The Way Home: Like the other Sundays and holy days of later Eastertide, this Monday’s feast of Philip and James the Apostles takes its gospel lesson from St. John’s account of the last supper – just hours before Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death, when Jesus tells the disciples of his imminent going from the world to the Father. They are stunned, shocked, troubled by this news, and no wonder. He had asked them to invest their whole future in following him and they had made the commitment he asked for; and when they thought of the future they thought of sharing in his earthly reign. A future without Jesus is a shattering prospect. In the face of Christ’s death, what comfort can there be for them? And what comfort can there be for us in the death of our own friends? And in the prospect of our own certain death? In the gospel lesson for this feast Jesus lays out the comfort we have in his death – so that we can face the loss and death of all we love without fear or regret. It involves the promise of a home with God.
Longing for home is one of the strongest desires of every human being: a place where we are truly known, welcomed, accepted, loved, delighted in – a place which belongs to us, which fits us, where we can indeed be truly ourselves. The whole of human life can be understood in terms of this longing for home. When you first fall in love, get your first job, get the first break in your career, when you go on your dream vacation, move into your dream house, or buy your dream boat – in each of these moments we think we are finally finding the place we are looking for – but when you finally obtain the prize, you find that feeling is gone. These experiences may be very pleasant, but they do not leave us satisfied. They are pleasant inns along the road, but they are not the destination. The world serves to arouse your desire for home, but it cannot satisfy it. We can never be content with finite goods, no matter how much we have, because in the end we are looking for the joy that only an infinite good can give.
It’s Philip who first raises the issue of this world’s insufficiency, when Jesus challenges the disciples to feed the multitude in the wilderness: “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them” he says (John 6:7); and he uses almost exactly the same word at the last supper: “show us the Father, and it sufficeth us” (14:8). Our sufficiency is in the vision of the infinite and eternal good. But how can that happen? how can the finite have access to the infinite? The essence of tragedy is that we see what we are made for, a life with God, but we don’t see the way there. As Kafka said, “there is a goal, but no way; what we call the way is only wavering”. But at the last supper Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also”. To be at home in the Father’s house, is to be where Jesus is – it is to be known, welcomed, loved, accepted, delighted in, as the Son is known, loved, delighted in by the Father. There is no better place for us to be.
When Jesus adds, “whither I go ye know, and the way ye know”, Thomas protests – it’s just like Thomas to voice the objection: “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me”. Jesus is not only a moral and religious teacher of God’s way, and the prophet calling us back to God’s way, he himself is the Way. In his going from the world to the Father by way of death, and resurrection, and ascension, he goes for us and on our behalf, so that in him, “we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him” (Ephesians 3:12). Moreover, if Jesus is the way from the world to the Father, he is also the way for the Father to be at work in the world, and in our own souls, by his Spirit; and if he is thus the one who fully and completely is the Mediator of God and men, it can only be because he is himself both God and Man. And so Jesus answers Philip’s demand, he that hath seen me hath seen the Father (14:9).
This communion with the Father we have in Christ begins here and now in grace and faith, and especially in prayer in the name of Jesus; but our own death, as also the death of our friends in the faith, so far from bringing this communion in grace to an end, actually consummates it in the fullness of glory, a glory so great, that the sufferings of this present life are not to be compared with it (Romans 8:18). This indeed is the sufficiency we crave; this is the beauty we long for; this is the end of all our striving, and the comfort of strangers and pilgrims in this world, and followers of the Way (Acts 9:2).
This essay was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on April 30, 2023. Image: WikiArt.org.