I have preached many times on today’s reading from the Gospel of John. It is one of the passages that the Book of Common Prayer recommends for funerals. For those who are grieving, it is reassuring to hear the words of Jesus that there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house, and that he is going there to prepare a place for us. It is good news, under those circumstances, and my job is to proclaim it, for strength and consolation.
But it is a little different to read this passage today, on a Sunday morning in Easter season. Granted, the spring it not as fresh as it was five weeks ago, when the green on the hills had not begun to fade, and the roses that are losing their petals now were just breaking their first bloom. Maybe the light that burst forth from the empty tomb has dimmed just a bit, and the shadows are stealing back in around the edges of the world. But when Thomas says to Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" he is not yet thinking of the martyr’s death that he will someday die. That is still far away.
Thomas asks this question because he has learned that Jesus, whom he followed along the roads of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, out across the Jordan and back again, who has led him and his friends here to Jerusalem, whom Thomas was ready to follow even to death, is going away, and leaving him behind. Thomas’ question is not about the fate of Jesus’ soul, or about how to cope with his own grief and loss. It is a question about how to continue the journey they have begun. It is about carrying on in Jesus’ absence. It’s a question about discipleship.
It is a question we might ask, knowing that Christ is risen, but our lives are still in the midst of death. Where we live, the Father’s house seems far away. Jesus says he is going there to prepare a place for us, but there’s no getting around the fact that he is going and we are staying here. He says he’s coming back for us, but he doesn’t say when. And then he tells us that we know the way to the place where he is going, as if to say it will not be enough for us to simply wait around for him to get back, but we need to keep moving forward and he’ll meet us on the way.
"Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"
It is a good question for a group of people, like this one, that is in a year of discernment about its future. God seems to have some purpose for us at St. John’s because, in spite of innumerable obstacles, we are alive, after decades of debilitating conflict and the death of schism. But the time is upon us when the miracle of our existence is no longer enough to give us a sense of direction. We are asking to know the purpose for which God called us back to life.
For the church, the answer to that question will always have something to do with remembering. We know where we are going, at least in part, because we know the way that we have come. But there is a danger in this, the danger that we will be satisfied with the answer that has already been given. We might believe we have already arrived, when the answer that Jesus gives is about being on the way. “I am the way,” says Jesus, inviting us to keep moving, trusting his guidance; “and the truth,” he adds, not a truth cast in bronze, or set in stone, but the truth that lives and grows as we journey further with Christ. And finally “the life”— life that is, by definition, dynamic, and changing, and ever renewing itself, or it is not life at all.
We are justly proud of the long history of our congregation. Our parish archives contain handwritten minutes of vestry meetings and ledgers of accounts that go back to the pioneer days of Petaluma. We also have a collection of old parish newsletters that is not quite that old, but covers the first four years of the 20th century, not long after this structure was built. And what strikes me, reading those papers, is how entirely focused they are on churchly concerns. There are little notes about parish life and reports of the rector’s travels, and appeals for the support of missionaries in Yreka, and Alaska and China. There are long articles about ancient church history, and summaries of doctrine and biblical texts, but not a word about the social changes that are radically transforming everyone’s lives.
In those years this valley, like all of America, was rapidly urbanizing and industrializing, integrating into an expanding national and global system. Her people were embracing the habits and values of the modern consumer society, but the only clues in the parish newsletter that all this was going on are the paid advertisements in the margins of the page. It is as if the church lives in a different world, one that looks backward to simpler times, and forward only to heaven. The unspoken message is that the modern world knows where it is going, and the church is just along for the ride. And even if the world is not following Jesus, it is not for us to resist or critique. Our role is to stand on the sidelines, keeping open a place apart for rest and inspiration, where religious culture and family tradition, and beauty, decency, charity and reverence are not completely lost.
The world still needs this from religion, but by itself it is no longer enough. On Monday, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a report on the melting of glaciers in the Amundsen Sea region of West Antarctica. Their observations show an ongoing collapse of the ice in the region that has passed the point of no return. Just this one source is causing a rise in global sea levels of about four feet. The thing that alarms the scientists the most is that these are changes that used to happen in geological time, in hundreds of millennia, and now they take one or two or three human generations.
In the face of runaway change, the church can no longer sit on the sidelines. We must get out on the way. We have to bear witness, like Stephen in the Book of Acts, that our leaders they do not know what they are doing. Our civilization does not know where it is going. It has no map, but is too proud to stop to ask for directions. Of course, some Christians have been saying this for a long time. They say, we know a different way, the way to the exits. We believe the truth—the unchanging, fixed, literal truth of the Bible, and its iron jaws are closing on the world. We hope for the life, the life that is death. We know where we are going—to heaven, and you and your world can go to hell.
But there’s another way of being Christian, one that doesn’t hope for the destruction of the world. It’s a way that reveres what God has created out of reverence for a wisdom and design that we do not understand. It’s a way of loving what is passing, because it is not passing away to eternal death, but passing over into the house of God. And wherever that is, we say, with the author of 1st Peter, that it is a house that God is also building here, from living stones. This place is not forsaken, not if we are to believe what Jesus says about his own future. Because he doesn’t say that he is going to the Father to chill out, in a state of endless bliss and eternal rest. He’s says he’s going to get busy.
“Because I am going to the Father,” Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” His priestly work, reconciling the world to God, making the love and wisdom, the compassion and justice of God come true and come alive in the world—the work that he used to do, so to speak, from our side, Jesus promises to continue from the other side, the side of God. So what about us, we who are still here—what do we ask him for? It’s a good question, since we don’t know where we are going. I guess we ask him to show us the way.