“Exploring the ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus: I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”
John 14: 1-10 & Exodus 3: 1-8, 13-14 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ May 26, 2019
I have a friend who had the beautifully challenging task of preaching on the theology of Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers, many will recall, had that wonderful television show: “Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood” that aired from 1968-2001. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and he had a deep concern in the way that television treated children and the show sought to present an alternate vision. Many will recall how Rogers concluded each show, saying: “You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are." And even more of us will likely recall his signature song (sing it with me) “It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood. A beautiful day in the neighbourhood. So let’s make the most of this neighbourhood. Won’t you please be my neighbour”. Another thing you might recall Rogers doing occurred at the commencement of each show. It was the ceremonial hanging up of his coat. As he entered singing the neighbourhood song; he would next take off his jacket; hang it up and put on his cardigan.
I would like to hold this image up of where we hang things upon for the duration of this morning’s reflection. Martin Luther, in his large catechism, used the image of what it is that we hang things upon as a reference to what our faith is about. Asking the question of what it truly means to have God in our life, Luther argues that what you name as God is whatever you hang your troubles upon. Luther powerfully writes “the heart that is troubled is not hung upon God, rather upon the things that the world peddles to soothe a troubled heart”. Luther’s call was a call to hang our troubles upon God’s strength and grace. So, if you have come this morning in search of hope; if have you come in search of meaning; if you have come in search of guidance, this morning’s text has guided countless generations of where to hang their troubles. And it calls the same to you and I this morning. In terms of the setting of the story, we find some troubled people. This text follows upon Jesus’ foretelling of Judas’ betrayal and that he will not be with them much longer. Understandably, the disciples become deeply troubled for what life will look like without their leader, their friend and their Lord. And the text begins with Jesus’ counselling them in this way: “do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me”. At the very outset, the text acknowledges the emotions at hand and encourages them to hang their troubles ~ to hang their beliefs upon God and upon Jesus who will not disappoint.
So, how would that look…for the follower of Jesus to hang their troubles and hopes upon God? The answer in this section comes in the threefold ‘I Am’ saying that I chose to save for the very end of our series. Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. Let’s begin unpacking these separately and then consider how they might converge in our spiritual lives. Jesus as “the truth” affirms that, as the word made flesh, he makes the truth of God available to all. In the opening prologue, John’s version of Jesus’ birth story, we read “and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). This reference to Jesus’ coming in the form of “grace and truth” continues throughout John’s gospel as a consistent identity for Jesus. And in the height of Jesus’ interrogation, just prior to his crucifixion, a befuddled Pilate bows to Jesus asking him, “what is truth?” (18:38). The truth Jesus ushers in is the truth that love conquers hate, the truth that hope is there for the hopeless, the truth that God’s new life follows death. It is a truth that our world cannot comprehend, cannot offer in our times of trouble and despair. What might it mean to you to have this truth alive in your living? The deep, enduring spiritual truth of God’s presence in your life. Going back to the opening metaphor from Luther: what might it mean to hang our life’s meaning and guidance upon this spiritual truth. The first part of Jesus’ I Am identity is “I am truth”.
The second identity in this morning’s saying is “I am the life”. If this sounds familiar, it should. This is a reenactment of the Lazarus story (John 11) where Jesus ‘I am’ saying is “I am the resurrection and the life” which we explored a few weeks (May 12th). You might recall exploring the different Greek understandings of English word we translate as being life: bios life and zoe life. Bios life refers to those temporary, perishing form of life ~ a flower blooming, one’s life natural lived to its fullness, the beautiful ebbs and flows in the cycle of living and dying. The other form of life, Zoe life, refers to the intangible, deep matters of life that are enduring and eternal. God’s love made manifest, the sunrise ushering in a new day, God’s presence in your life ~ these are examples of zoe life. The challenge in the text was one of shifting our focus to one of embracing the beautiful, enduring zoe life amidst the bios life. This essence of Jesus bringing matters of eternal life to his followers was a key message of John throughout his gospel. Jesus brings God’s gift of enduring life to the world. The coming of the new Kin-dom would be one that would contain eternal hope for the future: a hope of light, life and love. Such focus on the enduring eternal matters of life that God provides is not the natural instinct of the world, yet it is a choice that we have through our faith. What might it mean for us to deeply embrace these matters of eternal life? What might it mean to open our hearts to zoe life amidst the bios life we enjoy? To continue with Luther’s metaphor of what we hang our life’s troubles upon; we hang them on the enduring, eternal matters of the life God offers. The second part of Jesus’ I Am identity is “I am life”.
The third part of the ‘I Am’ saying is “I am the way”. I chose to explore this one last as some scholars debate that Jesus’ identity of truth and life as best understood as adjectives of this final identity: “the way”. While we will not solve the debate this morning, Jesus identity as “the Way” is a significant part of what he represents to his followers. To the disciple’s place of confusion, Jesus presents “the way” as being one of guidance saying: “and where I am going, you know the way”. Yet, the way is not a geographical term as one disciple first perceives it. The ‘way’ is the description of the revelatory work of Jesus. To know ‘the way’ is synonymous with knowing Jesus himself. Having Jewish roots, this reference was towards those who held lifestyles of the wise and lived in accordance with the teachings of the sages (see Prov 2:8,20). The way is a rich metaphor that was used in the Psalms, describing a life that was lived in accordance with the law or the will and desire of God. Long before Jesus’ followers ever called themselves ‘a church’, they identified themselves as ‘people of the way’. It was this realization that the Way, the path, the guidance that Jesus offered was ‘other worldly’. It was of God. Jesus’ Way reveals life even after the darkness of a Good Friday occurs. Jesus’ Way brings truth drawing us towards those matters that are of God. What might it mean for us and our living if we knew that we had a roadmap for our living? What might it mean if we knew that God’s abundant joy was there for you and for me in this beautiful Way of Jesus? To continue with Luther’s metaphor of what we hang our life’s troubles upon, we hang them on the enduring, eternal matters that guide our way through the troubled times as we follow His way. The third part of Jesus’ I Am identity is “I am the way”.
There is a piece of the text that I always like to address when exploring this particular section. Verse six has a very interesting conclusion. It begins with the I am saying: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” and it concludes: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” In some Christian settings, this text has been the rally cry of Christian triumphalism over all other religions; a support for an argument of a narrow theology espousing the Christian faith as being the one and only way for people to experience God. What do you hear? “No one comes to the Father, except through me”. As we answer that question, I would suggest, firstly, that it is helpful to hear this in the light of it being a 1st Century world-changing theological affirmation and that it should not be heard as a 21st century sweeping existential faith claim. This is certainly a high point of John’s theology and we hear this amidst John’s efforts to exuberantly proclaim the meaning of the Christian faith and bring deep hope to the world. Yet, as theologian Gail O’Day puts it: “this should not be construed as a definitive comment on whether there is any validity to other ways to God before Christianity”. So how shall we hear this section? There is true beauty if we hear it as it was intended. When we listen, we gain deep insight into the beautiful message of love that is at the heart of John’s gospel ~ the theology of the incarnation ~ the mystery of God’s love enfleshed in Jesus, and Jesus’ action of establishing an eternal connection with God for us…a connection that is so deep that Jesus uses the familial term for God of “Father”. Jesus’ love for us is an expression of God’s unconditional love for all creation. God’s love for us is like that beautiful love that has been properly expressed between a father and his child. This unconditional, caring, protecting love shared between a father and a son is that beautiful kind of connection that we are invited to experience from God through Jesus. (And if this had been written in a non-patriarchal culture, like ours today, I believe Jesus would equally express a similar understanding of God as “Mother” as well ~ that beautiful love expressed unconditionally between a mother and her child). Theologians note that this is not a universal metaphysical statement about the way we connect with God ~ otherwise it would have been written “No one comes to God, but through me”. The true beauty of this text is a celebration of this unique way of love the followers of Jesus have come to know God: “No one comes to the Father / the Mother but through me”. It almost becomes the fourth dimension of this ‘I Am’ saying: I am the Way, the truth and the life, I am God’s love come to you.
Jesus says: “I am Way, the truth and the life”. Our final Easter gift in this blessed season.