By: Fr. James Gross
One of my seminary professors was an Irish-born priest by the name of Fr. Carroll. Once in a while, when one of us students would ask a question that he thought was simple enough for us to figure out by ourselves, he’d sigh a little bit and say in his Irish brogue, “Have I been with you for so long a time and still you do not know me?” Every time I hear this gospel I think of good old Fr. Carroll—may he rest in peace.
The events in the Gospels sometimes look different to us if we view them through the lens of the Apostles. Today Philip and Thomas are the one who speak up. Before we evaluate their questions, let’s step back and consider the context of this reading.
Today’s Gospel begins at chapter 14, verse 1 of the Gospel of John. Why does that matter? Well, at the end of chapter 13 Jesus tells the Apostles a couple of alarming things. First, the Lord predicts that one man from within his inner circle would betray him. Secondly, after Peter brashly declares that he will lay down his life for the Lord, Jesus says, with a tone of anguish in his voice, “Peter, this very night before the cock crows, you’ll deny that you even know me—not once, but three times.”
Sensing that these men were reeling from what just happened, Jesus hurries to console them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In honesty he foretold which challenges would soon arise, but in compassion he builds them up with several marvelous teachings. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” What a generous image: heaven is not so small as to fill up, but neither is it so big that the individual gets forgotten or lost in the throng. God is the Father of humanity, and of each one of us. He wants to gather all of His family home, with not one among them missing.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This declaration comes after Thomas protests that he doesn’t know where Jesus is planning to go. One commentator I read put it this way: “Thomas always liked the feel of solid facts under his feet, and perhaps did not have much poetry in his nature.” Recall that Thomas is the one who won’t accept the testimony of his brothers the Christ was raised from the dead until he can see it for himself. Notice here that Jesus embodies all of the things he mentions. To suggest, “I know the way” is one thing, but to suggest, “I AM the way” is another thing entirely.
Christ makes himself our guide and our standard of holiness without exception or reservation. Whom else could we follow, believe in, and dwell with, no matter what? For any human being such a burden would be unbearable, but for the Son of God, it is His purpose and destiny. I once heard a speaker tell a group of high-schoolers: “You will choose a way in this world. You will consider something to be the truth which you defend. You will search for the meaning of life. But where will those choices take you?” In other words, ignoring God does not leave a person without having chosen “a way.” But without Jesus, where are we going?
Jesus ups the ante even more when he says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Here’s where faith in Christ has to part ways with democracy. Our freedom is directed to protect our ability to choose Jesus as our way, truth, and life. His status as such is not subject to opinion polls. When confronted by the Sanhedrin in Acts of the Apostles, Peter told them, “We must obey God rather than men.” There is no other name through which people find salvation than the name of Jesus. We do not say this to be arrogant, but because Jesus is trustworthy.
Then comes the question from Philip: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Philip manages to startle Jesus, a man not easily startled. According to a scripture commentary I once read, the Lord’s response to Philip is one of the most staggering sayings in all of literature: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Do we realize the implications of Jesus’ claim? He is revealing the interior life of the Holy Trinity to us! Think of what we behold when we look upon His face! By bringing us into the circle, so to speak, of the Communion of the Persons of the Trinity, Jesus entrusts us with knowledge, as complete as we can take in, of the very mystery of God’s identity. No other religion dares to claim this, and neither would we, were it not for the teachings of Christ.
What does this mean for the Church? Jesus, and no mere man, established the Church. I like to think of the Church as a vehicle of the access He gives us to the Father and the Holy Spirit. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the means by which the Way, the Truth, and the Life is made present to us. Unless we understand and appreciate this, the countless sacrifices and heroic deeds performed in Christ’s name over the past 2,000 years will not make sense to us.
Some folks try to turn earth into heaven as though heaven won’t be there. We cannot get caught up in that trap. Christianity refuses to offer us an escape from the realities of evil and suffering. What it does offer is a final victory over them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us. What kinds of things are troubling us? Maybe it’s age or illness, or the hurts others have inflicted. The Apostles soon came to learn that none of those things have any power over Jesus Christ. Let’s reassure one another of this as we receive Him in the Eucharist.