How do you say goodbye to those you love? How do you leave them empowered to carry on without you? How do you explain a future that has not yet happened? How do you share a vision you see so clearly with those who cannot fully grasp it?
These are the questions that run through my mind when I think about this scene in John's gospel. It's a continuation of Jesus speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. These words come after Judas has fled the room. John 14 is the beginning of four chapters known as the farewell discourse. The discourse is the words that Jesus offers to comfort and reassure and prepare those he loves to continue this journey that they have been on together.
It is not a sermon preached to 5000. It is not parables to try and explain the Kingdom of God to a wide community. These are words for intimate friends, for loved ones. Jesus offers reassurance that those who have been on this path with him toward God will continue to be following that path after his is no longer with them. Saying that he is “the way” is meant to comfort them. It is a reassurance of experience and presence, not of doctrine or exclusive access to God, meant to become a barrier to keep only the select inside the circle of eternal love.
Rather, Jesus offers his very self as the path, the life he has lived with these friends is meant to be a light shining on a path when everything is beginning to feel dark. The words are meant to show a way forward, to offer hope and a reminder that these dear ones already know the way to move forward — they have seen the path in Jesus, and they can continue to follow in the direction they set out with Jesus, who even though he must leave them, promises to go ahead of them, ready and waiting for their arrival.
So much of our faith story is about belonging, about becoming God’s people. From God’s promise to Abraham to make him a nation, from God’s word to Moses to lead the people away from Egypt to a new land, to Jesus going ahead to prepare a place for his followers. When we know whose we are, and where we belong, we can become the people we are meant to be. When we don’t belong, or don’t know to whom we belong, we flounder.
When I was entering ninth grade, I had to go ahead of my parents to a new place and await their arrival. My new stepfather opened a trucking company with his brother-in-law, and we were moving from Southern California to Northern California. My parents bought a house that was still under construction when school began. Our Southern California house had not yet sold, and my mother had not yet quit her job, so my stepdad piled me into the cab of his semi the day before my new school started and drove me to the house of one his drivers. I was going to live with a family of four—all strangers to me––until my parents moved north, too. We arrived well after dark, and the family was sleeping. After handing off my suitcase, sleeping bag, and pillow, my stepdad drove to a motel and said he’d be back on Friday.
Mrs. R., who’d answered the door grumpily in her nightgown, said, “Listen carefully, I'm only going to tell you this once…” and gave me a quick run-down: Here was the bathroom I would share with her two girls. Here in the kitchen was where I could find cereal for breakfast, and peanut butter and jelly for my lunch. And here was my room: a double mattress on the floor with boxes stacked high in the closet and along the walls. In the weeks I lived there, I never felt welcome, and I was always hungry, fed portions sized for their 5- and 3-year-old girls. Friendless and family-less I sat on my mattress, listening to the sound of TV cartoons coming through the thin walls, writing letters about my loneliness to my best friend back in So. Cal. who wrote back telling me all the kind and supportive things I needed to hear to make it through.
When our house sold my mother quit work, we stored our belongings, and the three of us moved into Motel 6 for another month while our house was being finished. At the motel, all three of us were living out of suitcases in our no-frills room. But I could swim in the pool after school and lay out on the deck while I did my homework in the September sun. In the evenings we tried out local restaurants and watched TV together. In the mornings my stepdad & I would walk next door to Denny’s and order donuts and hot chocolate to eat in the car while he drove me to school. Reunited with me family, I could finally relax. I began to make friends; I began to learn the grid of the town we’d moved to. I began to belong.
So, when I think about belonging and having a place prepared for us, I think not so much about what the place is like—a mattress on the floor can be a luxury in some circumstances—as how it feels to be there.
The good news is that Jesus is nothing like unhappy Mrs. R. taking in children she doesn’t want around. Jesus wants us! Jesus prepares a place for us not out of obligation, not because his boss asked him to, but because he builds community, and relationship, and because he wants us with him! Jesus is the type who sets out the good towels, who lays an extra blanket at the foot of the bed, who sets a tiny carafe and water glass on the bedside table, along with midnight snacks. With Jesus we are welcomed, loved, at home, and like the old Motel 6 commercials promised, with Jesus the porch light is always on – in fact Jesus is the porch light. He is “The Way,” and belonging to him we can life abundantly.
In his blog, “Living a Holy Adventure,” Bruce Epperly writes: Jesus is the way to salvation in an inclusive way. All paths of salvation and enlightenment are grounded in the graceful energy of God. We walk the pathway to many mansions in many diverse ways, lured forward by God’s moment to moment inspiration. We can speak of Jesus as supreme without denigrating other faiths and casting doubt on peoples’ eternal destinies.... We can understand Jesus’ pathway as an embracing grace that animates and empowers all authentic paths. We can … recognize that diversity of spiritual paths is … a reflection of God’s personal relationship with every culture and person.
There’s a beautiful song in one of the United Methodist publishing house hymn books titled Bring Us Home. the lyrics were written by the reverend Rodney Romney who served as pastor at Seattle First Baptist Church from 1980 to 2000. When he heard a German tune by Peter Strauch, he knew it was the perfect pairing with these lyrics that had been floating in his head. The first time this song was sung was at the funeral of a young man in his congregation who died of AIDS early in the epidemic. As you may remember, in addition to being deadly, was tearing apart church communities as some people viewed it as God’s judgment.
But Rev. Romney write of the invitational God in his refrain: “Bring us home on Love’s renewing tide / to the place of our belonging / Bring us home to your redeeming side / bring your scattered people home.”
The verses go on to describe some of the circumstances and barriers that keep us from finding our home with God. A home that isn't only a belonging in the afterlife, but a home meant to be here with us now.
That is the sort of home Jesus was preparing for his disciples: a home of belonging, of grounding, of a deep inner knowing that would help them not only survive his death but thrive in their faith. I am amazed when I think of the incredible ministry of the early church just a few months after Jesus’ death, the coming together as vibrant community, and the response by hundreds, even thousands of people who wanted to come alongside the early disciples.
It all happened because the disciples found a way to dwell with Jesus as the embodiment of the way, the truth, and the life. This growth and transformation did not come from mandated state religion, it did not come from doctrines to be adopted, and it did not come from creeds to be memorized and recited. It came from the opposite, it came from a release from dogma into authenticity; it came from a way of being authentic and invitational in the world, living in a way that promoted radical love.
Sadly, it seems that radical love always threatens our systems of power. And in today's gruesome reading from Acts, we see that those with religious and political power were threatened by Stephen, who chose to speak truth to that power, who called out sin and complicity, and proclaimed that true power resided in the redeeming power of Christ.
I have absolutely no experience with what it's like to take that sort of stand, to speak out when you know things can only end badly for you. What gives Stephen that courage and bravery? What keeps him from being consumed by anger, even righteous anger at injustice?
I think the answer is that his eyes and heart are turned toward God. He does not let anger and accusation have his last words or his last thoughts. His last words, like the last words of Jesus, are words of forgiveness to those who are persecuting him. In his deepest pain and suffering, Stephen knows where and with whom he dwells. He is secure in his belonging.
As Bruce Epperly says: Despite our penchant for following pathways of darkness, God’s light still envelops and enlightens all of us.… Jesus’ ministry was grounded in relationship, rather than creed or theological litmus test. Jesus’ way is not a demand but a graceful invitation. Jesus barred no one from the path of salvation … those who turn from God are not abandoned; those who crucified Jesus are given forgiveness.
Jesus’ words of farewell the night of the Last Supper were meant for his closest friends, but they have spread out like ripples from a rock dropped in water, the rings expanding and moving further and further from their initial entry point and audience, to encompass millions of people over thousands of years.
If Jesus ever wondered if his words were enough, if his life was enough, if the time he spent with his beloved friends and followers was enough to show them the way forward, the answer is: Yes, yes, yes! Tme and time and time again.
Hear those words now meant for us: Do not let our hearts be troubled. Jesus has prepared a place for us. Here and now. And we know how to find it. We only need to believe.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.