The River of Life

Message for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A (5/7/2023)

Acts 7:55-60

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

John 14:1-14



Midsummer in my hometown is prime time for floating the river. Both the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers are nearby, as well as any number of tributaries. So, if you cross a bridge on a hot day in Eugene-Springfield, look upstream and you might very well get a view of fun-loving people reclined in inner tubes as the current gently carries them by. Someone is likely to have brought a floating cooler, too, so no one gets thirsty. And, everyone is likely to be having a good time.

I have fond memories myself of floating a creek north of Springfield in my young adulthood. The parents of a childhood friend had relocated to a place along its banks, so we had a reliable point of access. And, since the creek never got too deep or fast, it was easy to relax and enjoy the company of friends. Our time on the water had a way of slowing down and inviting a sense of calm and closeness. It was while floating the creek together that I asked that same childhood friend to be the best man at our wedding.

These memories came flooding back this week as I reflected on Jesus’ famous teaching in our Gospel from John today. “If I go and prepare a place for you,” he tells his followers as he prepares to bid them goodbye, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas speaks for the rest of the disciples when he replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

It’s important to name that these verses have often served as a scriptural trump card to uphold Christianity’s allegedly unique claim to truth over against all other traditions and perspectives. That’s called Christian triumphalism or exclusivism, and it’s never been a good look.

Neither is triumphalism consistent with the biblical context. John’s Gospel is intended for his audience, a particular community of late-first-century Jesus-followers seeking a relationship with the God whom they glimpse in the events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. If Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” he is their way, their truth, their life. If Jesus insists that “no one comes to the Father except through me,” he means “none of you.” To quote one interpreter, “this is not… the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but it is the conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world.”[1]

That is to say, these verses were never intended as a bludgeon to beat non-Christians into submission, but as a word of encouragement to those who have, in fact, found a meaningful spiritual path in the footsteps of Christ, who have found something of the truth in the teachings of Christ, who have found a fuller life in communion with Christ. These verses are meant for us.

As is Thomas’ question, which, of course, still rings true: How? How can we possibly know where the way of Christ will ultimately lead? I admire him for saying aloud what we’re all thinking. We don’t actually know how our life’s journey will go, as much as we might like to. We don’t know in advance what the twists and turns will bring. And, if following in the way of Jesus really does lead to truth and life, wouldn’t we benefit from having a roadmap? But, Jesus doesn’t offer his disciples a destination so much as he offers us the journey itself– “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”; we don’t have to find our way because we’re already on it.[2]

That sounds a lot like floating a river, doesn’t it? At Easter, we revel in the language of Holy Baptism, giving thanks to God for the gift of water and all that it signifies: “Honor to you for waters that wash us clean, quench our thirst, and nurture both crops and creatures,” we pray at the font. “Praise to you for the life-giving water of baptism, the outpouring of the Spirit of the new creation.”[3] And, what is baptism but our once-for-all plunge into that great stream of saints from every time and place, all those who together are renewed in this flood of grace? If the life of faith is a baptismal life, then the way of Jesus is a waterway.

That expands the way I think about discipleship. Rather than a rocky path strewn with stumbling blocks, how might the way of Jesus be like a refreshing stream? Rather than a grueling journey over land, how might the way of Jesus be like a steady current carrying us along? “Holy God,” we pray, “holy and merciful, holy and mighty, you are the river of life.”[4] You are the way.

That is not to say that discipleship is without adversity. Stephen faces that hard truth head on in the story in our first reading from Acts today, dying at the hands of his peers as a direct result of his confession. Yet even then, Stephen is awash in the grace of Christ. How else could he forgive his executioners so freely and entrust himself so assuredly to God’s mercy? “Lord,” he prays in his last moments, “do not hold this sin against them,” and, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

If the way of Jesus is a waterway, friends, then we’re free to commend ourselves to God the way we would commend ourselves to the river. The promise of the gospel is that the river of life takes us where it will, and we are immersed in baptismal grace at every bend. Come what may, the Risen One is always gathering us to himself, like waters coursing through the countryside to the sea. And in the end, the way of Jesus empties into a deep blue basin, that beloved community of all God’s people awash in God’s mercy, wider than we could ever imagine.

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, 744.

[2] Ken Sikes, Preaching Peace Tacoma Table, 5/2/2023.

[3] Sundays and Seasons Day Texts, Easter 2023.

[4] Ibid.

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