By Greg Goebel
Life is A Journey of Longing
We long to know where we belong. The movie “Forrest Gump” shows this desire for a place or a people to belong to. We identify with Forrest, because he seems to appear in our history, in all the events of our recent past. And yet he doesn’t fit in. He is misunderstood. He is alone, and yet surrounded.
We are all on a journey of longing to know who we are, or who we were meant to be, as Supertramp sang in the 1970s:
There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.
We are also on a journey of longing for wholeness and goodness, and beauty, “It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” (George Eliot).
How do we Face the Longing?
We can ignore it through materialism or hedonism, dulling our senses. We can deny it by constructing elaborate fantasies. We do this often in religion, but the Bible itself doesn’t support pretending away reality (see the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, for example). Unfortunately we can end it through nihilism or even suicide.
But Jesus shows us another way.
We want to find the answer. We want to find wholeness. We want to find meaning and purpose. Isn’t that what Thomas and Philip are asking about in this John 14?
Thomas asked, “Show us the way”
Philip asked, “Show us the Father”
And so Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
This passage is not simply a statement about Jesus as a religious figure. He is speaking to the very deepest longings of the human soul. I want to be home. I need to be safe. I need to find the way. I need to know the truth. I want to be fully alive. I want God.
Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “Let not your hearts be troubled”, he says. You have a place to call home – “in my Father’s house.” A place of belonging, a place of acceptance, a place full of meaning and purpose. And a way to that truth and life.
Believe in me
Jesus doesn’t say “I will point out the Way.” He says “I am the Way.” He tells the disciples to believe in him. But he understands that humans don’t have just one reason for believing. We often think that because Christians believe that Jesus is the One Way, that means there is only One Way to believe in him. He didn’t think that way.
He tells the disciples to believe in him because he comes from the Father, or else because of the works he does. People believe in Jesus either because of an experience of his presence, which gives them faith that he is indeed God, or else they believe in him because of the Story – his works. And often both of these reasons at the same time, or at different times in our lives. The Story is the Gospel, that God became a man, that he lived, healed, was captured, killed, buried, and rose again. There is no Story like the story of his works.
Believe Because I Come From the Father
Frederica Matthews Green writes of her conversion to Christ in At the Corner of East and Now. Her story of her visit to a church on her honeymoon in Europe illustrates someone believing in Jesus because of an experience of his presence. Please forgive the extended quote, but its really just such a beautiful story:
In a block of business buildings we came upon a church and decided to go inside for a look… I strolled around the dimly lit building, admiring stained glass windows and stonework. Eventually I came upon a small side altar. Above it there was a white marble statue of Jesus with his arms held low and open, and his heart exposed on his chest, twined with thorns and springing with flames. This depicts an apparition to a French nun in 1675; she heard Jesus say, “Behold the heart which has so loved mankind.”
I can’t really explain what happened next. I was standing there looking at the statue, and then I discovered I was on my knees. I could hear an interior voice speaking to me. Not with my ears–it was more like a radio inside suddenly clicked on. The voice was both intimate and authoritative, and it filled me.
It said, “I am your life. You think that your life is your name, your personality, your history. But that is not your life. I am your life.” It went on, naming that “life force” notion I admired: “Beyond that, you think that your life is the fact that you are alive, that your breath goes in and out, that energy courses in your veins. But even that is not your life. I am your life.
“I am the foundation of everything else in your life.”
I stood up feeling pretty shaky. It was like sitting quietly in your living room and having the roof blown off. I didn’t have any doubt who the “I” was that was speaking to me, and it wasn’t someone I was eager to get to know. If someone had asked me a half-hour earlier, I would have said I was not sure the fellow had ever lived. Yet here he was, and though I didn’t know him it seemed he already knew me, from the deepest inside out.
…This experience in the church was real like that, like grass that pierces your feet. In that explosive moment I found that Jesus was realer than anything I’d ever encountered, the touchstone of reality. It left me with a great hunger for more, so that my whole life is leaning toward him, questing for him, striving to break down the walls inside that shelter me from his gaze. I am looking for him all my life…
For Frederica Matthews-Green, it was this overpowering sense of God’s presence in Jesus that began her life of faith in him.
Believe Because of The Works That I Do
Jesus knows that some may not experience that in the same way. If you don’t believe because of his presence, then believe because of his works, his Story. There is no story quite like this one. This Story makes sense of our Story.
The actual story of the Works of Jesus – this story has the power to speak to our hearts. There really is no story like this story. Often when we have trouble believing in Jesus, its because we are trying to believe in the wrong story of him. Jesus as genie, Jesus as American Hero, Jesus as politician, Jesus as hippie, Jesus as cartoon character. None of those stories of Jesus are compelling, really. But the true story of Jesus’ works, told in the Gospels, foretold in the Hebrew Bible, and explained in the New Testament is compelling. The Story that we re-present every Sunday in Word and Sacrament – that story is life changing.
In fact that’s why John wrote his gospel: ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Sometimes our faith in Christ is built on finding that his story makes sense of our own story.
In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller writes,
JoAnne Terrell wrote about how her mother was murdered by her mother’s boyfriend.
“I had to find a connection between my mom’s story, and my story, and Jesus’s story,” she said. She found it in understanding the cross—namely that Jesus did not only suffer for us but with us. He knew what it was like (literally) to be under the lash, and to refuse to be cowed by those in power, and to pay for it with his life. He voluntarily took his place beside those who are without power and who were suffering from injustice. As John Stott wrote, “I could never myself believe in God it it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”
For many of us, or at times in our life, we believe in him because we know he is present. For others, or at other times, we believe because his story is so unique, so powerful, and so life giving that we are drawn powerfully to him.
Jesus connects with the deepest longings of the human heart. Not just our modern day, American longings. His presence and his story have connected across cultures. Christianity is the most culturally diverse faith in the history of the world, people from almost every tongue, tribe and nation have sensed his presence and been transformed by his story. It’s not just our longings. It is human longing.
The Gospel goes at that place – it goes all the way to our hearts. And at that point, Jesus says, Believe in me. Whether because of my presence or my works. Follow me. Trust me.
In any case, he finds us. The Way has actually come to us.
Keller goes on to tell of a woman who told him that during a dark time in her life, she had prayed, “God, help me to find you.” But a friend urged her to pray instead, “God, come and find me.” And he did find her.
He does. He finds us, and will find us again. Ask him to become present in your life in an experiential way, or to reveal his story again to you.
Believe in him. He is the Way the Truth, and the Life.
He is the way home. He doesn’t take away our longing, but he joins us on the journey, being the Way himself. His presence is God’s presence, and his is the true story. In him is life as it was meant to be.
Greg Goebel is a priest of the Anglican Church in North America, and Canon to the Ordinary for Anglican Diocese of the South.