Which Way?

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On November 6, 2022, we considered the oft-repeated statement he made, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Our scripture references included John 14:1-17 and Acts 19:8-10

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Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this way, but here goes: has it ever occurred to you that an essential aspect of our humanity lies in the fact that we know that there are beginnings and endings?  Each day we move through life and every single thing that we do has a start and a finish; that within each of these things there is a first and a last.   Usually, of course, we are unaware of these times; it would be exhausting otherwise.  Yet think for a moment of something you enjoy greatly – fishing, dancing, or reading Agatha Christie novels.  Can you remember the first time you did any of these things? Do you realize that one time you do them, it will be your last?  And maybe that last time has already happened yet – only you don’t know it.  How would it change your experience of the event if you knew, somehow, that the next time you swung the golf clubs would be the last such outing of your life?

The Last Supper, Sieger Köder (c. 2010)

Today’s Gospel reading is a portion of John’s account of the event we call the Last Supper.  We call it that in retrospect, of course, but at the time, Jesus was the only one present who knew that it would be the last time that he and the twelve would share a meal and fellowship.  He knows, better than anyone, that everything is about to change.

And in that knowledge, then, he is saying “goodbye”, or perhaps more accurately, “see you later” to his friends.  Yet even as he does so, he encourages them not to worry because, after all, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”

And at this point, Thomas, who proves himself over and over again to be a literalist, interrupts Jesus and says, “Hold on, there, Jesus – you’ve lost me.  We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus replies by looking at his friend with love and saying one of the things for which he is best remembered: “I am the way, the truth, and the life… It’s me, Thomas.  I am the way to where we are going…”

If you’ve been here at all in the past couple of months, you will recognize this as another in a series of statements that Jesus makes, each of which includes the phrase ego emei, or “I am.”  Using the Greek version of the Hebrew  word YHWH was one way for Jesus to claim Divine authority on and presence in his ministry.  When his contemporaries heard him speak like that, they assumed that he was equating himself with God.

In recent weeks, we’ve considered Jesus’ use of this phrase in conjunction with any number of common objects familiar to his hearers: he said “I am” the bread of life, or the light of the world, or the door, or the shepherd… – some kind of a tangible metaphor.  But today, he tells his friends that he is “the way”.

“The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” by Kathrin Burleson (Contemporary)

What does it mean when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life”?

As with any metaphor, “way” both is and is not what it actually says.  That is, a “way” is a street, or a road, or a path.  We make a way by clearing obstacles and laying down pavement or brick and putting up signs and fences.  Obviously, Jesus is none of that.  He is made of flesh and bone, not asphalt and gravel.

On top of that, the idea of “the way”, as Eugene Peterson points out, is complicated because not only does it mean the route that we travel (shall we use the Turnpike or Interstate 80?), but it can also mean the manner in which we proceed on the way.  Are we going on foot? In a car? By air?

So “way” is both the avenue leading to our destination and a mode of travel.  We can talk about the way that we will take on the way, if you will.

…a simple noun designating a road that leads to a destination, but then opening up as a metaphor that ramifies into many and various “ways” – not only the way we go, as in the route we take, but the way we go on the way whether by foot or bike or automobile.  The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat… And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated “ways and means” that characterize our way of life.[1]

As you can see, “way” is a multifaceted, multi-dimensional metaphor.  It is an odd thing, indeed, for a soon-to-be condemned man to ask his friends to call him.

And yet, it stuck.  In fact, when Luke got around to writing about the first followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts, he only used the word “Christian” to refer to them once. By far his favored term is, as you have heard, “the Way.”  The people who wanted to live like Jesus were called “followers of the Way.”

Was it confusing? You bet.  It was and it is!  We are, by and large, people who thrive on the concrete.  Metaphors are confusing.  We deal in outcomes, in facts, or in results.  Most of the time, most of us are more concerned with the end or the destination than with the path that gets us there.  And this preference for, or even preoccupation with, the end result has led to one of the greatest tragedies in the Christian church.

When we hear John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me”, we have come think that it’s a statement about how to get to heaven.  So acknowledging Jesus as the way in that way– saying “yes” to some ideas about Jesus – can sometimes become the most important part of a person’s faith story.

And when that happens, things get even worse, because we start to get fixated on our own ideas about the particular ways in which Jesus is the way.  We start to think about a relationship with Jesus, or our thoughts about Jesus, or our belief in Jesus as a strategy that will ensure us a seat at the heavenly banquet.  When we do that, then “I am the way” has become corrupted into “I am the ticket”.

It’s hard to think through some of this stuff, but I’m here to tell you that I know that it happens.  I know it because I’ve lived it.  I fell into this trap as a young man.

Now, anyone in the room who is under 40, I just need to ask you to bear with me and to use your imagination.  I need you to think about a world without cell phones.  We all had a phone in the house, and the family all shared that same number.  Oftentimes, we would call another house, unsure of who was actually home. And people in that house would hear the phone ringing and they would answer it blindly – they’d have no idea whatsoever of who was calling, or why.  And when they answered, sometimes we used our phones to talk to each other – for fifteen or twenty minutes or even longer.  I’m here to tell you that when Sharon and I were dating sometimes we spent an hour on the phone!  I’m telling you, it was crazy.

And yet, here is the truth: as a young believer, I wanted to follow in the Way.  I did!  And it was important to me that people whom I loved did, too.  After all if the Way was really a Ticket, then I didn’t want the people I loved to be left behind!  And so I would spend hours on the phone in the evenings.  I called people I loved – people whom I suspected of believing some wrong things about Jesus – and I tried to show them in my conversation that their way of seeing Jesus was insufficient and that mine was, well, right.

I remember hanging up from many of these conversations and feeling satisfied.  From my perspective, they were filled with love for my friends and a passion for the truth that is Jesus.

And yet, in my zeal to want people to see Jesus the way that I saw Jesus, I began to act and speak as though the view that I had of him was the only view that there was.  And what I thought of as an act of love and compassion became, for some, an irritation, an annoyance, or even a passing of judgment I had no business making.  And, worst of all, I was spending all of that time talking about Jesus while not realizing that I wasn’t acting or sounding very much like him at all.   In fact, I was increasingly limiting Jesus to my own perception and understanding of him.

How I wish that I was the only person who ever did that!

How I wish that it wasn’t so common!  But you know the truth, beloved.

Walking in the way of Jesus is not a price that we pay so that we can cash in on a big reward after we die.

Walking in the way of Jesus is not a skill that we acquire so that Jesus will like us better or our friends will be impressed with how holy we’re becoming.

Walking in the way of Jesus is not a strategy that the children of God employ so that our kids will have straight teeth and our mortgages will all get paid.

We walk in the way of Jesus because that is what he asked us to do.  We walk in the way of Jesus because, in doing so, we find out more about what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  In short, as Eugene Peterson says, “following Jesus doesn’t get us where we want to go.  It gets us to where Jesus goes…”[2]

The way of Jesus – or the way that is Jesus – is not some carefully-preserved trail leading through the wilderness that has been handed down from generation to generation, each one hoping that their children will not screw it up too badly.  We don’t live our lives by looking back, making sure that we have persisted unswervingly in the same roads our ancestors have taken.  Rather, we take what we have received from them gratefully and reverently and then we walk that way in our own contexts, and through our own wilderness.

Brian McLaren is a pastor, author and teacher, who reminds us that our calling is not to see the Christian faith as a timeless treasure, a box kept in stone that is perpetually unchanging.  Nor are we free to see our faith as a parking lot, where we gather to await the Divine ferry that will cart us all to heaven.  Instead, he says that the way of Jesus is “a road … that is extended into the future by all of us, walking forward in the Spirit together.”[3]

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Let us journey in that way together, seeking to be pilgrims who steward the truth we’ve received and engage with the life we’ve been given.  May the paths we take be shaped by gratitude, humility, service, and love.  As we move in this way, we will find evidence of the Christ at every turn.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Peterson, Eugene H., The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Eerdman’s, 2007), p. 22.

[2] Peterson, Eugene H., The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Eerdman’s, 2007), p. 242.

[3] https://brianmclaren.net/we-make-the-road-by-walking-where-did-the-title-come-from/

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