I met with a couple to plan their wedding service. They wanted it to be traditional in many respects. We looked at several different options for the
vows that they would say to each other. They chose the most traditional form, promising to love, honor, and cherish each other until death separates them.
On the day of the wedding, the bride wore a traditional white wedding dress, carried a traditional bouquet of flowers, and kissed her father goodbye in the traditional way. She and the groom said their vows and exchanged rings. But they were barefoot; it was a wedding on the Gulf Coast beach.
That combination of completely traditional elements like the dress, the vows and the rings, and the simultaneously radically non-traditional
setting is a lot like what is going on in the text we have read.
As I began to describe that wedding, did you, at first, picture it happening in a church? Probably; a church is the default place to have a wedding, so that is what we expect, at first.
In the same way, as we look at this text, we see the disciples as they try to understand what Jesus is telling them. Their heads are full of the traditional Jewish pictures of what should happen, but Jesus is making some radically new moves. We get to hear them try to sort it out. Let’s look at this text, because as we watch the disciples, we are going to see ourselves and hear Jesus talk about our questions too.
The Somber Setting
Our text, set in Jesus’ final day with his disciples before his arrest, begins with a traditional Jewish holiday meal. It is Passover; the great annual celebration of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, to freedom.
There they are, in the upper room at the table, on which sits the freshly roasted Passover lamb. You would think that the mod would be joyful – this is a holiday, a festival, like Thanksgiving, only more so. But it isn’t. Jesus has been talking about his coming departure – so the mood is now somber.
Jesus can sense it – he looks into the down-turned faces around the table. He begins by going right to the pain that they feel:
1“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
The disciples might be thinking, “That’s easy enough to say; does he have anything to offer as help?” Yes he does. There is a way to manage troubling, difficult times, and what he is going to say to his troubled disciples, he says to us as well:
“Believe in God, believe also in me.”
What is “belief?”
Jesus wasn’t speaking English, so let’s slow down for a moment to try to hear this the way he said it. We have the expression, “trust me.” Sometimes it’s abused by people who ask for, but don’t deserve our trust, but it can also be said in all sincerity.
I remember trying to help my son, when he was little, to climb back down the jungle-gym ladder in the park. I was below him; I knew that if he
just let himself down a bit more his dangling foot would find the next ladder-rung. But it’s hard to let go when your foot feels only vacant space. “Trust me” I told him; “just trust me.”
It means “Rely on me, I can be counted on; I won’t let you down. Believe that what I’m telling you is honest and true – how could it not be? I love you.”
So Jesus tells those anxious disciples, “trust and rely on God, trust also in me.”
The Way is where?
Then he tells them about going away to another place to prepare it for them, but Thomas is still picturing the traditional scene, like the wedding in the church, not the radically new beach setting, so he cannot understand. How will they get to this “place?”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
What is the way? We have the same question. What is the path to the place where God is? How can you get to the place where the Risen Lord is, the place where you are able to let go and trust him?
The answer is like the beach wedding because it is both traditional and radical at the same time: the lady in the pretty white dress, standing barefoot on the sugar-white sand. It’s so important to be able to hear Jesus clearly that I’m going to take a minute to set the stage for a good, traditional Jewish understanding, because when we have that in mind, we then can understand how Jesus uses and transforms it in powerful ways.
“The way” in Jewish tradition
First the traditional part. Jewish people, like all the disciples and like Jesus, had ways of talking about their faith that everyone knew and used. What did it mean to be a person of faith in God? It meant that you started with Abraham, and you remembered that God chose Abraham and made a covenant with him; a promise to be his God, and to bless him, and through him and his descendants, to bless all the families of the earth.
All because of that gracious choice and covenant, Abraham now was obliged to “keep the way of the Lord.” As our OT reading in which God said:
“I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice;
so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (Gen. 18:19)
One of the most traditional ways a good Jewish person could speak of their life of faith was to speak of keeping the “way of the Lord” which of course meant “doing righteousness and justice.”
All through the scriptures, God’s people were told, to turn neither to the left nor to the right, but to keep the way of the Lord, trusting him that his way is best.
Of course, scripture, God’s torah, his instructions, show how to keep on the path of the “way of the Lord.” After awhile, speaking of the “way of the Lord” was nearly synonymous with speaking of keeping Torah.
The Tradition that God is “True”
The scriptures, or Torah, taught that the God who said “trust me” would be faithful and true. In fact the most profound way in which to describe God was to say that he was a God of “steadfast love and faithfulness” (tRmTa‰w dRsRj), or in another translation, “love and truth.” It’s like the Beatle’s song, “Love me, do” in which the lover proclaims, “I’ll always be true,” Torah tells us God’s love is true.
“Life” in the Tradition
Every good Jewish person knew that if they were to keep to the way of the Lord, the Torah way, then the consequence would be life. God promised life as the reward – long life on the land he promised. Life in abundance. Life filled with the good things with which God wanted them to be blessed – fruitful crops, healthy flocks, a life of blessed security; that is life.
In celebration, the Psalmist sings:
“You show me the way of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psa. 16:11)
Where is all this located?
Where do you picture the place where they are singing psalms in praise to God who shows his people the way to life? Where do you picture
someone reading the Torah to teach the people the way of the Lord who is faithful and true? Where is that place where God can be found? How can we know the way? Is it not, as it traditionally has been, at the temple in Jerusalem?
Jesus looked at Thomas, and then to the other forlorn disciples and announced in the words of their Jewish tradition, where to find the Way of the Lord, the True and faithful God, the blessed Life he promised to Abraham. He said:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Jesus: the new “way, truth, life”
Now, the Way of the Lord is the Jesus way! Now, the True and faithful God is found in Jesus. Now the blessed Life comes from living the Jesus way by trusting God.
Does he need to make it more clear?
7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
This is radical and new, not traditional and expected. No wonder they were confused. Where do you go to find God? You now go to Jesus. Where do you look to learn about the way of the Lord? You learn it from Jesus. Where do you go to find the confidence to trust that God is faithful and true? You do what he said at the start:
“Believe in God, believe also in me.”
In other words, rely on God whom you know in Jesus. Be the child climbing back down the ladder who will trust that his Father loves him. Let go of that grip and let your foot down to the solid rung below.
Weighing-in on “the way” of Jesus
But do we? Do we really?
Do we trust that the Jesus way works in the real lives we live? Does it really work to live his way as he taught us in the sermon on the Mount? Are the poor in Spirit the ones who are blessed? Is meekness, mercy and peacemaking really an option on the table? Can a person be pure in heart in this world?
Let me push this a bit further and be practical: when we consider the practical questions of our world, from the personal to the public and political, do we ever bring into the conversation the question: What would God want us to do?
That question, of course, would bring up the question: How would we ever know what God would want? Which would bring us to this text: We see God in Jesus. We can find God by following Jesus. We can understand the Way of the Lord by studying the Way of Jesus who is himself the Way.
What would Jesus think about my personal budget, my investments?
What would Jesus think about my use of time?
What would Jesus think about my relationships – about my family and how we treat each other?
What would Jesus think of every question before our Congress today?
What would Jesus think about every story on the news?
What does Jesus think about the sick? the poor? the hungry? the marginalized? What do the gospels tell us about the Jesus “way”?
Maybe we are not so much in a quandary about those answers, as this one:
“After getting a hunch that I know what Jesus would want, can I trust him, and through him, trust in God?”
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
We all want to find, in Jesus, the Life. Can we find that life without following the Way? His words that night, to his troubled disciples still ring in our ears:
“No one comes to the Father except through me.”