‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
I first met Helen a number of years ago, when I first started pastoring. She was in her mid-eighties then, and every Sunday morning as I stood in the pulpit delivering that week’s version of what I hoped would be The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached, Helen would be sitting just a few rows back from the front, staring intently at me, looking very serious – and ever-so-slowly shaking her head back and forth and giving the impression that I was just a huge disappointment. It really bothered me, since it seemed like no matter what I did, or what I said, week after week it just didn’t seem to please her. She just looked at me with those piercing eyes and slowly shaking her head, and given her traditional background and my more progressive leanings, I could just imagine what she must have been thinking: “It’s just a shame what they’re letting into the pulpit these days. Why, old Pastor Cohee would never have said anything like that! And what’s with all the movie references? It’s just dreadful; dreadful, I’m telling you. What a shame.” It will probably sound a little odd, but I was actually very relieved when a few months later I learned that Helen actually did like my sermons, and the head-shaking was a side effect of a medication that she was on.
Helen was a sweetheart; she was a joyful person and I loved her dearly. When I told her that story later on, she got a sparkle in her eye and just laughed and laughed. She was a small, frail woman even in the best of times when I knew her, and she became even more frail during her stay in the nursing home in the months before she died. But in those last days of her life, Helen gave her family a great gift. She made great efforts to sit and talk with her family, telling them all sorts of things from her long and often difficult life. Funny family stories, and family secrets that she’d kept for decades but felt that others needed to know. And she made sure that everyone in the family knew how much she loved them, and that she was OK with the realization that she would be dying soon. And that when she did, she wanted them to be strong, and live long and wonderful lives after she’d gone. And as the family sat around her bedside, crying and laughing and singing Helen’s favorite old hymns, the pastor realized that as he was there with them in these moments, he was standing on sacred, holy ground.
It must have been something like that during this conversation that Jesus was having with his followers in today’s gospel passage. This is part of the fourth gospel’s account of the Last Supper, and these words are part of Jesus’ farewell, his last instructions, to his closest friends and followers. By this time, everyone knew that Jesus was going to die. They didn’t know exactly when, or how, but they knew his time was just about up. And most likely with the same holy blend of joy and sorrow that formed a circle of compassion around Helen’s bed, Jesus was giving them all some last-minute words of both challenge and encouragement.
He certainly packed an awful lot into the little bit of time they had, offering just a handful of words that have generated lifetimes of theological thought and head-scratching. Just in this little snippet of the conversation that we read today, Jesus talks about what life after this life is like. And how, in some mysterious and inexplicable way, he himself could be understood in terms both human and divine. And how he’s the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, a phrase we hear all the time but quietly wonder what that really, truly means. And he says that everyone who enters the kingdom of God does so through him, his efforts, by his decision. Hear that. Jesus said *he* is the way; that no one enters into the kingdom of God but through him – not through anything that we say, or do, or even believe, for that matter, as if any of us could get all of that right in God’s eyes. It’s entirely through Christ – by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life Jesus embodied, and through which he illustrated God’s will. That was his “Way.” And if that’s the case, then it could be entirely possible to be on Christ’s way, with his mark upon you, without ever having heard of Christ – and because of that you might even be on your way to God, even if you might not even *believe* in God. It’s an interesting thought.
Well, after Jesus makes all those challenging comments, he makes another very intriguing claim, near the end of this passage. For as many great and amazing things that he’d done during his lifetime, Jesus said, those of us who do follow his way will do even greater things than those.
That’s an amazing claim. When you allow yourself to say it, it sounds arrogant, maybe even blasphemous. But as wild as it sounds, that’s exactly what Jesus himself said. Those who live through him – living the life of self-giving love and dedication to God and others that Jesus’ own life revealed as being God’s way – they would do even greater things in this world than Jesus did himself.
Whether it sounds blasphemous or not, I suppose it’s undoubtedly true if only because there have been literally billions of us trying to follow that way of living since the beginning of human history, compared with just one Jesus being here on earth for just some thirty-odd years. Really, just think of all the good, all the love and compassion, that’s been offered in the course of human history because that’s what we believe would please God. Hungry people fed. Homeless people given shelter. Hospitals built and staffed. People educated; children adopted; lonely and suffering people befriended. Medical and dental brigades going into the most remote backwaters of the world. That’s God’s way, Jesus’ way. Well, yes, maybe that’s true, all well and good, someone might say, but is that really greater than what Jesus actually did during his earthly ministry? I mean, what about all of his miracles, things like that?
What, just what about that? I admit, I haven’t seen anyone turn water into wine lately – and some days around here, that could sure come in handy – but we’ve all seen some pretty amazing things. Seriously, take stock of what you’ve seen and witnessed yourselves. Medical marvels, reconstructing the human body, transplanting organs or tissue, replacing body parts. In the Old Testament, Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbock River all night long, and God couldn’t prevail over Jacob until finally he hit Jacob on the hip and wounded it so badly that the scriptures say Jacob walked with a limp the rest of his life. If that happened today, we’d just give him a new one made out of titanium and plastic. The New Testament tells us about Jesus raising three people from the dead, but today there are countless people who have died or who were certainly going to die without the wonders of modern medical techniques, who are resuscitated every single day, whether it happens in a hospital trauma bay or patient room, or even right here in our own center aisle.*
I don’t know about you, but if those aren’t miracles from God, I don’t know what is.
You’ve probably seen that Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! that he wrote for people who were graduating and moving on into the next chapter of their lives. You could say that these amazing words of promise that Jesus says here are his version of that book, and the encouragement inside it. Two weeks ago, we recognized 15 new adult members of this congregation. Last Sunday, we recognized 31 new Confirmands. This Sunday we recognize both graduates and those who volunteer in this congregation, and we baptized two children into the faith. I think that Jesus’ words are especially appropriate to consider in light of all these new beginnings and activity in the church.
Oh, the places you’ll go. That was Helen’s message to her loved ones gathered around her bedside. And it was Jesus’ message to those disciples gathered around him that evening, and to every disciple who has followed afterward: Oh, the places you’ll go. The wonders you’ll see; the things you’ll do, Jesus says – if you allow my Way to be your way.
Thanks be to God.