I am the Way…..
May 22, 2011
(1 Peter, 2, 2-10; John 14, 1-14)
Sometimes happy coincidences occur. When we were walking to get the paper earlier this morning, a car stopped and someone asked the way to a local leisure centre. My husband gave directions ( which were simple) and before he drove off the man said, “Thank you. Your directions were better than my Blackberry” My husband replied, “That’s because I’ve got a brain and your Blackberry hasn’t!”
Now, I have a confession to make. I’m really old fashioned; we don’t own a sat nav, or an iPhone or a Blackberry or any other electronic device that helps you find your way! When my husband and I travel to a new place we use a map, a good old fashioned paper map. We may sometimes download a detailed map of the end of our journey from the internet, from somewhere like Google maps, and sometimes we also download written instructions that tell us when to turn and how far to go before we do so. But mostly we rely on our book of maps, and our observation and common sense to get us where we want to go. I read the map, and he drives; sometimes we make mistakes and have to go back on ourselves, but generally the system works very well, as it has done for the last 45 years or so. We don’t really see the need to have a voice from the dashboard telling us exactly what to do.
Of course, sat navs can be very useful, especially if you are travelling somewhere new on your own. But I tend not to do much of that nowadays; I find journeys are much more enjoyable if you travel in company with others. And sat navs are by no means infallible. We’ve all read the stories of drivers who have followed their sat navs blindly and ended up trying to drive an articulated lorry down a narrow country lane or parked on a railway or taking a circuitous route for a journey that should have taken a few minutes. Sometimes human error is the reason; if you enter one letter incorrectly, you can be sent to entirely the wrong place ( like the couple who wanted to go to the Isle of Capri, but ended up in Carpi). But sometimes it’s the machine that’s at fault; like the sat nav that took British tourists who wanted to go shopping in Lille, France to the tiny village of Lille, Belgium. And even if you do enter your destination correctly, the sat nav makes no allowance for roadworks or the weather. You need to employ your own eyes and ears and intelligence to get where you want to go in the most efficient way, and not just rely on machines.
Some Christians treat their Bibles as sat navs. They think all you have to do is to enter your destination (heaven) and follow certain instructions unthinkingly, and you will end up among the saved. Everyone who doesn’t use their Biblical sat nav of course will be lost. They tend to use selected verses from the Bible as part of their sat nav route to salvation – and the passage we heard today from John’s Gospel contains one of those verses that frequently appears: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.”
That verse has been used by some Christian groups in an exclusive way, to define who was favoured by God, who were true believers, who were on their way to heaven, and who was not. (An attitude common to groups such as those who believe that ‘The Rapture’ was going to happen at 6pm yesterday and the end of the world and Judgement Day will come some time in October). That sort of use is worrying to those Christians, like me, who believe in an inclusive God, who wills the salvation of all human beings.
So how can we use our Bibles so that they are useful tools for finding our way to God, and not useless sat navs that lead us astray? First we need to learn how to use our Bibles, just as we need to learn to read maps or use sat navs. The Bible is a library of books, written at different times, for different communities and for different purposes. We need to learn about these differences, and so how to interpret each book correctly, not using stories as history or hymns as prophecy. We need to know something about the background of each book.
So, for instance, Biblical scholars tell us that the Gospel of John does not contain the actual words of the historical Jesus; anyone who reads John and compares the speeches Jesus makes in John with his speech patterns in the other three Gospels will see how true that is. So the sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel come from the meditations of John’s community, inspired by the Holy Spirit after the resurrection, on what Jesus meant to them, and how they interpreted his life and his death.
It seems that John’s community was feeling persecuted, especially by their fellow Jews, or by Jewish Christians. For this reason, the Gospel contains strong polemic against the Jews and a defence of possible accusations that Christians were leading people astray, and away from God. In Judaism, rabbinic sources tell us, The Torah or the Law was referred to as “The way the truth and the life”. John 14 proclaims that actually, for Christians, Jesus supersedes the Torah and is way, truth and life.
Another way of using our Bibles so that they do not mislead us is not to take verses in isolation and out of context. When we use a map or a sat nav. we need to use our eyes and ears to look around us, and note the conditions outside, so we can disregard instructions or the map if It is leading us astray. We need to do the same with the Bible.
So when we read verses like this one, we need to look at the immediate context. This is part of the ‘farewell discourse’ in John’s Gospel which runs from Chapter 13 to chapter 17. Jesus is aware that he is about to leave the disciples, and seeks to reassure them that they will remain in fellowship with him and with God, even after his death. This reassurance makes this passage a favourite one for funeral services, but it is actually not just about being with God after death; it is mainly about the assurance of God’s accompanying presence in a believer’s life, though trust in Jesus and his ‘way’ of living.
The language Jesus uses about being with God in his ‘house’ echoes passages from the Old Testament, like Psalm 23, and others which speak of God as a rock or a stronghold. It is also a metaphor that we find in 1 Peter, from which our other reading came. As those who trust in Christ, we are already part of God’s household, enjoying the safety of being defended by God. We are a community set apart from the world in our values, but set in the midst of the world in our service. We enjoy membership of that household as a gift from God through Christ – but it is not up to us to define who else may, or may not, be given that gift.
Modern Christians tend to interpret being in fellowship with Jesus as being part of a Christian church, or signing up to certain theological beliefs. But if we look at the context, we don’t have to interpret it in that ‘exclusive’ way. In the previous chapters, Jesus has been demonstrating his ‘way’ and his ‘truth’ in a very practical manner. He has washed the disciples’ feet – including the feet of the man who will betray him, and the man who will deny even knowing him. He has given the disciples a command to love one another as he loves them. So the ‘way’ he is talking about, the ‘truth’ he is teaching, the ‘life’ he is demonstrating is one of sacrificial service and of all-embracing love. That, he says, is the way anyone can come God as Father.
Like Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, Jesus is giving the disciples confidence that the way of love is God’s will, since in Jesus they see God in action; and that the way of love endures, in life and through death. If you live in Jesus’ way, John says, you will know God not as stern Judge or distant King, but as loving Father, who will welcome you into his household and be with you always.
Another context against which we have to judge passages is the other accounts of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Does the picture of God which is being portrayed in this particular passage tie up with the picture given by Jesus’s life and actions during his earthly life? You note that in this passage, Jesus says that in God’s house there are many rooms, or dwelling places. It is an inclusive place, and that links up with the way Jesus lived his life and carried out his ministry. He welcomed in the outcast. He was never very concerned to define who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. This displeased the religious leaders of his own time – and it still rubs some religious leaders up the wrong way. They would rather have strict guidelines about who was in and who was out. But, Jesus says, leave God to sort out who goes in which room; my way is open to all who want to follow me. There is also comfort in these words for those who trust Jesus, but who feel that God is absent at the moment. Even when it seems you are struggling alone, John tells us, Jesus is preparing a place for you.
Finally in this passage, Jesus talks about prayer, and urges his followers ask things in his name. In Biblical times, a name stood for the character of a person. So Jesus is asking us to frame our prayers to reflect his character. He also asks his followers to believe in him. The word for ‘believe’ (pistis / πιστις) didn’t mean to sign up to a set of abstract definitions about a person. It meant to trust, or to rely on someone. So, when we act and when we pray, we are to rely on the picture of God which we get from the life of Jesus, and trust that his way is God’s way. If we do so, this passage assures us, we will have the strength to live the sort of life which Jesus did, and prayers made in that confidence will bear fruit.
Last of all we shouldn’t read the Bible in isolation. We always have to set what it says against all the other ways God speaks to us: through the writings of Christian believers through the centuries, through the natural world and the discoveries of the physical and social sciences, which may modify how exactly we follow the Bible’s instructions. Just as we shouldn’t follow a sat nav or a map blindly, without looking around at the landscape it is taking us into, so we shouldn’t rely on the Bible alone. We need to use Scripture in combination with tradition and reason to know the way and the truth.
John’s Gospel, and especially the farewell discourse, contains ‘theology for hard times’. It is a map for a difficult journey. Like all maps, it won’t give us an exact picture of the route we need to take, but it will guide us as we travel. It may be that the route will look very different from what we expected. The disciples did not immediately recognise that when they saw Jesus, they were seeing something of God. 1 Peter talks about the stone which the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone of God’s house. But if we trust in Jesus, his way will become the way which leads us into truth, and into life, and into a permanent place, in this life and the next, in God’s house.
Thanks be to God. Amen.