When I was a teenager on the edge of Glasgow, I delivered newspapers from the local paper shop. The shop owner, George, was a Catholic, and in the habit of going to Mass on a Saturday evening so was always there on a Sunday morning. The local Presbyterian churches all had a reputation for good scholarly preaching but rather longer and weightier than the average Catholic homily – so George would tease people popping in on their way to church with “are you off to church then? Make sure you have a good big tube of peppermints to get through the sermon!”
I was reminded of George because to get the full sense of this passage from John’s gospel, we need to look at the context and the Greek and the theology in some detail, so it’s a multiple-peppermint sermon today. But I’m not apologising, because this is stuff that really matters, and it deserves proper attention.
I was reminded of George in another way – this passage, and especially verse 6 about “no one comes to the Father except through me” has been responsible for a huge sense of exclusivism in the church. It leads to divisions between Christians and people of other faiths, and it’s led to divisions within the church. It’s this attitude which led to Catholics like George being regarded as less than Christian by Protestants like those I grew up with in Glasgow. Exclusivism and division led to the decades of violence in Northern Ireland. It led to the wickedness of the Crusades and the Inquisition, and to the so-called clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims which has done so much damage in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Those who think they have the only way to truth, and are willing to discriminate against, or persecute, or even kill others because of it, are a menace. They are a menace whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, communist or fascist. But here within the Christian church, I’m sad to say that the claim to exclusivism, the engine that fuels division and hatred, often rests on this lovely passage. And it doesn’t deserve it.
The irony is that the whole of this passage is intended by Jesus to be deeply reassuring and comforting to his disciples. It sits early in the section of the gospel of John known as the farewell discourses – the last words of advice, comfort and wisdom that Jesus spoke to his disciples before his trial and execution. The setting is around the table at the Last Supper. Judas has left to betray Jesus to the authorities. Jesus starts to talk about being with them only for a little while longer and says that where he’s going they cannot follow now but later will come. All of that rather alarms the disciples – in turn, Simon Peter, Thomas and Philip ask him about his destination and route.
And Jesus’ response is developed in three parts. First he urges his disciples to trust him; then he tells them to follow his way; then he tells them that if they know him, they know the Father.
So this is a passage all about how we know things, or more specifically how we know God and how to find our way to God. Now, it’s a commonplace that there are many different ways of knowing. There are things we know with our heads – the square root of 4, or the capital of France. There are things we know with our hearts – the way we love our family, or how we feel about politics. There are things we know with our bodies – how to ride a bike, or play an instrument. And so on. You can categorise this in lots of ways and there are plenty of academic terms for the categories. But the basic difference perhaps, at least in our culture, is between what we know with our heads and what we know with our hearts or bodies. And far too often we confuse the two. Worse, ideas which relate to heart knowledge have been thought of in terms of head knowledge.
We can see an example in the first verse of the passage. Jesus tells his disciples: “Believe in God and believe also in me”. Now today when we’re asked whether we believe in God, whether by Christians or not, we sometimes take that word believe to refer to head-knowledge. Do we believe in the existence of God, in the same sense that we believe that 2+2=4? Or do we feel it with our hearts, our bones, our guts? Likewise do we believe in Jesus’ existence, in a set of intellectual propositions about him such as a creed, or do we feel his existence, his love, his mission, his sacrifice, in our heart and our guts? It’s a crucial distinction. The word that’s translated believe in verse 1 is pistuein in the Greek, and it really is more to do with trust than with head-knowing. So Jesus begins by telling his disciples to trust God and to trust him. They had done plenty of that in following him – they had left families and jobs, wandered around with him, taken his word for many things, followed him into danger. The disciples didn’t just know things about Jesus. They knew Jesus for who he was. They put their trust in him.
So the first question is whether we can do the same – can we put our trust in Jesus, not in terms of ideas about him, but in terms of the example he gives us, of the person he was and is and will be?
Thomas asks him if he can know the way to the place Jesus is going – this place with many dwellings, which is to say many place to abide, to rest in the love of God. Thomas is asking for head-knowledge of this place. Bear in mind that this scene takes place before the crucifixion, but you’ll perhaps remember the most famous scene in John’s gospel relating to Thomas, when the other disciples had seen the risen Christ and Thomas said that “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, I will not believe”. Well that word see in the later encounter is related to the word know here. Both times Thomas is asking for facts, for concrete head-knowledge.
And Jesus isn’t giving it to him. He makes it very clear: it’s not about head-knowledge. It’s about Jesus’ example, about Jesus’ very person. He’s not there to give them a creed, a set of ideas about God. He’s there to show them a way, which will show them truth and give them life. But that way, that truth, that life, is embodied in Jesus himself. The American theologian Mark Davis talks about the difference between propositional truth, which is the sort that Thomas was looking for; and incarnational truth, which is the sort that Jesus brought.
Jesus does not say “you must believe with your mind that I am the only begotten son of the Father, come to lead you to personal salvation through my atonement, you must sign up to a creed about me”. He says “I AM the way”. He says “I AM the truth”. He says “I AM the life”. He showed us these things in his own life. If we want to know the way to the Father, we need to look to the life and character of Jesus. It is by following the way he shows us that we find the way to God. And what is the way that we are shown? It’s the way that Jesus lived his life. Jesus’s way is a way of openness to all, of inclusiveness of all – Jesus never turned away anyone and spoke and ate with those society found to be lesser beings or outcasts. Jesus’ way is a way of showing others that another world is possible, of giving them new insights and new hopes – this Jesus turned the world upside down with his teachings about turning the other cheek, loving enemies and doing good. Jesus’ way is a way of giving, of feeding the poor and healing the sick whatever the authorities think of it, of caring for those he met regardless of their economic or racial or religious status. And Jesus’ way is a way of sacrifice, of giving from himself so abundantly that it ended in him losing his life. Openness, insight, hope, transformation, giving and sacrifice – this is the way of Jesus. It is the truth of Jesus. And through it, Jesus brings us life and life to the world.
And so this idea of the way became the marking-point for Jesus’ followers. Remember that their own name for themselves, we’re told by the book of Acts, was the people of the Way – the word Christian was an insulting nickname. The idea of the Way wasn’t a new one – it’s in the book of Proverbs, where Wisdom is described as the way, a pattern of behaviours, a path worn by constant treading. And it’s a term used in other faiths – the word Tao in the religion of Taoism likewise means way. But it’s this incarnational idea that is so unique to Jesus – not just that he brought a way to people, but that he himself is the way. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life” [quoted by Carl Gregg].
Of course, Jesus also said that no one goes to the Father except by him, and as I said earlier, that bit of the verse is used in a very exclusive way by some Christians, what is sometimes known as a clobber text. If any other faith is mentioned, any alternative way to God – ah, comes the reply, but Jesus said he alone was the way to the Father. I think this is a huge misreading of the text. It mixes up the different kinds of knowing we’ve discussed, and to me this verse is all about heart-knowing and gut-knowing. We are called to follow in the way of Jesus, to live the same life of service and openness and insight and sacrifice that he lived. He doesn’t say anything about belief, he talks about being. Jesus was God-made-man, the incarnated one, and the church as the body of Christ continues in that incarnation. St Teresa of Avila said that “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours”. It is our calling as Christians, as the church as a body, to follow in the way of Jesus and carry on his mission. And just as his mission was about openness to all, it makes no sense for us to follow his way by excluding others.
To use this verse as a tool for Christian exclusivism is to miss the point about what it’s saying. It’s addressed to the disciples, not to the world at large. This has nothing to do with Muslims or Hindus or other faiths – they have their own way, which maps on to the way of Jesus. But this is about who we are as Christians – we are people of the way, called to follow Christ’s example. An extended quote from the late theologian Marcus Borg puts this really clearly:
There is a way of understanding the claim of John 14:6 that does not involve Christian exclusivism. The key is the realization that John is the incarnational Gospel; in it Jesus incarnates, embodies, enfleshes what can be seen of God in a human life. To say, "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life," is to say, "What we see in Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life." It is not about knowing the word Jesus and believing in what is said about him that is "the way." Rather, the way is what we see in his life; we see a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress this world, a life radically centered in the God to whom he bore witness. [from Speaking Christian, 2011]And by following this way, Jesus promises us, we will see the Father – because even after this teaching, another disciple, Philip, wants more. He says that he’ll be satisfied if Jesus shows them the Father. In Jewish tradition, nobody could see God and live – even Moses saw God from behind when receiving the Ten Commandments. But Jesus confirms that he and the Father are one, that God is made flesh in Jesus, and through his example, through the way Jesus embodies, that God is made known to us.
The incarnation means that God is not abstract. It means that God’s experience of suffering is not conceptual, that God’s thirst for justice is not removed from the world. It means that God lived in the same kind of body as we do, had the same joys and hopes as we do, the same anger and frustration that we do. It means that God suffered pain, physical and mental, as we do. The Hebrew scriptures are full of God’s hunger for justice, but the incarnation meant that God, in the person of Jesus, felt injustice in his body. God walked with the oppressed in Palestine – lived the people held in subjugation by an alien empire, talked with women whose society treated them as nothing, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes and other outcasts of society, debated with people of other faiths and treated them with respect, touched and made well the lepers and the blind and the lame and the haemorrhaging and the disabled.
And towards the end of this passage, Jesus promises his followers that the works he has done, of all these kinds, will be followed by these and by greater works. We are called to carry on Jesus’ mission, to embody his thirst for justice. Wherever we see oppression, he is the way. Wherever we see injustice, he is the way. Wherever we see systems that put people down, that rob them of their dignity, that remove benefits for petty money-saving reasons, that put banks before people, he is the way. Wherever we see the planet despoiled in the name of profit, he is the way. Wherever we see hatred expressed against people because they are black, or Muslim, or gay, or transgender, or female, or refugees, or disabled, he is the way. And if we follow in this way, we are promised that we will do great things.
So remember this in Christian Aid Week. Remember this in the time of the general election. Remember this whenever you deal with others. Jesus has perfectly shown us the way to the Father, and the truth and the life, and it is Jesus himself. It is the life and example and teaching of Jesus. And if we do not follow his way in our dealings in the world, we are not on the path to the Father.
And so we come to the table of our Lord. Because just as Jesus was God made flesh, at this table we remember Jesus’ experience by taking symbols of his body and his blood into our own being. Communion is saying yes to the incarnation, yes to the physical presence of God in our world through Jesus, yes to Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life. We come to the table, and we experience knowing in our body, and coming together as the body of Christ.
May we all in this communion experience the incarnated Christ, and may we all live out the way and the truth and the life of Christ in our everyday lives. Amen.