A road through a forest

I’ve Gotcha!

ESPERANZA LUTHERAN CHURCH https://myesperanza.org

Easter 5A2023
John 14:1-14

The summer of 2014, three chaperones, me included, and 10 middle school and high school youth piled into two vans and drove from Phoenix to a Lutheran Bible camp outside Eugene, Oregon. On our way to one of our many service projects, I drove the leading van. My co-pilot, Frankie, was 14 that summer, and she and I had roughly the same navigational prowess, namely very little which was a source of much shared laughter and joking. Yet she often sat in the front passenger seat and read the MapQuest directions I had printed prior to the trip since I had just gotten an iphone the week before and wasn’t yet familiar with Maps. This particular day, we were headed to a small town about 30 minutes away to help with a church’s weekly meal for folks living in poverty and to do something else, I can’t remember what anymore. What I do remember was having a great conversation with Frankie as we drove down a beautiful, 2-lane highway where the trees made a canopy above our heads so thick and dense that we could hardly see the sky above us. On and on we drove but, strangely, never intersected with the next turn. Finally, I noticed that, not only were we clearly lost, we were running low on gas, everyone had to use the facilities, and somehow, the cell phone batteries of everyone in the car had simultaneously nearly emptied, most of them flip phones. (It was 2014.) Just before the blacktop turned into a rural gravel road, we pulled off to the side and gathered with the other van to make a plan. After consulting the MapQuest directions, we realized our mistake: when we had initially pulled out of the camp driveway 45 minutes before, Frankie and I had decided to turn left instead of right! Oops! We had no choice but to turn around. We would be late, quite late, and we called the church to let a volunteer know. We got back in the vans and by the grace of God, the remaining battery charge on a phone, and a teenager who understood how to use Maps, we discovered a gas station off the beaten path that still had the old-fashioned pumps—a kind the kids had never seen before. We went in to use the facilities. Dozens of flavors of beef jerkey hung in a display near the restroom, and the kids gathered round to laugh at the quirky flavors. 30 minutes later, a total of an hour and a half late, we passed the camp and finally set out in the right direction on our way to that day’s service project.

We were just trying to find our way—but got lost! And this wasn’t the only notable problem we encountered on this mission trip; other problems involved lost car keys, deep mud, large insects and mice in our cabins, sleepy drivers, and I’m not kidding, an actual police visit to a church where we were staying overnight—because we had accidentally set off the alarm. But years later, when I polled the kids about their favorite mission trip, trips that included Holden Village, Washington DC, New York City, and California, their favorite, hands-down, was that Oregon mission trip.

In today’s Jesus story, he is sitting with the disciples on the night before his crucifixion and death, just after washing their feet, and he assures them that he goes to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, that he will come again and take the disciples with him, so that where he is, they may be also. These are scary words for the disciples for they imply that Jesus is leaving them. But Jesus says: You know the way to the place where I am going. Thomas says to him: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

Though understandable, it’s rather comical that, just after Jesus assures the disciples that he will come and get them and bring them with him, Thomas says: Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus has just said: I’ve gotcha. I’m going to come and take you with me. Do not let your hearts be troubled.

But Thomas is so like us, like those of us who want to know the way, the details, the exact directions, especially about where Jesus is headed and if we can go with him. I imagine Thomas and the other disciples likely wondered if they could follow Jesus to the literal place he was headed because they didn’t realize what would happen later that night, sparked by Judas’ betrayal. But we may wonder if and how we will end up in one of those heavenly dwelling places of which Jesus speaks. We may be fearful, like Thomas, that we will spiritually lose our way. We may be anxious that we don’t know exactly how God works. We may be worried that we won’t meet the criteria for eternal life with Jesus. But Jesus says: I’ve gotcha. I’m going to come and take you with me. Do not let your hearts be troubled. For I am the way and the truth and the life.

The way to eternal life with Jesus is not a mad chase towards moral perfection and is not sprinting to the finish line with pristine faith maintained by not asking questions and dutifully attending church. The way to eternal life with Jesus isn’t even correct theological views, the things we believe about God in our heads. Rather, in John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that the way to eternal life with him is relationship with him. The way of day-in, day-out conversation and wrestling—to be clear, I mean, prayer and Bible study. The way of abiding in Jesus as he abides in us, similar to a branch abiding in a vine, receiving all nourishment from the vine—to be clear, I mean, worship, Holy Communion, and Holy Baptism. The way of adjusting our step to match his, steps of kindness, forgiveness, and grace. But even if we do all these things, even if we pray and study the Bible, come to worship and live in Christian community, and take faith practices seriously, all of that doesn’t necessarily result in relationship if done by rote, without heart, without paying deep attention to the movement of God in our lives.

But we know what relationship is, right? We know. It’s getting lost in the forest, nearly out of gas, having to pee, a low phone battery, and desperately late—and then pulling together, making a plan, laughing, singing to the radio together, marveling over old-fashioned gas pumps, and checking out odd-flavored beef jerky. Just because we lost our way to the service project doesn’t mean we lost our way with one another. We know relationship is not about a checklist of correct beliefs and right practices and jumped hoops. And because it’s not, when Jesus follows up “I am the way and the truth and the life” with “no one comes to the Father except through me,” honestly, I don’t worry about it—even though these words seem to exclude folks who wouldn’t claim a relationship with Jesus. Relationship is complex, and I don’t put anything past God. Especially because God is the One who initiates relationship with us, the One who claims us as God’s own beloved children, the One faithful to the promises God has made even when we are not.

If we are worried about knowing the way to eternal life, today, Jesus assures us: I am the way and the truth and the life. I’ve gotcha. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. For which we can say: thanks be to God! Amen.