A Pepper Grinder Post

I am the Way

The passage I’m looking at today has special meaning for me.  To explain why, I need to give you a little of my personal history.  I was raised a Unitarian.  I have met many people who had no idea what a Unitarian was.  If you see a Unitarian (Unitarian Universalist, to be more precise) church, you might think it looked like any other church.  The church I went to as a child had a sanctuary with pews, an organ, and hymn books.  We had Sunday school classes, which I attended faithfully.  However, if you opened the hymn books, you would notice that some hymns were missing and some had the words subtly or not so subtly changed.  Hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth” were still there, but hymns that spoke of the divinity of Christ or our being saved through his sacrifice are missing or modified.  The “Unitarian” part of the Unitarian Universalist church comes from a rejection of the belief in the Trinity.  In fact, most Unitarians I know nowadays are either atheists or agnostics, or believe in a vague impersonal god.  The “Universalist” part comes from a belief that all will be saved, though this, too, has changed over time into a belief that people either have no eternal souls or else are all part of some vague cosmic mush or will be reincarnated or …  Basically the Unitarian church always seemed like a place where you could believe anything you liked as long as it wasn’t traditional Christian doctrine (being a conservative Muslim probably wouldn’t be a good fit either). 

A funny thing happened when I turned 15:  God got hold of me.  I had a friend whose brother had become a Christian and who was talking to my friend about it.  As a result, both my friend and I, separately, started listening to Christian radio programs.  I prayed to receive Christ while listening to Pat Robertson.  I was joyful and excited at first, but very gradually, my relationship with God became more focused on what I did than on Him.  At first I was still pretending to be a Christian on the outside, but then, after a couple of years, I discovered Eastern religions.  

buddhaI became an Eastern Religions major, and my morning devotions consisted of doing Zen meditation and reading the Bible.  I loved Buddhism (or at least my westernized version of it), because it gave a feeling of spirituality without the irksome moral demands of Christianity.  Even more importantly, my new worldview allowed me to say that there were many paths to God.  I didn’t need to try to convert anyone (which I was terrible at even in my most passionate times of living for Jesus), because they were following their own path.  I didn’t need to think anyone else was mistaken.  As a person who craved peace and acceptance, it fit the bill perfectly.

Then I began to become friends with the woman who would become my wife.  She had a very similar background to mine (raised a Unitarian, became a Christian as a teenager, then rejected Christ) with one important difference.  At one miserable point during college she told God that she would believe in Jesus again, but that he would have to make her want to.  Within a month, he had done precisely that.  As we started to talk, she didn’t try to change me, she just shared who she was and what she believed, and I began to see the emptiness of my own self-created religion.  I moved more and more back toward my old beliefs, but the last stronghold was the one that there are many paths to God.  For me, this was the difference between a tolerant, sensible faith and an arrogant, foolish one.  Finally, I read John 14:6 ("I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” NIV) and was forced to admit that I couldn’t say I believed the Bible and reject this clear teaching.  I bent the knee and acknowledged that God could decide what I believed, no matter how offensive I found the belief.

So, it was with interest that I started to study this passage, though I also felt fairly sure I knew what I would find.  In a sense, I wasn’t surprised—verse 6, in particular, is very clear and doesn’t leave much wiggle room.  However, I was surprised by the tone of the whole passage.  Here is my translation of John 14:1-7.

“Don’t be upset.  Trust God and trust me.  There is lots of room in my father’s house—I wouldn’t have told you if it weren’t true—and I’m going to prepare a place for you.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I’ll come again, and take you to myself so that you can be where I am.  You know the way to where I’m going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going.  How can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  Nobody comes to the Father except through me.  If you’ve known me, you’ll also know the Father.   From now on, you know him and have seen him.”

John is unique among the gospels in several ways, one of them being how much of the book takes place at the very end of Jesus’ life.  Since our passage is only about two thirds of the way through the book, you might expect that it would cover some event in the middle to late part of Christ’s ministry.  In fact, John chapters 14 and 15 take place in that brief time between Jesus’s final meal with his disciples and his arrest.  This is part of his farewell message to the men who had been his constant companions and followers for three years.

middle eastern mealI was surprised that the mood of the passage was so tender.  Somehow I always thought of John 14:6 as being proclaimed by a stern-faced Jesus standing up before a crowd and fearlessly telling it like it is.  Instead, the picture is of a room dimly lit by oil-burning lamps.  There is a low table with the remains of a typical middle-eastern Passover meal.  Twelve men are lying down on cushions around the table, so close to each other that one can easily lean his head against another’s chest.  These men have known each other intimately for three years.  The thirteenth man left the room a short while ago, and Jesus alone understands what his departure means.  He is thinking about the agony he is about to experience, but he is also looking at these men he loves and thinking about the crushing experience they are about to go through.

The first thing he tells them is not to be upset.  This word literally means stirred up (as in John 5 when there was a pool invalids lay around and that an angel would periodically stir up) but in the New Testament it more often means something like ”agitated”.  Herod was disturbed when he heard about the birth of Jesus from the Magi.  Jesus was upset when he saw the deep grief of Mary, Martha, and others over the death of Lazarus.  Jesus was agitated, looking forward to his own death.  Is Jesus saying that being upset in this way is a sin?  That doesn’t make sense because we are told more than once that Jesus experienced this emotion.  Is it some silly platitude like, “Don’t worry, be happy?”  I hope we know Jesus better than that!  I think it is more the type of thing a parent would say while cuddling a weeping child—“Don’t cry, sweetie.” 

What’s more, Jesus doesn’t just leave it there—he tells his disciples what to do instead of being upset.  Some translations translate the word I’ve translated “trust” (Trust God and trust me) as “believe,” but it can mean either (for example, in John 2:24 when we are told that Jesus didn’t trust the crowds following him, because he knew what was in a man).  I think that “trust” fits better here.  Jesus is talking to men who believe he is the Messiah and have chosen to follow him and have stuck by him.  He isn’t telling them that they need to believe, but that, having believed, they need to trust.  So what is it that they are supposed to trust him about?  The next sentence answers that question.

heavenly skyBy what Jesus says next, we see that he has seen what their biggest fear is—they are afraid of not going to Heaven.  Think about it.  These are men who have been raised in a religion where the way to please God is to obey his laws.  That, in itself, wouldn’t help you feel confident in your salvation.  They had grown up with some groups of Jews who didn’t believe in the afterlife at all (Sadducees), and others who did and piously strove to attain heaven by their works (Pharisees), but now the disciples have chosen to follow a man the Pharisees (the religious good guys of the day) hated and treated like a heretic.  All they were taught before they met Jesus would be screaming out to them that they were on the road to Hell, or possibly on the road to nothing, after having made a choice that made them unpopular amongst everyone they had grown up with.  But Jesus tells them that there is plenty of room in Heaven.  (The King James translation of, “In my father’s house are many mansions” isn’t supported in the Greek—it originated in Tyndale’s translation, at a time when “mansion” didn’t have the modern connotation of a palatial dwelling.) Jesus says he is going himself to prepare a place for them.  Thus, he uses the very thing that is about to give his disciples so much pain—Jesus being taken from them—as an assurance that he will come back for them and that they will be welcomed into Heaven by God.  It may seem a little odd that Jesus throws in the phrase, I wouldn’t have told you if it weren’t true but I believe that what he is doing is gently reminding the disciples of what they already know—Jesus ALWAYS tells the truth.  He is saying, “Listen, you know I’m reliable, and you know I don’t sugarcoat things, so if I tell you that you’re going to Heaven, you ARE!”

walkwayHe finishes his statement by saying, “You know the way to where I’m going.”  The tense used in the Greek won’t allow us to make it, “You will know the way”—nope, you already do know the way.  Thomas isn’t going to take this sitting down.  He bursts out with, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going.  How can we know the way?”  I’m sure that some people would use this to show that Thomas is a substandard apostle, but I don’t think this is fair.  To me, Thomas seems like someone who is careful by temperament and who cares more about getting at the truth than looking good to the other disciples.  It would be like in a modern business meeting, when someone got up and spewed out a few minutes of gobbledygook peppered with buzz words and acronymns like “leverage” and “R.O.I.”  If everyone were honest, many would probably admit that they didn’t fully understand what the person was talking about, but Thomas would be that one courageous person who said, “I’m really not sure I got what you said.”  Thomas takes most of his flak for doubting Jesus’s resurrection (John 20:25), but I don’t think that’s fair either—he was the only disciple who had NOT yet seen the risen Lord, and, as here, he had the courage to be honest about his doubts, even though they went against what all his pals were saying.

In any case, with something like Heaven on the line, Thomas wants to be SURE he gets it right.  He wants to know the way to get to Heaven and he isn’t going to let Jesus get away with saying that he already knows it, because Thomas is sure he doesn’t!  This reminds me so much of myself.  I desperately want to know the things I need to do to be acceptable to God.  So often, I think that we convey messages to people when they come to Christ.  At first the message is simple:  “Believe in Jesus; ask him to forgive you and to live in you.”  Pretty soon, though, things start getting added on—get involved in a local church, have a quiet time, witness to people, tithe 10%.  It isn’t that any of these things are bad, but it is so easy to fall into the thinking that these are the requirements for being acceptable to God.  I think Thomas might have been looking for some simple rules like that, but Jesus blew the whole notion of acceptance by works right out of the water with one simple statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

narrow wayThe way to Heaven is not some set of rules, it is Jesus Christ.  The truth is not some set of beliefs, it is Jesus Christ.  Eternal life is not some place that we get to by following the rules, it is Jesus Christ.  Everything is wrapped up in a person, a relationship.  When we find and latch on to Jesus, we have found the way and the truth and the life.  Jesus was saying to his disciples that they had already found the thing they were searching for, or more accurately, he had found them.  It is our man-made systems that start piling more stipulations on, but Jesus didn’t do that.  I’m not saying that what we believe or do isn’t important, just that they aren’t the way to eternal life.

What really used to bug me about this passage was that Jesus had to be so arrogant and exclusive.  I wouldn’t have minded at all if he had said, “I am a way, a truth, and a life.  I am one of the ways you can get to the Father.”  Let’s think about this, though.  If there are many ways to God, then Jesus would certainly be out of line to say what he said.  Imagine, though, that you are trapped in a maze and there is only one path to the exit (though you don’t know that).  Now imagine that you meet two people.  One nods affirmingly when you say the direction you have chosen and perhaps gives you a few pointers about making decisions farther on in the maze.  The other says, “There is only one way to get to the exit.  Follow me, and I’ll take you there.”  He then starts to lead you in the exact opposite direction that you thought you needed to go.  Which of these two is kinder and more loving?  The first would seem so.  In the same way, I loved the tolerance of my self-made religion.  The trouble was, it didn’t get me out of the maze.

You may be saying, “This sounds good, but what do I do?  How do I grab hold of Jesus?”  Maybe you don’t have to.  Maybe it’s enough to ask him to grab hold of you.  Have you ever told Jesus you are willing for him to do whatever it takes to bring you close to him?  Have you asked him to do it?  If our greatest desire in life is to be close to Jesus, we will end up satisfied.  It may take time, and it undoubtedly won’t always be a smooth ride, but we will arrive.   Why?  Because he is the way and the truth and the life.


*Photo Credits: Buddha by