In our Gospel reading, Jesus announces to his apostles that they know the way to the place where he is going. Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus’ answer to Thomas’ pained question is the good news of this passage. But before we get to that good news, we need to sit for a minute with poor Thomas.
Thomas is in a bad spot. His beloved Lord is about to get crucified. Thomas and everyone else associated with Jesus will be tainted by association and in real danger of getting arrested themselves. Going forward, they will have to figure out what to do without the reassuring presence and leadership of Jesus.
I have never been in nearly such a difficult spot as Thomas is here. But I can identify with Thomas’ uncertainty in this moment. Like him, I have experienced times when I did not know where I was going, and when I had no clear sense of my way forward.
On Mother’s Day, I think first about the birth of our eldest son. Carrie and I had been eager to get pregnant. When we got the good news, we had nine months to get ready. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough. I doubt any amount of time would have been enough.
The night Benjamin was born, we most definitely did not know our way forward. Carrie and I asked to have him in the hospital room with us. But every time he made the slightest sound, we leapt up, convinced he was dying. There was no chance we could sleep with this terrifying little person nearby.
Eventually we asked the nurses to take baby Benjamin away. That was OK. But when we left the hospital a day or two later, there were no more helpful nurses. Carrie and I had to actually care for this child.
Benjamin is now twenty three years old. But raising him still feels like a work in progress. My father assures me we haven’t screwed him up too badly. At least, my father always adds, not yet.
But the period in my life that particularly comes to mind as I ponder Thomas’ question about his way forward is my first year in college. I was a thousand miles from home, sharing a small suite with four strangers. It was a bohemian intellectual from Boston, a massive football player from Long Island, a slick lady’s man from Delaware, a gruff, intimidating Texan, and me. I felt totally out of my league.
Our parents were a long way away. Our teachers didn’t care about our personal lives. The administration mostly left us alone. So the five of us began figuring out how to live together, more or less on our own. By any civilized standard, it didn’t go well.
A friend of mine from Georgia spent a night with us that fall. As I walked him to our room, I warned him that it was a little messy. He assured me that it couldn’t be worse than his own room. Apparently he was wrong. After venturing into our bathroom, he announced that he would not be setting foot in our shower.
About the same time, my roommates and I were relaxing in our small living room with a few beers. Somehow we got it into our head that it would be fun to throw the empty bottles over our heads and against the wall as hard as we could to see if we could break them. We did that for a while without thinking much about it, accumulating a good bit of broken glass. In our room. Where we lived. When an absent roommate came in, he asked us what we were doing. And suddenly it occurred to us that our behavior may not have been a good plan.
My personal low came in our second year. At some point, we had lots of old newspapers lying around, so I decided to burn them. But I came from Georgia. I was fuzzy on the whole flue thing. So I stacked LOTS of paper in the fireplace, and lit it. The paper flamed impressively and put out a good bit of smoke, all of it in our room. The fire alarm went off. This was before cell phones and we didn’t have a phone in our room, so I had to leave the room in order to call the police and ask them to turn off the alarm. That done, I returned to my room to have a beer. The paper was still burning vigorously when, to my embarrassment, the fire fighters arrived. I made the front page of the college paper the next day, my only appearance in the paper in four years.
As I look back at those years, I am grateful that I had a relatively safe environment in which to be remarkably foolish. And I am profoundly grateful for the wonderful, and only slightly less foolish friends who were part of it. But I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. Like Thomas, I could not see a clear way forward.
And I picture Jesus and me having the conversation Jesus has with Thomas in our reading. Jesus says something about the way. I respond that I don’t know the way. Jesus starts to explain that I actually do, pauses, then nods. Because I really didn’t know the way.
But then, and this is the good news of our passage, Jesus says to me, as Jesus says to Thomas and to all of us, “I [Jesus] am the way. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. If you want to know your own way forward, get to know me a little better.”
I picture Jesus adding, back in 1983, “It is going to take you a while. But as you do your best to find your way, know that I am with you. I am with you in your filthy shower and your stupid drinking games and while you set boneheaded fires. All you have to do is open your eyes and you will see me. You will see your way.”
I picture Jesus saying the same to us right now. I still do boneheaded things. I often don’t have any idea what to do next. Especially in this unprecedented situation, I don’t know our way forward.
And I picture Jesus saying to me, to all of us, “You still have a lot to learn. But I am still the way. And I am still with you. You can’t see where we are heading. But don’t worry too much about that. Because we’ll take the next step together. And as long as you are with me, you are on the right way.”
One last word about my college friends: the bohemian intellectual, now from New York city, got us “together” again last Sunday on zoom. It was the first time we were all together in a long time. It was great to see them again. And, in a minor miracle, we all turned out OK.
The same is true for us now. We’ll stumble along, and we’ll make mistakes, and we’ll get through it together with Christ’s help. And looking back, we will be able to say, Christ was with us, and we were on the way the whole time.
And so, on this fifth Sunday of Easter, I give thanks to Christ for showing us the way, for being our way. And I pray that Christ will continue to guide us as we walk the way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan