I am discovering that as I do this more, I go "off script" a lot more. But this was the script for what it's worth.
Browns Presbyterian Church, Farmville, VA
May 18, 2014 Easter 5A
There are certain passages of scripture that are instantly recognizable. All I would have to do is to say the first few words of the verse, and I’d guess you could immediately, almost as if my reflex, complete the verse. For example:
“God so loved the world…”
Or, “The Lord is my shepherd…”
Or maybe, “In the beginning…”
Or maybe this one: “I am the way…”
The sixth verse of this chapter does indeed have a particular niche in the church, and therefore has a certain safe place in the memory banks of a lot of Christians. Perhaps it isn’t quite as memorable as the others, but it does stand out.
Much of this is because it is part of a passage, indeed even the climactic verse of a passage that is often used for funerals. Coming after several verses of Jesus’s teaching, describing how Jesus is going to “prepare a place” for us, and after his describing “many mansions” in that place, in the context of a funeral, or perhaps a time of counseling in the face of impending death, this verse becomes a tremendous source of reassurance for the dying soul or for his or her family members and loved ones. This is perfectly appropriate; the verse does offer a word of comfort or even hope in a time of tremendous, even overwhelming grief.
There is, however, a potential problem with verses like this, verses that often get memorized and remembered separate from the context that informs and defines them. It’s easy to remember what comes after “God so loved the world,” but how much do you remember of what comes before that verse? It’s not hard to come up with the rest of Genesis 1:1, but not as easy to remember Genesis 1:2, or 1:3 or any of the other verses that refine and complete that account of creation.
In the case of John 14:6, it’s very easy to forget about the context in which this verse is heard, and in fact very easy to forget that the part we remember is not even an accurate rendering of the whole verse. And of course, it’s not all that easy to remember what comes before it or after it. We might remember a little bit about many mansions and Jesus going to prepare a place, and someone really bright might remember Thomas asking what sounds to us like a dumb question, but chances are we mostly remember those nine words – “I am the way, the truth, and the life” – and not much of the passage around it.
And in this case, that can lead to real problems. Without that context this verse can, and often is, misinterpreted in two very different yet equally troublesome or even destructive ways.
First of all, the English language causes us a problem. Throughout this passage we see Jesus speaking to “you”. I go to prepare a place for you. I will come again and take you unto myself. And you know the way. If you know me, you will know my Father also. Over and over again the pronoun “you” is connected to all manner of verbs. Now we know, intellectually, that in English “you” can be singular or plural. Still, when we hear it in scripture like this, we have a bad habit of assuming, unconsciously, that “you” equals “me,” instead of “you” equaling “us.” As a result, we might too easily hear all these verbs being directed at me, and letting our minds get caught up in an extremely individualistic interpretation of the scripture before us.
We might hear Jesus saying “I go to prepare a place for you. You personally. Your own personal mansion. And I’m gonna come back just for you, complete with your own personal flaming chariot ride. The trouble is, all of these verbs are second person plural, not singular. (This is why we have to take Greek in seminary.) Though it might drive certain grammar devotees nutty, we’d all be better off if we could plug in that very practical Southern pronoun, y’all. I go to prepare a place for y’all. I will come again and take y’all to myself. Y’all know the way to where I’m going. If y’all know me, y’all will know my Father. All throughout this passage the verbs are plural, not singular, when Jesus is speaking in second-person verbs.
So why is this grammar diversion important? Because this word of comfort is not an individual Hallmark card from Jesus. No, this is a promise to all of us. The whole company of the disciples. The whole fellowship of believers. The whole body of Christ.
Indeed, throughout the last half of this gospel John records Jesus’s words in a whole series of teaching episodes, always focused on instruction and encouragement to the whole fellowship. Jesus has spent his time on earth, which at this point he knows is drawing to an end, teaching and performing signs in the presence of his disciples, so that they might be encouraged, edified, and empowered to be a witness to Christ once he was returned to his Father. It wasn’t to make a superstar disciple out of Peter, or to glorify John or Andrew or Nathaniel or any individual disciple. It was so that the whole fellowship could continue, even when Jesus was gone, to do the works that Jesus did and to teach as Jesus taught, and even more as verse 12 says. But to do that, they needed to be a fellowship, a body, a community in the strongest way possible, and we need to hear this in these verses today and take it to heart.
My point is not to stop you from using those first six verses at funerals. But remember that the promise in those verses is not limited to the one being laid to rest; it is directed towards all of us, together, as the fellowship of believers, the body of Christ.
Another way to take verse 6 out of context is potentially much more harmful, both to the world around us and to our own fellowship with Christ. There is a school of thought that takes this verse, this beautiful testament to Christ’s care and provision for us, and turns it into a weapon.
Let’s say you are hearing an … well, I was going to say “argument,” but let’s be gentler about this and call it a “discussion.” It’s probably about heaven, and who gets to go. It might be about believers of other faiths – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or so forth. Or it might be about Mormons or other groups with an unusual status on the religious spectrum. I suppose in some cases it might be about Catholics or Seventh-Day Adventists or other Christian groups.
Whatever directions the discussion may take, whether about a theology of salvation or comparison of different scriptures, inevitably it seems that someone in the discussion will pull out John 14:6 and wield it like a club or a baseball bat. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” This person might even add, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” or something equally catchy before strutting off like a triumphant Roman general to enjoy the spoils of war.
Maybe you noticed that our hypothetical conqueror didn’t quite quote the verse completely? Remember, it says “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way’” and so on. When we remember those two words “to him,” as minor as they may seem, we are charged to remember that this wasn’t a free-floating statement out of nowhere; it was an answer to a question. Specifically, it was an answer to a question by Thomas, one of the disciples, who completely failed to follow what Jesus had been saying so far. After Jesus’s talk about going to prepare a place – remember, a place for y’all, for all of these disciples – when Jesus finishes by telling the disciples “y’all know the way,” Thomas pipes up that no, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we possibly know the way? This is the question that prompts Jesus to say “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Thomas, in this case, cares about only one thing; this teacher whom he and his fellow disciples have been following for the last few years is suddenly making noises about going away, going to his Father’s “house” to prepare a place. In the time John is writing his gospel, to speak of his Father’s “house” would not necessarily suggest to a listener like Thomas any kind of physical structure. Rather, Thomas might first imagine the Father’s “house” in the way Old Testament writers spoke of the “house of Abraham” or perhaps the “house of David,” a figure of speech less concerned with a physical dwelling (something Abraham certainly did not have most of his life) than the particular intimate and unbreakable bonds of family, the ties that bind brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers together. To hear Jesus speak like this, and then say he has to go and y’all know how to get there, left Thomas more confused than enlightened.
But nowhere in any of this is there any idea that Thomas is asking about anybody but this group of disciples. Thomas isn’t asking about anybody else, and Jesus address exactly what Thomas does ask about and nothing else. When Philip asks his question in verse 8, Jesus’s response is even more explicit; “Y’all have been with me all this time, and y’all still don’t know me?” Neither Thomas nor Philip give a whit about Muslims or Buddhists or Mormons, at least in part because none of those groups exist yet. Jesus is begging his disciples to understand that because they have been with him, they know “the way, the truth, and the life.” They know the way Jesus has followed; they know the truth Jesus has taught; they know the life Jesus has lived. And this way, this truth, and this life are what Jesus leaves behind to his disciples, and to we disciples who come all these years after. There’s nothing here about beating up followers of other faiths; there is everything here about living our faith right.
Everything here is about the initiative Jesus has taken to bring us to his Father’s house. Not one iota of this is anything we could achieve by our own efforts. We cannot do anything about the way, the truth, or the life except that Jesus has already done it for us. When we are so utterly powerless and helpless to effect our own salvation, how can we possibly be so arrogant to judge anyone else? Seriously, how dare we?
Maybe this is why Paul would write to the Philippians to work out their own salvation with “fear and trembling.” What Jesus has laid before his disciples is nothing less than their utter and complete dependence on him, for how to live, and even for why to live. This way, this truth, and this life are the very foundation we, the fellowship of believers, the body of Christ, live upon. To be a Christian is not about winning some kind of eternal palace or beating others; it is about walking this way, hearing this truth, and living this life. It is a task at which we will fail, repeatedly and embarrassingly. And yet we will get there not because of our efforts but because Jesus has done it already for us.
For this, let all God’s people say “Thanks be to God.” Amen.
Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation, More Love to Thee, O Christ