In today’s passage from John, Jesus describes himself as the gate, the gate by which we, as sheep “come in and go out and find pasture”. Later in John, Jesus says he is “the way, the truth and the life”. These passages have a depth of meaning for each of us. Christ is both the way to life (the gate) and Christ leads the way to life (the good shepherd). One commentator said, “Both of these are intensely relational, which means that these statements tell us who Jesus is in relationship to those who follow him. Who Jesus is and who the community around him are – these two things are inextricably linked.”
Jesus calls us to be in relationship with him, and he calls us to follow him, to recognize that his is the way. We do that by following in the way.
What does it mean, then, to follow Jesus as the way and in the way? What does it mean to you that Jesus is the way? Following Jesus means knowing what he did and how he behaved. So what are some of the things that Jesus did and things that strike you as important about how he behaved?
He fed the hungry, he visited the sick and imprisoned, he healed the sick, he welcomed the stranger and the outcast. And when we follow Jesus, these are all important things for us to do. As the passage in Acts describes the disciples after Jesus’ death saying, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles,” so, too, we are called to do the same. In Matthew 25 we are told that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” and so we are reminded to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe those without and visit those in need. In seeing Jesus as the way, we are called to walk this way and this path in care for others. As we read in passages such as James 2:14-26, “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” We are called to enact our faith in concrete loving and caring ways.
But, we also have to look towards Jesus as the way by looking at all of what Jesus did and there are other parts to Jesus besides his caring for those around him. He spent forty days in the wilderness by himself. He fasted, he went away to pray by himself and with his disciples. He renewed himself by going apart and through prayer, most of all.
We, too, are called to find that balance in our Christian lives and in our Christian faith. Yes, we are called in the way of Jesus to do as he did in caring for God’s people. But that must be grounded and supported. As Glenna Beauchamp wrote in an article from These Days: Daily Devotions for Living by Faith, “Our faith, like every part of our lives, needs balance. If I focus only on nurturing my spiritual life, my faith will become disconnected from Jesus’ prayer to bring God’s kingdom on earth. If I focus only on helping others, I will suffer compassion fatigue. The prophet Micah sums it up well: ‘to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ Here is the balance we need to live faithfully as God’s people.”
Father Chacour, the archbishop of Galilee and Jerusalem puts it another way, “Vision without action is just a daydream, but action without vision is a nightmare.” We are called to start with a relationship, our relationship with God. It is from that relationship then that we are given the gift of vision. Only then, with our relationship with God supporting us, guiding us, giving us vision can we be inspired to follow Jesus as the way into loving God’s people through the concrete actions of feeding, healing, comforting, visiting and praying with and for one another.
Balance. I’m reminded of a story: One day, a professor entered the classroom and asked the students to prepare for a surprise test. They all waited anxiously at their desks for the test to begin. The professor handed out the exams with the text facing down as usual. Once he handed them out, he asked the students to turn over the paper. To everyone’s surprise, there were no questions – just a black dot at the center of the white sheet of paper.
The professor, seeing the expression on everyone’s faces, told them the following: “I want you to write about what you see there.” The students, confused, got started on the inexplicable task. At the end of the class, the professor took all the exams and started reading each one out loud in front of all the students. All of them, without exception, defined the black dot, trying to explain its position in the center of the sheet.
After all had been read, the classroom was silent, and the professor started to explain. “I’m not going to grade you on this, I just wanted to give you something to think about. No one wrote about the white sheet of paper. Everyone focused on the black dot – the same thing happens in our lives. We have a white piece of paper to observe and enjoy, while we always focus on the dark spots.” In the story, he goes on to explain that we do this with the bad and good things that happen in our lives. We are surrounded by good but we tend to focus on the negative little dots that show up. But for me, this is also a good illustration of other ways in which we fail to seek and find balance, especially in our faith. Jesus calls us to follow, he is the way, the gate, the shepherd – all of it showing us how to be in this life. As I’ve said before and as I will say again and again, everything God calls us to do we are asked to do because God loves us, wants wholeness for us. But we lose balance. We focus on our own needs and forget about others. We feel that just being ‘nice’ is what it’s about and forget that Jesus wasn’t always nice, instead he was just and confronted oppression. Or we focus on service to others, but forget to pray. Or we focus on coming to church and serving on committees, but forget about making time for the relationship that we are called to have with God. We focus on whatever our eyes travel to first, the black dots in the middle of the paper and forget about the white, the presence of God all the time, every time, with every breath we take. We forget about building the relationship with that whiteness that makes up most of our lives.
It is the putting together of all of these things that make us people on the way, people following Jesus, people striving to be who God calls us to be. Like with music, which is putting all the notes together along with rests, spaces, silences: it is working together with all the pieces, not just one note, that makes the music, so too our lives need that balance to be whole.
I came across a poem that I’d like to share with you this morning:
YOU ASK WHY I FOLLOW THIS JESUS?
You ask why I follow this Jesus?
Why I love Him the way I do?
When the world's turned away from His teachings
And the people who serve Him are few.
It's not the rewards I'm after
Or gifts that I hope to receive
It's the Presence that calls for commitment
It's the Spirit I trust and believe.
The Lord doesn't shelter His faithful
Or spare them all suffering and pain,
Like everyone else I have burdens,
And walk through my share of rain.
Yet He gives me a plan and a purpose,
And that joy only Christians have known,
I never know what comes tomorrow,
But I do know I'm never alone.
It's the love always there when you need it;
It's the words that redeem and inspire,
It's the longing to ever be with Him
That burns in my heart like a fire.
So you ask why I love my Lord Jesus?
Well, friend, that's so easy to see,
But the one thing that fills me with wonder is
Why Jesus loves someone like me.
Yes, we follow in the way that is Jesus by doing what he did, lifting up our arms and using them to serve God by serving God’s people. But we must begin by having a ground to stand upon. And that ground is our relationship with God, a relationship that needs to begin with time together, with conversation or prayer, with faith. Amen.