It is good to be back! I’ve been laying low for the last two and a half weeks, doing academic writing. For those who aren’t aware, I’m finishing a doctoral dissertation on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor of the early 20th century, who was imprisoned and then executed at age 39 by the Nazis for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
When I scheduled my break a few months ago, I initially thought I’d be doing my writing at home. But the more I thought about it, I realized that I needed to go away. So one evening I broke the news to Alison and Ava. “I need to leave,” I told them. “I need to go away to some place with zero distractions, where I can just write and write and write, where my mind doesn’t need to focus on anything else.” Alison was very understanding and agreed. But Ava had a devastated, horrified look on her face. “You mean forever? You’re never coming back to us?” The tears welled up in her eyes. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’ll be back. It’s only for a few days.”
The day came when I finally packed up my bags. Off I went to Crieff Hills, a Presbyterian rural retreat center south of Guelph. I stayed in a hermitage—a very small house, the size of a small studio apartment. Once a day I would venture to the main kitchen of the retreat centre where I’d pick up three square meals already prepared for me and ready to be reheated. The rest of the time I did three things: sleep, go for an hour-long morning hike, but most of all write and write and write. By the time I checked out to return home, I had finished writing an important chapter.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his closest followers, his inner circle, that he is going away. This was no doubt hard news for them to process. They had just spent the last three years accompanying him throughout Galilee; they’d witnessed his acts of healing and transformation, his confrontation with power; they’d listened to his teaching, especially his confusing parables; they’d seen how he had changed lives, including their own. They had come to believe that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would finally establish lasting peace and justice in the land, free from Roman control. But now they’re informed that he’s leaving.
Where was Jesus going? He certainly wasn’t headed off to a retreat centre for a quiet break to recharge his batteries. He wasn’t headed to the desert for another 40-day period of introspection. Many people have assumed that Jesus was going to heaven, to his “Father’s house,” as John’s Gospel puts it, where there “are many dwelling places.” The old King James Version uses the expression “many mansions.” It’s often assumed that Jesus is reassuring his followers that heaven is a blissful experience of abundance, and that he will come again, as the creed says, to judge the living and the dead, and welcome all the faithful into the mansions of heaven.
I’d like to offer a different, more sobering take on today’s Gospel. I think Jesus isn’t speaking about heaven at all but rather informing his followers that he’s putting his life on the line and is expecting to die. More than that, he’s telling them that he’s preparing a place for them in his impending death because they too—if they persevere in following him—will also be faced with the threat of execution. If we listen carefully, however, we can hear hope in what Jesus is saying: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself.” In other words, death will not have the last word. Jesus will rise from the dead and be reunited with his followers in a new and mysterious way.
Now, if I’m on to something with the way I’m understanding Jesus’ words, it's clear that Jesus’ followers in this episode don’t have a clue what he means. This is why Thomas steps forward and says: “We don’t know where you’re going—how can we know the way?” And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” These words are often referenced as the foundation of Christian superiority. Jesus isn’t one way; he is the only way, so the argument goes. Other faith traditions fall short. It’s an attitude that has played out historically with disastrous consequences. Think about the genocidal legacy of Indian Residential Schools—church-run institutions that functioned to Christianize Indigenous people and “kill the Indian in the child.”
I think hearing Jesus as claiming exclusivity and warning against the folly of other religions misses the real point altogether. When Thomas asks Jesus, “How can we know the way?”—he doesn’t realize that he’s actually asking Jesus, “How can we die with you?” And Jesus responds, “I am the way.” In other words, “Follow me, for that is how you will risk your life and face the threat of death.” But Jesus also says, “I am the truth and the life.” His way might lead to the cross, but it nonetheless ends in resurrection life.
What lies at the heart of today’s Gospel is a reminder that Jesus’ life is on a trajectory of confrontation with oppressive political power, which will ultimately execute him. He invites his followers to persevere, to follow his way, if they are truly committed to join him in putting their own lives on the line. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is occupying a lot my attention these days, wrote, “When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die.” Bonhoeffer himself lived into that reality. For him, following the way of Jesus meant sacrificing his personal safety, his desire for comfort and security, and risking everything in stopping the wheel of ultimate evil from rolling. And he paid the ultimate price for that: he was imprisoned and then hanged in a concentration camp on April 9, 1945.
It took some time for the full impact of Jesus’ words to sink in with his followers. None of them ended up crucified alongside him. Mark’s Gospel tells us that, after Jesus was arrested, “they all forsook him and fled.” But in Jesus’ resurrection, they underwent a transformation. The first Christians were empowered with unprecedented boldness and resolve. Putting their lives on the line was not optional; it was exactly what was required in following Jesus. In today’s first reading, we heard the story of Stephen, one of the first deacons in the history of the church. Like Jesus, he confronted political power directly and paid for it with his life. Other followers of Jesus faced a similar fate. Paul was executed, and Peter is said to have been crucifed upside down because he considered himself unworthy to die in the same way as Jesus.
In our present time, following Jesus has somehow taken on a totally different meaning. Comfort is seen as a blessing. Life is defined by productive career paths that contribute to a thriving economy. Following Jesus is seen as a personal, private matter focused on individual interiority. How do we recover a sense of the costliness of what it means to be a Christian? I think it starts with examining how comfortable we are. Something to contemplate this week: when was the last time your identity as a Christian got you into trouble? The late civil rights activist John Lewis, an associate of Martin Luther King Jr., encouraged people to get into “good trouble.” By that he meant speaking out boldly against evil and injustice and standing with the vulnerable, the excluded and the marginalized in the trenches. But “good trouble” doesn’t mean we get to go home at night and sleep comfortably in our own cozy beds. It means risking everything. What can you do—what can we do—to go away and get into good trouble? The integrity of our Christian faith hinges on how we answer that question.