Years ago, I spent summer months guiding kids on canoe trips from the Garrison Dam to Bismarck. It happened on a few occasions that, early in the morning, kids had their canoes loaded and were ready to push off while I was still finishing up some small task on shore. I would then hear someone ask, “Which way is Bismarck?” or “Which way do we go?”
I would stop and look at them to see if they were serious. “How is it possible they can be so clueless?” I would wonder. “After a couple days on the river, how can they not know that there is a powerful current out there that flows in the direction of Bismarck? Have they not seen and felt it? Are they really so unaware of the world around them… of the directions of north and south, or of their local geography? Do they really not know what direction to point their canoe?”
It seemed unbelievable to me; but then I realized that they just haven't had to learn about the world in this way before. They've never had any reason… or felt any need to orient themselves to the environment of the river. In a world lived largely indoors, with others always around to show them the way, there's no need to become acquainted with directions or local geography. So as a result… on the river… without specific instructions, they feel lost. They don't know which way to go.
The disciples in today's Gospel lesson are in a similar situation. And they pose the same question: “How do we know which way to go?” There's a lot of anxiety in today's Gospel. Jesus is telling the disciples that they will soon be without him, because he is leaving in order to prepare a place where they will one day join him. They have looked to him to be their guide and compass for three years. I'm sure the thought of being without him was very upsetting.
And so they wonder, “How will we find this place? How will we find you, Jesus?” The disciple Thomas gives voice to their anxiety: “Lord, we do not know where you are going? How can we know the way?” Actually, Thomas is giving voice here to anxiety we all experience in our lives. How do we find you Jesus? How do we get to where you are?
Jesus answers this question in a couple of different ways. First, he seeks to put at ease our anxiety about the end of our lives in this world. He does so with this promise: “I will come again and will take you to myself.”
In other words, it's not our task to find or work our way to heaven… to him… after we die. When our time is at hand, Jesus will come to us and he will draw us to him and to our new life. That is his work; not ours.
We need not worry about being left behind or forsaken. It will not happen… because God loves us and has given Jesus to us to be our savior and guide, and because God, the maker of the heavens and the earth, knows how to do this and he has shown us that it is his pleasure to do so.
We are expected to trust in God's love and in God's ability to make this happen. “Don't worry. Trust me. I know you need me. You know I won't let you down.” “I will come again and will take you to myself.”
That is an incredible gift that Jesus gives us… the promise that he will write the final chapter of our lives… that when we die, his love will carry us to where we belong.
However, the question of Thomas doesn't only reflect anxiety about what happens to us after we die. It also reflects anxiety about how we make our way in this life.
Thomas and the disciples want to know how they are supposed to find their way in this world without Jesus right there to guide them. Here Jesus reassures Thomas and the others that they do know the way… because the simple truth is… Jesus is the way… and they know Jesus.
“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.” Jesus is saying to Thomas and the disciples: “Open your eyes! What you need to know to make your way through life is right here. You just need to see it and claim it.”
“From now on,” Jesus says, “you do know him and have seen him.” The phrase, from now on, indicates that change is at hand. Life will be different (“from now on”) on account of this new knowledge. It will change how we see, think and live.
Christ came into this world so that he might deliver the Kingdom of God to us now… not just in the life to come. As we hear Jesus' teaching, see his example and come to trust in his love and power, the treasures of the Kingdom of God take root in our lives. The grace of God comes to be reflected in what we do, what we say, what we think.
There's no question that Jesus is telling the disciples that a big transition is coming upon them. Their lives are going to change. But the promise is that they will not be lost. Jesus will give them what they need to live well and to live wisely… whatever they must pass through. He has taught them what they need to know. He has shown them the kingdom of God. He has promised to be with them always.
They will find their way through this world because, by knowing Christ, they learn how… and they are given strength… to live.
“From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” These words of Jesus gently prod us to realize that it's time for us to take responsibility for the gifts God has given us. It is time for us to live boldly as children of God.
Those young canoeists, who wondered which way to go in order to get to Bismarck, really asked a foolish question. It's foolish because, on the one hand, the answer is simply obvious. It's downriver. On the other hand, the question is quite pointless. Once they get out on the river, they won't have a choice. They will be drawn with the current, and it will take them to Bismarck.
It doesn't matter that they don't know the way; the current does and it will take them there even if they should fight against it. Whether they know it or not, like it or not, the current will have the final say over which way they go. They can try to paddle upstream. They can paddle in circles… zig-zag this way and that… but in the end the current will have them and take them where they need to go.
That's how it is with Kingdom of God. However, one important question remains.
What will they make of their journey? Do they want to fight against the river the whole way? Are they content to act and sound like fools? Do they want to feel lost the whole time? Or will they open their eyes and their minds and get to know the wonderful power that is carrying them along. Will they open their eyes and their minds and learn about the amazing world the river carries them through. Will they learn to delight in the river's wonders? Will they grow in strength and wisdom as they journey toward their destination…. Will they be a support to others who are with them on the way? Or will they be a burden?
Jesus says some wonderful things to us today.
“I will come again and will take you to myself.”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
“From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
These words of Jesus are both promise and prod. First he promises that he himself will make sure that we reach our final destination; because he loves us and he would never forsake us.
But he also urges us to get busy with living as we have been called to live. We have to understand that knowing Jesus is the key to living life richly. And he expects us to show in our lives that we know him. Amen.