1 John 1:5-2:2; John 14:1-11,15-21

3rd Sunday of Lent

St Barbara’s 03.03.2024

Rev Jeremy Bevan

I am a terrible navigator. More than once in London’s Canary Wharf, I’ve got lost between the Elizabeth Line station and my office, half a mile away. The streets are laid out on a grid, the buildings all look similar, and I can easily find myself back where I started, not where I wanted to be. In that situation, there’s no more welcome sight than one of those information boards with a large-scale map, and a pin announcing, “You are here”. Finding the way can be difficult.

Our gospel reading suggests I’m in good company, with some very bewildered disciples. They badly need a clear-sighted guide who can map the landscape for them, give them a picture of where things are headed. I don’t know about you, but I’m so grateful to Thomas and Philip for their questions. They may look bone-headed, but they allow Jesus to set troubled minds at rest, and show the way. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is clear-sighted about what lies ahead, even if his followers, maybe like us, sometimes struggle to keep up. Dense though the words of Jesus in our gospel passage are, what I think emerges from them is a sense that the way ahead involves starting from familiar territory, like me with my Canary Wharf map: “you are here.” What also emerges is the promise that, beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, he’ll remain a constant guide, walking the way with his followers.

With his words about God’s house having many ‘mansions’ or resting-places, Jesus does seem to be talking about going away (perhaps to heaven?). But he’s also attempting to calm the disciples’ fears they’ll no longer have access to him. And he goes on to say, “I’ll be back, and I’m coming to take you (not to heaven but) to myself”: the disciples’ relationship with him will continue, then, starting from where they are: he’ll still have room for them.

With Thomas, dear, literal-minded Thomas, Jesus clarifies that he’s not talking about a physical path to some distant, unknown place. He’s talking about his followers being on a journey with him: he is the way ahead from where they are, and the truth, and the life. But how (we might want to ask with Thomas) can someone be the way, rather than showing the way? Perhaps an illustration may help. When Paul is blinded by a vision on the way to persecute followers of Jesus, his travelling companions, starting from where Paul is, lead him into Damascus and care for him. They are the way, for him at that moment, just as you might walk with someone who’s lost to a destination you know, here in Coventry.

Paul’s companions were also reliable, accurate guides, not leading him down the wrong road, or into danger. So Jesus, faithfully and authentically revealing his Father in all he says and does, assures his disciples he is a truthful, trustworthy guide. Not only that. On that journey with them, with us, he empowers: he is the life in us that enables our response to God as we journey on from where we are.

But like the disciples, we can easily misunderstand the next words Jesus speaks: “No-one comes to the Father except through me.” The history of the church shows it’s all too easy to reduce what Jesus means here to some kind of test, domesticating the untameable Lord of life to a set of propositions or ideas. If you can sign up to them, you’re in, you have access to God. If not, you’re excluded. And Philip, dear, confused Philip, has misread the map again, seeing Jesus’ words as a test, or challenge: “Show us the Father, Jesus.” But Jesus’ words and deeds, since the day Philip met him, have fully reflected the generous, inclusive, extravagantly merciful, life-giving life of the Father. There’s no extra mountain range to cross to have access to God who is somehow other, or elsewhere: to be like Jesus, to follow the one who welcomes an outcast Samaritan woman, heals the sick, spares and re-directs the life of an adulterous woman, is to take on exactly the character of God.

In our lives, to be sure, being like Jesus to show God the Father to the world can be hard, and needs working out as we go along. Sometimes it might feel a bit like Gromit, in The Wrong Trousers animated film, frantically laying down railway track in front of a speeding toy train he’s riding to try and make a path ahead of him. The lively Spirit of God doesn’t run predictably on rails, of course, and will do new, creative things that challenge us. As we work out how to be the glue that makes for community here; or how to become a greener church, for example. 

But this is where Jesus (in verses 15-21) explains that the disciples will have help, as we do, in journeying on with him who is the way. Again Jesus says, “I’m going”, but again he declares he won’t leave the disciples bereft of his company: he’ll come back, right to where they are, in the person of the Holy Spirit, to dwell once more with them, among them, as lively and as powerfully, creatively life-giving as he was before. Leading them on, being the way ahead like those friends of Paul in Damascus. Father, Son and disciples will be in the closest possible embrace as the life of Jesus bodies forth in the world. The disciples will be strengthened by the Spirit to do and to be all that will help bring in the kingdom and draw people into relationship with God.

“You are here.” For all the uncertainty and fear that swirls around Jesus’ disciples at this stage in his earthly life, three certainties, then, about how things will be. One: the starting point is here and now, right where we are. Two: Jesus, authentically God, embodies and empowers the way forward. And three: he walks that road with us, strengthening us by the Spirit to follow him, growing the likeness of the Father in and among us for all the world to see.

In what situations do you need to know that Jesus walks beside you this week? Picture you and Jesus in that situation, setting off, ready to walk in step with each other. Draw strength and confidence from his presence where you are.   

[Prayer: God the way before we know your name; God the truth we may not yet know; God the life within the lives we love and have loved: be our way, our truth, our life this week. Amen.]