[This sermon was given for the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on May10, 2020, the fifth Sunday of Easter.]
Does Jesus have the right people on this bus? Has he selected the right stuff for these first 12 seats? I’m not sure. Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” writes about how leaders get the right people on the bus. Did Jesus get the right people on this discipleship bus for its initial run? People like Judas? Like Thomas? Should Jesus have hired one of those head-hunting firms that thoroughly vet the candidates?
Can we name the first 12? I’ll give you help. Here are six: Peter, James, John, Matthew, Judas, Thomas. Can you name the other six? Not so easy, is it? What kind of grade would we give Jesus for selecting these 12? Sometimes I think I could have done better.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke give lists of the 12. It’s interesting that all three begin and end the same way. They begin with Peter. You might guess what name is last on each list (Yes, Judas). In the middle of the pack is Thomas. Any middle children out there? Claim Thomas as your patron saint. You could do worse. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.
When Thomas speaks it is always memorable. In John 11, Jesus takes his 12 to Bethany, where Lazarus has died. Jesus says that they must go to where Lazarus is buried. “Thomas said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” Open the tomb and move over, Lazarus. Friends are coming in to join you. Ah, Thomas: so loyal he is ready to die for Jesus, or perhaps with Jesus. And we can’t forget that Thomas pops up the second Sunday of Easter every year, needing to see and inspect the wounds of the risen Lord for himself. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.
More and more I like Thomas. I do not find him a doubter, but one who is endlessly curious and doggedly loyal. When everyone in the room is wondering what Jesus is meaning, it is Thomas who breaks the silence and blurts out the question. In the evening vespers service last Thursday, we prayed for “courage to be bold disciples.” Thomas fits the bill. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.
That is what happens in today’s gospel passage. In John 14, Jesus is on his way to Calvary, to his death. This takes place on Maundy Thursday. His teachings reflect that. He is carrying a burden; he is on a mission. Some of his teachings are not easy to understand. When he talks about his impending death, the disciples often go into denial. I think we are with them. Most people find it difficult to talk about death. This COVID-19 season has us facing the reality of death. Approaching 80,000 Americans have died from this insidious virus in about two months. Globally, the number is four times that.
Jesus senses their trouble and shares this flash of insight: “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?” He sees beyond and speaks comfort and hope. He is on a journey with a destination in sight. Impending suffering can serve to clarify things.
Maybe Jesus is assuming too much of them when he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” I am confident that Thomas is not the only one wondering what Jesus is meaning. But it is Thomas who speaks. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” My paraphrase would be something like this. “Jesus, what are you talking about? Do you have a GPS we don’t know about? What way?” I like Thomas. I need Thomas.
Jesus jumps at the opportunity to respond, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The lead word is way, which also translates as road or path. In my faith tradition, John 14:6 has usually been used to exclude people. It has been written on big signs and held aloft in stadiums at sporting events, hoping the camera will scan it and stop on it. That will make the sign holder feel like a good witness. The message seems to be, if you believe in Jesus as I do, you’re in; if you don’t you’re out. It has been used to say to all other faith systems, you’re dead wrong. John 14:6; end of discussion. That is a misreading. Jesus isn’t saying who is right and who is wrong, or who is in and who is out. He is saying who he is. A 14th century commentator on this passage wrote, “He himself is the way, and in addition he is the lodging on the way, and he is its destination.” (p. 352, IVP NT Commentary on John, by Rodney A. Whitacre) That resonates with me. In my words, Jesus is saying that he is the road, the path, the way to God’s truth and life. And that he is not some GPS system or road map, but our living guide. And on the journey of following him, he is not only the path, he is also our rest stops on the way, our roadside inns and sheltered lean-tos. And at the culmination of this journey, he will greet and welcome us: he is our road, our truth, and our life. I find Jesus’ words here inclusive rather than exclusive. He uniquely reveals God to us, the God who loves us and longs to welcome us. This is a relational journey, not a spatial one, and Jesus is at the heart of it.
We can thank Thomas for getting Jesus to say what he and we need to hear. Thomas was ever curious and willing to question. Don’t throw stock religious answers at Thomas; he will see right through them. I love that Jesus never once upbraided or silenced Thomas. Jesus loves this Thomas with his curiosity and bold discipleship. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.
One year ago this week Rachel Held Evans died, not yet 40 years old. She was so much like Thomas: curious, questioning, seeking. Not accepting pious, party line answers. Like Rachel Held Evans, I was raised in a stream of Christianity in which questions were not welcomed. Thomas was an embarrassment. No one said that, but it was so because he dared ask questions. Evans wrote: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” (Rachel Held Evans, “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”) At Christ’s table there is always a seat for Thomas—and for you and me. Who of us merits a seat on the discipleship bus? Who of us earned our way?
A poem written by Matt Chandler (published in “Relevant” magazine) speaks for me.
“What made me love Christ wasn’t that all of a sudden I started figuring out how to do life.
What made me love Christ is that when I was at my worst, when I was at my lowest point,
when I absolutely could not clean myself up and there was nothing anybody could do with me, right at that moment, Christ said, ‘I’ll take that one. That’s the one I want.’”
Here we are this morning on this discipleship bus, that same bus with Thomas on it. Are we the right people to be on this bus? You bet. God loves to have people like Thomas and you and me on this bus. Jesus, you are the way, the road, the path to God’s truth and abundant life. Lead on, Lord Jesus.