Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through him. This is one of the most challenging verses in the entire Bible. It has been used, and I would say misused, to build barriers and exclude rather than to embody and spread God’s boundless love. Christians, over the centuries, have used this verse to say that those outside of the Christian church have no access to the divine. To put it more simply Christians have used this passage to say, “I’m in, you’re out, nah-nah-boo-boo.” And while there is an exclusivist tinge to this verse, I think if we dig a little deeper we can find wisdom here.
Now, don’t think that my enterprise as your minister is to explain how every verse and phrase from the bible is really wonderful and beautiful. There are lots of bible verses and even whole books that are hurtful and harmful. It’s easy to be offended by the bible. My former professor, Joan Wyatt used to say, “If you haven’t been offended by the bible then you haven’t read it.” But I don’t think that this is one of those times. I think that if we look closely at these words from our tradition, we can find wisdom for living.
There a several pitfalls and the first one is something called proof-texting. Proof-texting is the practice of taking a single verse and using it to validate the point you are trying to make. To quote a verse and say, “See, my point is made! I win the argument!” This is what Tripp Fuller calls “quote bombing.” It works like this: Jesus said I am the way and the truth and the life. Boom! I’m right you’re wrong. Proof-texting is bad interpretive practice. The reason we quote verses from bible is to exemplify the point we are trying to make, not prove it. A beautiful quote reminds us of the deeper meaning of the message that we have discerned from close examination of the larger text. We quote a particular passage because it beautifully encapsulates a thought that came out careful interpretation of the text.
So let’s take a closer look at the text. How can we interpret, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The first thing to consider is Jesus’ audience as he says these words. Jesus and his followers are gathered in the upper room for a final meal shortly before Jesus is to be arrested. He is giving his disciples final instructions on how they are to live after he is gone. This is a disciple’s conversation. Jesus is talking to his followers who have been through thick and thin with him. This is a private conversation.
I am the way and the truth and the life is not a statement that Jesus spoke to people of other religions. He is speaking to his followers. There are no people of any other faiths in the room. There are no Muslims or Hindus or even atheists in the room. This statement is not made in the public arena. For Christians to use this phrase in conversations with people from other faiths is simply not how it is being used here. It is not being true to the text the way it is written.
Jesus wasn’t excluding other peoples he was answering a specific question from Thomas, possibly his most curious disciple. “How can we know the way,” Thomas asks? Jesus replies, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Remember, this is a private conversation in a community. Now, I only refer to the divine loving force of the universe as the Father in extreme circumstances. Father is not the term I use for the holy mystery that is holy love. Father is not my metaphor of choice. But Jesus probably called God “abba” or “papa” which is a more intimate term, indicating the closeness of Jesus’ relationship to God. Somehow Jesus attained such a close relationship with God that he was almost at one with God. This doesn’t have to denigrate any other religion. In fact, Gandhi considered himself a follower of Jesus in some way without being a Christian. It was Gandhi who said, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians - you are not like him.”
What I am trying to say is that Jesus somehow managed to embody or access some kind of a divine wisdom or life force that the author of John calls “father”. Somehow, through his life of loving the outcast, of caring for those who are excluded, of feeding the hungry Jesus came to almost embody the love of the world. Through his radical hospitality and love of neighbour, even loving his enemy Jesus managed to almost embody the divine desire for unconditional love and that through him, by living his way his disciples can enter into the mystic. That is what he means when he tells Thomas that you can only come to the father through me. Because, for Christians, Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.
Maybe, for the disciples of Jesus, those in first century Palestine, and those in this space, right here right now, the way is radical hospitality, the truth is that we are called to love those we find most scary and make us most uncomfortable and the life is a deep intimate relationship with the divine love coursing through the cosmos. Because the way is relational not transactional. We are not making a transaction with God. It’s not that we believe in Jesus, whatever that means and then God gives us eternal life. Rather, we gain eternal life through relationship. Eternal life is relationship. Relationship with God and relationship with the other. We need to build a rhythm of relationship.
That’s why we need to develop relationship with First Nation’s University acknowledging our culpability in colonialism but through relationship find some path to reconciliation. That’s why the Social Justice Committee’s plan for conversations with new Canadians is so important. That’s why we need to make pickles with queer kids. So that through relationship we can come to the mysterious other, that through relationship we can have eternal life.
And if we can do this, if we can create a rhythm of authentic life-giving relationship here in Regina, both individually and as a community we can be a part of something even greater. By creating a community devoted to the way and the truth and the life we can be an inflection point of love in the world. By creating a community devoted to life-giving, loving relationships we can grow spiritually and grow in love and grow in numbers. We can be the pulse of loving transformation in the world and the sky is the limit. We can do amazing things. We are boundless. The sky is the limit.
Jesus tells us that in verse 12 when he says, “You will do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Greater works than these! We will do greater works than these by engaging a rhythm of loving relationship. The sky is the limit. We can go higher and higher. It won’t happen right away but with some time and love we can do greater things than these. We just need to take some time and get into the rhythm of loving relationship. And we can grow our spirituality in love and relationship.
The rhythm I am talking about reminds me of playing on swings when I was a kid. Do you remember what it was like to play on the swings as a child? Not the little baby set that your parents pushed. But the ones you did on your own. You would start slowly, going back as far you can on your tippy toes and then jump forward to start swinging. Then you would kick your feet out and lay back and swing as high as you could. As gravity pulled you down and you swung back you sit as far back as you coulc and pull in your feet so that all your weight and your momentum would take you as far back as possible. Then gravity would do its work swinging you forward and you would kick out your feet out and lay back and swing as high as you could going a little higher than last time. Each time, each swing would take you a little higher, a little closer to the sky. You would go higher and higher until it seemed like you were flying. And maybe, through a rhythm of radical hospitality and unconditional love we can create relationships that are the way and the truth and the life, engendering eternal life for all no matter what they believe. Amen
John B. Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, (Westminster: John Knox Pr) 1975.
Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders, http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2012/11/14/the-john-146-challenge-edition-tnt-39/