A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 14, 2017 (Easter 5, Year A)
As a society we have an endless fascination with pirates. Not actual, modern-day machine gun toting pirates — they’re scary — but the romanticized pirates of yore. Blackbeard and Captain Kidd and Long John Silver and Captain Hook. Okay, maybe not Captain Hook — he was kind of a doofus in Peter Pan.
But there’s something freeing about the whole notion of raising the Jolly Roger and heading out for adventure on the high seas. Children are especially drawn to the idea of a life without rules, where no parent is around to make you brush your teeth or go to sleep at a reasonable hour and anyone who irritates you is simply made to “walk the plank.” Actually, there are days when that last part sounds pretty good…
And we all love the whole lexicon of piratey words and phrases like “shiver me timbers” and “scurvy dog” and “arrgh.” There’s something especially satisfying about saying “arrgh.”
But when it comes to pirates, ultimately it’s all about one thing: the treasure map. That rough drawing on parchment that remains the pirate’s most prized possession. Why? Because it points to the booty! Follow the directions to where “X marks the spot” and all that treasure is yours. The bounty of gold coins and jewels, all buried deep inside that wooden treasure chest.
In a sense, this is how we spend so much of the energy of our lives: seeking treasure. Now, when we get off track we tend to focus on the financial rewards; seeking happiness through material wealth. But I think the deepest yearnings of our hearts are really about finding meaning in this life. Searching for that often elusive sense of contentment. Yearning for authentic relationship with God. Seeking divine treasure. And we so desperately crave a map with a giant, impossible-to-miss “X.” We want a definite location where we can take out our metaphorical shovels and enthusiastically and with great expectations start digging.
This, I think, is at the heart of Thomas’ question to Jesus in this morning’s gospel passage: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas literally wants a map! He wants directions to this place where Jesus is going. This place, he imagines, of deep serenity and profound peace; a place of answers and spiritual certainty. ‘It must be around here somewhere.’
And Jesus does hold out a vision of what this looks like in the afterlife — this passage is part of Jesus’ long Farewell Discourse as he prepares the disciples for his impending death. There’s a reason this is often read at funerals — though we tend to use the more familiar and majestic language of the King James Version. “In my Father’s house are many mansions” — rather than the more pedestrian “dwelling places.” But the concept remains the same — that Jesus goes ahead of us to “prepare a place for us.” Just as John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus is the forerunner of our heavenly future. And this must have been of great comfort to the disciples, as it is to us during times of grief.
So in his blundering way, Thomas stumbles on the very crux of the spiritual life, the question at the heart of it all: “How can we know the way?” In other words, ‘Please, Jesus, just tell us where to go and what to do and how to get to this dwelling place of yours.’ We so desperately crave a map or some easy-to-follow directions. I think this is why so many Christians seek to turn the Bible, our sacred, nuanced, beautiful, heart-wrenching story of humanity’s relationship with God, into a map. Follow these steps, follow these laws, follow these directions, and you will know the way.
But that’s not how it works. Authentic relationship transcends step-by-step instructions. And so you can almost imagine Jesus grabbing Thomas by the lapels and getting in his face and saying, “Hello! Don’t you see? I am the way. And the truth. And the life. Stop searching. Stop looking. You don’t need a map. I am here. You have already arrived. You are home.”
But the stumbling around continues, as is often the case with the disciples, as Philip immediately pipes up and says, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Again, not getting it; again wanting a map. And Jesus must be at least slightly exasperated by now — I mean, Son of God or not, this lack of understanding has got to get frustrating after awhile. So you can almost hear him taking a deep breath before plaintively asking, “You’ve been with me all this time and still you don’t get it?” Remember, this interaction is all taking place at the Last Supper so both Thomas and Philip aren’t new here. They’ve been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry. They should know the way. At least by now.
And Jesus basically says the same thing to Philip, “Know me and you will know God. Pay attention to what I’ve been saying all along and you will see God.” And this points to so much of why Jesus came into the world in the first place: he came to reveal God. To be the face of God in the world. To incarnate God’s love. To show us the way.
And so this isn’t just a place accessible only off in the future in some distant way. It is open to those who believe in Jesus and follow him as Lord in the here and now. Because this “mansion” or “dwelling place” isn’t some sort of divine housing complex in the sky. It is about being in the presence of God. It is about being held in intimate relationship with our divine parent. One who holds us and nurtures us and forgives us and admonishes us and builds us up and loves us.
Jesus is pointing the disciples and us to a place that transcends death. He is preparing his disciples for the end of his earthly existence but he is also pointing beyond it — to that place he has prepared for each one of us. That’s the promise of the resurrection; that’s the promise of the Christian faith; that’s the promise of new life beyond the visible world. And it is because of this promise that we don’t need a treasure map to unearth spiritual riches. We just need to look toward Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
So we can say “arrgh” to our hearts content. But we don’t need a treasure map because we have Jesus. Jesus is the treasure. Jesus is the way, and the life, and the truth. X marks not the spot but Jesus himself. And we are invited to dwell with Jesus, to abide with Jesus, to follow Jesus.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck