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Sermon for May 7, 2023, Easter 5 (A) (Emily Hyberg, Seminarian)


Today’s Gospel Reading contains one of the most popular passages of Scripture—John 14:6 “ I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”


I remember hearing this in a radio commercial for a megachurch. I’ve seen it painted on walls and printed on signs on the side of the road. This passage is everywhere.


There are probably a couple of reasons for this, but I think the major reason why this passage is so popular is because it seems so simple. It’s easy to understand these words as referring only to our individual belief in Jesus. Jesus is the way. Belief in Jesus is the only way. That seems to take a lot of the work out of discipleship. Jesus becomes our golden ticket to God. Belief in Jesus becomes our fast track to salvation. All we have to do is follow Him, and we are following God. Believe in Jesus, and a key to God’s house will follow.


Easy right?


Well… not so fast.


If we put this passage back into its context, not just the Gospel of John, but the whole story of Jesus’ life and the lives of his disciples, the story immediately becomes more complicated. We see this in an extreme way in today’s passage from Acts, where Stephen becomes the first Martyr, a person murdered for his belief in Jesus.


By putting these two texts together, we can see right away that it is not as simple as just believing in Jesus. There are consequences for following The Way. Jesus is not just calling us into belief, but into discipleship, a different way of being and working in the world. And there are costs to discipleship.


We can be assured of our salvation, of our place in God’s house where there are many rooms, but that doesn’t mean that our life is necessarily easier or simpler because of our firmly held belief in Jesus. Stephen’s story actually suggests the opposite, that our relationship with God might put us in opposition to those around us.


In the verses before today’s passage in Acts, Stephen has just finished telling the story of Jesus in light of Scripture, relating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to what we call The Hebrew Scriptures, and he’s doing so with other people who believe in the same Scripture.


Stephen is not martyred by strangers, but by people he shares a community with. The early followers of Jesus were a part of first-century Judaism, one sect among many. Stephen is engaging in a debate with people with whom he shares many beliefs and practices but who believe that the path to God goes by a different route. Stephen is martyred by the people around him. Stephen is martyred by his neighbors


Jesus tells us he is The Way, but he doesn’t tell us that The Way will be easy. A life of following Jesus can put us into conflict with our families and our neighbors—the people we share a life and community with.


We see this same dynamic in the life of another person in today’s Acts reading—Saul, who will come to be known as Paul, has his entire existence upended by following The Way of Jesus. In the remaining chapters of Acts of the Apostles, he goes from holding the coats of the people who killed Stephen, to being struck blind by a vision of Jesus on the road, to being persecuted himself for his faith in Christ. Paul follows the Way of Jesus, and as a reward, he is beaten, imprisoned, and stoned multiple times for his proclamation of Christ.[1]


These are not isolated stories. The whole book of Acts of the Apostles, nearly all of the Epistles, and the Gospels themselves relate stories of dislocation, persecution, difficulty, and death on account of discipleship.


Jesus says I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and that simple message hides a harsh reality. Following The Way of Jesus will cause us to do God’s work, and our fellow humans, those closest to us, might hate us for it.


Because the Way of Jesus that we are called to, the Way of God, is disruptive. God calls us into a radical reimagining of the world, one in which the last becomes first, and the first becomes last, where rejected rocks become cornerstones. The Way of God turns a humiliating and brutal execution on the cross into a resurrection that refutes the powers of empire and death.


Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that the works that he does will be ours if we believe in him. The life and ministry of Jesus is our example, and we know from the Gospels that his life and work brings Jesus into opposition with the systems of the world. Discipleship, following the Way of Jesus, calls us to speak against oppression, injustice, and structural sin.


That is certain to make us unpopular.


It is unpopular to suggest that wealth and privilege should not define a person, that the unsheltered person on the street is just as worthy of our esteem as the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. It is unpopular to build low-income housing next to brand-new condos. And, it is unpopular to suggest that—whatever the intent of the founding fathers of this country—the right to bear arms has gotten out of hand when 16-year-old boys are murdered for ringing doorbells and 20-year-old women are shot for pulling into the wrong driveways.


(big pause)


But this is precisely the kind of unpopular work that Scripture calls us to do. Jesus says in today’s Gospel that “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Jesus does unpopular works! In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims good news to the poor and the release of the oppressed, and the people in his community who heard him drove him out of town![2] He eats with sinners and tax collectors, unpopular people in their own right.[3] He proclaims woe to the rich and to the full.[4] When the guards show up to arrest Jesus, he tells Peter to put away his weapon.[5]


(pause)


Jesus says I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, and the Way of Jesus goes against the ways of the world; the Life can be filled with hardship, and the Truth, well, the Truth is often unpopular.


In this very popular piece of Scripture, Jesus is calling us to be unpopular.


And Jesus seems to know precisely how unpopular this will make us. In the next chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “if the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”


Jesus knows exactly the kind of life that discipleship will entail. Jesus knows precisely what it means to be unpopular.


But Jesus also tells us that we aren’t unpopular alone. He tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. He is going ahead of them. In the verses that immediately follow today’s reading, he assures the disciples that he and God are with them in love and that the Holy Spirit will come to keep them in peace. Do not be afraid of the world. God is with you.


We see this dynamic in the story of St. Stephen’s martyrdom. The Book of Acts tells us in an earlier chapter that Stephen does great works and speaks wisdom through the power of the Spirit, and we see in today’s reading that Jesus is with him when he is about to be murdered. God is present;[6] God is with us when we are made unpopular by doing God’s work. We cannot control how others will react to that work, but we can be assured that Jesus is with us in it.


We know that Jesus is the Way, so we know that He is with us along that Way, no matter what.


So, if we’re thinking that this all sounds like too much—that the world is too broken, that the Way of Jesus is too hard—we should try not to let our hearts be troubled. Jesus is with us. God is with us. The Holy Spirit is guiding our hands and hearts, and our words as we do the work that Jesus has given us to do. As we care for the poor, as we proclaim good news to the oppressed, as we advocate for a world where everyone has a home, a world where teenagers can safely knock on doors, and people are not shot for getting lost. In short, as we do God’s work, as we help Jesus to build the Kin-dom of God, God builds that Kin-dom alongside us.


This work, this Way of Jesus, may not make us popular in the world.


But it makes us popular where it counts.

[1] Corinthians 11:24-29 [2] Luke 4:18 [3] Luke 5:30 [4] Luke 6:24-25 [5] John 18:11 [6] Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 176-77.

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