Sts. Philip and James - May 1, 2018
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I don't keep statistics, but I'd guess that, of the five options for a gospel lesson at funerals, we read John 14:1-6 about as often as all of the other lessons combined. In that passage, gathered at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry. "Do not let your hearts be troubled," he says to them. "Believe in God, believe also in me." Although he plans to leave them, he assures his nervous followers that he is leaving so that he can prepare a place for them in the Father's house, and he promises that he will come back in order to take them there. "You know the way to the place where I am going," he tells them.
But Thomas is confused. Perhaps the other disciples are confused as well, but Thomas is the one who speaks up first: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" And that's where today's gospel lesson (John 14:6-14) picks up. Jesus looks at Thomas and says to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Frustratingly, that's where the funeral reading stops--with this beautiful, elevated, bold statement of Jesus' identity as the only way that anyone can get to the Father. Although that is where the funeral lesson ends, it isn't the end of the story.
Because of its popularity at funerals, I feel like I preach on John 14:1-6 pretty often, and I always feel like this last verse--"I am the way, and the truth, and the life..."--needs more attention than I can give it. Partly, I feel that way because a funeral is rarely the time for a detailed exegesis of a passage and the surrounding text. But I also feel that way because the conversation does not end in verse six. Jesus isn't finished. That isn't the last word. There's more for us to hear and see and know, and, today, as we celebrate the gospel-transformed and Spirit-filled life and witness of Saint Philip and Saint James, we get a glimpse at the rest of the story.
Jesus does not stop by proclaiming himself as the way, the truth, and the life, nor does he finish his thought by restricting access to the Father to himself alone. Instead, he continues, saying to Thomas, "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." Actually, a better translation of those pluperfect verbs would be, "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also." If you're looking for the bold claim, there it is. Jesus invites Thomas and the other disciples to believe that, having seen and known Jesus, the Son of God, they already have seen and known the Father. When Jesus says to the disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one gets to the Father except through me," he isn't attempting to limit access to the Father. Jesus isn't interested in telling other would-be aspirants who are following other would-be gurus that they are on the wrong track. He merely wants his friends to know that they are already on the right one, and, more than that, that their hearts and minds have already made it home. In other words, Jesus says to them, "If I am the way to the Father you are following me, then you do not need to look anywhere else. You already have found what you seek."
But Doubting Philip isn't so sure. (I think Thomas would appreciate it if we shared that moniker with some of his other less-trusting comrades.) "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied," he says to his master. Philip has a good point: if Jesus is promising to take them to the Father, to help them reach that place of spiritual perfection, but needs to depart from them rather abruptly, if he could just give them a full glimpse of the Father and let them see the finish line before he leaves, then the disciples could probably figure the rest out on their own. Poor Philip. "How can you say that?" Jesus says to his confused disciple. "Have you been with me all this time and still you do not know what I am all about?"
Isn't that what Jesus says to us? Aren't we among those who have followed Jesus for years, listening to his words, witnessing his miracles, and pondering his teachings, yet still wanting to know when we will make it to our spiritual destination? Don't we wish that he would just give us a glimpse of where we are headed so that we could know that the end is in sight? In times of struggle, wouldn't it be nice if we could at least see the Father and know that we are on the right path? Isn't that what following Jesus is all about: making steady, reliable progress toward God and God's kingdom?
Have you been with me all this time and you still do not know me? Our journey to the kingdom of God is not about taking gradual steps in the right direction but gradually realizing that what we seek is already here among us. Are we following Jesus because he is a good teacher with a good track record for getting his followers closer and closer to God? Or are we following him because we see in him who God is and how God's plan for the universe is unfolding? We have seen Jesus. We know Jesus. Will we believe that knowing him is the way that we know God?
God's reign is all around us. Things that are old are being made new. Things that were cast down are being raised up. Things that were dead are being brought back to life. That is how God works. That is who Jesus is. I have been following Jesus for nearly thirty-eight years, and still I am learning to trust that God is not hiding up in heaven but right in front of me. What about you? Can you hear Jesus' gentle, reassuring words: "Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." How will we get there? We already know the way.