‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘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.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’
(Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14)
Being an unrepentant rock collector when on my travels, I’m always gratified when images of stone and rock turn up in the readings, as they do today: stones cast in anger, cornerstones, living stones, and dwelling places. These are images that speak both of permanence and destruction; of building up and tearing down; of humanity’s ill-fated attempts to establish things that are lasting and eternal here on earth; and of the only permanent reality on which we can truly rely.
Images of rock and stone are common in scripture, and thanks to a trip to the Holy Land a few years ago and the opportunity to see many of the places that inspired the writing of our sacred stories, I understand why. Israel is a pretty rocky place to start with, and in all honesty I lost count of how many times we were taken to a rock over which some shrine or other had been built, and where we had the opportunity to touch a particular bit of geological and human history worn smooth by the attentions of millions of human hands over centuries of time …. places like the Church of All Nations next to the Garden of Gethsemane, where a section of rough stone embedded in the floor of the church was reputed to be the place where Jesus prayed on the night before his death; or in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where underneath the altar was an ancient slot carved into stone where the base of a cross – perhaps Jesus’ own cross – was set.
And you know, it’s funny – because when you’re there, you know that there isn’t a way in the world that it can be proven that those events actually happened in those specific places – but you really don’t care. It doesn’t matter, because you know that whether they happened in that precise spot or a few feet away, you’re still touching history; that by touching the permanence of the rock, somehow you’re connecting with the permanence of the story.
Everywhere you go in Israel, especially noticeable in old Jerusalem but certainly elsewhere, you run into archaeological sites…. and in short order you become very aware that as civilizations have come and gone, they’ve left their traces behind in the rocks and stones of graceful archways and ancient walls. Dig a bit, and you find 12th century ruins from the time of the Crusades; below that are ruins from Byzantine times; below that lie roads and buildings that Jesus and the disciples may have frequented. So in the middle of a city that breathes with the eternal connectedness of rock and story, is also displayed in unsettling reality the impermanence of human endeavour…. shown most provocatively, of course, in the Western Wall, or as it’s also known, the Wailing Wall…. the largest remnant of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great; and which was destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish Revolt of 70 AD – an incomparable patch of holy ground in the old city, a place of pilgrimage, and a stark reminder of the terrible price people have paid over the centuries for demanding the simple dignity and freedom of worshiping God in the way they choose. How very simple it is, in a single destructive and symbolic act, to tear down bricks and mortar, but how very persistent is the faith that put up the bricks in the first place. Bricks and mortar come and go, but the unique ways in which God is praised, interpreted, and understood, remain as a testament to the action of the Spirit and the richness of the creative impulse underlying all that we see and experience. It was impossible not to see and feel that impulse everywhere we went.
We who have chosen to follow Jesus as our way to God, as the truth we speak, as the life we embrace, are, in Peter’s words, like living stones – building something relatively amorphous that we call the Kingdom of God – something that we trust is being revealed and fulfilled in God’s own time; and as much as it’s incumbent on us all to articulate, share and model our faith, it’s equally incumbent on us to build the Kingdom with stones of respect for those who choose an alternate path. If there’s anything my excursion to the Middle East illuminated for me, it’s that the times when humankind has gone most thoroughly and destructively off the rails have been times that were motivated by a misplaced superiority over others…. a superiority that often found its foundation and justification in a misreading of scriptures like today’s gospel.
For the real tragedy of these poetic words – I am the way, the truth, and the life – rich words of deep spiritual meaning for many – is our failure to understand to whom they were addressed in the first place: that they weren’t spoken to people of some other faith to convince them of the error of their ways, or to force them to switch to the winning team. Framed as a last minute pep talk by Jesus to his disciples just before he went to his death, they were spoken by the fledgling Church to a group of Christians in the late first century, to people facing yet more Roman persecution and uncertainty, to give them hope to sustain them in their doubts. These early believers were watching the faith that they had eagerly embraced and built being torn down and their very lives threatened, so of course it was comforting for them to hear that in adopting Jesus as their cornerstone they had made a legitimate choice, and that in the end, God’s timeless permanence would take the place of all earthly impermanence, and that those living stones would ultimately find a place of joy and peace in God’s eternal dwelling place.
We, the living stones of countless generations later, are likewise confronted by doubts and competing interests in matters of faith, and probably struggle to translate ideas like Way, Truth, and Life into our own context. It’s not the Anglican way to go around clobbering people over the head who don’t believe as we do, but by the same token we aren’t often that clear or practised at saying what it is that we do believe. And so it matters that both our individual and our common life together is an open invitation for others to explore this thing we call our faith – without coercion, without judgement, and without exclusion. For as Jesus taught us, those very qualities are essential signposts to holiness.
Offered today in Jesus’ name, who is for us our Way, Truth, and Life. Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams