The Way, The Truth, and the Life?: A Reflection on John 14.1-14

No one comes to the Father except through me.

There are perhaps no words of Jesus more contentious today than these, which are found in today’s Gospel reading from John 14. For centuries now they have been used to justify Christians’ belief in their exclusive access to truth, salvation, and God. This in turn has born a lot of very bad fruit in the world, including religious wars, spiritual abuses, colonialism and cultural condescension. But on the flip side, any attempts at genuine interfaith dialogue also come up against these words. Those of us who believe that Christianity and ‘the West’ have at least as much learn from other cultures and traditions as we have to teach are often put into a corner: either we uphold this saying of Jesus and therefore what anyone else has to say is irrelevant, or we learn from others and thereby reject the ‘clear teaching’ of the Bible. Well, I for one, don’t like being put into theological corners — not just because it’s uncomfortable, but because I think that, at least nine times out of ten, it’s based on a false dichotomy, on false premises. And so today I’d like to explore some ways we can uphold this teaching in a way that is both profoundly traditional and Christian and generous and openhearted.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the context for what Jesus said. The passage starts:

Jesus said, “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.

Right off the bat we run into the English translation issue with that troublesome word ‘believe’. As I’ve said time and time again, when we encounter this word we immediately think of cognitive assent — we ‘believe’ in God or Christ as someone might ‘believe’ in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But again, this is not what the underlying Greek means at all: pisteuo, the verb form of pistis ‘faith’, is about living in ‘good faith’, in reciprocal relationship with someone or something. It is belief in, trust in, but also living in relation to God. Or, as I like to say, it is ‘showing up’ in our relationships. That’s the heart of faith. Jesus is saying here, then, that if we show up for God in showing up for him (Jesus), we can trust that he will show up for us too; he may be ‘going away’ but he does this in order to ‘prepare’ a place for us in God’s Kingdom, so that we might dwell with this relationship eternally. (There’s a whole other message here about what he means by all this, but alas, that’s not for today.)

At this point, Thomas jumps in and asks: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” It’s in response to this question that Jesus says the words we’re thinking through today: “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 interaction continues, bringing us to the end of the reading:

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. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

So we have this back and forth between Jesus and his disciples in which they’re just not getting what he’s saying. Thomas: “How will we know the way?” Jesus: “I am the way.” Philip: “Show us the Father.” Jesus: “If you’ve seen me, you’ve already seen the Father. If you’ve heard me speak, you’ve heard the father. If you’ve seen me act, you’ve seen the Father act.” And then Jesus makes his real point: If you are faithful to me then you will follow my way, do what I have done, and speak as I have spoken. Once again, we have the idea found in the ancient Christian saying, “We become by grace all that Christ is by nature.” Being a Christian means becoming like Christ. (It’s telling that the second half of John 14 is Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Holy Spirit as an enabling power (’advocate, helper’).)

With this in mind, there is no question in my mind that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” His way reveals the heart of God for the world. And it’s hard to imagine anyone ‘knowing God’ without understanding this way. But this way is exactly that: a way of life, and one dominated by openheartedness, grace, forgiveness, showing up in our relationships, humility, and love. It is a path, not a magic charm or spell. It’s not like we say “Beetlejuice!” three times and he appears. As Jesus himself put it, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7.21). This opens up the door — pretty widely — for those who may never have heard of Jesus, or who have rejected Jesus because of the poor example of his followers, to have found and lived that same way that Jesus represented. This is a natural extension of the Christian doctrine that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s ‘Word’, Logos, which is like the deep wisdom or logic at the heart of the universe. If God’s Word is all around us, unifying and binding everything together, then it shouldn’t be impossible for us to learn what makes it work from observing what God has made. (Paul says it in so many words in Romans 1.19-20.) It should not be surprising to us at all if some people, far more discerning than us, were able to understand it and share it with others. (Interestingly, the idea behind Christianity’s Logos theology is deeply intuitive to a lot of people today; in my experience, non-Christians seem to understand it far more readily than Christians!)

Let me put this another way, the best and most representative definition I can think of for “a Christian” is “someone who tells and lives the story of Jesus of Nazareth.” And just as there are a lot of Christians who like to tell the story without living it, there could just as easily be a lot of folk out there who live the story without telling it. And honestly, from everything I’ve read of the New Testament, if I had to pick between the two, I’d rather be in latter group than the first.

At the end of the day, I’m not all that concerned about boundaries in the life of faith; I’m not the gatekeeper for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. In fact, Jesus said pretty clearly that it’s his job alone and that we’re all going to be surprised when we find out what happens in the end. Jesus didn’t say that he is “the way” to set his followers up as gatekeepers. He said it because his followers were concerned that they didn’t know the way. It’s not a verse about Christian exclusivity, but a verse that should comfort us when we think we’ve lost our way. We have Christ’s words. We have his example. Therefore, we know what to do. The challenge for us is not to find the way, but to walk it. And that’s the message of today’s Gospel.

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