Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
A few weeks ago, on the first Sunday after Easter, I came to the defense of our friend the apostle Thomas who, based on the way I read the story, has been too easily characterized as a doubter, when what is really at the heart of the story is Thomas’ deep desire to have the full experience of the risen Christ. Now, even though we don’t plan our preaching rotation around the content of the lessons, I am more than delighted that Thomas features prominently in today’s Gospel lesson as well.
Today, the lectionary takes us back in time to this earlier exchange between Thomas and Jesus, which occurs in John’s account while Jesus is beginning to prepare his disciples for the time when he will not be with them physically. We enter this reading while Jesus is reassuring them, based on the depth of their own faith and the nature of their relationship: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me!” Jesus goes on to reassure them that even if he isn’t there, and even if they are physically separated and they cannot see him that his love for them will remain. He tells them that not only will his love remain, but he will be going to prepare a place for them, where they will be near to each other again.
This scene is one of love, and these words are words of comfort. They have remained so…in fact, they are the words of comfort we still cling to, and that many of us hold fast to in the depths of our own grief when read as they often are in our funeral liturgy. I think it’s relevant and important to point out that Jesus isn’t teaching, or preaching, to his disciples in this encounter. Jesus is reassuring them: you know the way to the place where I am going.
You know the way.
Jesus is speaking these words to the heart of his friends; his temporal and spiritual companions who have literally journeyed with him, making the physical trek around the countryside and battling the winds and waves of the sea of Galilee throughout his ministry. These are the people with whom he has shared and taught and invited into an ever-building depth of understanding the deep truth about God’s reign. I imagine Jesus looking around the room, meeting eyes with each one of his disciples with the kind of compassion and love that one has when seeing friends of the heart for whom you want to offer comfort and reassurance.
But Thomas…oh, my friend Thomas…he doesn’t just nod his head and go along with it. I’m sure he heard it, and maybe even was moved by it. Thomas, the authentic voice of our human questions, has the vulnerable courage to speak his heart and mind back to his friend Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
I believe the question Thomas asked was from his heart. The words that Jesus speaks back to him are so profound, they have formed the basis for sermons, reflections, theological discussions and debates which have spanned centuries: “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.”
Then, as now, Jesus meets the earnest questions of our heart with revelations of profound truth.
What I invite us to think about today is the depth of these words that Jesus offers to Thomas, and to his disciples. I invite you to think about it like a movie. This scene playing out like a foreshadowing of the exchange between Jesus and Thomas on that first Sunday after Easter.
In this passage, Jesus who is in physical form like we expect any person to be, speaks reassuringly to his friends and followers about his eternal and divine nature: I am the way, and the truth and the life. Or perhaps we could hear it: I am the journey, and the discovery, and the essence of being alive.
Compare that with the last Thomas story we broke open together: post-resurrection Jesus, in his eternal and divine nature, appears through closed doors and speaks reassuringly to his friends and followers of the physical reality of his presence with them: Peace be with you. Touch my side. See my hands. Know me. Do not doubt, but believe.
Both of these exchanges between Jesus and Thomas, surrounded by the disciples, are so authentically human. It takes Thomas’ honesty and Jesus’ steadfast love together to help the disciples and those of us who hear these stories now understand how deeply and poignantly Jesus wants us to know both his immanence and his transcendence.
Jesus is right here with us; Jesus is the source of all that is. To know Jesus is to know God. To know the creation is to know the Creator.
In these Eastertide days where we are still learning to open our hearts to the joy and belief of the risen Christ, we like Thomas crave reminders of the immanence and transcendence of the one whose identity we claim as our spiritual home. If the path we walk towards the divine is the way Jesus walked, then we are invited into the fullness of that journey which is with and in the risen Christ. If we seek truth through all the means of our senses, our intellect, our spiritual and artistic natures then we are seeking the Source of all Truth who we know in the risen Christ. If we live each breath and each step of this life with intention and appreciation, those moments of ordinary and sublime spendor we experience are life in the risen Christ.
The immanent presence of Christ in our lives helps us to know our transcendent identity as members of the household of God.
Building on Dorothy’s beautiful reminder last week: the illustrations we are given about who Jesus is are not intended to shut others out, but to open up our understanding of the abundant and all-encompassing love of Christ. Jesus the Good Shepherd isn’t tending a gate that pens us in, but calling our names to nurture, love, and protect us. Jesus the way, the truth and the life isn’t an exclusive destination to a singular truth intended only for specific lives. The way, and the truth and the life of Christ lead us to know our Creator who loves us into being. We will know the way by our longing for God’s presence, and we will be encouraged by the voice who calls us to remember that, like a homing beacon in our hearts, we already know where we are going. The totality of Jesus’ life and ministry is a lesson in just how much we are all created, loved, nurtured and cared for by God, starting with the very least of this world.
This week, I invite you to pay attention to where Christ is present for you. Where and when do you have an immanent encounter on your journey with Christ? What do see or hear or taste or touch or smell that leads you to recognize your Creator? What moments of this earthly life touch your spirit?
I’m going to close my reflection today with a poem. I’ve shared this with a few of you on a retreat at Roslyn but want to share it in a different context today. This poem, “Briefly it Enters and Briefly Speaks” is written by Jane Kenyon. She illustrates so beautifully the immanent moments of our lives where God’s transcendence is made known. Or, as our Gospel suggests, where the way and the truth and the life are revealed in the simple moments of knowing. I’ll post the link to the poem with my sermon. Be aware of those moments where God breaks into your ordinary this week. Share one, maybe with a parish friend and companion on the journey, or in our parish Facebook group, or in a note or email. Embrace them. Let them embrace you. When you have a moment when you worry, or doubt the way, or stumble: go back and read these moments of recognition we can share with each other. See God being made known in them, reminding us that we know the way home because it is God calling us there. Remember that you are not alone; that we are never alone. We are family in the household of God.
And God…the way and the truth and the life…is with us, always.
Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
by Jane Kenyon
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .
I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .
I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .
I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .
To access this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49765/briefly-it-enters-and-briefly-speaks