I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
I can’t remember the last words my mother said to me before I went off to college. It was probably something like, “Well, Good luck,” or “Don’t forget to write home,” or maybe something prosaic (but, in my case, needed!) about doing the laundry. I do remember, though, that when I finally bought a car – a real clunker that usually started and through whose floor I could see the freeway speeding by under my left foot – and headed back to school one summer, my dad sent me off saying, “Don’t forget to change the oil.” And I remember, too, the last words my seminary professor told us just before we graduated, words his bishop had told him just before his ordination service: “Gentlemen,” – in his day, it was all men – “three things: remember to polish your shoes, make sure your fingernails are clean (these are what people saw when they were kneeling at the communion rail), and – by God! – make sure you turn off that wireless mike before using the bathroom!”
This morning’s passage that we just heard – “I am the way, and the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me” – is a famous, and troubling, passage. Famous because we’ve probably all heard about Jesus being “the way, and the truth and the life;” troubling because we live in a multi-cultural, multi-faith town, and we all have neighbors and friends who are not Christian. How, then, can Jesus say that no one comes to the Father except through him? What about our friends and neighbors? What about their faiths?
As I read this passage, I don’t hear Jesus making an exclusive claim about the “rightness” of Christianity as the only way. An attitude of Christianity being the “right way” is probably present as an undercurrent – in John’s gospel there seems to have been a strong antagonism between the newly-formed Christian church and the Jewish tradition out of which it came, and I’m not surprised that John’s community would want to assert itself and claim that they had found “the way” – but a claim of the “rightness” of Christianity over and against other faiths is at best a subtext in this passage. I hear more going on.
This passage is part of a greater “sweep” in John, from Jesus’ Great Discourse in chapters 13 – 17, just before Jesus’ Passion. These chapters take place during the Passover meal on Good Friday, and they are Jesus’s last words to the disciples before he dies. This is not the time for the nuance of inter-faith dialogue; indeed, it’s only Jesus’ disciples, his inner-circle, who are present. This is the time to make sure that his disciples have “gotten it.” Here is Jesus’ last opportunity to say things like, “Don’t forget to change the oil,” and “Make sure you turn off that wireless mike!” And so he tells them things like, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you,” and, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me,” and, “Abide in me.” In today’s gospel lesson, Thomas’ question serves as an opportunity for Jesus to get in one more piece of last-minute advice: “Lord, where are you going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, in effect, “Thomas. Just keep on ‘keeping on’ with me, and you won’t go wrong. I am the way, and the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Again, given that these words are spoken to his inner circle in private in the upper room, given that these words are Jesus’ final words to the disciples – “sound bytes” from his several years of teaching them – I hear these words less as a doctrinal statement of we have it “right” and they have it “wrong,” and more of a reminder to the disciples to attend to their own faith that he has taught them.
The passage, then, is not about other people’s faith, but about the disciples’ own. Will they abide in Jesus? Will they walk in his way, look to him for truth, and know him to be life? Can they be faithful to all that he has taught them, not wandering to other teachings or other gods? Can they trust that it is only through him that they will come to the Father? There is plenty in our world that would take us away from Jesus and prevent us from finding our way to the Father. We so often bow down to the “god” of money, or the god of the myth of security, or the god of honor and prestige. These gods are no less present to us today than they were in the disciples’ day. If we want to make our way to the Father, we – like the disciples – would do well to walk in his way, to listen to his truth, to live his life, to remember that he is the gate whereby we go in and go out and find life abundant.
I hope that we might hear today’s gospel, not so much as an exclusion of the different faiths of our friends and neighbors, but as an invitation to deepen our own. To take to heart Jesus’ words such as “Abide in me,” “Love one another, just as I have loved you,” “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” The more we can deepen our faith, the more we can truly know him and perfectly love him, then we might better follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life.
I’m going to close with a story: There was a young boy who was wondering what heaven was like and who asked God to please show him. So God granted him his request, and invited him to come and take a look. The boy got up to heaven, and as St. Peter was showing him around the boy saw another boy whom he knew from school. The boy said to St. Peter, “Hey. What’s he doing here?! He’s the one that used to beat me up and take my lunch money. And why is he pretending that he doesn’t see me?” St. Peter bit his tongue and said nothing and took the boy to the next room, where the boy saw the woman who used to live next door. “What’s she doing here?” he asked. “She was mean and a gossip and had nothing good to say about anybody… And why is she pretending that she doesn’t know me?” St. Peter bit his tongue and said nothing, but instead took the boy on to the next room, where the boy saw a man he knew from his neighborhood. Again the boy exclaimed, “What is he doing here? He was a bad man. He sold drugs, he cheated, he stole things… And why is he pretending that he doesn’t see me?” At this point St. Peter finally burst out and said, “Because they’re wondering the same thing about you!”
I hear this morning’s gospel lesson to be, not about others, but about ourselves. Why God has called us to be Christians is a mystery, a mystery that calls for humility. As Jesus says elsewhere in John’s Gospel, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father.” I pray that we can honor that mystery and be grateful for the gift by answering Christ’s invitation, by hearing the voice of the one who is calling us, and by humbly follow the Good Shepherd as faithfully and whole-heartedly as we can.