While other girls in my elementary school wore their brownie uniforms: jumpers with tall knee socks and a wide sash across the chest with various patches affixed to it, and attended meetings with the older Girls Scouts on Tuesday afternoons, I instead went to AWANA on Thursday nights. Those of you who grew up with an evangelical childhood similar to mine will know that AWANA stands for “Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed,” and it’s basically a Bible club for kids. AWANA has uniforms, too, though they were then red vests to which we also applied patches.
We didn’t earn our patches for community service or selling cookies, though. We’d get patches according to how many Bible verses we memorized. Every Thursday night we’d line up and one by one, step up to the adult leading the club to recite as many verses of the Bible as we could. We’d get stars on a chart for each new verse we learned, and after a certain number of stars we’d earn a patch that your mom could iron on to your vest. A sad substitute for a Brownie uniform, if you ask me.
One of the verses that I learned to recite in AWANA and can still recite to this day comes from our gospel lesson this morning from the 14th chapter of John. This is the way we had to say it: “John 14:6 ‘Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ John 14:6” I liked the verse because it was short and easy to recite. AWANA leaders and other adults in my life liked the verse because it seems to justify an exclusive view of Christian faith, to provide clear cut, incontrovertible evidence that…we win! NO ONE comes to the Father EXCEPT through me.
If I were a lawyer, I guess I would say that that language is as clear as can be. I am, however, not a lawyer, I’m a Bible scholar and preacher, so the anticipation rises as I believe passages like this always invite a closer and questioning look, applying questions like: What do we know about the community that was receiving John’s gospel? What do we know about Jesus? What do we see in this passage? What do we know about how the gospel is lived and shared in this world?
The full passage you heard today is one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament, primarily because it’s read at almost every funeral. These verses come from a section in John’s gospel, chapters 13-17 say most scholars, commonly known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. They come right before the story of arrest and crucifixion in John’s gospel, and if Jesus didn’t know what was going to happen to him, he at least had a strong suspicion. These are part of Jesus’ final words to his disciples, a long goodbye, the imparting of wisdom and encouragement to the community he would be leaving.
And they needed encouragement.
Jesus’ gospel message of love, peace, and justice was offending people, and followers of “the Way” as they were called had become a beleaguered community, hiding their affiliation and frightened for their lives. For this reason, we need to be sure to read this text not as a guide for how exactly to get the hook up for the mansion in heaven, but rather as a realized eschatology—that is, instead of waiting until the end of things for the final destinies of our souls, we’re working that destiny out, here and now. A realized eschatology.
John’s gospel is always reminding us that incarnation, what we do here and now in our human skin is the most critical part of living a life that stands in opposition to the empire around it, that lives in the way of the gospel instead of the way of the world. And in the person of Jesus, it’s also how those disciples knew God. That’s what we long for and hope for, John would say. A realized eschatology.
And it certainly was what those first disciples needed, because they were scared. They were up against the vast Roman Empire, and they needed some words to remind them that the Way they’d been following would lead them to God.
We need that, too. All throughout this season of Easter we’ve been looking for signs of life, and today I want to invite you to do what the words of Jesus in the gospel of John suggest: in the middle of heartbreak and fear, when we’re sad and scared, practice a realized eschatology. Look around you at the relationships that point you to God. Feel deeply any relationship you have with Jesus’ way, the gospel message, and hang on tight to what you know of him. Because while most days we don’t face the kind of fear and intimidation those first disciples faced, there are certainly times in which we are sad and scared.
And you know, fear is a funny thing, as we’ve learned quite acutely in our country this year. Fear divides us from each other, from the hope of a shared future, and from God. It makes us mean and grasping, suspicious of one another and liable to hurt each other.
Instead of living our lives that way—sad, scared, and stingy—Jesus in John 14 invites us to practice this instead:Believe in God, believe in me—believe, meaning: give your heart to, from the Old English word “belove”. You know the place where I am going. I am the way, the truth, and the life. If you know me, you will know my Father. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
In other words: the question to ask when reading this passage is not: what is truth? But instead: who is truth? Jesus is saying we will find signs of life in relationship, with God and with each other. After all, Jesus lived and preached a radical gospel, and that’s what he wanted his disciples to remember. Not a set of rules for getting what we want, but a full experience of relationship, in which we trust and are trusted; love and are loved; are active in the work of justice and are perpetually invited to go deeper into God’s work of healing the world. That was Jesus, and that is the “way” to God.
Why do so many of us need to think of Jesus as an exclusive truth, it’s my way or the highway? I heard someone call this kind of Jesus a divine gatekeeper, a “holy goalie”. When we think of Jesus like that, we’re more concerned with winning than we are with working together, with who is out than who is in, and we turn into people whose sadness and fear make us hardhearted, cut off from relationship, sad, scared and stingy.
By contrast, if we thought of the way, the truth, and the life as the most inclusive invitation of all, the lavish love of God for the whole world, then certainly we’d see signs of life wherever we looked. It seems to me that that is truly the way to the Father, as Jesus tried so hard to remind his disciples before he left.
To me, one of the most precious things about The Riverside Church, this particular community of faith, is its lavish welcome. In fact, over the course of my almost three years as your pastor, I’ve met several regular attenders who come from other denominations of Christianity and even other faith traditions: Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and who somehow find their way to these pews and this community every Sunday.
Those of you who have been here on communion Sundays, the first Sunday of the month, will know that when we come to the table to share communion in remembrance of Jesus, we always say that all are welcome, that this is the table of Christ, and that because of that—no matter who you are—you are welcome to participate.
I asked a friend this week if I could tell about an experience he and I had during communion one Sunday. A few months ago I was standing right there, at the end of the row, offering bread and juice to a long line of you. It’s one of my favorite times in worship, because it’s an honor to stand there and look at you right in the eyes, face to face. There was a moment that day when I looked up to see the face of this friend next in line. He’s someone who attends worship pretty regularly even though he grew up in the Middle East and was raised a Muslim. I could tell he was feeling emotional the moment I saw him—many of you do during communion—and as he took the bread he whispered to me with tears in his eyes, “Thank you for making a place for me at your table.”
Thank you for making a place for me at your table.
Friends, that right there is the way, the truth, and the life. No one can embrace and live out God’s best dreams for the world except through doing this, through living as Jesus taught us. Opening our arms to each other in love and trust, letting go of the fear, and sliding over a little further to make room at the table for everyone.
Well, maybe. It would be nice to read it that way. But if that’s the case, I can hear you thinking, why do we need Jesus at all? We need Jesus, like the first disciples did, because Jesus welcomes us into relationship, teaches us that the work of faith is not bound up in a list of rules, but rather in a way of being. When we are sad, scared, and stingy, that’s when we feel most distant from God. Jesus wasn’t just a teacher, he was someone who helped us feel, in genuine human experience, that love of God wrapping like a shawl around us, and drawing us close so we don’t have to live in fear anymore.
Scholars point out that this passage of John is one in a number of “I am” statements that Jesus used regularly while he walked on this earth. You remember the metaphors he used: I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Living Water; I am the Living Bread; I am the Light of the World; I am the Door…all of these are metaphors of welcome, inclusion, relationship. Today’s passage is no different: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And, “no one comes to the Father except by me,” was never meant to make us sad, scared, and stingy. It was meant to encourage the first disciples who needed to know they could live what Jesus taught them, and it was meant to invite us all into relationship in which we can witness and practice resurrection—signs of life.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus might say today. “To live into God’s highest hopes for your life and for this world, pursue generous, justice-making relationship—with God and with each other. That’s the only way to live.” May we have the courage to do what Jesus says.