Jesus said to his disciples, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
I was struck today by yesterday’s Anglican lectionary reading in honor of Saint Remigius, who apparantly effected the conversion of France in the late 5th Century.
The passage above, from John 14, is a familiar one, no doubt. I can remember many times as a teenager hearing these words, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” and thinking how dark and foreboding they were. They sent chills up and down my spine and imbibed me with an incredible sense of urgent fear. Those words did not relay hope to me, instead serving as a warning to the world and the wayward: if you want to get to heaven, you have to believe in Jesus.
Not only were these words a warning, but I was taught to use them in defense of Christianity. This was the ultimate Trump card: if you’re not following Jesus, you’re not on your way to heaven.
But this morning, reading them in context with the verses before them, they exuded something new: not fear, not urgency, not coercion, but hope. These are words Jesus directed to his disciples, not in an effort to convince them to believe in him, nor to use as weapons to convert the heathen, but to assure them that they would live with Jesus forever – that he would never forsake them.
Jesus begins talking about leaving the disciples for a time, making ready a place for them, and then tells them they know the way to reach him. Thomas, fearfully and perhaps urgently blurts out, “we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?!?“
It is in this context that Jesus speaks these well-known (and often ripped-from-context) words. If we listen, we may very well hear the hope he offers, spoken through perhaps a wide smile, maybe accompanied by his own kind laughter: “Why, Thomas, I am the way! And the truth, and the life! I am the way to my Father.” He’s assuring his friends that they’re OK, that they don’t need to live fearfully, that because they know Jesus (and by extension, the Father), they can offer this same hope – without coercion, guilt or fear – to the world.
These words are fresh. There is no fear in Jesus, but hope.