A few years ago This American Life producer Nancy Updike’s stepfather was dying. He had hospice care and Ms. Updike was incredibly impressed by the competence of the hospice nurses because she herself felt so helpless and anxious and at loose ends in the face of his death. So, she ended up producing a half hour segment of This American Life that followed hospice nurses at Kaplan Family Hospice House in Massachusetts.
Hospice care workers are a rare breed of human being. So many of us do all we can to fight death, or to ignore death while all day long every day, hospice nurses and doctors help people prepare to die. They face what the rest of us are afraid to face, and they face it with dignity and respect. They become a bridge for patients and their families between this world and the next. They understand the complex physical, emotional and spiritual process of death. At one point on the program a nurse, Patti told the following story:
“Yeah. Or [the patient is] comatose and the loved ones keeps saying, he’s waiting for his brother to get here on Saturday. They’re coming from Florida on Saturday. And I’m, inside, rolling my eyes thinking it’s Tuesday. He’s going to die on Wednesday or Thursday. He’s not going to be here on Saturday for when his brother arrives from Florida. And then the brother arrives at Logan, shows up at the Kaplan House at 12:30, and the patient dies at 1:00. And they say to me, I told you. He just needed Billy to come from Florida. And it’s like, what?”
Patti and other nurses like her know that death is not just physical. Sometimes a patient needs to see someone; sometimes they need a priest to do last rites or to hear a last confession. But even hospice nurses, the closest thing we have to death experts in our culture, can’t know for certain what happens after death. None of us can really, though they sure are marketing the heck out of the movie Heaven is for Real, aren’t they! Scripture does give us some clues about our life after death, but even the New Testament’s messages are muddied. In Paul’s letters he seems to have the understanding that all humans will be raised in a resurrection at the same time. In other parts of the New Testament, heaven is spoken of as a place where we will unite with God.
Even Jesus did not have an easy relationship with death. When his friend Lazarus dies, he weeps. When he faces his own death in the garden of Gethsemane, he prays for release. And so the words we read today from the Gospel of John are not a flippant response to his disciples’ worries, but are rooted in Jesus’ experience of being both human and divine. He knows the grief and fear of death, but he also knows that God has plans for us beyond our deaths. In this passage, his disciples aren’t so worried about their own deaths. They are worried about what they are going to do without Jesus. Our passage is part of a long speech that is called Jesus’ farewell discourse. When I was almost college aged, my dad started peppering me with advice, “Carpe Diem! Don’t pick the sick puppy! Don’t merge with anyone you don’t want to become!” He knew he couldn’t follow me to University of Richmond, but he really wanted me to take the values of our family with me to college. In the same way, Jesus is giving his disciples a framework that they can use after his death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus is reassuring them and giving them marching orders. And while Jesus’ main point is not to describe the afterlife to his disciples, his words do tell us a great deal about God’s plan for human beings after our deaths. Jesus tells the disciples his death is necessary. He has to leave the disciples in order to prepare a place for them. In John, rather than resurrection language, Jesus imagines heaven as a metaphorical place—a place with plenty of room for everyone. And blessed Thomas, ever practical, wants to know how the heck they are going to find that place? If Jesus is gone, does he plan to leave them a map? Detailed instructions? Thomas stands in for us. We want more details! More information! How do we get to heaven? Jesus then reassures Thomas that Thomas has all he needs. Thomas doesn’t need a map, because he is already in relationship with the one who prepares the dwelling places and leads us to the dwelling places.
This verse—I am the way and the truth and the life is often used as exclusionary—If Jesus is the way, then there is no other way, but Jesus isn’t addressing other religions here. Jesus is addressing Thomas’ specific concerns. Thomas doesn’t need anything but Jesus, and even if Jesus leaves, Thomas is going to be okay, because Jesus will be working on Thomas’ behalf. This exchange between Jesus and Thomas is a gift to us.
No matter how many times we ask for a map—when am I going to die? What will it be like? Will I feel pain? Will there be white light? Will I see my family?–we won’t get answers. Those answers are only knowable after our death. What the New Testament does tell us is that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to live and die for us so we may share in God’s eternal life. And all we need to get there is Jesus, and Jesus has already done the work necessary to get us there. When Jesus reassures his disciples that they will be okay, that he has them covered, we get to eavesdrop and be comforted. As we heard last week, the Gospel of John is also the Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, a shepherd who chases after every last one of his sheep, who makes sure everyone is tucked safely into the sheepfold. Jesus’ promise to his disciples is his promise to us—he is the way and the truth and the life for us, too. We are his sheep. We are his disciples. While we may face our own deaths with fear or dread, we can also know that even in the midst of our anxiety, Jesus is preparing a place for each of us. We are safe within the sheepfold of his love. Thanks be to God. Amen.