The Word This Weekend – May 14, 2017
“The Way, the Truth, the Life”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
Thomas said to [Jesus], “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.”
The great 50 days of Easter continue this weekend. On this Fifth Sunday of the Season of Easter each year, we are transported back to the night the Jesus Movement calls Maundy Thursday, the night of Christ’s arrest, and the beginning of his Three Day journey of arrest, conviction, abuse and crucifixion. To many this may feel odd. I mean, aren’t we on the other side of all those horrific events? Why would we cycle back to reflect on the words and actions of the moments before the Passion, we who have witnessed the Empty Tomb, and the now emptied Cross?
The simple answer, I think, is that we see the divine mission and purpose of Christ no more clearly than in the things he says on the eve of that holy journey to the Cross. And the words we will hear this weekend are some of the most prescient and powerful of those words.
At the supper table, according to John’s testimony, Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, that I may gather you to myself. And you know where I’m going.” I imagine silence pervading the room in that moment, as his followers, stunned and perplexed by these words, look at one another as if to say (as they have so often), “Do you know what he means?” “Are you going to ask him?” “Heck no, not me!”
Thomas the Twin, never one to remain silent even when his companions are at a loss for words, breaks the uncomfortable silence. “Lord, we don’t know where you’re headed. How can we know the way?”
Jesus’ response, ringing out in the air of that upper room, and ringing across the twenty centuries since he first spoke them, are as clear and uncompromising as they are controversial, then and now:
“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.”
In my quarter century as a Pastor, I have both heard and spoken these words, among Jesus followers and among those who are not. I have spoken them at funeral and at bedside, launched them into the air at community meetings and church gatherings. And I have watched them register as words of hope and confidence for some, and as a statement of exclusion and restriction for others.
For Christians this declaration stands as a word of irreducible comfort and hope, centering the revelation of God’s salvation on this one person, this one and only Christ. As the great English priest and poet George Herbert expressed them some 400 years ago,
Come, my way, my truth, my life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife;
such a life as killeth death.
Yet for others -- those who follow other sacred paths or perhaps no clear path at all -- they can ring out as a challenge to their deeply held beliefs. And in the hands of some Christians, they have inspired a sort of exclusivism and condemnation that seems to declare as lost all who will not share their exclusive claim to “Christ alone.” How are we to understand and embrace this claim of Jesus from Nazareth, in this multi-faith and hardly-faith world in which we witness, serve and welcome? Does “I am the Way” automatically deny the grace of God to others outside the Gospel way.
Well, at least by my reckoning, it depends on what one means by these words, and what Christ himself means for them to say. And as a person who accepts through faith that Jesus is indeed Lord and Savior, I offer this to you as a way to speak of this conviction both to those within the Jesus Circle, and especially to those who stand outside it.
First off, it all starts with the nature of the questions one asks. If the question is “Is there a God?,” there can be any number of conversations or debates. For those of us who accept that this reality in which we live isn’t accidental but intentional, that there is a divine Hand that made us and all things, large and small, and who directs our paths in compassion and care, that’s a line we draw in the sand. However, as has been my experience, when people’s deeper question is not about whether there is a God, but what God is like, then the words of Jesus can spark a much deeper and truer conversation about God’s nature – and this is a conversation I welcome and embrace.
- "I Am The Way" - The Greek word chodos is the one Jesus uses here. It literally means “road” or “pathway.” Now we can hear this as a directional signal – “take this road, or else” – or we can dig a bit deeper. I hear Jesus speaking the deep fullness of this word: that such a pathway is more than its destination, but is to be found in the journey itself. “Follow me,” another of Jesus’ oft-spoken statements, calls every human being to walk a path of discovery. On that path people can find more than which religious leader may claim their allegiance, but instead can discover a more authentic and holy path of life. When the world says, “accumulate,” the Christ says “give.” When the world’s goal is to rule, the Christ-ethic is to serve. Across the spectrum of human choices and distractions, the Jesus Way offers a better way. Sadly, many nominal Christians proclaim a “Christ” who conforms to the errors and biases of the world, rather than the revolutionary marks of service, selflessness, compassion and community that are the inescapable hallmark of the Christ they claim to accept. Or to state it more sharply, a well-intentioned skeptic might say, “It’s not Jesus I have a problem with; it’s his friends I can’t stand.” Simply put, Christians have often been the worst examples of the “Way” they demand that others accept. And if we would be followers of that Way, we’d better clean up our act when it comes to how that faith expresses itself in statecraft, society, human relations, earth care, and the like. If we don’t, then the oft-leveled charge of hypocrisy is a charge that fits. And burns.
- “I Am the Truth” – here’s another example of how exclusive our claims can sound to those outside our Circle. I prefer not to engage in the rhetoric of “My God is better than yours,” especially as a believer in the one compassionate and sovereign God whom Jesus (almost uniquely) called Abba, or “Father.” The truth of it, finally, is that those various conceptions of God as angry, demanding, condemnatory or racist are just plain wrong – even when they periodically occur within the covers of our own sacred texts. When Jesus calls God “Father,” he isn’t trolling the brokenness or biases of our own human parents – he’s describing what the Hebrew Bible so well captures as the very nature of God: gracious, merciful, ever-patient, overflowing in faithful and compassionate kindness and love (e.g. Joel 2:13). Such is the truth of God’s nature, and it’s best and brightest expression is the journey the Christ is about to take: the chodos to the Cross.
- “I Am the Life” – again, this is more than “destination” rhetoric, in my view, but is a plea to live a different and grace-infused way of living. I can think of no better example of this ethos than in Jesus’ own words: “Come to me, all who work hard and bear burdens, and I will grant you refreshing rest. Take my yoke on your shoulders, for I am kind and gentle-hearted, and you will find refreshment for your very being. For my yoke is easy, my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-29).” Such is the reviving journey the Christ offers -- for this brief and challenging life, and for the deathless life that waits in the wings.
- “No one comes to the Father except through me” – and this is where the Christ-follower is best served not by resorting to apocalyptic threats, but must leave the judging to the Judge, and in this case the Judge who proclaims forgiveness and paradise from the hated Cross. As I’ve come to believe over a lifetime of proclaiming and confessing Christ’s welcome to all people, “evangelizing should not be about scaring the hell out of people, but instead about embracing mission of inviting heaven in.” Or to put it another way, if the God we know in Christ wants hell to be an empty warehouse, where all those who don’t deserve redemption finally receive it, is that all right with you? Because, sure as shootin’, it’s okay with me. In fact, it’s what this lost sinner banks on most of all. In the final analysis, each person’s eternal destiny is not in my hands, but in the wounded hands and heart of the ever-faithful and ever-compassionate Christ. Where it belongs.
So my friends, I hope to see you at worship this weekend, as we claim anew the protection and providence of the heart of God we recognize upon the holy Cross, the one we dare to proclaim and serve in all his self-sacrifice and heroic deliverance. His is the Way we strap on our sandals to follow, his the Truth we embrace in radical welcome and servanthood, and his the Life we dare to offer to every seeking soul. And, by the gift of grace, the journey we offer to all for all our days, and into the gift of forever!
With You in God’s Good Work,