The way, the truth, and the life

As I’ve hinted at previously, I am doing CPE at a home for the elderly, serving in the capacity as Chaplain Intern.  The Chaplain Interns take turns creating the morning chapel services, and last week, I attempted something very ambitious for a non-fundamentalist Christian:  I decided to preach on John 14:1-7.

The Word of the Lord:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 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’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 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.”

What follows is my reflection on this text (delivered 7/7/08).

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

As a Christian who is also a religious pluralist, that is, one who believes in more ways to God than simply rote Christianity, I’ve always preferred that this passage weren’t in the Bible.  It seems so…exclusive.  Evangelical.  Frankly, a little unlike the Jesus I’d prefer to know.  In no uncertain terms, this Jesus declares himself to be the exclusive gatekeeper:  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” – and he’s not speaking metaphorically here.  If I read the Gospel of John at face value, it seems fairly clear to me that Jesus is saying, unequivocally, that the Father is off-limits for those who don’t know Jesus.  Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, too bad, so sad.  Wow.

Well, so much for my pluralist theology.  How can I possibly square this idea of inclusion with such direct, specific, exclusive language: the way, the truth, the life, no one, except through me.

I tried to make it all work, believe me, I tried.  First, I investigated the possibility that something got lost in translation.  Maybe I’d find the balance I was looking for if I got even more literal and looked at the Greek, word for word?  Yeah, no.  It turns out, those translators actually know a thing or two about their craft, and even with my one entire year of seminary training, I found nothing to dispute.

Next, I tried dismissing John as having an agenda that caused him to put words in Jesus’ mouth that Jesus probably didn’t say.  Now this theory actually has some scholarly support; it is indeed worth noting how different John’s Gospel is from all of the earlier ones.  I would not be the first person to suggest that John made some things up to suit his theological purposes.  Still, some of my favorite Jesus stories also occur only in John.  Must I throw those out too?

To make a long story short, I’ve wrestled with this passage for quite some time, and didn’t particularly want to use it for today’s morning chapel, though I felt strangely compelled to do so.  And then, after yet another weekend of trying unsuccessfully to make this passage fit, it finally occurred to me to try and let Jesus, as portrayed by John, have his own say.

All of Jesus’ words here are in response to a great amount of fear expressed by his disciples.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them right off the bat.  (Their hearts are troubled, by the way, because he had just previously predicted his death at the hands of the state, and also Peter’s denial of him.)  The disciples are scared on behalf of their beloved Lord, and for their own lives in an increasingly hostile environment.  Not knowing which way to turn in their fear, they ask Jesus – which way is God?  And Jesus answered:  I am the way, the truth and the life.  And he ups the ante:  No one comes to the Father except through me.

It comes down to this: in their moment of fear, Jesus is first and foremost bestowing grace upon his disciples, letting them know that they are on the right path.  Furthermore, he asserts, we Christians cannot cannot come to the Father – a highly specific manifestation of God – except through knowing the Son.  We cannot understand God to be the Father if we do not also understand Jesus to be the Son.

This is an affirmation of ourselves, much more than it is a condemnation of others.

It is worth considering that if Jesus is the way, then what is not the way?  Who, or what, is being excluded here?

To Jesus and his followers, it was clear that the way of the tyrannical governmental powers, married to the religious elite, was not the path to God the Father.  Even though the forces of the state were powerful enough to ultimately kill the very Son of God, Jesus, through God, had the ultimate power to triumph even over death, in his resurrection.  Knowing this, let us proclaim:  Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life.  He is the gatekeeper to God the Father, to the exclusion of the powers and paths of death and destruction.

This is a wondrous gift of love, from Jesus to his followers.  Let us accept this gift.

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4 Responses to “The way, the truth, and the life”

  1. FranIAm Says:

    Tom – this is quite a post. Thank you for sharing it. Having read it a few times and really pondered it, I am back to say but a few words.

    In a rare moment though- words do fail me. I continue to read, pray, struggle and surrender to all these thoughts. That said – I love what you have put forth.

    I also wanted to send you this link from a blogger that I know, I actually had the good fortune to meet him briefly in February. Tobias is a Episcopal priest in the Bronx in NYC.

    Here is the link.

  2. Nuts Says:

    Tom,

    Your words inspired me here in the land of 33 million gods and goddesses – India. Brahmanism does not teach a way to God, but a way to Godhood. It is integral to the belief system of the Brahmins to accept that in every human being there is god and godhood can only be achieved or realised by detaching self from all the worldly and materialistic affinities. Therefore we are gods to start with and the materials and the attachments to such corrupt us. It is not recognised here that Man is a Sinner to start with and the only way a sinner becomes a saint is through the death and destruction of the Self. That being the Way of the Cross is mocked by those who are inspired by the Luciferic assumption of being gods.

    In Jesus we are taught about Self-denial as against Self-deification in Hinduism and other new-age beliefs, and may I dare include, such Americanised consumer-friendly, or rather user-friendly highly leavened Gospel of the Faith Preachers who come by hoards to corrupt our new converts to Jesus who are wrenched out of Hinduism and such.

    The One thing that catches the attention of the Hindu mind is that Jesus never talked about a God, but referred to Him as His Father. Strangely and shamefully true for us to realise is this that in a land like India where a non-personal god who is more a ‘force’ an ‘idea’ or a ‘feeling’ is adhered to, there is a strong family oriented society, while in the west where God is supposedly known as a Father and Jesus the Son, and thus inferring the Christian belief system to be more ‘family’ centred, the civilization is fast disintegrating for lack of relationship being directed more by a society of convenience rather than commitment. This does not make sense, and must be an eye-opener. Its realisation must bring us to our knees.

    The sad truth is that we recite the verse in John 14: 6 but are seeking to constantly bring Hindus and Muslims to a God rather than to a Father. Note: Jesus emphasises that No one comes unto the Father/not God but by Him. Jesus introduces Himself to be a Son and therefore establishing before the entire world of men that God is His Father, and that we too can become His sons if we go through Him being the Gate. That is relationship above Religion.

    When the Holy Spirit infuses within the heart of a Hindu the truth of Jesus being the Son and God being the Father then his soul is converted. This is because he could never bring himself to accept God as a Father. He has always understood God as the Creator, the Keeper, the destroyer of evil and the Saviour of the Good. This is precisely what religion and religiosity does. Because of heavy Institutionalised Christianity the western society and family system has crumbled and is a mockery before the world of pagans where modern Missionaries come teaching people here about family values while having the highest divorce rate in the world. Jesus is not the Way for the west anymore; He is merely a god who they appease to use for rescue work. We on the other hand in India have to struggle to bring the Gospel to the Hindus who have seen too much of the western version of Christianity which has not shown them the way.

    When the Hindu sees that He is doomed, he accepts it with ease as his mind is conditioned to the theory of Karma. This therefore minimises his need for a Saviour, as because he admits that nothing can change that which is predestined by means of Karma. On the other hand when he feels elated and realises the approval of the gods on his life through the infusion of riches and wealth in his earthly life, he readily admits this to be the result of a saintly good life that he must have lived here and now or in his previous life. Therefore the Way the Truth and the Life does interfere with his ideologies that minimises the work of God in his life.

    It was through the West that God sent Missionaries in years gone by, whose lives of sacrifice and oneness with the people of India brought the relationship concept of Jesus down to the grassroots. Jesus is a Family God. He did not die on the Cross to create Presidents, Secretaries and Counsel Members, but children in a family where God is the eternal Father, whom we can call – Abba.

    This is not a letter to make an effective west bashing, but an effective wake-up call ringing through your area of influence.

    Love in Jesus…we are brothers through His blood
    such.

  3. Alex Says:

    Hello Tom,

    First and foremost, allow me to extend great gratitude in such a post. I myself am founded in monotheistic Buddhism, and I look to the Tao Te Ching, Buddhist Holy texts, and the Bible for spiritual nourishment. Because I believe in Jesus’ teachings, and in the fact that Jesus reached spiritual enlightenment and a union with the Father, I’ve struggled in understanding chapter 14 of John’s gospel; ultimately, I cannot accept that Jesus, although a definite source to the Father, is the ONLY source of salvation. Upon reading this article, I was overcome with great emotion as I had a sudden epiphany: it seems as if Jesus is speaking directly to the disciples, and only to the disciples. Generally, when one reads the Bible and the message in particular, he or she is quick to relate the word to his or her own life, or the lives of the entire world. But, as you so eloquently explained, Jesus is speaking to his disciples; from their experiences and amazing conversations, we can all learn, as long as we use our blessed endowment of intellect in order to understand the context of these experiences and conversations. Jesus is by no means saying that the path to God is an exclusive one.

    Thank you for your thoughts,
    Alex

  4. Gary Says:

    May the love, joy, peace, and hope which are the fruit of fidelity to Jesus be with us always! Thank you


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