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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The disciples’ hearts were troubled. How could they not be? Jesus had just told them that one of them would soon betray him. He told them that he would be leaving them, and he was saying it in a cryptic way that sounded ominous. He told them that Peter would deny even knowing him three times before the cock crowed the next morning. Of course the disciples’ hearts were troubled!
And so Jesus said to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Jesus wasn’t merely encouraging them to believe in the existence of God. He was telling them to have confidence in God, and to have confidence in him. He was telling them to have faith in the Father and the Son. He was telling them to trust in them.
Their hearts didn’t need to stay troubled, Jesus continued, because there was a dwelling place beyond the betrayal. There was a place for them beyond the denial – a place for them in the Father’s house. There was a room for them in this house, and Jesus was leaving in order to prepare that room for them, so that where Jesus was, there they would be also.
“You know the way to where I am going,” Jesus said to them. It isn’t hard to imagine the confused looks on their faces. You can imagine them thinking, “Uh, we do?” You can picture them scratching their heads, trying to figure out the way. Thomas alone was brave enough to say what probably all of them were thinking: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas was asking for directions. He was asking for a map. Even just a place name would have helped. Are you talking about the temple, Jesus? Are you going back to Galilee? Somewhere further, like Syria? Rome even? Where are you going, and how can we know the way?
And Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This is a boldly exclusive claim Jesus is making here, to be sure. He alone is the way to God the Father. But while this is indeed an exclusive claim, it is also a promise. In the context of these disciples and their troubled hearts, it is good news!
The disciples were anxious and confused. Jesus was talking about going to the Father’s house and saying they knew the way, but clearly they didn’t know the way! What were they going to do? How were they going to figure out the way?
What Jesus said in response to their confusion and their anxiety was an assurance. Jesus said to them, “I AM the way!” They knew the way because they knew him! They didn’t need a map. They didn’t need directions. And they didn’t need to worry, either! Jesus IS the way. No one comes to the Father by their own power or cleverness or sense of direction. No one comes to the Father by their own strength or smarts or spirituality. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life, and he will get them to where they need to be.
As part of my seminary education I took a study trip to Brevig Mission, Alaska, which is way up on the Seward Peninsula, north of Nome. Brevig Mission is named after a Norwegian Lutheran pastor named Tollef Brevig, who established a mission among the Inupiak people there. Today it is essentially a village of Alaska Natives who are all Lutheran! They are served by a pastor who also serves the community of Teller, which is just across an inlet of the Bering Sea. When it is above freezing and the water is open, you get from Brevig to Teller by boat. In the winter, you cross that frozen inlet by snow machine. I went in January, so on a Sunday morning I got to ride in the supply sleigh behind the snow machine as we went over to Teller for worship services.
On the way back is when things got interesting. As we made our way out onto the ice for the return trip, it started to snow. Hard. Then the wind kicked up, creating total white-out conditions. At one point the pastor driving the snow machine stopped to try to find the tracks we made on the way over. Those tracks were filling in fast.
You could say at this point that my heart was troubled! I’d read enough Jack London stories as a kid that I could vividly imagine how this could end up. I thought for sure that this was how I was going to die, lost out on this frozen finger of the Bering Sea. I came to Brevig to learn about being a pastor, but I would die instead as a popsicle.
I sure as heck didn’t know the way back to Brevig. There was no amount of smarts or strength or spirituality which I possessed that would get me back to the house. All I could do was hold on and trust that this pastor would get me there. And, somehow, he did.
To believe, to have faith, is to hold on and trust in Jesus. To know the way to the Father’s house is not about knowing a route and then following it, it is about knowing and trusting a person. It is about knowing and trusting Jesus to get you where you need to go. As Jesus explained further to Thomas, he and the Father are one.
And so when Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life, he is not giving us an orienteering project for us to figure out. He is not giving us a set of directions and telling us to prove ourselves. He is not telling us to make our own way or discover our own truth or to find life in ourselves. Jesus is calling us to simply hold on and trust him. He is the way, and the truth, and the life.
As Jesus’ disciples today, we often find that our hearts are troubled. During our life-long battle with sin, we find that we continue to betray and deny Jesus in ways both big and small, by things we have done and things we have left undone. Our hearts are troubled by the brokenness of the world. Our hearts are troubled by uncertainty and by loss and by fear.
In fact, in our congregation here it seems like we’ve had more than our share of troubled hearts these last few weeks. We have a number of folks who are grieving. We have several folks who are very sick, and folks who love them who are very worried. We have several brothers and sisters in Christ who are in life situations that are complicated and painful, without a clear path forward.
When your heart is troubled you can feel a little lost, a little disoriented. You can feel cold and afraid and unsure of the way home, uncertain that you’ll even make it home.
Today Jesus says to all of us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus isn’t just asking us to give our assent to an idea or a doctrine. He is inviting us to trust in God, and to trust in him. They are one in the same, after all, and they are in cahoots to save us from everything that troubles our hearts. Trust us, Jesus says! Let us take care of things! Don’t worry!
Today Jesus says to all of us, “There is a future beyond your sin, beyond your failures. There is a home beyond your fears. There is a dwelling place beyond death. On the other side of all of that is the Father’s house. You will be safe there. I will be with you there. And I am going to get you there.”
Today Jesus says to all of us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is indeed a boldly exclusive claim. Christ alone is the way to God the Father! No one comes to the Father by their own goodness. No one comes to the Father by their own efforts, or because they have earned entry. No one comes to the Father by their own smarts or strength or spirituality. These are all dead-end roads.
No one finds their own way to the Father’s house. No one discovers the truth by defining it for themselves. No one finds life by looking inward.
But this exclusive claim is also a promise: Christ’s work alone gets us to the Father! We don’t need to go down those dead ends, those spiritual rabbit holes. All there is for us to do is to know and to trust in Jesus. When you know Jesus, you know the way. When you believe in him, you know the truth. When you trust him, you will have life.
When Jesus left the disciples, he was indeed betrayed. He was denied three times by one of his closest followers. Jesus was arrested and beaten and crucified and killed. But then on the third day, he rose again. This was how Jesus prepared the way.
By his death and resurrection, Jesus leads us out of sin and into forgiveness and mercy and righteousness. By his death and resurrection, Jesus leads us out of fear and despair and into peace and hope and even joy. By his death and resurrection, Jesus ultimately will lead us out of death and into eternal life with him, so that where he is, there we will be also.
If your heart is troubled today, hold on and trust in Jesus. Even now he is making a way. Even now he is leading you. Hold on and trust him. He will get you where you need to go. He will get you to the Father’s house. He will get you safely home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church