The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells
The Way, the Truth, and the Life
John 14: 1-14
A Sermon preached for the National Cathedral, Washington DC, on May 10, 2020 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ I think we should be honest and face up to the fact that Jesus clearly hadn’t done Introduction to Pastoral Care. If he had, he’d have sat at the Last Supper in an open and accepting posture, almost mimicking the disciple who’d last spoken, and with deep gaze and empathetic eyes he’d have taken in the apprehension around the table, and perhaps chosen better words – something like, ‘I’m sensing a lot of anxiety in the room. I wonder if we’re getting in touch with some profound unresolved grief. Would you like to say more about that, Simon, Thaddaeus, Judas?’
I’m not sure the Last Supper was really about pastoral care. I suspect it was one of those rare occasions when Jesus actually had the key information that needed to be shared, and he couldn’t simply coax it out of the disciples’ life experiences and grief processes. What he had to say was this: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ These are some of the most memorable and yet contentious words in his whole ministry. I want to suggest that if we are to understand these words today, we need to repent, be transformed, and hear them as if for the first time.
Why do I say repent? Well I want to cite a very important distinction first made by Augustine many centuries ago. He said there are things we use, which last for a limited time, and things we enjoy, which last forever. The things we use are a means to an end, like a ladder that we employ to get us from the ground onto the roof. The things we enjoy are an end in themselves: ‘use’ is the wrong language for them. There’s nothing beyond them which we would want or need to attain by means of them. Instead we rejoice in them for their own sake. In God’s case, we worship. Worship is a kind of enjoyment – it’s a way of relishing, cherishing, celebrating, appreciating, being thankful for, allowing the object to fill all our dispositions and sensibilities.
I say we need to repent because we should have regarded Jesus as someone to be enjoyed but instead we’ve treated him as someone to be used. ‘That’s unfair!’ you might say – ‘That’s not true – surely we worship Jesus.’ But see how we use Jesus. We have a project. That project is most simply to get out of life alive. We don’t talk about death because we fear it might be more infectious than the virus; but we sure know about death. We know that having children and building institutions and leaving legacies and seeking celebrity and owning many mansions are all ultimately futile, even though we invest huge efforts in seeking such things. They can’t transcend death. But Jesus… Now he offers us eternal life. That’s his unique selling point. And eternal life solves the death problem pretty effectively, and more reliably than cryogenics.
See how this instrumentalises Jesus. We cease to enjoy Jesus, attend to his character, rejoice in his particular qualities, rest on his words. Instead we turn him into a ladder for getting up to the roof – the roof being, in this case, heaven. If a better or more reliable way of getting onto the roof became available, we’d be off after it like a shot. This is the attitude for which we need to repent. We treat God as a means to an end. Peace, harmony, blessing and communion in this transitory life, and an entry ticket to the next, everlasting one. Good value.
That instrumentalisation has dominated the way this famous text is read. People quote, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ but in practice they only get as far as ‘the way.’ We then go down two side tracks. Side Track One is ‘Do you get to heaven if you don’t acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’ See how this question is fixated on the ladder analogy. We take for granted that we’re all using Jesus as our ladder, and we want some plaudits for having chosen the best ladder, and we’re eager to tell anyone who’s on any other ladder that they’re a fool and not as wise and worthy as us. So we cite these words, ‘I am the way,’ and we say ‘Told you – our ladder’s the best and your ladder’s rubbish. I can see the dry rot from here. See ya.’ Side Track Two is, ‘How do people of other faiths get to heaven if they don’t recognise Jesus?’ This question is equally fixated on the ladder analogy. Not only do we assume the point of Jesus is to get us onto the roof, but we blithely assume members of all other faiths are as committed to the roof project as we are, and we regard their traditions through the impoverishing lens of being inadequate ladders. Do you really imagine that Jesus was sitting at the Last Supper giving his disciples a quick guide to the inadequacies of other faiths in achieving such a project? The notion is completely absurd. See what ridiculous gymnastics we’re led into by our commitment to instrumentalise Jesus.
The way to repent of this tendency is to focus on how Jesus begins this celebrated sentence. ‘I am.’ Those two words are the most important words in John’s gospel. Jesus prefaces his seven self-declarations with them. ‘I am the true vine,’ ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ ‘I am the good shepherd’ … . ‘I am’ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for the name of God, usually spelt Yhwh, and pronounced Yahweh or Jehovah, although it’s so holy that Jews don’t pronounce it at all, often substituting the word Elohim or Lord. It’s sometimes said that Jesus’ words here in John 14, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,’ and ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ are radical statements of Christ’s divinity, but in truth it’s already all here in these two little words, ‘I am.’ Jesus is cut from the same cloth as the Father. Everything that the Father is in the Old Testament is now embodied here in Jesus.
Which takes us back to what that ‘everything’ really is. Rather than get hung up on the first word, ‘way,’ we need to begin with the second word, ‘truth.’ This is the truth the Old Testament’s telling us. Israel is in Exile. It had land, king and temple, and was Queen Bee in the near eastern world – the whole of the then-known world. But it lost the lot. In exile Israel wrote down its story. It recalled that it found its identity in a covenant. That covenant was made with the source, destiny and ground of all being, Yahweh, the essence that caused, sustained and purposed all existence. In order to make such a covenant Yahweh had delivered Israel from slavery, having previously saved it from famine. To keep that covenant Yahweh had given Israel a law, a way of maintaining its freedom. (That’s why the law’s so important to Jews, because it’s like the wedding ring in their covenant with God.) But what had Israel done? It had allowed that covenant to lapse into a contract, losing the bond of love and reducing it to a transactional process by which Yahweh gave an entitled Israel blessings. In other words Israel had turned from enjoying God to using God, and had instrumentalised God as a ladder to attain prosperity and security. In exile Israel repented. And in exile Israel saw a new face of God, a God who was with Israel rather than for Israel, a God of covenant not contract, a God who longed to be enjoyed not used.
This is what Jesus means by the word ‘truth.’ I am this truth. I am the God who is covenantally with you, not the instrumental god who is contractually for you. Truth means everything that isn’t instrumental, and is instead final. By final I mean everything that’s an end, indeed the end, the very purpose of creation and the raison d’être of the whole universe. The purpose of creation is that God and we be companions forever. The utter embodiment of God, and the perfect representative of humanity, are found in the same person: Jesus. Jesus is therefore the raison d’être of everything. Which is why he says, ‘I am the truth.’ Not ‘the one who speaks the truth’ or ‘the representative of the truth’ but – the truth. ‘I am’ is the truth – and the truth is ‘I am.’
See how smallminded is our attempt to turn Jesus into a ladder to get us to heaven. There is no heaven that’s not utter relationship with God and restored relationship with one another, ourselves and the renewed creation. The absurd idea that we could somehow use God to get out of life alive and let everyone and everything else go hang is precisely the kind of sin that put Israel in exile and jeopardises our own destiny. We only experience that utter relationship with God in Jesus if we let go of any desire other than the desire for that relationship. If we seek God because we want heaven, we don’t deserve heaven. If we want God because we want to avoid hell, we’re headed for hell. But if we desire God because we want nothing other than to be in utter relationship with the source, origin and purpose of the universe, the essence of all things; and if we trust that the God who came in flesh as Jesus and died emptied of all but love and rose because in the end love is stronger than death will ultimately never be separated from us – if that’s what it’s all about for us, all about forever for us – then God will give us that relationship forever. And no virus or terrorist or tragedy or horror will ever change that.
Where does that leave the ‘way’ and the ‘life’? The life is simply living in that truth. The life is that unambiguous, uninhibited, unconstrained relationship with God, ourselves, one another and the renewed creation that we call heaven. For a host of reasons, some of our own making, some due to the limitations of our creaturehood, some due to the faults of others, we currently don’t experience that future in all its fullness. But that’s where the ‘way’ comes in. The way is living God’s future now. The way is to live abundant life. The way is to enjoy the green pastures, still waters and right pathways that populate the kingdom of God. The way is any moment we transcend the envy, anger, bitterness and malice of existence and glimpse God’s essence, embody true relationship, turn for into with and live God’s future now. Remember Irenaeus’ words about God’s glory? ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ When are we fully alive? In heaven – when we’re utterly in the presence of the truth. Who alone has been fully alive among us? Jesus, who represents to us life and embodies truth and thus is the way. If and only if we enjoy Jesus as the truth and stop using him as a ladder to eternal life we’ll finally have found our way.
In the biographical film Rocketman Elton John blazes a trail through youth and adulthood to riches and fame. But he never finds true relationship. Instead all his encounters become a series of exploitative liaisons in which talent and sex are instrumentalised in a fruitless search for affirmation. Eventually in therapy he sees his child self and is asked what that child needs. Having cast aside the grandiose clothes of his extravagant display he walks slowly toward his childhood self and gives that child the hug and the love he desperately yearned for all along. He couldn’t find how to make true relationship, so he commodified everything to find alternatives, and ended up on a path of self-destruction. Only then was he ready to meet someone who loved him for himself alone, who had no desire to use him – only to enjoy him.
We’re all Elton John. We’re all rocket women and men trying to propel ourselves to heaven and failing in greater or lesser degrees of humiliation and shame. Jesus isn’t doing a deal with us. This isn’t a bargain. He’s not a ladder we toss away once we’re on the roof. He’s saying, ‘Make me your truth. Don’t use me to get what will turn out to be a false security. Enjoy me so deeply that you find a life that never runs out. Only then will you find your way.’