by Ellen Sims
text: John 14: 1-14
Here’s the summary of the sermon right up front: Jesus is not THE way. Jesus is the WAY. Now let me back up and explain what I mean by that.
My first career as an English teacher began as the process theory in composition studies was becoming the pedagogy du jour. In the late 70s and early 80s, rhetoric and composition scholars were encouraging writing faculty to teach writing as a process, not a product. Prior to that, writing teachers assigned models of good writing for students to analyze; drilled the rules of grammar, syntax, and punctuation; and presented forms and structures of writing, rhetorical strategies, and standard practices for citing sources. But research proved the obvious: you learn to write by writing or, more precisely, by writing and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting—while receiving feedback on your writing along the way.
In other fields of study and other endeavors including that of spiritual development, many think that we progress not simply by learning the rules but also through the “learn through doing” method, which allow us to be lifelong learners. No wonder this former proponent of “writing as a process” was attracted to process theology and the idea that maybe God is a process.
The very first and the very last lesson of Rabbi Jesus was this: “Follow me.”
Today’s Gospel lection shares Jesus’ last lesson for his followers. He’s telling them the hard truth that his time is nearly up. Surely his followers wondered, “How will we follow a man after he’s dead?”
Later we’ll unpack this difficult conversation between Jesus and his troubled students.
But first let’s focus on a statement at the heart of this passage. John 14:6 says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
As you know, John’s Gospel—in stark contrast to the other Gospels—attributes many “I am” statements to Jesus: “I am the bread of life (6:35),” “I am the true vine (15:1),” “I am the gate (10:9),” “I am the good shepherd (10:11),” and others. But to say “I am the way” can sound as if Jesus believes he is the one and only way to God, and those who do not follow Jesus will never know God. Such an arrogant claim is hard to square with Jesus’s humility and a God who, according to this same Gospel, loves the whole world (3:16).
So let me offer two ways of this verse by two Bible scholars who do NOT conclude from this verse that God is exclusionary:
Gail O’Day, a UCC theologian, reminds us that John’s Gospel was written for a religious minority under persecution. When they heard John’s Jesus saying that no one can come to the Father without coming through him, they heard a Gospel speaking to their situation of being expelled from Judaism and their growing understanding that they would have to create a new faith community for themselves as a distinct people. John’s Gospel expresses the distinctiveness of Christians who were starting to find their way to God through Jesus. She explains, “John 14:6 is not a general metaphysical statement about ‘God’; Jesus does not say ‘No one comes to God except through me,’ but ‘No one comes to the Father except through me,’ and the specificity of that theological nomenclature needs to be taken seriously.” Knowing John’s original audience, we can appreciate that John 14:6 “is the very concrete and specific affirmation of a faith community about the God who is known to them because of the incarnation. . . . When Jesus says ‘no one,’ he means ‘none of you’” because he’s defining God for members of that particular faith community.” 1
Marcus Borg interprets John 14:6 via a story about a Hindu professor in a Christian seminary: “’This verse is absolutely true—Jesus is the only way,’ said the Hindu professor. Then he continued, ‘And that way—of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being—is known in all the religions of the world.’ The ‘way’ of Jesus is a universal way, known even to millions who have never heard of Jesus.”
The mission statement of Open Table begins with our aspiration to follow in the hopeful Way of Jesus. Jesus shows us the Way. When we as a Church confess that we follow Jesus, we’re not demeaning or damning people of other religions who do not follow Jesus. We’re naming our true North that we follow in this life and into Life beyond life.
Jesus never said, “It’s my way or the highway.” John is trying to stress that there is a way of God and a way toward God that Jesus revealed. Usually people emphasize the word “the” in quoting “I am THE way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” But the community who composed the Gospel of John seventy years after Jesus was crucified wanted to celebrate his way, not damn all other spiritual paths.
Look back at the context for this verse that some use to prove they’ve cornered the market on God. Jesus had been lecturing about his impending death. And then he opened for Q and A. Hoping the disciples were tracking his spiritualized language, John’s Jesus asserts: “And you know the way to the place where I am going, right?”
“Uh no,” Thomas admitted. “I mean, how can we know the way if we don’t know the place where you are headed?” Which was a logical question if John’s Gospel is referring to a literal destination for Jesus. If the point of Jesus’s lecture had been to direct them to a literal place, then, yes, the disciples would need to enter that address in their first century GPS to know the way. But the book of John is high flying, spiritualized poetry. John seems interested in a spiritual journey, not a literal destination. Jesus says the destination isn’t the point. The point is the way. Follow my way, he says.
And here’s where we really SHOULD get uncomfortable. Here’s what IS truly scandalous, embarrassing, crazy about Christianity: Jesus’s way is the way of death. A way of death that leads to new life. Remember Jesus is teaching this lesson as he predicts his own imminent death. And he is telling his followers to follow him even there. How sicko is that? How Jim Jonesy is THAT?
The Apostle Paul calls it the scandal of the cross. The way of resurrection is through death. We must lose our life to find it, Jesus said. And if you have ever experienced some great loss—of a job, a relationship, an ability, a certain outlook on life, especially if failure or loss took a big bite out of your ego—then you may have moved beyond that little death into a realer life, a deeper love of God, a clearer sense of purpose. And you know something of the Jesus Way. This is how God works—bringing life out of death.
Richard Rohr returns to this very theme often, as in this excerpt:
“Most of us probably grew up thinking that the Resurrection was a one-time miracle about Jesus, an anomaly that proved he was God. I believe that Jesus is actually naming and revealing what is happening everywhere and all the time in God. Jesus’ resurrection is a statement about how reality works: always moving toward resurrection. . . . The Eternal Christ is thus revealed as the map, the blueprint, the promise, the pledge, the guarantee of what is happening everywhere, all summed up in one person so we can see it in personified form.”
This is the WAY God works. This is the WAY God can work in you.
Rohr continues: “Death is not just physical dying, but going to the full depth of things, hitting the bottom, beyond where you are in control. And in that sense, we all probably go through many deaths in our lifetime. These deaths to the small self are tipping points, opportunities to choose transformation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people turn bitter and look for someone to blame. So their death is indeed death for them, because they close down to growth and new life.
But if you do choose to walk through the depths . . . you will come out the other side, knowing you’ve been taken there by a Source larger than yourself. Surely this is what it means to be saved. Being saved doesn’t mean that you are any better than anyone else. It means you’ve allowed and accepted the mystery of transformation, which is always pure gift.”
“God uses the very thing that would normally destroy you—the tragic, the sorrowful, the painful, the unjust—to transform and enlighten you. Now you are indestructible and there are no absolute dead ends. This is what we mean when we say we are “saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.” This is a human transformation to a much higher level of love and consciousness. You . . . become a very different kind of human being in this world. Jesus is indeed saving the world.”
The saving work of Jesus’s life and death, according to John’s Gospel, is not about believing certain factoids about Jesus. Jesus offers a saving way of living—which is to be on this path or way to God, a way of challenging but liberating truth, a way of abundant life—after a death of the old life. It’s the way of loving one another as Jesus loved us, even to the point of death.
No sooner had Jesus corrected Thomas’s literalism than another disciple, Phillip, demanded to see “the Father.” Jesus said Phillip was also literalizing the spiritual lesson. “It’s like this, Phillip: If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. This is as close as we’re going to get to seeing ‘God.’ Because the divine is in me and in you—when we love. Being on this path of self-giving, loving relationships in a sense makes God visible.”
Thomas wanted to make discipleship into a place.
Phillip wanted to make salvation into a person.
Jesus, whom John tells us is the embodiment of God, made the life of faith all about the journey, the way. A way of truth. A way of Life.
We at Open Table have been pointing people to a way. It is both simple and hard. That way is both for individuals and groups. If churches are dying, we can celebrate the fact that that gives them the possibility of being resurrected. If Christianity itself seems on the endangered religions list, we can rejoice that we at least, on the brink of extinction, can reboot and maybe be again the MOVEMENT Jesus began rather than the stagnant INSTITUTION that now exists.
1 O’Day, Gail R., “The Gospel of John: Reflection,” in Luke; John, vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 735.
PRAYER: Thank you, God, that individuals and Christianity itself are on the way. We pause now to consider ways you may be prodding us as individuals or as a church to let something die so that resurrection can happen in us, among us. Amen
INVITATION TO THE TABLE
Following Jesus is a way of being in the world. The Christian faith is not an idea to grasp; it’s a life-long practice to continue. We will make our way to the Table that Christ has set for us. Here we share a simple meal that represents a truth we can’t put into factual language. Here we become the metaphor—the living body of Christ—re-membered. Re-connected: whole and living in all its diversity. Here is one way we follow in the way of Jesus. Receive the bread and the wine, reminders of Jesus’s self-giving love. Be together the body of Christ in a world that needs God’s way of reconciliation.
Remembering The Way of Jesus
Participating in The Way of Jesus
We don’t have to be the way, but let’s be on the way.
We don’t claim to own the way, but let’s help make the way.
Let us follow in the Way of Jesus.