It is good to be back in this pulpit. I have missed all of you. I am still working on recovering from surgery and will be easing back into my work. I am in the pulpit a week before I planned so I ask your patience with me. I am not yet ready to carry the level of load I did before surgery. I will get there. I have found that recovery from knee joint replacement can be hard, frustrating and non-linear. I have a newfound deep respect for all of you who have had this surgery before me.
While I have been gone you have been weaving your way through the “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John. Here I show back up to preach on the “I Am” statement I have always found most disturbing: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father accept through me.” I have heard all the same voices you have heard about this scripture. Voices that tell us that Jesus was preaching a message of exclusion. Voices that say you can’t be Jewish or Muslim or Sikh if you want to get a heavenly mansion someday. They have Jesus saying, “God is my Daddy and if you want to spend eternity with God than I am your only way in. Believe in me or you are going straight to hell.” That is how this text has always been preached at me.
I beg you today to throw out what you have always been taught about this scripture and if you can’t throw it away, set it aside for just 15 minutes and hear me out. There are several glaring problems with this heaven and hell interpretation. The first thing we need to look at is context. Look at it next to the other “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John. The other “I Am” statements are comforting. “I Am the Light of the World.” “I Am the good shepherd.” “I Am the gate.” “I Am the bread of life.” “I Am the true vine.” They carry in them a promise of presence with us here and now. A message of exclusion in the form of an “I Am” statement runs counter to all the other “I Am” statements in John.
We also need to look at this text within the context of where, when and to whom Jesus spoke these words. Jesus speaks these words to his disciples in Jerusalem. This is the after dinner conversation at the Last Supper in the Upper Room. Jesus is preparing them for his upcoming crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. We call these words of Jesus his final discourse. It is clear he knows he has little time left to make sure they all understand everything he has been trying to teach them for the last three years. He tells them that he is leaving. He also says that where he is going they cannot follow. He knows he is going to die and he knows it will throw this fledging movement into a deep panic and possibly into chaos.
Just prior to this passage Jesus has given his disciples a new commandment: “Love as I have loved you.” And then Peter in his typical grandiose way promised to lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus lets Peter know that he not only won’t lay down his life for Jesus he will deny Jesus. Jesus is urgent. He has only a little time left to convey what he most wants his followers to hear. He doesn’t want them to throw away what they have seen and heard and believed in him. Because these are the ones who are being entrusted with carrying the incarnation with them.
In all the hours and hours of media coverage after the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the part that made it brutally real for me was hearing about the texts that high school students sent their loved ones. When people think they are about to die in a school shooting or a plane crash, they reach out to the ones they love with a final message. One teenage son wrote his mother a text: “If I don’t make it, know I loved you and appreciated everything you did for me.” Two brothers hiding on different levels of the school texted back and forth: “Just know I love you.” “I love you too.” “Forever and you’re the best brother.”
Jesus knows he is about to die and he needs these disciples to hold on to the way, the truth and the life he as been modeling for them. Hear these words in that context of someone’s dying words. Jesus is speaking words of comfort and of love in the last hours of his life.
Another thing we need to look at is how this scripture has been translated. Most of us have heard this scripture at a funeral as a promise of a mansion in heaven for all those who have declared Jesus their Lord and Savior. But mansion is a bad translation that Tynsdale placed on this text years go. The word “mansion” isn’t anywhere in this text. Jesus isn’t promising a place in heaven. This isn’t a scripture about place but about relationship. Jesus is telling them they are part of God’s family already and they live in God’s house…now.
“Don’t be afraid of what is ahead,” Jesus says. “Trust in God and trust in what I have taught you. You are children of the living God and you live in the household of God here and now where there is plenty of room for everyone. It isn’t long now before I am gone. But it isn’t the end. I go before you and eventually you will follow me.”
Be aware that those who translate the Bible for us have the power to enlighten or to harm.
I know that studying the context of this scripture doesn’t suddenly clear everything up. Even the disciples in the room seemed very confused by what Jesus was trying to tell them. Part of that is due to the Gospel of John. We are linear people who are bombarded constantly with 24-hour media coverage reading a Gospel written by someone who loved metaphor: light, gates, bread, shepherd, vines. John wasn’t a historian. John was a poet calling to our deeper selves. He wants us to see the shape of Jesus.
Thomas, like most of us, is completely confused. Thomas says, “I have no idea where you are going with this, Jesus. How will we know how to follow you? Can you give us a diagram or a map or something?” It is to Thomas’ request that Jesus speaks his “I Am” statement. “I Am the way, the truth and the life.”
“I Am…” which remember is the name God uses to identify himself to Moses. In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the phrase “I Am” to teach others about the presence of God. “I Am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus says. We have always heard this scripture as Jesus claiming to be the way, the truth and the life. But you could also read it like this: “God (the Great I Am) is the way, the truth and the life.” Or you could see it as Jesus saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life and I am pointing to God (the Great I Am) who is the way, the truth and the life. You don’t need a map or a diagram for as a member of God’s family you are already home. God is here now and God’s kingdom lies within you.”
Now if Jesus had stopped there I think we would not have ended up in the mess we are in. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” It seems so clear doesn’t it? It appears that Jesus is just lobbing off all other religions and their followers. But again, look at context. Jesus wasn’t afraid his disciples were going to become Buddhists. He wasn’t trying to form a new world religion and call it superior. I find that thought absurd. He was speaking to his Jewish disciples in a time when the battle was with the empire. He wanted them to live their lives by the way, and truth of love. He wasn’t saying, “Whose team are you on anyway? He was saying, “Open your eyes for the Kingdom of God is within you. Follow the way…embrace the life…act in truth. Follow the shape of me. The way to relationship to God is the journey you have been on with me. Keep following me even when I am not here. You can see me. Act as I have acted. Love as I have loved. If you know me…and I know you know me…if you know me you have seen God.”
But the disciples weren’t used to communicating on this metaphorical level. Still wildly confused, Philip steps in and says, “Okay, Jesus. Show us God and maybe we will be able to understand what you are talking about.” Jesus shakes his head and says, “Philip, how long have we been together and you still can’t see God? I have shown you the way, the truth and the life that leads to God. I have been a constant sign pointing in the direction of God. If you trust that what I have modeled for you is true you will be amazed for you will see and experience even greater things than you have seen through me. I am going away soon but I am not leaving you alone. I’m also not leaving you a list of dos and don’ts. Pick up the mantle and keep following the way, in truth and life. Do this, not because I said so, but because you have taken on this shape…this incarnation…you have become love.”
I don’t believe that Jesus final text to his loved ones is a declaration of exclusion for some and a safety net for the faithful. Jesus’ final message is one of love and invitation, promise and calling. How we hear this text is extremely important because generations of Christians have used this scripture to shape their faith. People have been tortured because of this scripture. I have witnessed many Christians who have clutched onto this text, claiming that they are “safely on the way to heaven” even while they beat their children or lie on their income tax returns or count their money while the hungry die or denounce others as hated by God. That is not the shape Jesus wants us to take on. Jesus didn’t give us a plane ticket to the great by and by. Jesus gave us the Kingdom of God and called us to love and be love…..and as Valerie Kauer says, “…that kind of love saves us all.” Amen.