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I am the way, the truth, and the life

How do you self-describe yourself? If I gave you a sheet of paper with ten numbered points each beginning with two words, “I am…”, but otherwise left blank for you to fill out; and then I asked you to write a brief description against each numbered “I am”, what would you write? If we had another half-hour, we could conduct such an activity as a preliminary pre-sermon exercise; but we don’t and won’t. Instead, to save time, let me read you my own numbered list of “I ams”.

My list, in rough order of what’s important to me, goes like this: (1) committed Christian and Uniting Church member; (2) loving husband, father and grandfather; (3) elderly, middle-class, socially conservative male; (4) practising historian. I guess if we did conduct the exercise I mentioned, many of you would write similar self-descriptions.
    In the Gospel of St John, Jesus completed a similar exercise, except that instead of four self-descriptors he used seven. As well as that, he didn’t produce a numbered list like I just did. Instead, over a period of weeks or perhaps months or even years, he made a series of statements about himself, explaining to his disciples who he was. They’re commonly referred to as ‘The Seven “I Am” Statements in John’. Let’s briefly consider them one by one, in the order in which John reports them:
1)    “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will never go hungry” (John 6:35).
2)    “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” (John 8:12).
3)    “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9).
4)    “I am the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
5)     “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live” (John 11:25).
6)    “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
7)    “I am the vine, you are the branches; if a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit” (John 15:5).


    Unlike my list of self-descriptors, which are straightforward and unambiguous, Jesus’s “I am” pronouncements are all allegorical. Being metaphors, they accordingly require analysis and interpretation. We don’t have time to ‘unwrap’ each one now because each is indeed worth a sermon of its own. Instead, I’d like to focus on just one — the sixth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” — to see what we can learn from it.
   

Before we look more closely at what Jesus might have meant by those ten words, let’s consider the situation in which he uttered them. He spoke them during the Last Supper. He had already washed the disciples’ feet; he had predicted that one of them would soon betray him; and he had already told Peter that he would deny him three times before the roosters of Jerusalem crowed next morning. Without panicking them, he was trying to explain that he would not be able to remain among them for much longer because he was about to be killed by his enemies. He was also trying to comfort them, assuring them that after he’d gone he’d return among them.


    During the discussion Jesus said he was going to his Father’s house, a dwelling of many rooms, where he would make ready for their arrival there. He would then return, he promised, to take them there. The way the King James Version reports this discussion in John 14:2-3 must be one of the best-known, best-loved and most poetic passages in all Scripture: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am there may you be also.”


    Enigmatically, he then tells them they don’t really need him to take them there because they already know the way. As John 14:4 (King James Version again) puts it, “And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.”
    At this point the disciples are thoroughly mystified. It’s Thomas who voices their incomprehension by rhetorically asking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And that question elicits Jesus’s famous sixth ‘I Am’ statement: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me!”


     ‘The way, the truth and the life’ is a ‘triple-barrelled’ self-descriptor. It’s not just one metaphor but three in quick succession, piled one on top of another. Saying that would be rather like me saying “I’m Ian Willis, an elderly middle-class male Australian Christian historian and family man” all in one breath — which is what I think I am but am unlikely ever to say to anyone, except to this congregation in this sermon.
    But what was Jesus trying to tell his disciples by metaphorically describing himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’? What did he mean by using those three metaphors, ‘the way’, ‘the truth’, ‘the life’? Let’s consider each in turn.
    Beginning with ‘the way’, in English this short word has two main meanings. A noun, it can mean, firstly, a track, a path, a road or route to follow, as in ‘the way to Sydney is up the Hume Highway’. Secondly, it can mean a method or manner of doing something; for instance, ‘the best way to avoid ’flu is an annual vaccination’. They’re the literal meanings, but each can be used metaphorically; for example, ‘flattery is the best way into my heart’ and ‘the Australian way is to give everyone a fair go’.
     Jesus of course was using ‘the way’ metaphorically. What he was really saying was what he had said when he first called them to be disciples: ‘Follow me’. By using the metaphor of ‘the way’, he was telling them that there was no other pathway into the God’s Kingdom than to follow him. In following him they must lead the prayerful life of passionate belief in and obedience to God, and of compassionate service of other people, which he had continually demonstrated. To follow his personal example was what they must do to enter the Kingdom. That was the route he laid out before them.


    Second, ‘the truth’. By using the definite article ‘the’, as in ‘the truth’, Jesus was emphasising the point that he himself must be the overwhelmingly important reality of their lives. For them, and for all other true Christians, Jesus really is the ‘alpha and omega’ — the beginning and end of everything. Nothing is more important than Jesus. His life is the gold standard of righteousness. His relationship with God his Father is the yardstick against which our own relationships must be measured. His self-sacrificial love for humanity is at the heart of the Jesus story. These realities together are the great truth that is Jesus.


     Further on ‘the truth’, as Christians, we believe that Jesus himself was the gold standard for truthfulness. In Jesus, who was wholly honest all the time all his life, there’s no falsehood. As God’s son, in him there was no lying, deception, cheating, faking, pretence or ‘weasel words’. Jesus alone of all humans was someone who was utterly trustworthy all the time.


    And, third, there’s ‘the life’. During the Last Supper, Jesus had been telling the disciples about his impending death. Earlier he had spoken of himself allegorically as the ‘Good Shepherd’ who lays down his life for his sheep, meaning that he was prepared to pay ‘the supreme sacrifice’, surrendering his own life so that those he loved might live. During the Last Supper he speaks of going away for a time — dying; but he also speaks of returning to them — being resurrected. His resurrection will demonstrate his authority over life and death granted to him by God his Father. His resurrection, his renewed life, will be the emblem of the new life he brings to those who join his followers and believe in him.


     ‘Life’, then, is a metaphor for renewal. By accepting Jesus and becoming his followers, he grants us resurrection from our old dead selves, deliverance from the wrong relationships and wrong behaviours that were ours in our former lives before our renewal through faith in him. But ‘the life’ also refers to another concept. This is the daily life in the world that Jesus wishes his followers to lead. It is of course a life modelled on Jesus’s own example. As Christians we try to imitate Jesus in our daily lives. His life becomes the fixed reference point for our own. We navigate our way in life following the directions he set by personal example.


In John 10:10 Jesus said of his followers, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” But what did he mean by ‘abundantly’? I’ll try to answer that question by referring to what are sometimes called ‘the nine Christian graces’ — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Christian character is not mere moral or legal correctness, but the possession and manifestation of these nine qualities. So our test of whether we are following the Christian ‘way’ and upholding and spreading the Christian ‘truth’ is whether the lives we live are full and abundant in each of the nine graces. If they are, John 15:8 tells us, we will be ‘fruitful’ Christians and people will easily recognise us as disciples of Jesus..


    At this point, perhaps you have begun realising how the three metaphors, ‘the way’ and ‘the truth’ and ‘the life’, merge together. If you follow Jesus, ‘the way’, he becomes the central reality, ‘the truth’, of your life; and the changed and renewed life that you lead is indeed ‘the life’ that Jesus wishes you to live. Together, Jesus promises, ‘the way and the truth and the life’ will lead you into God’s Kingdom.
    By proclaiming himself as ‘the way and the truth and the life’, Jesus was telling his disciples that his way was the only path into the Kingdom, that he was the true measure of the righteous lives they must lead, and that his resurrection would be both the cause and the symbol of their spiritual rebirth.


    But now we come to a stumbling point. It’s the corollary to the first part of the ‘I Am’ statement in John 14:6. ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ is the first; the second part is ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’. That’s the restrictive clause. What did Jesus mean by adding it? Was it a kind a metaphor? A narrow gate through which the select ‘sheep’ may enter but which excludes the reject ‘goats’? Was Jesus saying that only his followers are acceptable in God’s sight?
    That’s a question Christian theologians have grappled with down the ages. Does it mean that the righteous people of other faiths — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Shintoists and all the many others— may not enter God’s Kingdom and are eternally excluded from heavenly salvation?
    Depending on their theological perspective, these are questions Christians have generally answered in one of two ways:
•    First is the exclusive view, which is that salvation, resurrection and entry into God’s Kingdom come only to people who believe in Jesus. This perspective is favoured by ‘conservatives’. Its detractors believe such a viewpoint encourages intolerance and bigotry — an ‘Our way is right and yours wrong’ attitude. Another difficulty is that it simplistically equates church attendance with living a Christian life, whereas the sad reality is that that these two behaviours don’t necessarily go together.
•    Second is the inclusive view, which is that people of non-Christian faiths who lead righteous lives in accordance with the teachings of their faiths will be judged worthy of entry into the Kingdom. This is the perspective of ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’. Its detractors say it’s an ‘anything goes’ philosophy, one which effectively promotes the view that all religions are equally valid, with Christianity no more so than any other.


    I must confess that I haven’t completely made up my mind on these issues. Thus, to the non-Christians I could say, “I recognise your sincerity about your religious belief, or indeed your lack of belief; but because your religion takes no account of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, I think you’re sincerely wrong.”  On the other hand, I could also say, “I can’t judge you, only God can; and God will judge you according to his own criteria. God will know how true to your own faith you’ve been.
    Where do you stand on these issues? That’s something for you yourself and your own conscience. We could debate them with each other, and with people of other faiths, without getting far, until the proverbial cows come home. For my part, I’m happy to leave them to those theologians who specialise in the field of ‘inter-faith dialogue’. Meanwhile, I’ll focus on trying to live the Christian life, wherever that should take me.


    What we as Christians might agree on, however, is that for Christians the great ‘I Am’ pronouncement in John 14:6 is unequivocal. “I am the way and the truth and the life!” No ‘ifs and buts’ about it! For us it means that both individually and collectively we are pilgrims on our way, following Jesus wherever he leads, towards the Kingdom he has promised. We are seekers after the truth and the great truth for us is that Jesus Christ is always our ‘alpha and omega’ — the beginning and end of what’s important for us, the fixed reference point during our pilgrimage. We also live the life that Jesus personally modelled for us; and by living that life we are set free to enjoy a new life with him and for him.
    That’s all very well, isn’t it, and it’s what you might expect someone preaching a sermon on John 14:6 to say; but where does it leave us on the big issues confronting us as we make our way through life — those we’re called on to decide for ourselves as practising Christians? Detention centres on Manus and Nauru? The homeless whom we see begging outside our supermarkets? Discrimination against people who aren’t heterosexually oriented? The over-representation of Aborigines in our prisons? The Muslims who wish to build big mosques in our neighbourhood? Our proper response to the Islamists intent on perpetrating atrocities among us? Etc etc etc.


    Personally, I have no easy answers in any of these matters; and in some of them I feel conflicted. I cannot speak for you, but for me at least the best guide to a response in any such issue is to ask myself the ‘WWJD’ question — ‘What would Jesus do?’; and its converse, ‘What would Jesus NOT do?’— and then be guided by my conscience. That in turn brings me back to John 14:6 — “I am the way and the truth and the life!” For me as a Christian there’s only one way, that of Jesus. There’s only one great truth in my life, and that’s the reality of Jesus. And there can be only one life, the life Jesus has called me to lead.


    As we seek to follow that way, realise that truth and live that life, may Christ be with us always as our guide and helper! He promised us he would be. ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,’ were his final words to his disciples in Matthew 28:20. And so I conclude by praying, “Help us, Lord, to remember this as we follow your way, believe your truth and live the life to which you continually call us. Amen.”

Ian Willis

Dr Ian Willis is a long-term lay preacher at TUC.

Ian has a deep commitment to prayer and regularly gives his time to pray with preachers and worship leaders before worship services each Sunday.

Ian is also a writer and historian.

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About Our Church

Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering, fellowship and ministry.

We come together for authentic and Christ-centred worship. While we worship in a variety of styles, we share a common focus on faithfully listening for God’s Word and sharing His kindness and compassion with others. We express our love for God and others through a range of ministries, and connections with our community.

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