I was talking about John's gospel with someone recently, and I found myself saying that reading John is like listening to a really beautiful piece of music. No matter how deeply you think about his text, it still sort of washes over you and creates a multitude of images and thoughts and feelings. I remember when I was a boy and I was really getting into reading the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And I would complain to my dad that they were slow to get moving. You have the descriptions of the flat Holmes and Watson lived in—the Persian slipper that held the pipe tobacco, the letters stuck to the mantelpiece with a jack-knife. And my father would patiently explain that those descriptions serve the purpose of reminding us where the stories are set, and that in time I would grow to appreciate them. He said that in time I would re-read the stories and the old descriptions would wash over me and I would feel as if I were coming back to a familiar place. He was right.
In some sense, that is what our Bible is intended to do. We are meant to read these sacred texts because they form us as the people of God—they are alive with the power of God's spirit, and because we engage with them throughout the many contours and changes of our lives. I read the Bible very differently now than I did when I was a teenager, or when I was in seminary. I am sure you read the Bible very differently now than you did when you were younger.
I was part of a men's breakfast years ago—I was the youngest "man" there, around age 23. I put the word man in quotation marks. At 23 you don't know anything about anything.
But this men's breakfast was at Emmanuel Church in Harrisonburg—Tuesday mornings at 7am, and we all took turns cooking the breakfast. After breakfast we would read the gospel lesson for the coming Sunday and discuss it. But what made this group unique was that it was made up of a judge, the Commonwealth's attorney, several other lawyers, and a couple businessmen. The Rector and I were the only people in the room who did not consider Bible study to be a form of academic litigation.
You couldn't fault them for this, because this was their background. What are the implications? What are the loopholes? What if you don't do this? Or what if you only do part of this, but renege on the other parts? Sometimes I sit down to work on a sermon, and I can still hear those men citing precedents and forming arguments.
One text I would love to hear them discuss is the gospel for today, because you can let it wash over you and enjoy the comfort of the familiar, mystical mindset of John. You can let the words pass, uncritically, through the transoms of your mind, meaning everything and nothing—like a piece of music that is simply beautiful and reassuring in it's structure and familiarity. Or… You can pick at it for subtleties of meaning.
Because John is so rich, I'm going to focus on just the first six verses of chapter fourteen. This is part of the "farewell discourse"—meaning that section of John where Jesus is talking intimately with his disciples before he is "handed over to suffering and death."
The primary function of the Bible is to be read out loud in the gathered church. So let me read the text again, and as I do, I ask you to follow along and actively think about what Jesus is saying:
Jesus said, 1'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.' 5Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?'6Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Now, if you are just letting the text wash over you with its familiar cadences, listening only for the plainest meaning, it's a reassurance and a promise that though the future is not able to be fully explained, Jesus is going to a place where there are many dwelling-places, and that there is place at that place for us, and when he comes again he will take us there. So that where he is, there we may be also. Which is of course a very elegant way of saying, we'll be together.
But now the subject expands from place to the path to the place. The subject is not expanded because the disciples ask a question. Rather, it is Jesus who teases their minds with a statement. It's a statement that really comes across to me as if it's almost an afterthought—as if this is something we all know, and it might not even need to be mentioned, because we all know. He says, "And you know the way…to the place…where I am going."
All right. Now. (I'm parsing these verses very carefully.) Jesus has expanded the subject from place to "the way" there. If I said to you, "I am going to a wonderful place where you and I are going to have fulfillment and happiness forever," you might want to know how I will get there, so that you can get there with or without me. The problem occurs when you can't be there unless I bring you. So to get there, it's not just knowing where it is, you have to know that the path—the way to get there—is not relevant unless I am with you. Does that make sense?
Let me try it another way. I am going to my house to make dinner for you. You might know how to drive to my house, but you won't be allowed in, unless I physically drive you there myself. So, the way there—the directions, the path, the roads—all of that is immaterial, because without me, you can't get there. The path and I are the same thing. You can't come without me. I am the way. (It's still tricky…let me try this:)
You know how you carpool with someone to some party or something, and the party is winding down, and the driver wants to go home, so then you say, "I have to go, he's my ride."
The road home could be the way you would drive it, or it might be that the driver takes some turns that you would not take to bring you there…but that's immaterial. He's your ride. He is your way.
I think that's what Jesus is saying—at least in part. Jesus said, "And you know the way to the place where I am going. Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus said to him, "I am your ride…"
Now. If John had just recorded Jesus as saying, "I am the way," (full stop, period, new sentence) then it would be much simpler, but the subject expands even further as he adds on "and the truth and the life."
John is famous for giving us these "I am" statements from Jesus. "I am the bread of life." "I am the vine; you are the branches." "I am the Resurrection and the Life." "I am the way, the truth, and the life."
"I am," of course—as you know—is the name of God. When Moses was receiving his call from God at the burning bush, he asked God who should he say is sending him, and God replied, "I am that I am." God is. God is the one who is. God is pure, holy existence. He is not reducible from that.
You can say that God is all sorts of things. You can God is beautiful, gracious, loving, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast mercy. You can describe God with all sorts of adjectives, but if you try to get down to what is most essential, what is most essential is that he is. I am. Long after we are not, he will be. Yet, what Jesus seems to be saying here is, "I am" which is "the way" for you to be "I am" with me. Does that make sense?
He is going to prepare a place. He will come and take us to that place. The way there is not able to be separated from being with him—but to be with him is to be with God forever.
"I am," says Jesus, "the way, and the truth, and the life." He is the way, which is truth and life. And to be with him—follow me here—to be with him is also be the way, the truth, and the life.
I'm not sure I can simplify it further than that. When Jesus says, "And you know the way…" I think he is saying, "You know the way, because you are already on the way. You are with me, so you know the way…the way that I go, you are going. And though I am going to make a place for you, mystically, you will continue to be with me, so that we will always be together—whether in this life, or in the life to come. Right now, we are travelling my way. Eventually, we will come to rest, and the way and the destination will be me. So whether you are on earth or in heaven, we will be. And we will be together. I know. I know. It sounds very complicated, but it is really very simple—that we will be together with Jesus for ever.
I think what complicates these things is time. Jesus is trying to explain something that is, in essence, timeless.
We will be together, though we are apart, yet still together, travelling, eventually not travelling. Do you see how time gets in the way of explaining it?
How do you explain, how could Jesus explain, to us human beings who so desperately need reassurance, and a sense of time, what is an eternal concept? To say we will always be together, though seemingly apart, yet still united in the path, because I am the path—it's almost impossible to explain in a life that we understand to be divided into day and night, minutes and hours, planting and harvest, newborns and burials.
How could Jesus explain to the disciples—and to us—that we would live with him, on the way that is him, until one day we die and many, many more generations of people would be born and die, before these cycles of time come to an end? …when Gabriel sounds his horn and we are raised to new life, and discover that the way we have been going, Jesus, is also the destination—the place that he has prepared for us…?
These concepts are on the one hand simple, while still able to be deeper, richer and more packed with meaning than any of us can fully understand. The bottom line seems to be: Jesus is the way, which is the truth and life. For those of us who earnestly believe in Jesus, we are with Jesus. He with us, we with him. …an inseparable bond of love and trust that has the power to carry us through our darkest hours. We can be comforted in knowing that "the way" is also mystically, the destination—Jesus. The One in whom all things and all time come together. To him be the glory for ever and ever.
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The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.