Words on the Word

5. Sunday of Eastertide

Acts 6:1-7: A large group of priests made their submission to the faith. 
1 Peter 2:4-9: You are a royal priesthood. 
John 14:1-12: He will perform even greater works.

Thanks to the way the calendar works this year, today’s Gospel has been read to us on consecutive days. It must, then, carry a special message. But what is it?

This text is one of the rare, precious passages in which Jesus talks openly about himself. ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ So used are we to this phrase that we may miss the enormity of it. An ordinary man who made such a claim would be a public menace. He should be confined for his own and others’ safety. For an individual to claim to embody and contain truth is perverse. We know examples of such claims from totalitarian experiments, some uncomfortably close. We know about the cost. If Jesus can say such a thing about himself, and we can accept it, it is because he is not just an individual of genius; it is because he is something infinitely greater. 

It is essential to read the end of the Gospel in the light of its beginning; even as we must read the Apocalypse in the light of Genesis. This word spoken in the night, just before the Pasch, was spoken by him who ‘was in the beginning’. ‘All things’, John tells us, ‘were made through him; without him was not anything made that was made.’ Jesus reveals the Father; he also reveals ourselves. In him, only in him, do we find a criterion by which we may responsibly interpret things as they are, both the structure of reality and the course of history. When Christ says he is the Truth, that is an exclusive statement; there cannot be other equivalent truths beside him. 

But let us make sure we do not reduce the Truth of Christ to less than it is. Let us not make of it a caricature. It is easily done. To keep present in our minds the full splendour of Catholic teaching about Christ requires energy, concentration, and contemplative perseverance. For that kind of effort our time does not prepare us. The mindset of Twitter and TikTok makes its influence felt in the Church, too. We reduce complex statements to soundbites; we become less able to entertain two complementary thoughts at the same time, maintaining them in balance. That is a real problem when one professes belief in One who if fully human, fully divine. One of the most helpful things we can do as Christians now is to commit fully to the fullness of truth in Christ, able to recognise when it is compromised or made into less than it really is. ‘Had they known who he was’, wrote Paul, speaking of the alliance between Pilate and the High Priests, ‘they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.’ Do our times, even the Church in our times, remember who Christ truly is? We speak a lot of walking alongside him, but do we also kneel before him, offering spiritual sacrifice?

There is a second aspect of today’s Gospel to which I wish to draw attention. It occurs towards the end, when Christ says: ‘Whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do, even greater works’. What on earth are we to make of that? Christ healed the sick, forgave sinners, raised the dead. And we are to do ‘greater works’? We shall only grasp what is meant, I think, if we hear the Lord’s statement as a description, not of our works compared to his, but of us compared to him. Let me give an example or two to explain. Say you go to a poetry recital and hear two actors read the same poem by Szymborska. Both readings are sensitive, well modulated. It is impossible to say which is better. You then meet the readers afterwards, at the bar, and discover that one is severely dyslexic. This fact does not detract from the excellence of the other person’s reading. But there can be no doubt that the dyslexic reader performed a greater work, simply in view of the tremendous effort required in the process of learning the poem. Or say you see two windsurfers riding a wave. They display the same elegant grace, the same perfect control of movement. Afterwards you discover that one has an artificial leg. Again, the performance is equivalent; but the surfer who had to relearn to move and build up the courage to confront the sea in a state of objective vulnerability unquestionably performed a greater work. 

You and I try, as disciples of Christ, to live up to a divine standard. But we are not divine. Of this we are keenly aware. Sometimes our human limitedness can bring us to the edge of despair. We seem unfit for purpose, weighed down by clumsy heaviness when we would like to soar. The greatness of our works, the integrity of our discipleship, is not about making spectacular impact — not about having others gathering around us saying, ‘Ah!’ The greatness is a function of perseverance within our limitations, letting grace accomplish there something beautiful and healing. In that way we gradually learn to profess with Paul that ‘when I am weak I am strong’. Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, chooses to manifest his strength in weakness, his greatness in what is little. He chooses us. Let us have faith in his choice. And so, in our humanity, recognise with awe the ever greater manifestation of his divinity.