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Imagine Jesus taking his apostles into the middle of the South American jungle in 2020. From nearby to their left, they hear a drug cartel loading their guns. In another direction, they hear frantic monkeys warning of a jaguar’s approach. The sun is setting and the darkness is becoming total.
“Okay. I’m leaving you right here,” Jesus says. “I am going to get slaughtered. But don’t worry. It will be fine. Just follow me to a home greater than you can imagine.” Then he starts to walk away.
Thomas has the courage and conviction to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Wait — what?”
Welcome to the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A.
Sometimes we think the apostles are slow to catch on. Maybe they are. But maybe they are just being put in an impossible situation.
Put yourself in the Gospel’s scene, on the eve of Christ’s death. The apostles have literally left everything to follow Jesus Christ for three years. They have come to rely on him for everything. He is not just the leader of their group, he has become the foundation of their happiness — the one who gives their life meaning and direction.
Now he says he is going to his death. But “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.,” he says. “I am going to prepare a place for you,” and, “Where I am going you know the way.”
You can imagine how alarmed the apostles were, and how confused. “Master, we do not know where you are going: how can we know the way?” asks Thomas.
Then Jesus tells him: “I am the way and the truth and the light.”
Think of what each word means. First: Jesus is the way.
I love the old story used by preachers about the missionary who is lost in the jungle and the native who comes to his aid.
“What’s the way back to the village?” asks the missionary. The native starts cutting a path through the brush and motions him to follow. “I am the way,” he says.
This is what Jesus does for us. The world is a confusing tangle of lies and half-truths, thorny issues and impenetrable problems. But Jesus Christ cuts through them.
You see how the Early Church handles this in the first reading. When they face a problem, their answer is to get close behind Jesus, the Way. They “devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” and bring their solution to “the Twelve.” Prayer, scripture, and the Church are our way forward today, too.
Second: Jesus is the truth.
Pope Benedict once remarked that through much of history, the worst aspect of incarceration has been darkness. Prisons were often built without windows, and often underground — dungeons.
Imprisonment meant darkness — and, in a way, darkness meant imprisonment. Before high-powered artificial lights, on an overcast night you were stuck where you were unless you had a torch or candle — and neither helped you see much more than whatever was a few feet ahead.
Jesus’s “I am the truth” and his “I am the light of the world” express the same reality. “Whoever believes in me will not remain in darkness,” he has said, and “The truth will set you free.”
Jesus’s light is not just a torchlight or candlelight. It is a brilliant light that banishes the frightening, constricting darkness that traps us in stasis. The first Christians knew this and, in the second reading, Peter says to ”announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Third: Jesus is the life.
So, in our analogy, Jesus cuts a path through the rainforest and fills the impenetrable dark with wonderful light. But what about the deadly villains in the darkness we imagined? What about the enemies — visible and invisible — that lurk in every direction?
Jesus next says “I am the Life.” As St. Peter puts it in the Second Reading, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.” We know what this means: We are “in Christ.” We are “the body of Christ.” We can ask things “in his name.”
His name is power. You can get past anyone if you are acting in the name of their boss. And Jesus Christ, life itself, is everyone’s boss. His name dispels enemies and opens doors. When we are in his life, we can face anyone or anything.
Jesus has gone ahead to prepare a place for us in glory. But his way, truth and life remain here — in us.
Jesus closes this Sunday’s Gospel with these words: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”
This is what it means to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.”
Father Michael Gaitley explains this in his new book, 33 Days to Greater Glory. He says laypeople “truly share in the priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism.“ This means lay people “have the right to unite themselves to the ministerial priest’s offering at the altar at Mass. But that’s not all. Laypeople also they have the solemn obligation to bring with them, at the Eucharistic offering, the pains and sorrows of our broken human family that God may have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
That is who we are as Christians: The people around us are stranded like we were. Nothing makes sense; nothing works out; there is every reason to fear. But there is one way out, and Christians who stay close to the Church are the natives who knows the secrets of the jungle.
We have been sent to lead each of our neighbors out.
Photo: Nick Martin, Sacred Heart of Jesus statue, Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.