As we move forward with the Underground my desire is to be intentional about planting seeds that nurture relationships within our neighborhood. There are many pertinent realities that call us to relationship building: gun violence in our community, the lack of affordable housing, the lack of employment, and a failing education system. As we continue in the work of gathering and going out, we desire to build relational power that will enable us to engage some of these issues in our community. We are beginning to organize youth and young adults in the community to provide space for addressing some of these issues over the summer.
A few weeks after our remembrance and celebration of Christ crucifixion and resurrection, I am reminded of the significance of Jesus relational power with his disciples. That power was so great that it continues to inspire our ministry and witness today. It is the reality of that courageous power that gives encouragement for us today. Death will not hold us down. We will continue to seek life for our community as we build relational power together.
Anthony Sandusky is the Pastor-in-Residence at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, where he leads The Underground, a new multicultural Church movement.
Finally, the Poet
By Mary Oliver - May 13th, 2014
There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.