1 “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. 2 My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? 3 When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. 4 You know the way to the place I’m going.” 5 Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
In the wake of all the back and forth on heaven and hell during the past several weeks spurred by the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about Jesus’ words to his disciples as he was preparing for his death. These words from John’s gospel are familiar, for I have often said them when I’m leading the Celebration of Resurrection service at the end of one’s life. Going to lots of funerals is an occupational hazard for a United Methodist preacher these days, and in the midst of trying to provide comfort to those left behind when a loved one dies, Christ’s words to “…not be troubled…” are easy to trot out as a balm for those in pain.
And yet, those words didn’t seem to be enough for Thomas. Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them as well, a place where death will no longer separate them from Christ . . . but that seems of little solace to Thomas. By all indications the one he has followed and put his trust in – the one he loves – is about to die, and Jesus is reminding them that they too will one day follow him to death’s door. Yes, he may be be preparing a place for them, but they don’t have a clue where that will be or what that looks like.
“Jesus, we don’t know what you are talking about,” Thomas says in a fit of exasperation. “We don’t have any sense of what’s supposed to happen to us from here.”
And that’s the thing isn’t it? We really don’t know, nor for that matter are we supposed to know. All sorts of folks offer up all sorts of thoughts about heaven and hell, what happens after death, and what will happen at the end of time, as if their systems and theories can truly provide an answer. We think for some reason that we really CAN know what’s next.
When Thomas asks the question, Jesus doesn’t give him a map, doesn’t spell out directions, or offer up a theological explanation on the whether the streets of gold are 18 karat or 24.
“Thomas, do you know who I am?” Jesus asks. “If you trust me, I’ll show you the way, I will reveal the truth, I will be your source of life. Don’t follow maps or theories. Follow me.”
Far too often we read this scripture and turn Christ’s loving call to follow and trust into some sort of triumphalistic blather about how we have the only source of truth. In doing so we fail to recognize that Jesus is responding as a loving friend and teacher to a follower whose heart remains troubled, and needs a word of assurance. Jesus looks at Thomas with gentle understanding, and says “…look, you don’t have to know the way. I know the way. I have the answers. Come take my hand and we will make it to the other side together.”
And it is when Jesus takes my hand and guides me to the light that the pain in my heart begins to fade, and I realize that death has no more power to drive me to despair.
33 I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.”