When I was a First Year at UVA in the fall of 1982, a particularly dangerous virus rampaged through the Grounds, causing us students – and those in charge of us – real anxiety. I can’t remember now exactly what it was, but it had everyone’s attention. A dean, or some university official, gathered us together in the common room of our dorm, Bonnycastle. He warned us of the crippling and potentially fatal symptoms of the disease, and urged repeated handwashing and punctilious hygiene in general, which was not the strong suit of college freshmen, at least the boys.
Well, we were anxious enough in our first month of being in college, and this news ramped up our worry. In addition to the dean’s hygienic admonitions, we were all instructed to take a certain preventative medication. The anxiety in the room rose. He then listed it’s side effects, which included turning urine florescent orange, to which my friend John, in his best Fast Times at Ridgemont High voice exclaimed, “Dude! That is SO awesome!”
Of course, everybody cracked up, including the dean, the tension was broken and we were better able to figure out the way forward.
This anecdote is a reminder that humor is important. Far from minimizing a person’s suffering, rightly used humor communicates trust in God. It is a reminder that the gospel itself is a kind of comedy and that the final trajectory of the world that God has redeemed has a comedic rather than a tragic end.
In our gospel reading for today, Thomas is not seeing the humor in anything. Jesus has gathered his disciples in a time of anxiety to chart for them the way forward. The text tells us that their hearts were “troubled.” Presumably bogged down in the murkiness of the moment, Thomas complains, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” How can we know the way? Thank God for so called Doubting Thomas. If ever there was a question on the lips of us all right now, it is “how can we know the way?”
This past week I used what I thought was an apt analogy in one of my Almost Daily Devotionals. Apologies to those for whom this is a second hearing, but I’m thinking it is okay to plagiarize yourself during a pandemic. So here we go.
I’ve done some rock climbing, and I’m not all that good at it. Even on short climbs, there is a kind of panic that can take over when handholds and footholds can’t be found. Even when a secure foothold is found, fatigued leg muscles induce “sewing machine leg” – knees knocking in and out like the motion of a sewing machine.
The analogy of mid-climb (mid-air) insecurity seems apt as I try to place the low-lying general anxiety of day to day pandemic living. The normal weekly footholds of life are missing: church, office comradery, dinners with friends, sports, weekend trips, to name a few. Not to mention Mother’s Day brunches. (A happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers!) We are also missing the more solemn footholds: graduations, weddings, funerals. The corporate events that give individual life shape and meanings are absent. Right now, it feels like we are in mid-climb, not sure where the top is or when we will reach it. We do not know the way forward; we can’t see the footholds, the handholds or the top, so how can we know the way?
Jesus both answers that question and He doesn’t answer it. He has given us one answer for sure – which is the happy end of the story. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
The end of the way is clear: our Father’s house. But Jesus doesn’t give us the immediate plan. He doesn’t give us a detailed blueprint for getting from here to there. He doesn’t say, “OK, Thomas, phase one will look like this. Once that has happened, you’ll be ready to enter phase 2.” Instead of plan or a blueprint, He gives us so much more. Directly answering Thomas’ question, how can we know the way, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Rather than a roadmap, Jesus gives us Himself.
What does Jesus give us when He gives us Himself? Well, I’m sure of this: Jesus cuts right through the claptrap of life to meet our deepest need, to address the anxious Thomas that lives perpetually in each one of us. I’ll give you an example for the scripture that seems apropos for our current times.
A group of guys were very worried about their friend’s health. This poor fellow was paralyzed. His friends had heard that Jesus was some kind of miracle worker. So like Fezzick and Inigo bringing mostly dead Wesley to Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, these men brought their friend to Jesus to be healed. But the crowds were so large they couldn’t push their way into the house to see Jesus. They were so focused on their friend’s health, however, that they climbed up on the roof, hauling the paralytic up with them, dismantled the roof tiles, and lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man lay right down in front of Jesus.
It’s a dramatic and funny scene to imagine, isn’t it? Jesus teaching a packed house, feeling some flecks of clay begin to drift down into his hair and beard, and then a gaping chasm in the ceiling letting in the sunlight, and a man from the air lowered on stage, like a Deus Ex Machina in a Greek play. You can imagine Jesus looking up and seeing the urgent, but grinning faces of the man’s friends staring down from the roof at him expectantly. (I’ve always wondered what the owner of the house thought about all this hullabaloo. Who foots the repair bill? The paralytic? The friends? Jesus?)
These guys went to extraordinary lengths in order to address their friend’s physical health. They must have said to their friend and each other: “You know? When you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything!” And do you know what Jesus did in response to all that effort? He looked at the man and said, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
My son, your sins are forgiven? You can imagine the guys up top, saying, “Huh? What did he say? Sins forgiven? I guess that’s nice and all, but what about his confounded legs?! Sins forgiven? Really?” Well, Jesus does then heal the man’s physical infirmity, but not after he deals with the most pressing, most crucial, most important problem – the man’s relationship with God.
Make no mistake: right now we obviously need to care for people physically and do all we can to keep people safe. However, the often unrecognized but deepest need each of us has is peace with God. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that when you have peace with God you have everything.
Tom Holland, the author of Dominion, reminds us that the healthcare system “can provide care for the sick, but it cannot provide what Christianity, over the course of the past 2,000 years, has provided to so many countless people, and to such transformational effect… the assurance as well that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well….and the dead will rise into the blaze of eternal life.” As Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be also.”
How can we know the way? Jesus tells Thomas “I am the way”. He is the way that peace with God comes to us all. Soon after his answer to Thomas, Jesus becomes the answer for the world. On the cross, Jesus forfeits his own health, his own life, securing for you and me the very forgiveness of sins he proclaimed to the paralytic. “I am the way.” Trusting in a Person, rather than a game plan, brings real peace. As Paul says, “therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I’ll close with Jesus’ own words to his disciples and to you today. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in Me.”