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Homily for 5th Sunday of Lent - the Road not Taken

Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; John 20:20-33

There is a lot to unpack in today’s gospel. First we’ve got these outsiders who show up with questions, and then Jesus gives a mini-parable about life and death. And then God shows up to make a little speech. And after that Jesus wraps things up with another talk on eschatology. Welcome St John’s gospel! It makes the head spin.

So, in my own mind, I needed to simplify things so that I could start to make sense of this chaotic scene. And as I tried to do that, the opening lines from the Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken came to mind:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both … long I stood, And looked down one as far as I could”

I think these lines perfectly capture the essence of the gospel. Everything that has happened in the gospel so far converges at this point. Today we stand at a fork in the road - and are faced with a clear choice. Will we follow Jesus, or not? Which road will we take?

When Jesus says, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he signals that it’s time for him to complete his mission, and he invites us down this road - to complete our mission, too. We were always meant to be part of every aspect of his journey, not just extras on a movie set watching the hero in his big scene.

As he moves forward, we need to choose so that we aren’t left behind. Do we follow him? Do we take the unknown path that we are promised leads to something greater? Or is this when our journey with Jesus ends? There is no third option. Either we choose Jesus, or we don’t. 

This is, in many ways, one of the most personal questions we are asked as Christians. Are we willing to put the promises made at our Baptism and Confirmation into action and follow Jesus to the Cross? Does our baptism mean anything?

Frankly, this scares me a bit. I wish we had more time to linger and talk about this choice - maybe hear one more thing from Jesus that will tip the scales and make the choice easier. I wish we had more time to listen to his words because I’d like more time to decide. I wish I believed more fully. 

But that’s not possible. This is who I am, he says, and now is the time to decide whether you believe. It’s a stunning position he puts us in. Pop quiz. Take out a sheet of paper and put your name at the top. One question for 100 points - will you follow me down this road? Time’s up. Pencils down. 

I’m left feeling that I wish I was stronger. I think that for a significant portion of our lives we often seem to simply walk down the road without ever giving much thought to where it’s taking us.

Have we ever taken the time to thoughtfully consider our destination? I can speak personally and say that for many years I probably gave more thought to my career path than my path to eternal life. How many of us do the same thing? Are we on autopilot? Are we distracted? When I ask for more strength, I’m asking for the fortitude to recognize that there are many other paths that are presented to me in life, but only one that leads to true happiness and eternal life.

Do I have the strength to figure out where these false paths are taking me, to realize that I’m going in the wrong direction?

Today’s gospel is a call for each of us to stop and recognize that Jesus stands in front of us one more time asking us to give all of that other stuff up and walk with him down the road. Life isn’t about many choices, it’s about making this single choice. 

Do I have faith? Once I’ve recognized that these other roads are dead ends, do I have the faith to follow Jesus into the unknown? Because the reality is that the path Jesus wants to take isn’t paved with daisies and sunshine. It’s paved with rejection, painful emptiness and, at times, fear and doubt. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that discipleship is about making decisions for or against Jesus. It’s the same for us. While we may have some intuition, the only true way that we’ll come to understand Christ is to put our faith in him and take that first step down that path by his side.  

Do we have the faith in the One whose words we have heard? That’s a really difficult question for me. Because what I want and what I am capable of when I am asked to follow his Son down the road are two very different things. When I stand at the fork in the road, I must choose. This is scary and it requires a level of faith that I sometimes wonder if I’m capable of. 

I used to think that the greatest act of faith I ever encountered was when the Marines taught me how to rappel. You know - where they hook you up to a rope and tell you to jump off a cliff. As you’re standing there, you wonder - how good was this guy at tying knots? Then you realize - before this Marine asked me to jump - he’s already tested it himself. He’s already put his life on the line, literally, before asking me to launch myself over the side. 

Jesus asks nothing of us that he hasn’t already done himself. But, just as I stood at the top of that tower with a rope tied around my waist, I need to have the faith to take that first step. Faith is, at its core, a choice. Jesus tells us today - have faith in my word, take that first step down this road, follow me. 

Finally, do I have the love? Ultimately, this is the critical question. Unless we do all of this out of love - not fear - it will be for nothing. The journey will be difficult, and unless we are saying yes out of love, then it’s likely that we will stray off the road. To love completely is to trust completely. It is a mutual giving up of the self to form something much greater. This is the relationship that Jesus invites us into today. This is what we are choosing. We are choosing him, or not.

If it sounds like I have more questions than answers. If it seems like I continue to struggle with the question whether I am able to choose correctly and follow Jesus down the road that he is taking - then you are hearing correctly. I feel unprepared for this pop quiz.

All of this scares the heck out of me. I like my life. I like stuff. I like the distractions. I don’t want to be forced to choose. I want it all. This is the challenge of today’s gospel. Christianity, being a follower of Jesus, making the choice to journey with him down this road - is difficult. Do I have the strength, faith and love within me to do it?

I sometimes fear that I don’t, and I have to imagine that many of you struggle with the same question. But when I am trapped in my own thoughts, I am reminded of one thing. And perhaps this is the most important gift that my God, the one who loves me beyond all imagination, has given me. 

I am reminded that I am not alone. I’m not being asked to endure all of this by myself. God is with me each step of the way - clearing the path in front of me, carrying me over the more difficult parts. And this gives me the hope that I need to choose well. 

The last lines from Frost’s poem are these:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Today we stand at a fork in the road. We choose Jesus, or we don’t. Our choice will make all the difference. Amen.

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