“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus. “Trust God and trust me.” The anxiety at the table is so thick you could squeeze it. He’s told them at dinner that he’s about to be betrayed. Their imaginations are running wild with what might happen next. But he looks at them calmly and says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God. Trust me.” Actually what it says in the Greek is “Trust into God. Trust also into me.” I’ll come back to that.
In what seems like a hard left turn, Jesus says, “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 you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
You can almost hear them thinking, “Wait…what?”
I confess that I feel a lot of sympathy with Thomas and Phillip. I suspect they were saying what the others were thinking. When Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” that resonates, doesn’t it? I mean, yes, Jesus has told them that he’s going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, but do they know where that is? Do they understand what he’s talking about?
I think we can appreciate the disciples’ confusion. And as a purely practical matter, haven’t we all asked Jesus, asked God more than once, “Lord, where are you going? What are you up to? What are we—what am I—supposed to be doing? What do you want from me? Show us—show me—the way. How can we know the way if we don’t know where you’re going?”
I find myself asking this a lot lately.
Lord, your church is in decline. Our hearts are troubled. Where are you going? What is our path? Show us the way.
Lord, some people are anxious to reopen the country for business but many are worried that it’s too soon. The virus is still out there. The numbers are still frightening. We’re divided and it’s getting ugly. Our hearts are troubled. Where are you going? What is our path? Show us the way.
Lord, we keep seeing just how deeply infected this country is with the malignancy of racism. We see justice delayed, almost overlooked, in the shooting of Ahmaud Arberey. We see people of color suffering disproportionately from the Corona virus. How do we root out this hatefulness that’s lodged so deeply in our national soul? Our hearts are troubled. Where are you going? What is our path? Show us the way.
Lord, when we emerge back into the world, do we rebuild things the way they were and return to the normal we knew, a “normal” that was leaving so many behind, or do we use this chance to build something new– new systems and economies that might work better for more people but might cause new problems that we can’t forsee? Our hearts are troubled. Where are you going? What is our path? Show us the way.
“I am the way,” says Jesus. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We Christians have misunderstood and misinterpreted these words of Christ with some pretty sad results. The first way we’ve abused them is that we’ve completely spiritualized them, as if Jesus being the way applies only to our pathway to heaven, as if Jesus being the truth applies only to metaphysical truths, as if Jesus being the life applies only to life after death. We’ve used these words of Jesus to make him our password to pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. But that’s not how the community that first lived with this Gospel of John understood these words of Jesus. They understood that the way was not just the way to heaven, but the way to walk daily in the presence of God. They understood that truth is not just an esoteric philosophical construct, but a practical standard for daily use and guidance. They understood that there is no disconnect between this life and the next, there is only one life, that this life is eternal, and that the truest life is lived into Christ.
“I am the way,” says Jesus. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” I am the way forward. I am the way into the world God has envisioned, the world of equity and equality and health.
Too often we’ve used these words as a litmus test to exclude people rather than as a doorway of invitation and a guide for our own path and way of life. We’ve used these words of Jesus as hammer of judgment, to consign whole swaths of the world to eternal damnation because they don’t believe what we believe. But Jesus doesn’t say that believing in him is the way. He says that he is the way.
Here’s how Frederick Buechner clarifies this in his book Wishful Thinking:
Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.
Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.
A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.
Oh, but if only we could see God, says Phillip. Things would be so much clearer. “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” And what Jesus replies to Phillip is tantamount to saying, “You people don’t recognize God when God is standing right in front of you.”
Phillip’s problem is our problem. He can’t recognize the presence of God in Jesus because Jesus doesn’t look like the god of his imagination, the god he’s used to thinking about. Before he can recognize the presence of God in Jesus and Jesus in God, he has to say goodbye to the god of his imagination.
In the Hebrew Book of Yasher, a book that was not included in the Bible, there is a story that when Abraham still lived in Ur, his father, Terah, was in the business of making idols. When Abraham first encountered the true God, he immediately went to his father’s house and destroyed all the idols. This story is also told in the Quran. The instructive point of this story is that we all have idols—imaginary gods—and we all have to keep destroying them.
Debie Thomas wrote, “Who knew that my life with God would actually be one long goodbye? That to know God, I would have to unknow God? To shed my neat conceptions of the divine like so many old snakeskins, and emerge into the world bare, vulnerable, and new, again and again?” She goes on to list the gods she has had to discard: the god who bargains, the god who guarantees our safety, the god who controls everything down to getting a good parking space, the god who makes faith easy and answers all questions, the god who comes when called and leaves when dismissed.
It can be challenging to let go of these gods, to say goodbye to them. They’re easy to carry in your head. They’re easy to love. They’re the gods we want because they serve us. But can you really trust them? And who, in the end, is really god if the god is serving you?
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus. “Trust into God. Trust also into me.” The language is important here. Your translation might read “Believe in God. Believe also in me.” But trust is the better translation here. And trusting into is more precise, too. It indicates an ongoing relationship, a trust that’s active and ongoing. In means a trust that immerses you into the mystery of God, the hidden depths of Jesus, a mystery and depth that is beyond human understanding, a mystery and depth that is unfathomable. You let yourself fall into it, like falling in love, and you keep going into it, deeper and deeper forever, because there is not end to the depths of God. So you trust into God. You trust into Christ.
For too many of us to believe simply means to accept something as an intellectual construct. But trust? That’s a different thing altogether. “Show me what you trust,” wrote Martin Luther, “what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god.”
God isn’t what we think God is. God is greater, deeper, more full of love and grace and creativity. Next to God, the god of our imagining is less than a hint of a shadow. Jesus isn’t what we think he is. His way more consuming and all-encompassing and compassionate than the boundaries we like to set around him. He doesn’t command us to believe in him. He affirms what little bit of trust we have and invites us to trust into him more deeply still, to fall into his unity with the God, to lose ourselves in that realm with many dwelling places.
There in those depths we will find that God is warm and generous and welcoming. We will find that there is room in God—room for our doubts and fears and troubled hearts, room for our questions, room for our obtuse failure to understand, room for our blindness and stubbornness, room for our humanity.
In God’s realm there are many dwelling places. And we know the way.