As the Gospel for today, May 10, the 5th Sunday of Easter, we hear the opening part of John 14, the beginning of what has been called Jesus’ Last Supper discourse. It captures an intense and sad moment: even after the public ministry of Jesus, even after spending much time with him over several years, and less than an hour before Jesus is arrested and less than a day before he dies — his closest companions do not really know him:
And if I go and prepare a place for you, 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 said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14.3-9)
If showing doesn’t work, then how do we know God? Back up for a minute: last week we saw that John 10 (on sheep who naturally recognize the voice of their shepherd) makes more sense if you read it as continuing the narrative from John 9 (on the man born blind who naturally sees better than those who think they see). Likewise, John 14 is easier to understand if we remember John 13: seeing what a person does comes first, before truly knowing who that person is. In John 13, Jesus acted. He knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples. Now he asks them, Do you still not know me?
They are thinking that he is going somewhere else, God’s heaven, where they can’t see what’s going on. But he is the truth of God, God as truth; he is the way to God, the way to here; he is life with God because life is where Jesus is, even on the night before his death. God is intensely present right now, he is telling them: I just washed your feet, I am everything you have ever hoped for, here and now. See me, see God, see the goal and the way to the goal, see death and life over death, here and now. Why wait?
And now in a wider context:
Today also gives us as a first reading Acts of the Apostles 6.
And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6.2-6)
These first deacons are called to serve the growing community at table, making sure everyone has a place, everyone is welcome, everyone is fed. Needing deacons is about needing people who can act, organize, serve: teach me by what you do, not by what you say. Yes, we may be puzzled that in the following chapters we hear more about only two of the deacons, Stephen and Philip — who are known rather as preachers. But perhaps it is assumed that they did actually spend much time organizing meals, serving at table, and learned to speak from that experience: if you have fed the hungry and served at table, then your word has credibility, and then you can preach, even if you are not one of those who knew Jesus personally. (Stephen and Philip had never met Jesus.) Serve, then talk: once we see what you do, we will listen to you, as God’s love flows through your word.
Today is another day deep in the pandemic. Most of us are still seeking ways to survive but also to serve — at table, in caring for those in need, by holding our families together, by consoling the displaced and dismayed. We want to do something, but doing is not the end of it. Take the time to know the people you serve, to know the people who are caring for you. See what they do, and learn from them as persons. If we go deeper and realize who we are, simply as fellow humans, we will see God present right here, now. Really? God present in the pandemic? Why not — it’s like God being fully alive and present in Jesus just a few hours before he died, the intensity of life fully realized in the face of death.
Today is Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day to every mother reading this! Here too, deeds come before anything else. As children we know our mothers first in what they have done for us — in the original moment of love, in the womb, in every waking, sleeping and sleepless moment of childhood and growing up, and in sticking with us no matter how old we get to be. But hopefully, there is still more: may our mothers live long enough and may we grow up soon enough, that we come know our mothers as the real persons they are, who have loved us beginning and end, in deed, in word, in presence.
So many uncertainties, so many possibilities. But we should hope. After all, Jesus had the very greatest hope in us, because the way to God goes in both directions:
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. But if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14.11-12)
Bonus: Yesterday Sarah Pasternak (of Our Lady of Sorrows parish) gave me a link to this lovely Zoomed group-singing of "Be Not Afraid" by Bob Dufford, SJ. (This site is very popular, so if you can't get in the first times, keep trying...)