I AM the Way

Sunday, 21 March 2021
I want to invite you into the room we often visit when we take communion. Imagine a largish room with plenty of chatting and food coming through the doors from the kitchen. In John’s gospel we have an intimate gathering of the disciples and followers. It is night time and just before the passover festival. The main disciples would have been reclining around the table for a more formal meal and everyone would have been drinking the wine quite merrily. The King James version pictures a couple of the disciples from time to time resting their heads on Jesus’s chest in intimate friendship. All in all quite a normal festive scene. Except for the fact that it was punctuated by some slightly odd behaviour on Jesus’s part. Some of his actions and words that night brought the room to sudden thuds silence. For one, he’d virtually stripped down to his undies in front of them, taken the role of slave and gone around them all washing their feet. Later that night he suddenly paused and became visibly agitated. He was thinking how this would be one of the last times he would see many of them before he would be put tortured to death. There was an emotional intensity that showed raw humanity as he talked of what was to come next, but also deep concern for how it was now crunch time, and it seemed there was so much work left undone. Judas. Judas was a case in point. Perhaps if Jesus had had more time he could have … well it was pointless to think about that now. In the dim light no one could see Judas’ agitation either. He was somewhat disconnected and his eyes flitted around the room as he went through all the familiar motions of social interaction. Jesus saw out of the corner of his eye, two of the disciples laughing together. There was an excitement in the air as they geared up to celebrate the passover feast over the next few days. But not for Jesus. It is said that he was “troubled in his spirit”. He had become sombre and broody. And then at the end of a brief speech about servant leadership, Jesus seriously broke the mood: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” You could hear the gentle hiss of table lamp flames burning their wicks. The disciples looked around at each other in abject horror. What is he talking about? Simon Peter, dared to ask the question quietly—knowing Jesus wasn’t talking about him—well maybe, I mean Jesus was going to put him in his place very shortly by rebuking him for being so flippant about laying his life down for him. “Jesus,” Peter whispered, “who are you talking about?” Jesus, agitated, told Peter, “I’m going to dip my bread in this sauce, and give it to my betrayer.” Peter watched what seemed like slow motion as Jesus handed the bread to Judas Iscariot, with the words, “(NRSV) Do quickly what you are going to do.” And with that, before the shocked Peter could act, Judas got up and left. And in the succinct and damning words of the writer of John, “it was night.” It got very serious all of a sudden. No one else knew why Judas had left but they could sense the tension. Jesus talked to the group in a very agitated manner. “Look, I’m not going to be around for much longer because I need to leave you. And where I’m going you cannot follow. But just get this if you get nothing else: “love each other. Just like I’ve loved you, do the same for each other.” To quote from the NRSV: John 14:1-7 (NRSV) “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.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas asks a very sensible question. Jesus hasn’t told them where he’s going and was only talking in riddles. Remember that, right at this moment, the disciples thought they had years ahead of them to hang out with Jesus. There weren’t any clues to think any different really—I mean Jesus was a bit intense at the moment, but maybe that’s just Jesus in one of those moods again. There was no hint that within 24 hours they would be tracking Jesus through kangaroo courts, torture and finally execution. Even Peter didn’t necessarily click that Judas was going to betray Jesus that night. The words Jesus spoke were almost desperately spoken. His reply to Thomas, maybe has a slightly bewildered tone: 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.” Selah The rest of this part of John known as the farewell discourse and leads up to their after dinner stroll where Judas betrays Jesus. The words are agitated utterances from a man who knows he’s about to be tortured. Gone is the gentle even-tempered Jesus we might imagine. These words are spoken with last breaths. It’s with this feeling that Jesus answers the question “How can we follow you when you haven’t told us where you are going?” With a slight bite. Beginning with I AM, he immediately brings the stories of their childhood back to the foreground. It’s the burning bush story with Moses who after expressing his doubts about being able to go to Pharaoh, lets his humanity get in the way of God’s revelation. When Moses keeps protesting and asks, “well who do I say sent me then?” “I AM” thunders from the agitated God. It’s the familiar battle of faith playing out on this stage where mere mortal would question their Creator to their face. How quickly we forget who it is that we are talking to. Perhaps understandable in our own prayer where God is unseen. But, burning bush, voice emanating from it, initial response being awe and humility but as the conversation carries on, our human disconnect from God starts to show. “I can’t do what you’re asking” is such a “small picture” and faithless statement. Back to Thomas. Having spent three years with Jesus and having seen all that he’s seen, heard all that he’s heard, lived and breathed the same air as Jesus, still speaks with his immediate context in mind. “I AM” says Jesus. And that in itself should be enough. And then proceeds with a voice carrying the same authority from the beginning of time when God told the void “let there be light”. “Thomas, I AM the way. How can you not see this after all we’ve been through together? If you want to find me, be like me. Love others like I love you. ” A big part of our collective human experience is the search for God, and here speaking with Thomas is the one who embodies this God. It’s like Jesus is saying “You need look no further, for all the searching for God is at an end. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.” Fast track a couple of thousand years. When I’ve heard these famous words spoken it’s often been in the context of defining those who get to go to heaven and those who don’t. Those who are followers and those who aren’t. And the stickler nowadays in a postmodern context has been on the word Truth and the claim that Jesus is the only truth. This is the Christian claim to exclusivity. It’s what makes Christianity different. Without Jesus people are lost. Someone might say all paths lead to God, and a Christian answer will trot this out as a proof that we will not tolerate pluralism. I think this is a poor use of this verse. Jesus is not talking about evangelism or pluralism at all. Instead, Jesus is reminding the disciples that they’re on the right track. That this way, this pathway of following Jesus, is indeed the one that will take them to God. These are words of encouragement during a farewell speech, to give them heart for the journey ahead, to overcome their trials and temptations and to keep on going. Especially given what was about to transpire ahead. With its appropriation by apologetics to create the case for Christianity being the only way to God, we’ve lost the beautiful encouragement inherent in it. And there’s a bitter irony that if there is an exclusion here, it is less about doctrinal tick boxes and much more about how one lives, the integrity of faith and how much one is willing to let the pursuit of the God of Love to change their heart. If it’s tickboxing, it’s not seeking. And that’s what it’s been turned into. This verse then is not about exclusion, but inclusion. It’s an affirmation not a clobber. It’s a reminder that seeking Jesus is seeking God and that at some point, it’s only going to work well if we accept that fully. So now I’m at the point of thinking, that anyone who is honestly living in the way of Jesus, i.e. Loving God, loving others and loving self, then they are finding God. It makes sense that when Jesus follows this with “No one gets to the Father apart from me.” That the ‘me’ part refers to the previous “I AM” statement. No-one gets to the father unless they are following in the way, which is living in truth and God’s vision for life. When I was a kid I would often ask my Sunday school leaders if [insert religion here] would get to heaven. The answer invariably came back as no. Unless they believe in Jesus as their lord and saviour they would go to hell. It seemed desperately unfair. What about those who hadn’t heard? “Tough luck” What about those who were actually doing well at this stuff? “Again tough luck. No one is innocent.” hmmmm…. Highly problematic. I wasn’t asking for all to be saved. But I couldn’t work out why even good people, better people than had prayed the sinner’s prayer were cut off from God… It severely reduced the whole gospel to whether one was converted or not. If you didn’t know what you needed to do then you were screwed. And I have to say it, but particularly as I’ve been learning about our history in Aotearoa, I’m realising that Christians do not have the monopoly on this stuff. It’s clear that this wisdom is found all around the world and in different religions. So to be clear. This verse is not narrow, but broad. Well, actually it is also narrow but not because of it’s truth claim. Rather, it’s because it really does cut to the heart of what matters. It’s point blank asking us: how are you living? Whose footsteps are you following? Are they the footsteps that Love God, love others and love self? That’s a much trickier path to follow.
I am the way: a look at how this verse is not about evangelistic exclusion