In my 9 years of ministry, I have had the privilege of presiding at over a two dozen funerals. And, I must confess, that I find these to be some of the most rewarding moments in ministry. As I meet with families to prepare for the funeral, I am often struck by the magic of our lives. The stories families tell reveal how everyday men and women, young and old, quietly serve others. Every funeral reminds me that our daily lives are the greatest revelation of our faith and beliefs.
Our reading from John’s Gospel is a common reading at funerals. (It is my favorite choice.) I suppose this is because this reading is full of comforting words, especially to those who grieve. They remind us that there is place for everyone, including ourselves, in God’s kingdom. They remind us that we do, in fact, know Jesus; that we have a deep knowledge and experience of God in our lives. Most of all, there is peace in Jesus’ words. He says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” As we mourn those we love, these words speak to our hearts. These words remind us that our belief in God offers us peace and comfort, even as we grieve.
Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel falls in the middle of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” This is the portion of John’s Gospel where he prepares the disciples for his death and all that will follow. It begins with the washing of the disciples’ feet and ends with Jesus’ prayer for them. Today’s portion reminds the disciples what it means to believe in Jesus.
Before we dive into this particular chapter of John’s Gospel, I want us to consider the Gospel as a whole. John’s Gospel is written for a particular community. This community is a group of Israelite Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. This belief means that they are now ostracized from the synagogue and the Jerusalem Temple. John’s community, then, is discerning who they are: how does their faith in Jesus and the way they live weave together. For this reason, John’s Gospel does not always speak fondly of religious leaders of the synagogue. John’s Gospel is very particular; it speaks very plainly about what separates Jesus’ followers from other beliefs and ways of life.
It is not hard to imagine that the stories of Jesus’ last days with the disciples were very important. To this day, I still remember and reflect on the last conversation I had with my grandfather. Perhaps you have an important memory of someone you love who is no longer alive. We return to these moments because, in the darkest hour of our grief, they give us hope. For the same reason, John’s Gospel records these teachings of Jesus. Surely, these texts offered them hope and strength as they endured exclusion and persecution.
Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The disciples have chosen to follow Jesus, to believe He is the Messiah. This means they believe Jesus is the path to God, the path to eternal life with God. This choice had major consequences in their lives. Remember, they had been banished from their worshipping community for their belief. They must’ve had moments when they doubted or wondered if it was worth it. These words affirm the belief of the disciples.
There’s also an important revelation in these words of Jesus. When Moses comes upon the burning bush, he asks for the name of God. God tells him, “I am who I am.” This is the name of God: I am. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as “I am”: I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection… This one phrase binds Jesus to God like no other. It is the revelation that Jesus and God are one and the same, another affirmation of the disciples’ belief.
Then Jesus says to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” The implications of these words go far beyond the belief of the disciples. They impact the everyday lives of the disciples.
Throughout His life, Jesus lived a particular way. From the perspective of John’s Gospel, this way of life has certain characteristics. It is a life of signs and wonders: water into wine, healing for the sick and the blind, abundant food for the hungry, life despite death. The signs and wonders are more than physical miracles. They are also revelations of God’s activity in the world. Water into wine and a meal for thousands from five loaves and two fish reveal God’s abundance. The healing of the sick and blind reveal God’s care for a wounded and broken creation. The resurrection of Lazarus reveals the power of God’s life on behalf of creation. The disciples were witnesses and accomplices to these miracles. Now, they are more than allies; they are partners. It is time for the disciples’ lives to reveal these same signs and wonders. As the disciples follow Jesus’ way, they, too, become revelations of God’s activity in the world.
The words “I am the way, the truth and the life” trigger in us questions of religious plurality. We may wonder, “Is Jesus the only way to God?” These are valid questions. And John’s Gospel is very exclusive. Remember, this community of disciples had experienced exclusion themselves. For them, their exclusion was a vehicle of assurance in the face of oppression. My hope is that will not get bogged down in this question. Instead, let’s examine ourselves, our belief and our lives. As Jesus reveals God’s activity in creation, do we proclaim ourselves as His partners along the way?
Jesus sets before us a great task: to believe and to follow. These should not be done lightly or casually. To believe Jesus is one with God is a big deal. It asks us to set aside our doubts and fears and trust the unknowable. It requires our faith. And once we believe, we make the decision to follow Jesus’ way. This is a way of life that offers food for the hungry, healing for the sick, hope for the suffering. It is a way of life that reveals God’s activity in the world. I believe it was St. Francis who said, “Proclaim the Gospel always; when necessary, use words.” It is our daily choices that sustain our faith because it is our daily lives that reveal God’s presence. And, at the last day, our lives are the greatest revelations of who we follow and what we believe.