by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The Twelve assembled the community of the disciples: ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.’” Acts 6: 1-7
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me…the one who has faith in me will do the works I do, and far greater than these. Why? Because I go to the Father…” John 14: 1-12
The gospel-reading for this sixth Sunday of Easter is taken from John’s account of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his close disciples on the last night of his life. John dedicated five chapters of his Gospel to this lengthy exhortation from Jesus and, in doing so, identified two predominant themes on which Jesus elaborated: encouragement for the task ahead and consolation for the feelings of loss which his followers would inevitably experience. Jesus encouraged them to be faithful to everything he had invested himself in teaching them and to remember that the trauma they would soon experience would be replaced by peace of mind and heart and satisfaction with the ministry of service they would undertake.
In making one of his familiar “I am” statements, Jesus declared: ”I am the way and the truth and the life.” This was not an expression of elitism, but rather an invitation to his disciples to recall that their experience with him amounted to one of immersion into God, which left them knowing that they were living with integrity (truth) and appreciating that what they were about was authentic and life-fulfilling (life). It is not coincidental that, as they subsequently settled into living lives of preaching and service, they described themselves as being “followers of the Way” (Acts: 19: 9; 19: 23; 24: 14). In describing literally and figuratively the way in which they lived their lives, the early Christians used the Greek word hodos (the way).
In this context, it’s important to note that Jesus said to his close friends: “I am the way.” He did not say; “I am the solution” or “I am the answer”. Encountering Jesus “the Way” means engaging with him in all the ups and downs that belong to our journey through life. No life journey is ever free of risk, uncertainty, doubt, challenge or ambiguity. If Jesus were the answer, we would have the comfort and assurance of knowing that we had at hand the solution to every upset or problem that menaced us. There’s a marked distinction between travelling the way of life and cruising along as an observer of life. The word “travel” is closely related to the word “travail” which came into English from French in the 13th century. The original meaning of “travel” had overtones of being involved in the toil or ordeal of a difficult journey. That’s very different from being on a tour, knowing that one has the assurance of returning to the comfort of home. Travelling the road of life is tough for most of us.
As I have noted previously, Thomas was somewhat mystified by the poetic, flowery language in which Jesus was explaining himself. Diplomatically, he interjected with: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) That elicited from Jesus the response: “I am the way and the truth and the life”, a response that may well have been equally puzzling to Thomas. Perhaps it puzzles us too. Is the answer for us to be found in getting close enough to Jesus to immerse ourselves in him rather than in observing him from a distance. We can approach Jesus as a mystery to be solved by intellectually engaging with what the Gospels reveal about him. But isn’t the challenge of being a disciple of his about actually experiencing him by engaging in the life he offers, by committing ourselves to closeness to him? After all, he lived his human life by pursuing his journey into God. He lived his way into intimacy with God, and came to appreciate the relationship into which he lived, so that eventually he could say to his friends: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father also…Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is the Father who lives in me accomplishing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works I do.” (John 14: 7-11) Philip was puzzled by the assertions and explanations that Jesus was uttering. So, if we are challenged by them, we can take comfort from knowing that we are not alone.
Let’s not forget that the journey into God was no cake-walk for Jesus either. His efforts to describe to the educated, religious leaders of his day his journey to his growth into God were dismissed as out-of-hand. And he didn’t get everything right as he went about his ministry. He was called into line by the Syrophoenician woman pestering him to cure her sick daughter. He dismissed her as an unwelcome foreigner barging her way into treatment that belonged only to people of his own race and religion. He even labelled her as a dog. Her retort jolted him into seeing that his mission was to people of every race and religion. Experiences like that were part of his life-long formation. If we know Jesus as “the way”, we, like him, have to be open to learning from the challenges and “wake-up call” that come from people we encounter, even strangers and people of other faiths and of none. Experiences like that simply confirm that living into Jesus, “the way and the truth and the life”, will be accompanied by toil and challenge and ordeal.
Paralleling the experience of growing into God that Jesus had is our experience of accepting the challenge of growing into Jesus. We’ve previously stopped to reflect on the challenge put to us all by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Test yourselves to see whether you are living in faith; examine yourselves. Do you acknowledge that Jesus Christ is really in you? If not, you have failed the test.” (2 Corinthians 13: 5) That’s a belief to which we can notionally subscribe, yet one of which we are not constantly conscious. Yet, we also know that Jesus is as alive and active in our world as we, who attest to believe in him, actually make him. He lives and acts through us. We now have the delegated responsibility of making him present to our world.
Today’s first reading from Acts also calls for some comment. Many of us have memories of triumphalism alive and well in our Church. We were trained to believe that we had “the one, true Faith” and that Christians of other Denominations and people of other Faiths were in the dark. Revelations of abuse in our ranks, calls for inter-faith dialogue and challenges from recent Popes have fortunately knocked the triumphalism out of us. Reminders that Jesus has called us to service have begun to be heard. So, it comes as a bit of a shock to learn in today’s reading from Acts that the Apostles were having second thoughts about servanthood as a priority in their ministry. They didn’t even try to argue that preaching and proclaiming the word of God was a form of service. They simply make a common-sense decision to call others in the community to take on the responsibility of serving. The Apostles’ delegation of responsibilities made good, practical sense and demonstrated that walking in the footsteps of Jesus was not as simple as it might appear. As an aside, we would do well to stop and remind ourselves that, if we insisted on following Jesus’ actions to the letter, we would all have been crucified by now. This takes me back to one of Jesus’ assertions in today’s gospel-reading: “I assure you that anyone who has faith in me will do the works I do, and far greater than these.” (John 14: 12) Might he have been acknowledging that there is a great variety of personalities among those who follow him, and an abundance of people blessed with a wide range of gifts and talents? Current Church leaders would do well to involve them in ministry and service. They might even breathe fresh life and hope into the rest of us, if only we were to give them opportunity.