It’s Mother’s Day, so it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve had my mother on my mind. She’s living in Jefferson City, in a senior living community. And, like so many other people right now, she’s basically stuck in her apartment. She goes to the store from time to time, or goes to see my sister who also lives in Jeff City; but she can’t interact with other people at her complex, and none of us can go inside to see her. We talk on the phone, and she’s fine … at least as “fine” as anybody can be, in this situation.
But thinking about your mother also takes you back in time. Yes, that tired and grumpy little boy is me, and the date stamp on the photo tells me I’m 20 months old. At various points in her life, my mother was a teacher of English and speech, even travel geography later on; teaching is absolutely her passion. But when my sisters and I were little, she spent most of her time working at home, raising us. My memories of childhood are largely memories of my mother being there, guiding us, narrating life day by day.
I don’t know whether your parents used catch phrases as they raised you, but my mother certainly had one. Whenever we kids would leave the house to go do something, my mother would smile and say, “Learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.” That may seem precious as you hear it now, but for an impatient little boy, trying to get himself out of the house, it wasn’t precious; it was mostly annoying. I couldn’t see what her phrase had to do with going to baseball practice. Of course, she sent us out with that advice in other, harder times, too – when we’d leave to take a big test, or sing a solo, or sit on the bench at the basketball game … again. Growing up, I didn’t always see how it applied or why it mattered. But my mother was saying, “Trust in this. Commit yourself to this. In everything life brings, no matter how rough things seem, you will come out better if you use the situation to learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.”
Fast-forward a few years, and Ann and I had our own kids. I know I didn’t use my mother’s words exactly, but I think I passed on the same call to Kathryn and Daniel, inviting them to see everything as an chance to learn, to love, and to find the blessing in the moment. So, I guess I’ve ended up practicing my mother’s mission statement. Turns out, she was right even if I didn’t always understand why she said what she said.
Trusting even when we don’t understand – that’s a good way to capture what it means to be a follower of Jesus, too. I hear that message in the Gospel reading this morning, even though the word “trust” never appears. Instead, the word we hear is “believe.” You know, like the word “love,” the Greek word for “believe” has a range of meanings in Scripture. Sometimes, it just means affirming something to be true. But more often, it means to trust – placing deep, abiding trust in a reality that guides your life, the thing you give yourself up to.
Today, we hear Jesus using “believe” that way at the Last Supper, his parting shot to his friends. He’s trying to remind his friends of deep truths they’ve known and lived for years, and then commission them to carry on once he returns to the Father. But first, he has to stop for a little remedial teaching along the way.
He starts off saying, don’t be afraid: “Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1). Trust this path we’ve been taking together. Even though I’m about to leave, I’m leaving to prepare a place for you, with me, in my Father’s house. I’ll bring you there, too, he says, because, after all, you know where we’re going and you know the way.
The room falls silent until Thomas says what the rest of them are thinking: Um … “we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” (14:5). And Jesus assures him, yes, Thomas, you do know. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you know my Father also.” (14:6-7) And Jesus is probably expecting some collective sighs of, “Oh, yeah, of course, that’s right.”
But then Philip takes the risk to say what the others are thinking: Look, he says, just “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). And Jesus puts his farewell on hold again to go back to the basics: He asks Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” Where is your trust? “Have I been with you all this time …, and you still do not know me? … Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? … Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…. [Because, in fact,] the one who believes in me” – the one who trusts in me with everything he’s got, the one who gives herself up to follow this path – they “will also do the works I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these….” (14:9-12)
I imagine the disciples sitting there, dumbfounded. Even after following him three years – even after watching him restore sight to the blind and raise the dead – even after all this, they’re still trying to understand what he’s talking about.
To me, here’s the importance of that word we translate as “believe,” the word that means staking your life on something: You don’t have to understand truth completely in order to trust in it. At some point, trust takes us beyond understanding – in fact, it gives us “the peace that surpasses all understanding,” as St. Paul wrote (Philippians 4:7). Rather than answering every question to our satisfaction, Jesus plots our course and guides our hearts, showing us the way even when we wonder what it has to do with the life we’re living now. When my mother would tell me to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time” as I left the house for a baseball game, I thought she was crazy. I was going off to hit a baseball and win a game. But of course, with those words, she was guiding me wherever I was going – to the ballpark, or to school, or to my first job, or on a date, or to my first apartment, or to my wedding. I didn’t have to understand the fullness of what she was saying in order for it to be true – or for it to guide the way I lived my life.
Now, hang with me a minute because I think there’s a connection here to the part of this morning’s reading that some of us may struggle with the most. It’s John 14:6 – Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That verse was my greatest stumbling block as I discerned a call to the priesthood. Growing up, I’d heard too many folks use it to judge and exclude other people. There was so much I loved about 99 percent of Jesus’ message, and I hoped seminary would explain how this particular verse fit with God’s call to love everyone. Guess what? Seminary didn’t help much.
Now, you can find all kinds of commentary to clarify and expand on what Jesus is saying here. I particularly like reading this verse as poetry, where words mean what they say but also more than what they say. When Jesus says, “I am” the way, he’s echoing God from Exodus, and the disciples are in the role of Moses before the burning bush. Moses spoke to God directly, and asked God’s name, and learned it was, “I AM.” So, Jesus is saying, I am “I AM,” and of course no one comes to I AM except through I AM. He and the Father are one, so he is the way to God.
Cool. But still, the verse says what it says about no one coming to the Father but through Jesus. So … what about good, faithful non-Christians? Where do they end up in eternal life? It’s the question we always want to ask: Who’s in, and who’s out?
Here’s what I believe: Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God for humanity. Full stop. No other revelation of God is as full, as complete, as God’s manifestation in Jesus Christ. That’s what I believe to be true.
And here’s what I trust: that Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, asks me to follow along the path he marks out. So, I try to do that, living in eternal life now as a warm-up for the rest of eternal life to come. That’s what I trust, what I stake my life on.
And, here’s what I don’t know: the answer to nearly every question that flows from that trust. Will I get a mansion in heaven? I don’t know. Will I get to sit at the table with all my family and eat my mother’s boeuf bourguignon again? I don’t know. Will I experience “heaven” as soon as I die, or do I have to wait for Jesus to come again, or has that already happened and we just don’t see it yet? I don’t know. Will non-Christians eventually come to see what I see and trust in God the way I do, or does a different eternity await them? I don’t know. Instead, I trust that God is love and so God will act in love. And I feel like that leaves room for God to be God and to work out the details as God sees fit.
Sometimes, our parents know more than we do. Sometimes they say things that are hard to hear, or that seem inappropriate, or that don’t make any sense – but still, they know more than we do. I didn’t know what my mother had in mind when she sent me off to the baseball game telling me to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time” – but I tried to live that way anyhow. Turns out, it wasn’t bad advice for the rest of life, too.
By the same token, like the disciples, we won’t understand everything Jesus is trying to tell us. And I think God’s OK with that, as long as we keep our hand on the plow, as the old spiritual says, and hold on to the words Jesus gives us every time we stop and listen. It’s the divine version of my mother at the back door as I left the house – not so much giving advice as issuing a call: a call to remember, a call to trust, and a call to live that trust day to day. For my mother, the call was to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.” For Jesus, standing at the back door and calling to us as we head out each day, it’s this: Love God, love neighbor, and love one another. You may not be able to explain it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Just trust it, and it will lead you home.