“Stay on the Path”
Over the last several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about pilgrimage – journeys that are undertaken towards sacred or holy places. Some of you have been participating in the “Presbyterians Read” book study on Jim Forest’s book, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. And since I’ve been leading two discussion groups each week, as well as engaging with Presbyterians online about the book, pilgrimage has been on my mind.
I’ve been on a couple of walking pilgrimages – spending almost a week each time walking paths in Nova Scotia with a group of other pilgrims. And perhaps one day I’ll take the time to walk the 800 km Camino de Santiago in Spain. I’d like to do that, not so much for the destination of the shrine of the Apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, but because of the journey itself – the walking, the challenge of making that journey, the beauty of the countryside, and the people I might meet along the way.
With pilgrimage on my mind, I couldn’t help but notice the journey theme in the Gospel reading for this morning. Perhaps that’s not what jumped out at you when you listened to the readings this morning. After all, the first reading from Acts was the story of the stoning of the Apostle Stephen.
You might have been thinking, “How terrible that people would kill another person by throwing stones that them!” You might have noticed that the young Pharisee Saul, later to become the Apostle Paul, was there when Stephen was killed. You might have been aware that it was Stephen’s preaching about Jesus that got him killed. And you may have noticed that he accepted his death with courage, praying to God that those who were murdering him, or standing by and watching, would be forgiven.
And perhaps that description of Stephen’s death reminded you of Jesus – how his life’s journey ended when he was still a young man – how he was arrested and executed on the charge of blasphemy because of the things he preached about God and God’s coming Reign. Even as he hung on the cross dying, Jesus trusted that God was with him, and prayed that God would receive his spirit. And he also asked God to forgive the ones who were crucifying him, praying “Father, forgiven them. For they do not know what they are doing.”
It was only a day or so before his death that Jesus had spent the evening with his closest friends in Jerusalem. They had shared a final meal together, he had humbled himself to wash their feet, and commanded them to do the same for each other. And then, in the chapters of John’s Gospel that are known as Jesus’ “final discourse,” he encourages and reassures his followers, and commissions them to continue the work that he has begun.
They have walked with him through the towns and villages of Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God’s coming, healing, helping, and befriending people along the way. Following Jesus, they have journeyed into Samaria and shared the message with foreigners. They have walked with him by leper colonies and into the seedier neighbourhoods of the cities that respectable people would normally avoid. And they’ve followed him to Jerusalem, where he will take his final steps, carrying a cross.
As Jesus speaks to his friends on the night before his death, he is aware that they are scared and worried. He says, “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.”
What is becoming clear is that Jesus knows that his journey will not end on Calvary, dying on a cross like a criminal. His final destination will not be the grave, but he will be raised by God to live forever in what he describes as his “Father’s house” or what we might call heaven. And Jesus is promising and reassuring his disciples that they will be going there too. He’ll be preparing a place for them.
I wonder if it was that assurance that allowed Stephen to be so calm as his life’s journey came to an end so violently. Did he remember Jesus’ promise, and trust that his final destination was going to be heaven with God? Although the details of the afterlife remain a mystery to all of us, I have been present with many people of faith as they neared the end of their lives and I’ve witnessed a similar assurance and sense of peace and hope in their dying.
The disciples of Jesus who were with him on that final night had questions, and Thomas was brave enough to put them into words. Likely, they’re the same kind of questions that we have at times. Jesus says to them, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas admits, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
It’s as if they have been walking a pilgrimage together for the past three years, and Jesus has been their guide the whole way. But now, Jesus is saying farewell as he goes ahead and leaves them to finish the journey on their own. Without his presence beside them or just ahead of them, how will they find their way?
Jesus replies: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The SALT Lectionary Commentary notes that this is one of the most famous – and infamous – verses in the New Testament: Jesus’ remark that “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Too often, the commentator argues, this sentence is distorted into a dogma of exclusion, as if Jesus is saying, If you’re not a Christian, you’re damned.
The commentary suggests that it is the context that helps us to interpret these famous words of Jesus. The context of crisis and desperation that Jesus’ disciples are experiencing as they realize that Jesus is about to be killed and they are supposed to continue his mission on their own.
“Jesus’ response, so far from a cerebral, scolding lecture on salvation or ‘who will get into heaven’ is actually an exercise in urgent, poignant pastoral care. He’s assuring his companions that his imminent departure is not abandonment, but rather a move that will make way for an even deeper intimacy.”
“When Thomas asks, ‘How can we know the way?,’ and Philip follows up by asking Jesus to ‘show us the Father’ – as if to say, At least give us some coordinates, so we can find our way to ‘God’s house’ once you’re gone. Jesus’ response amounts to this:
You already know the Way! You know the Way we’ve been travelling, the Truth we’ve been learning, the Life we’ve been living – so just keep going, and when you do, I’ll be right there with you, because I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’m not merely your guide; I am the Way. So keep going and learning and living toward God, and we’ll be together as you go.”
What strikes me about this description is that as disciples of Jesus, our task is not to figure out the way to heaven. Although Jesus assures us that heaven will be our final destination, he also tells us that we don’t need to worry about getting there because he’s preparing a place for us. Our task in this life is to keep walking on the Way, to stay on the path that is the Jesus Way, one step at a time, one day at a time.
One of the chapters in our pilgrimage book study talked about walking labyrinths, and the author invites us to consider the labyrinth as a metaphor for our Christian journey through life. Some of you will be familiar with labyrinths, and perhaps the most famous labyrinth from the floor of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Chartres in France.
This is a photo of a labyrinth at Crieff Hills, a Retreat and Conference Centre of The Presbyterian Church in Canada near Guelph, Ontario. It was built by a group of youth participants in a Canada Youth Conference almost 15 years ago. And now, people visiting Crieff Hills on retreat or study leave can go into the woods and walk the peaceful path of this labyrinth.
A labyrinth is different from a maze. A maze has many paths, so as you walk through a maze, you often have to choose a direction, and you may find dead ends and have to turn around and try again. To reach the exit is a contest between the maker of the maze and the walker. The maker wants us lost.
In contrast, a labyrinth has only one path. There are no choices to make, and we can’t make a wrong turn. A labyrinth has a single continuous path which leads to the centre, and as long as you keep going forward, you will get there eventually.
Jim Forest makes the spiritual connection this way: “Follow the path of the gospel, and the mercy of God will finally bring you to the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, no matter how many turns you make along the way.”
I think that’s something like the message Jesus was giving to his friends when they worried and wondered about how they would manage without his physical presence and guidance. He told them “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” He assured them that they already knew him and had learned to walk in his steps.
Their mission was simply to stay on the path, to keep following his way of love, service, hospitality, forgiveness, and truth-telling. And he would be with them – as close as each step they took. Soon he would promise them that the Holy Spirit would be with them too – as close as each breath.
Wherever you are at on your life journey at this moment – whether you’re just getting started and wondering what lies ahead, whether you feel like you’re on the right track or like you’re lost in a dark valley, or whether you’re nearing the end and reflecting on the path you took… you’re invited to stay on the path that is the Jesus Way, and to trust that your final destination is sure.
It is a pleasure to walk together with you as fellow pilgrims on the Way. May God bless our journeys.