The Way, the Truth, and the Life
During the season of Lent we’ve been exploring together a series of metaphors in the gospel of John that Jesus uses to talk about who he is and what he’s doing. So far we’ve heard that he is the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life. I have been waiting for weeks for us to get to the metaphor we are going to look at this morning because I think it is one of the most misquoted, cherry-picked verses in the whole Bible. It has been presented in ways that are so divisive that people are cling to it like a lifeline or reject it altogether. And if you know me at all by now you’re going to guess that I think there’s a third way to approach it.
Let’s get a little context, because remember, looking at these metaphors has us following a theme in the gospel and not so much the storyline itself, and where we are in the story matters a lot this morning. Since last week when we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus, important things have happened. Remember that the raising of Lazarus was the last straw for the religious leaders. They were afraid that someone who could raise the dead would also raise up a Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupation and cause the destruction of the Jewish temple and society. So that faction of the Jews decides that Jesus has to be stopped. They say, “It’s better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
Soon after, it is once again Passover. Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem and then after a few more public speeches, he withdraws with his disciples. The gospel of John does not have the story of a last supper as we’re used to hearing it. Instead John tells the story of what happens before the supper: Jesus washes the disciples feet and gives them the command to love one another as he has loved them. Judas leaves them and Jesus predicts that Peter, the leader of the disciples, is going to betray Jesus when it really counts. And then Jesus talks for four whole chapters. This is right after the prediction of Peter’s betrayal, the beginning of the long speech. This is chapter 14 verses 1 through 17:
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.”
“No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you? Don’t you trust that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just trust that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least trust because of the work you have seen me do.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who trusts in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!
“If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. She is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive her, because it isn’t looking for her and doesn’t recognize her. But you know her, because she lives with you now and later will be in you.
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.John 14:1-17
Did you hear the metaphor that is so ill-used? Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father if not by me.” And that’s really exactly what he says. There’s no word juggling that we’re going to do to change that. Which is fine because the words themselves are not a problem. It’s how people use the words that creates a problem.
People use these words in arguments. Our Christian ancestors who wanted to merge political and religious power used these words as trump cards. Our Christian ancestors who thought that eternal hell was worse than any hell they could impose used these words to force “conversions” on native people around the world. Our Christian ancestors used these words as a threat while holding a sword and as a coercion while holding out food. Christians today do many of the same things. These words are used in support of one’s own interpretation of whoever Jesus is and whatever he offers. Many of us have done that. And even if we haven’t, our spiritual ancestors have. This is part of the history of our tradition and also part of our present. It happened and it happens.
The problem is that these words as proof or threat or coercion is completely opposed to the way that Jesus was using them. Let’s look at them again in context. He starts by saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” which you wouldn’t say unless the person to whom you were speaking did have a troubled heart. “Trust God and trust me,” this is both a statement of fact and a directive. “You do trust God so trust God and you do trust me so trust me.” And finally, this statement is made in response to a question from a troubled and fearful and confused disciple: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus’ response, “I am the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father if not by me” that’s not a point-counterpoint argument about world religions. That’s a word of comfort to a loved one. That’s a pastoral response. Jesus is not trying to prove he’s the best. He’s just reminding his most beloved friends and followers of who he is. Right after this he says, “If you know me (and you do) you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Let not your hearts be troubled. Where I am, there you will also be.
Friends, for me, that changes this statement completely. This statement is not made by a power-hungry conquerer. It’s made by someone who is willing to be conquered. This is a declaration of love, not a declaration of force.
And it’s also completely in line with everything else we’ve already heard in this gospel right from the beginning: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life. The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the breast of the Father has made God known.” Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who makes God known.
To know Jesus, to trust Jesus, to abide with Jesus is to know the Father. Not God in general, but this very personal manifestation of the Perfect Parent. There’s no other formula we have to learn, no secret knowledge to gain, no passwords to say. There’s no hoops to jump through, nothing else we have to figure out. If we trust Jesus, then we know the Father and we have what we need to experience eternal, full, transcendent life. That’s it. We already have what we need.
There’s another part of this passage that is not a Jesus metaphor but is also often misquoted. It’s the part where Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who trusts in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!”
I mean, that’s clearly not right. I’m pretty sure I’ve never done any works that are greater than what Jesus did, and I’ve asked for plenty of things–I thought in Jesus’ name–and they didn’t happen. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience.
Now I fully realize that what I’m about to suggest is not going to satisfy some of you, and that’s OK. This is a hard thing to wrestle with. I’m not going to try to wriggle out of it. And I’m not going to tell you that it didn’t happen because it wasn’t God’s will or because you didn’t have enough faith or you didn’t ask in the right way. I’ve never seen those responses be particularly helpful to people who were wrestling with this.
I think we can get a different perspective on this if we consider what are the works of the Father and the Son as described in the gospel of John. You know this because we talked about it earlier this year. We want “works” to mean miracles: healings and abundant provisions and people being raised from the dead and in our case the end of pandemics and wars and oppressions and political stupidness on both sides of the aisle. But friends, that is not what the works of the Father and Son are in the gospel of John. Remember the signs? They were never a miracle for the sake of a miracle. The miraculous signs Jesus did always had a larger point, which was to spark trust in God through Jesus, trust in the Father through the Son, to use the relational categories that Jesus uses.
See I think, when we try to use this verse, we are usually only asking for the miracle for its own sake. Those kind of “works” in themselves are never the point for Jesus, but they’re usually the point for us. Jesus does the miracle so that people will better understand God. We want to do the miracle so that we get the thing, and then we say we will give glory to God after the fact if the miracle happens.
The problem is that even if we got it, the miracle would never quite satisfy us, because humans are silly creatures with short memories. If we get what we want this time, we’re happy. But if we don’t get what we want next time, we’re out. Unless we have a relationship of active trust with the God of the Miracle, the miracle itself will never be enough for us. We see that pattern in the gospel of John. Some people see a miracle and it sparks a deeper active trust in the one who did the miracle. Some people see a miracle and just want to see another one, like some kind of divine Vegas show.
So what is Jesus talking about here? What are the works of the Father that Jesus does that we can do as well? Well according to Jesus when he’s talking about being the Bread of Life back in chapter 6, the work of God is to trust in the one whom God has sent. That’s chapter 6 verse 29. Direct quote. The work of God that Jesus is carrying out is making disciples, sparking active trust in people. Our work is to trust Jesus. And if we are going to do the work of Jesus then that work is to live lives of such powerful trust that others are led into trusting that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life for them as well. Sometimes those works might defy the laws of nature, I don’t know. But they don’t have to. The world is desperately in need of Christians who testify to our trust in God through ordinary lives that are radically progressive, inclusive, humble, bold, and loving. Miracles that defy the fallen nature of humanity may be even more astounding than those that defy the laws of nature.
And what’s so wild is that we can do that without Jesus in the flesh. This system was never designed to need Jesus to be with us in person. We want that. The discipled wanted that; they wanted him to stay. They were terrified of his leaving. But Jesus never planned to stay because he knew we didn’t really need him to. Jesus always intended that we could do this once he was gone. Apparently, the stories we have about him are enough. The testimony of the lives of other Jesus followers past and present is enough. And according to the very end of this passage, the Spirit who abides within us and among us is enough. We don’t need Jesus to do it for us because Jesus does it through us.
It is the Spirit (non-gendered personal noun so we can use he or she as a pronoun) — it is the Spirit, the Advocate, the One Called Alongside to Help, who empowers us to do the things Jesus did, and more. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we become Jesus in the world. He doesn’t need to be here because we are here, trusting God in miraculously radical ways in our daily lives. Proving with our actions that for us, Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. May we be so progressive, inclusive, humble, bold and loving that others who need to be rescued from the ways of the world discover that Jesus is the Way for them as well. Amen.