“I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” John 14:6
We all know how this verse is used as a proof text – as the test to who is a Christian and who is not a Christian.
And I have spoken in this congregation before about the closed circles of those Christian communities who think that the most important question is ‘who is in?’ and ‘who is out?’.
And at that time I proposed that this exclusionary in-out model should be discarded as the dominant model in favour of a centred model, in which being a Christian has to do with a focus of life lived mindfully toward a God-centre.
What might be the characteristics of such a God-centre? – surely, for Christians, one that reflects the values revealed to us in the life of Jesus. We are Christian because we choose to orientate our lives toward a centre that is illuminated and informed by the values we find in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. For Muslims who embrace the centre-orientation model, it will be a life illuminated and informed by the life of Mohammed and the writings of the Holy Koran.
As Christians, we relate to that centre, and, in our decision-making, go to that centre as a mirror to see ourselves, and align ourselves more closely with the values of Jesus who is that centre.
But it is convenient for those who want to control others to use a text like John 14:6 to support their in-out system of inclusion – exclusion; this text can be used as a test on the boundary of their in-out circle, that membership inside the circle is determined by a positive response, the basis of a simple declaration of belief – do you accept that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life? – if ‘yes’, you’re ‘in’, or otherwise you’re ‘out’ because the rest of the verse confirms that you have to be ‘out’ – that no-one comes to God except through such an affirmation of Jesus.
John 14 verse six is a convenient text for controlling who is in and who is out. And if we accept this in-out model it is not far to spiritual blackmail – if you are ‘in’ you are on your way to heaven; and if you are ‘out’ you are on your way to hell.
But even closer to home, if you don’t believe what I, who is on the inside, believe, I don’t want to know you! If you don’t dress like I dress, I don’t want to know you…etc. Church becomes ‘Pleasantville’. The rest of the world – the poor, single mums, gays, Muslims, asylum seekers – they can all go to hell!
That is where a simplistic reading of John 14:6 takes us.
But rather than read the text in a simplistic manner, thinking that its meaning is obvious on the surface, what if we ask: ‘what can be learnt from the context of this text?’
Turn back a page or two in John’s Gospel and we find it is spoken in the context of the Upper Room, Jesus reassuring his disciples about his forthcoming death before his crucifixion.
You will remember that this upper room discussion begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
What is that about?
Jesus is demonstrating the ‘way’ – what ‘I am the way…’. in John 14:6 looks like.
The way is sacrificial service to others. The way to the Father is service to others.
Jesus then does something that most of us, particularly in the church, shrink from – telling the truth – telling the difficult truth.
Jesus tells his friends that one of them is going to betray him.
Why does Jesus feel he has to do this? Why spoil a good party? Surely Jesus doesn’t have to say this stuff – he knows it – but does he have to say it?
It is significant that Jesus offers bread to the betrayer. Judas is as much a member of the fellowship. But while Judas eats bread in common with the others he looks for the opportunity to enact the decision he has already made and slips out into the dark.
In the model of orientation to the Jesus-centre, we have an example of one who decides to head in the other direction.
Jesus knew Judas had decided to head in the other direction. But that didn’t stop Jesus’ truthful transparency and continuing to hold out the other opportunity as an option for Judas.
I am the way – the way of service;
I am the truth – being true to existential reality
Appropriating Jesus the truth means being true to our inner and outer realities, being transparent, being true to ourselves, being true and open to Sophia Wisdom.
I digress to make a footnote about ‘telling the truth’. It would be remiss of me not to point out that ‘telling the truth’ is not a license for becoming the kind of person who is always critical. Jesus’ telling of the truth about Judas was contextualized first by the washing of feet and secondly in his keeping relationships open by the sharing of bread. In other words, the license for negative talk is prior unconditional service to others and unconditional acceptance of others. And then, of course, there is always the reminder about the plank in our own eye!
Back to the text: following the Judas discourse, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment.
‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples’.
I take this to be the ‘life’ part of the John 14:6 trilogy – the life lived by those who live with the orientation of Jesus and his values as the focus for their lives is to be a life of love for others.
I am the way – the way of service – I am the truth – – transparently honest to reality – I am the life – the life that loves others as Jesus loved others.
Then as we follow the Upper Room text of John’s Gospel, as if this paradigm of service, honesty and love is too neat, Jesus predicts that the leader of the fellowship, Simon Peter, will deny him three times. Even though Simon Peter impulsively blurts out that he is willing to die for Jesus, Jesus replies, ‘before the cock crows you will say three times that you do not know me’.
Sandy mentioned the other week about the cock weathervane on the top of Catholic church steeples in Europe. The cock on the church steeple is meant to remind the priest below that he is as fallible as Peter when he promised one thing and did another. The word ‘humility’ comes to mind.
Then comes the 14th chapter of John, which begins with those great words of comfort and assurance – ‘there are many rooms in my father’s house, and I am going to prepare a place for you’.
Thomas – that irrepressible questioner – says, ‘we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?’ Jesus replies, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me’.
In the context of the Upper Room the answer to Thomas is this: ‘Thomas, you want to know the way? – the way is the way of service. The way is the way of truth -of integrity between our inner and outer lives and the Wisdom of what is – the way is the way of love.
It then becomes obvious that only those who live this way, this truth, this life, will know God. There is a self-exclusion from God in the choices we may make, like Judas. But from Jesus’ response to Peter, acceptance by God is not dependent on our promises, but by the very goodness and ever graciousness of the continually unwavering God-centre.
John 14:6 only makes sense to me if it is understood, not as an exclusionary text, but as a commentary on what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples in the Upper Room – the way in which we come to God, the way by which we may know God, is the way, the truth and the life of service, the way, the truth and the life of integrity and the way, the truth and the life of love.
Geoff Boyce, Oasis Coordinating Chaplain, Flinders University
Message delivered at Pilgrim Uniting Church in the City, 9.30am Service, Sunday 18 May 2014
posted 18 May 2014 by Geoff