In the Name...
A group of hikers were being led through the Montana wilderness by a guide. On the third day, the hikers noticed that the guide seemed perturbed and confused about what to do next. ''We're lost!'' one of the hikers complained. ''And you said you were the best guide in the United States.'' ''I am,'' the guide answered, '' But I think we may have wandered into Canada.''
The story is told of an old professor esteemed for his wisdom and discernment. When faced with a difficult problem, he would often quote a Latin proverb, "solvitur ambulando" - it is solved by walking. It is solved by walking.
I'm sure we all know the benefits of a good walk and how much easier a good walk is when there is a good path to follow. Walking across fields or through the woods is all well and good, but then, to reach a road, that brings a feeling of relief from deep inside us. That could be an image and experience which may help us understand Jesus' words, "I am the Way."
When going cross-country you have to be very careful of each step. Sudden depressions, branches, flooded or muddy areas, briars and nettles, sheep or cow droppings. A good footpath is a comfort after that. It provides a way forward, non-hesitating movement after apprehensive plodding. Progress towards a destination. And Jesus said, "I am the Way."
But he tied it to something else. "I am the Life." I am the Life. Life is a kind of road, too. A journey in time. And Jesus said he was both - way and life. Christians have linked the two ever since because the Christian faith is not a stopping place. It's not a case of, Well, I'm a Christian now and I've made it so that's all. Far from it.
There are some people, though, who take that attitude. They may have had a very real and powerful spiritual experience, something that literally changed their lives. But that's where they've stopped in their journey and they can't seem to get past that point. They feel that they have "found Jesus" and have little patience with those whose journeys have taken different routes or haven't been so dramatic. They forget that Jesus did not say,” I am the destination.” He said, “Take up your cross and follow.” In other words, once you've found me, that's when the journey begins. And we have been walking in the way of that cross ever since.
Sometimes, the journey is lonely. Sometimes, as we heard in the lesson from Acts, the journey is dangerous but we continue to walk because we know we're going to get somewhere if we stick at it. We're not just wandering aimlessly, as so many others do in life.
Our Gospel lesson was a scene from the Last Supper, that fateful night full of tension and emotion as Jesus' disciples wondered what was going to happen next. It's ironic that the disciple who seems the most agitated about things to come is Philip because Philip was the first disciple. That's right. Philip was actually the first person to whom Jesus said, "Follow me." He was with Jesus before Peter and Andrew and James and John and the rest of them. It's no wonder Jesus looks at him with some surprise and says, you mean even you don't get it? So, he has to hit the "reset" button and remind Philip about all that he has seen happen, "believe me because of the works themselves." And, certainly, that's a theme we find again and again in the Scriptures.
Abraham set out because he had seen the works of God. He didn't know where he was going, but he had seen enough to give him confidence. The Exodus tribes also went forth and even though they were told, "You have not passed this way before", they had experience of the power of the One who guided them and knew that power could even make a roadway in the sea.
If you look at the New Testament, you'll find something curious. The only book that does not have a proper ending to it is the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the history book. Chapter 28 just stops as if there's more to come. And, there is. It's everything that we've done since for two thousand years. The Acts of the Apostles can never be finished because we are apostles and we are still acting. We are still walking the way of Jesus and performing the works of healing and restoration which Jesus told Philip that all who followed him would.
I forget who, but someone once said that the Christian faith is like a good wine because it travels well. It not only travels through time; it goes beyond it. If we believe that, we'll make it. Somebody once asked Daniel Boone if, in all his thousands of miles of travels, he'd ever been lost. "Never", he replied, "But I was once bewildered for about a week." That's the kind of confidence we should always have. We may be bewildered from time to time, but we will never be lost as long as we stick to the road, the way, that we've been given.
The disciples were anything but confident that night when Jesus spoke these words. They knew something was up, but didn't know what. Who hasn't felt like them? Young people just starting out in life uncertain about their job prospects or making relationships. Middle-aged people uncertain about job security or keeping their relationships. Older people uncertain about retirement or if they still have meaning after the loss of a loved one.
All these echo Philip's words, “Show us the Father” - give us a sign. And Jesus replies, "I am the way." Nothing more, but nothing less, either.
After all, things got a lot worse for the disciples. Within a few hours, one of them betrayed the rest, their leader was executed, and Scripture records that they were so terrified that the door of the room where they ran to hide was locked out of fear. If anybody was ready to abandon the journey it had to be them. But then something happened. Jesus came and stood among them and they realized what he had meant when he said to Philip, "I am in the Father and the Father is in me." Then, they realized that the journey had purpose and power and that sticking to the way meant sticking to Jesus and that nothing could be better or more sure.
There's a great hymn that was written in 1820 by a young English architect who was deeply moved by the horrible conditions of the orphanages of his time and which Charles Dickens later immortalized in Oliver Twist. Like Dickens, James Edmeston felt that these conditions were breeding grounds for crime and every vice and he set about writing hymns specifically for the children in these "asylums", as they were called, to give them some sense of hope that their surroundings were not all there was to life.
The particular hymn is number 559 in our hymnals and I’d like us to turn to it now and read the first verse together. "Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us o'er the world's tempestuous sea; guard us, guide us, keep us, feed us, for we have no help but thee; yet possessing every blessing, if our God our Father be." I'd like you to remember it was not written to be sung in church and picture yourselves as Dickensian orphans, the original congregation, and think about how the words must have sounded to those children standing at the beginning of their lives wondering what, if anything, lay ahead for them.
Indeed, what lies ahead for any of us? Jesus said, "I am the Way." And, that's the way it is.
In the Name...