St. John’s Lutheran Church
7 May 2023 + Easter 5a
Rev. Josh Evans
“Moving is so much fun!” … said no one, ever. It is, however, much, much easier when you have professionals doing the moving (thank you, St. John’s!).
Moving with cats, on the other hand, is an exercise in patience. As we bounced between apartments and motel rooms, I’m not sure whose anxiety was greater. Probably the cats’ … but mine surely wasn’t far behind.
Perhaps my cats could have used Jesus’s words from his farewell discourse: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. I’m going to prepare a (new) place for you! Where I am going, there you will be also.”
It’s hard to hear those words of promise and reassurance in the moment, though, as everything in your world is changing and you don’t know what’s happening.
In the chapter before, Judas had just been revealed as Jesus’s betrayer and Peter as the one who would publicly deny even knowing Jesus.
Their hearts had every reason to be troubled.
Jesus was going to be imminently arrested and killed. Two of their own would soon turn on him. Their entire world as they knew it for the past three years was changing, and they didn’t know what would happen or where they would wind up.
It is to these troubled, anxious hearts – his friends – that Jesus speaks his words of promise and reassurance.
It is also in this particular segment of Jesus’s farewell discourse that Jesus speaks perhaps the second most well-known of his statements in the gospel of John.
The first, of course, is John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
It’s a verse that is filled with such grace and promise … but also far too often removed from context that we miss the even more profound grace and promise of John 3:17 — “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Meanwhile, eleven chapters later, Jesus’s second most well-known words to his disciples continue to be plucked off the page and read out of context:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Far from a word of promise and reassurance, the sixth of the seven “I AM” statements of Jesus in John has so often been misused as “evidence” of Christianity’s proprietary claim to salvation.
Christianity is the way. No one can be “saved” outside of Jesus. At least that’s the message many of us, myself included, grew up hearing and believing. Never mind the fact that Jesus and his disciples weren’t actually Christians because that wasn’t a thing yet.
Now, maybe such an interpretation was meant to be hopeful and reassuring, like believing in Jesus was akin to checking a box and thus guaranteeing your eternal salvation. But truthfully, it’s downright harmful and spiritually abusive, not to mention wildly inhospitable in our 21st century religiously pluralistic world.
Not only that, it’s also just plain wrong. To warp Jesus’s words of promise into a statement of judgment and exclusion stands in blatant contradiction to all the other “I AM” statements and even the gospel of John as a whole.
In John, Jesus declares:
“I am the bread of life.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I am the gate for the sheep.”
“I am the good shepherd.”
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
“I am the true vine.”
Without launching into six more mini-sermons that none of us has time for this morning, suffice it to say, as one biblical scholar summarizes: All the “I AM” statements in the gospel of John “make known Jesus as the source of life [and] abundant grace.” The connection to the divine name — I AM — further “signals the very presence of God.” (Karoline Lewis)
“I AM the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In its immediate context, it’s an answer to Thomas’s question: “How can we know the way?”
“I AM the way,” Jesus responds. As if to say: “You already know the way because you know me. And if you know me (and you clearly do), you already know God.”
These are words of comfort and promise and the reassurance of God’s abiding presence.
These words reveal and reiterate the abundant life Jesus came to offer, embodying God’s very self in the world.
These words also extend an invitation: “The one who believes in me — who trusts that I AM the very presence of God — will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
All along, the work of Jesus – every sign, every encounter, every conversation – has been to reveal God’s presence and God’s love for the world.
Just because Jesus is leaving them doesn’t mean that that work will end. Quite the opposite, in fact: This work will fall to them, to pick up where Jesus left off, to keep on revealing God’s love to the world, so that all might experience the abundant life and abiding presence Jesus has been sharing with them.
Their hearts had every reason to be troubled. They were rightfully anxious of what the future would hold.
“Will we be living in this strange motel room forever? Will my human ever let me out of this crate? Will this car ride ever end? Where’s all our stuff – and, most importantly, our food dish?”
Before long, once all the furniture returned, my cats found their familiar prime napping spots (and their full food dishes). This weekend, they even let me trim their nails without putting up (too much of) a fuss. All was well and right with the world again, despite their momentary doubts.
Not altogether unlike moving with cats, I have to imagine teaching disciples who repeatedly seemed to just not get it had to be an equally excruciating exercise in patience.
But Jesus doesn’t chastise them for what they’re feeling.
Instead, he takes the opportunity to keep on teaching them:
That ultimately, they can be certain of the unfailing, abiding presence of a God who loves them. No matter what.