John 14:6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
These are the ‘going away’ words of Jesus to his disciples. He has just washed their feet. He has begun to prepare them for the horrors to come. And he is also preparing them also for life in the Spirit after the resurrection.
It should be said again that one of the special things about John’s gospel is that it is the deep memory of the apostle written down on paper years after it was written upon his heart. Everything about the narrative of John is about remembering the life and work and words of Jesus in the light of the resurrection. His looking back is in fact also a way of looking forward too.
The words of chapter fourteen are often read at a funeral. In that specific context, they are meant as words of comfort. Its perhaps worth having the full paragraph that wraps around ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. Notice, also, how it is Thomas who Jesus is addressing when he gets to this fifth ‘I am’.
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 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? 3 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. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
One of my favourite ‘spiritual’ artists is Elizabeth Wang. She died in September last year quite suddenly from pancreatic cancer. She was a woman of tremendous faith and her insights into Jesus’ way of life were expressed through colour and form. I have found her study of the Trinity (left) very powerful and moving. What is quite striking, first of all, is that all the Trinity appear to have a female form. We have the hand of Jesus, marked by the wound of the nail, reaching out to an approaching human. We have the arms of the Creator wrapping the community of the Trinity, creating a welcoming circle. And we have the Spirit carefully cradling the people who are being welcomed into the Life of the Trinity. And all that is required of the approaching human is two things: that they are walking towards the Trinity and they are reaching out to the Trinity. I would like to imagine that the human being approaching the Trinity is Thomas.
Thomas is the one who asks Jesus the straightforward question: ‘We don’t know where you are going so how are we to know the way?’ It is Thomas, who after the resurrection, finds it hard to believe that Jesus has indeed returned in his resurrected form. It is Thomas who questions if it is possible. It is Thomas who will only believe if he can put his hand into Jesus’ side and see the nail wounds. And it is Thomas who bows down at Jesus’ feet and proclaims him ‘my Lord and my God’.
Thomas stands for us. We ask the way. We don’t understand the resurrection. We wonder where God is in our lives, often. Yet we can’t let go of the searching and the travelling. And we find that the more we focus on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we find a way through this life.
The purpose of a funeral sermon is to proclaim the gospel in the context of the death of the particular person. It is not the same as the tributes which are made by those who loved the particular person. It is an opportunity to point to the ways that the truth and life of Jesus had been evident in life of the person who has died. But, I have often felt it such a shame that we only do this at the end of a person’s life. How good it would be to talk openly to each other about the ways we see that truth and life of Jesus at work in each other while we live. What an encouragement that would be!