Sermon 7 May 2023 Rev Chris Elliot

 Jesus the (only) Way?

It was 1984 and my first weeks as an independent degree student at Holy Cross Catholic Seminary, in Mosgiel, when a very intense candidate for priesthood leaned over the top of the study nook I was in. Without any preamble he said in a strident voice,  Do you believe that Jesus is the (only) way, the truth and the life?                                                                                                            

I was somewhat taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer him. Aware that the Librarian was close by, with ears tuned in; from memory I think I shrugged my shoulders, smiled politely, picked up my books and left.                                                          

Part of my hesitation was also due to the fact that in lectures Patrick (or Paddy as he was known)  had already shown his exclusive position on just about everything.  That included his declaration that the only way to the Father was via the Roman Catholic faith. Paddy’s endeavours to re-convert we pagans to Catholicism had fallen somewhat flat in a class that included a dozen or more independent students -mostly Anglican or Presbyterian, with a goodly percentage of women.                                                           

Paddy was to end up without too many friends, as the class responded to the lecturers’ challenge to see that there are many pathways to the same God.                                                                                             

In fairness I would have to concede that there were also students at the Theological Hall, who were equally strident and full of the conviction there was only one way. Their way!  The sureness of such conviction, and the exclusivity of it continued to make me feel uncomfortable.        

Still more years later, this issue was again raised when a (now) former Pope of the Roman Catholic Church issued a very exclusive papal statement in 2000.  That set off alarm bells in most other Christian communities, as well as giving offence to members  of other religions. [Pause]

It  was a liberating experience for me when I became part of an Inter-faith dialogue, where such issues could be aired and discussed in a safe setting.  What a relief it was to be with open minded people who valued what every faith tradition brought to the table. It also humbled those of us of the Christian Faith, when we realised that others had a profound knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. In return we had only rudimentary understandings of their sacred Scriptures – if that.

So I ask this question:
Is this heavy ‘salvation’ stuff what the storyteller John
was on about with today’s gospel account?

While the John story seems to have been set within the context of a debate over differences, that debate appears to have been between those who were Jewish followers of Jesus,  and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy.
They viewed matters differently.  Perhaps profoundly so.

But the story’s more modern usage seems to have been taken to extremes and I’d like to consider  that this morning.

It isn’t a particularly original conclusion to draw, that during Jesus’ life he resisted questions about his personal identity. In other words, who he actually was?  When pressed, he usually deflected such questions toward the central theme of his teaching.
(i) of a compassionate God always present;
(ii) and God’s radical demands for human living – against the prevailing culture of the day.

However, it is true that when the words, I am the way, the truth, and the life… have been used, Jesus sounds rather  like a bouncer, tasked with keeping  people away from God: especially those without faith, those with not enough faith, and  those who express their faith differently.                                                                

Religious authorities and groups of every age and creed have often exercised their religion in two ways – as a weapon against others, and as supposedly protecting God from others. History seems full of such weapon stories and events: The Crusades.  The Inquisition.  The Middle East.  Northern Ireland. The Balkans. The Sudan. I’m sure you can add some more.                                                                     

And then the gospel stories are littered with protection stories: People who brought their children to Jesus, but…
Women who touched, ate with, pleaded  with Jesus, but…

The sinners Jesus ate with, but…

As one theologian has pointed out…ethnic cleansing
is really just an extreme form of this same motivation.///

So what are we to do with the words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me…

If we are to be honest we have to confront the fact that today’s scholars tell us it is very probable that Jesus never made this claim. The words were put into his mouth by the mystic, who penned John’s Gospel.  So to understand them, we need to hear them differently.

If the words are read in the context of relationship with God rather than describing an absolute, or dogma if you like, to be believed, the words can be seen as an invitation to be on the pathway Jesus was taking; that Jesus provides a way of journeying from one place to another; exploring and doubting, becoming, rather than condemning, or hitting people over the head.

So let’s think about what Jesus is, and  what he is not.

  • Jesus is not the way in the sense of being a moral guide or a model of leadership.
  • Jesus is the pathway into the depths of the relationship between God, self and neighbour. The way into the mystery of our common existence.
  • Jesus is the truth about that common existence.
    He uncovers what is hidden, bringing to light the dimensions of human existence.
  • Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and become one with one another. 

Storyteller John Shea puts it this way: Jesus of Nazareth was the triggering centre of an event which restructured the God-self-neighbour relationship.  This event was not only healing and transforming but mysterious and overwhelming.  

It is in that context that the words of Jesus, as suggested by John, came. I am the way, the truth the life…

And as Jesus challenged the dominant system of his day, so these words as written by the author of John’s Gospel came into conflict with the powers and principalities of his day.

In this person, Jesus, we see a concern for the marginalised and the vulnerable, which included both the poor and the wealthy.  In him there was rejection of the belief that the high-ranking people of power were the favoured ones of God.

The good news then in this statement, I am the way, the truth the life is, not so much about Jesus, but about God and us in the spirit of Jesus.  Or, as New Zealand born Bill Loader puts it in his comments on this story: 
Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us.  That means two things: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us, and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world – there’s a place for all!

But then Loader’s important suggestion:
We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way.