By Alston Johnson
“He prepares the dwelling places by preparing those who are to dwell in them.” Saint Augustine
Jesus is having is his last supper with his disciples, and Jesus is the only one present who really knows what is happening. Jesus knows when the last call will be made, when the lights will flicker, and when the music will be turned off.
We are glimpsing the turning point of the evening.
The streets of Jerusalem are all noise, music, reverence and the crackling energy that comes with any religious festival season, because it is Passover in the Holy City. There are Jewish pilgrims throughout the Roman Empire who have descended upon the city. The Israelites are reminding themselves and one another of God’s mercy. God has delivered them, and they are praying fervently that God will deliver them again, not necessarily from Egypt this time, but from Roman occupation.
The disciples have gathered perhaps with some small talk. There has been the remarkable event of their rabbi washing of their feet. But more importantly during the evening, Jesus settles into tell his friends the truth; as though Jesus is crashing his own party with an uninvited guest – the truth. At the end of the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his friends the truth that they do not know one another, or themselves, as well as they might.
There is betrayal, and there will be denial before the cock crows.
It causes me to wonder about the disciples.
How could they have lived together through so much and yet known one another so little? How could they have made the mutual sacrifice of homes, jobs, futures, and social standing, only to find that they may have not known one another as well as Jesus knew each of them?
Disclosing this betrayal sets a new stage in John’s Gospel, giving Jesus the opportunity of uttering some of the most profound words spoken to human beings.
With his own execution staring him in the face, Jesus remains the Good Shepherd by speaking the truth in love to his friends. Jesus goes the distance and tells them that in spite of their stupidity, their selfishness, their own lack of self-awareness, and their uncanny ability to make all things of God about themselves . . . Jesus is still going to give them entrance into the state of being they cannot give to themselves. After telling his friends what he knows to be true about them, Jesus then gives them his own promise of love.
It leaves me a bit speechless. On his last night, after letting his friends into the secret about how they will fail him at his greatest moment of need, the Good Shepherd proves his worth by assuring his friends that He will not fail them, although a few of them will fail Him. This is precisely how God’s love is at work in the world.
Surrounded by the noise and activity of their most holy, annual, religious holiday in the great and holy city of Jerusalem, Jesus begins explaining in a small room to a group of his friends that God is placing the doorway and God is building the bridge. It is being positioned within the world in such a way that almost no one can see divine hand moving. The Passover within the Passover is occurring in the small room of the last supper.
True to form, Thomas gives voice to the kinds of questions that live inside all of our heads after Jesus explains what is actually happening in Jerusalem on this night. “Hey, I don’t get it. I don’t get it . . . where are you going? How will we know the way to where you are going?”
In this moment Jesus closes all the fire escapes.
“I am the way the truth the life . . . No one comes to the Father except through me.” Sitting with these words for a few moments, considering the time and place in which they are spoken, I believe we will see that it is an answer that actually lives at the end of all questions. Jesus is giving Thomas and the disciples the map of all maps. I believe that if we will sit with these words long enough, we will see that they are the answer to all human questions about our lives and our place in the world.
Jesus is “the way” because he maintains a vertical relationship with God, while also living in a horizontal relationship with his fellow human beings; Jesus is complete both vertically and horizontally in expressing God’s purposes for humanity.
Jesus is “the truth” because in a long line of failed approximations to speak and act in God’s name, Jesus the incarnate Word, or Logos, of God is the most complete expression of the relationship that God desires for his children. Jesus is God’s transparency. It is the summary of the short theological lecture that Jesus shares with Philip in this passage.
“You have seen me you have seen the Father . . . 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.”
The result is that if we will walk in this particular “way,” and acknowledge that Jesus is this particular “truth,” we will one day awake to find that we are truly alive; that we are alive not just for a season, but alive forever with God. In that Jesus is the way and the truth, He is also the life; a life whose definition we have yet to fully comprehend.
John’s Gospel is articulating something that for all purposes is impossible for human beings to fully describe or understand; it is a love that explodes our categories of experience and comprehension. How God loves us is a lesson that we continue learning until we leave this place.
Because no one has spoken as Jesus has spoken of God. Jesus is blessing his friends and followers, some of whom are in the process of soon denying Him. The explanation is that for those who walk in this Way, those who will trust this Truth, those who will accept this Life, they will have an intimation of God as “Abba” and Father. It is a new and unprecedented relationship that each human being might have with God that is intimate and precious – the way that a child suddenly runs to their parent across a crowded room.
Buddha never says something like this. Moses never says something like this; nor does Muhammed or Krishna. The point that John is making is that Jesus is speaking something completely unique into being. This “Abba experience” lives in the heart of the Gospel. Jesus opens his own life with a graceful gesture to an insubordinate humanity, you and me, so that we might share his own intimacy with God. The Incarnation is the doorway. It is the ultimate and only blessing that really matters in the end.
The gift on his last night, as Jesus speaks the truth in love to his friends, is that although they will very predictably fail him, He has no intention of failing them. In fact, the opposite is true. He not only does not fail us, he goes ahead to become the guide through a wilderness that we would never escape; the wilderness of death, and the wilderness of an eternal existence apart from God.
Because of his Good Shepherd’s love, we can have confidence that when we call upon him, we are never lost, and we always have a story beyond those that begin and end in this world.
Jesus gives his friends the assurance that in the days to come, in the events that are unforeseen for them – they already have everything that they need – because they have Him, and He is going forward in such a way that He will always have them.
In January 2000, leaders of Charlotte, North Carolina, invited their favorite son, Billy Graham, to a luncheon. Billy initially hesitated to accept the invitation because he struggles with Parkinson’s disease. But the Charlotte leaders said, “We don’t expect a major address. Just come and let us honor you.” So he agreed.
After wonderful things were said about him, Graham stepped to the rostrum, looked at the crowd, and said, “I’m reminded today of Albert Einstein, the great physicist who this month has been honored by Time magazine as the Man of the Century. Einstein was once traveling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of each passenger. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn’t find his ticket, so he reached in his other pocket. It wasn’t there, so he looked in his briefcase but couldn’t find it. Then he looked in the seat by him. He couldn’t find it. The conductor said, ‘Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it.’ Einstein nodded appreciatively.
“The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket. The conductor rushed back and said, ‘Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are. No problem. You don’t need a ticket. I’m sure you bought one.’ Einstein looked at him and said, ‘Young man, I too know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going.’”
Billy Graham continued, “See the suit I’m wearing? It’s a brand-new suit. My wife, my children, and my grandchildren are telling me I’ve gotten a little slovenly in my old age. I used to be a bit more fastidious. So I went out and bought a new suit for this luncheon and one more occasion. You know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I’ll be buried. But when you hear I’m dead, I don’t want you to immediately remember the suit I’m wearing. I want you to remember this: I not only know who I am, I also know where I’m going.”
John Huffman, “Who Are You, and Where Are You Going?” 2002.
The Very Rev. Alston Johnson is dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, Louisiana.