“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Today’s gospel lesson contains some of the most well known words of Jesus. I have used this text at countless funerals. Many people take solace in Jesus’ words that there are many dwelling places in God’s house; and Jesus has prepared a place for those who believe in him.
But what about those who do not consider themselves to be disciples of Jesus? What about those from other faith traditions, who may follow Christ’s example of servanthood and sacrificial love, but do so through the Buddha, Mohammed, Gaia, or other spiritual paths? Has Jesus prepared a place for them as well? My answer to this question is “yes.” But there are other Christians who would answer “no.”
Then there is another group who believe that the ones going to heaven are those who understand Jesus EXACTLY like they do. The rest of us are on a slippery slope to hell. So who’s right? It’s a huge question. What I’d like to do this morning is take us through the text and plead my case. Then you can make your own decision about what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We begin by studying the context of this verse. Lutherans never interpret scripture in isolation. We always ask “What is the context of the passage?” In other words, “What comes before it and after it? Who is the intended audience? What is the setting? Is it part of a larger teaching? If so, how is it connected to the larger theme?
When we look at the context of our gospel lesson, we discover it takes place on Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus shared his final meal with his disciples. This teaching occurs after the foot washing, and before his arrest in the garden. It is also part of a larger teaching scholars refer to as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” which John says are the final words of wisdom Jesus gave his disciples before his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
As I examined all the pieces that make up this larger teaching, an interesting pattern emerged. John gives us two different “ways” of living in the midst of difficult and uncertain times. They are represented by Jesus’ teachings and the disciples’ reaction to these teachings.
On the Jesus’ side we have the foot washing where Jesus uses a towel and basin as a parable for our call to be servants. He sums up this ritual action by saying “I give you a new commandment that you love one another just as I have loved you.” Finally he tells the disciples he will be with them “Only a little while longer.” The way he is going to walk will involve him sacrificing his life. Where he is going they cannot follow. So we see that the themes of service, love and sacrifice are presented as a summary of Jesus’ teaching.
How do the disciples react to all of this? Not very well! Judas betrays Jesus, handing him over to the Roman authorities. Peter denies he even knows Jesus, not once but three times! Finally, John tells us that all of the disciples abandoned Jesus as he hung on the cross, except for the one John calls “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” As John arranges this part of his gospel, we clearly see the contrast between two different “ways” of living in the midst of difficult and uncertain times. One of them involves service, love and sacrifice. The other involves betrayal, denial and abandonment. It’s clear which one Jesus would like his disciples to walk, but they simply aren’t up to the task.
Finally, we reach our gospel lesson which continues the theme of two different “ways” we can live in the midst of uncertain times. Jesus begins by telling them “Don’t be troubled.” Don’t worry. I’ve always found this a little bit amusing because any time some tells us “Don’t worry” it usually means there’s something to worry about! You know what I mean?
Then he tells them “Trust in God. Trust also in me“ which is better translated as YOU trust/believe in God. Trust/believe also in me.” This is an appeal for the disciples to have faith in Jesus. God has been faithful to the Israelites for many generations. He will do the same for them.
Finally, Jesus tells them “I am the Way” which we are going to explore further in a minute. For now, I want you to notice that Jesus didn’t say “I will SHOW you the way.” Instead he tells them that he EMBODIES the way.
How do the disciples react to all of this? Surprise! Surprise! Not very well! Thomas freaks out and goes into full panic mode, “Lord, we not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This tells us that Thomas is looking for a plan, a set of directions, a strategy. He doesn’t get it al all. Jesus responds by saying “I AM the way.” I am the plan, the set of directions, the strategy.
Philip freaks out as well. He says “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.” In other words he needs visible, tangible proof that God is with them. Jesus, reminds them that everything they need to know about God they have seen and experienced in Jesus. There is no need for further proof or miracles. The disciples need to trust that Jesus knows what he is doing!
Finally, we see that after Jesus tells them he is the way, the disciples still feel lost and abandoned and don’t trust that it’s true. It’s a sad star of affairs, indeed! But I think it’s interesting how John sets up these two contrasting “ways” of living in the midst of uncertain times. I believe the context of our gospel lesson makes a HUGE difference in how we understand our gospel lesson.
Let”s start with WAY. The Greek word used here is HODOS. It means “the road, the journey.” Metaphorically speaking it means “A course of conduct, a manner of thinking, feeling and deciding.” What I believe Jesus is saying here is that he is the living way. He calls us to follow his example and walk the path of service, love and sacrifice. He tells us “Don’t worry! Have faith.” If we walk this path, God is with us.
So when it comes to the question “Has Jesus prepared a place for those who come from other faith traditions?” I say “yes” if they are the kind of spiritual people who embody the “way of Jesus” I just described to you. In fact, I would argue that some of my non-Christian friends follow the way of Christ better than the hateful, judgmental Christians who seem to be grabbing all the headlines these days!
What seals the deal for me is something Jesus said earlier in John’s gospel: “I have other sheep that do not belong to my fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” [Jn 10:16] I take this to mean exactly what it means, I believe Jesus has “other sheep” who do not belong to the “fold” of Christianity but they are his sheep nonetheless. They are his sheep NOT because they believe a certain set of doctrines about Jesus. They are his sheep because they embody his WAY; his path of service, love and sacrifice.
Marcus Borg in his book Speaking Christian, echoes my thoughts. Here is what he writes: “The way is what we see in his life. We see a life of loving God and loving others; a life of challenging the powers that oppress this world; a life radically centered in the God to whom he bore witness.”
If Borg and I are correct, then the rest of the verse unpacks itself rather quickly. The Greek word for TRUTH is ALETHEIA. It simply means truth. There is no other way to translate it. In John 18, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus the question “What is truth?” Christians have been arguing about this question ever since!
The simple way to understand truth is illumination. Anything that bring us closer to God is truth. Anything that makes us more like Jesus is truth. Anything that shines light into the darkness of our world is truth. We can argue about the fine points of truth until breath runs out of our bodies and we return to dust! However, those who follow the WAY of Jesus know that TRUTH is actually quite simple: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. What more do we really need to know if we follow the way of Christ?
Finally we reach the word LIFE, which in Greek is DZOAY. There is no other way to translate it. Those who follow the way of Jesus, who embody what he taught us, are promised life that is abundant, over-flowing, and eternal. It is a sharp contrast to the WAY the disciples were living on the night he was arrested. But eventually they figured it out and they changed the world forever!
Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Those who follow the WAY of Jesus are promised abundant life, which doesn’t mean we’re going to be happy all the time! It means our lives will exhibit the fruits of the Sprit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the WAY of Jesus. Those who follow it will have a place prepared for them in Abba’s house, no matter what fold their “sheep membership” is listed in!
Friends in Christ, there is so much more I could say about today’s gospel lesson. It simply cannot be contained in the span of one sermon. My hope is that I’ve loosened up the text a bit, and given you some food for thought regarding what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” AMEN
Copyright ©2017 David Eck