Jesus calls himself the way the truth and the life and stresses that no-one shall come to God, whom he of course calls ‘the Father’, but through him. Notice how Jesus is not saying that is one of the ways or is one of the truths that leads to one of the lives, but that it’s exclusively him – that it’s who and what he is and represents that is entirely the only way, truth and life to take us in to into an awareness of God.
The church has done some hard things with this text. These words have been used as a weapon to beat people into becoming converts – as if Jesus would ever want that, ever speak of himself and his way as some kind of monopoly, some elitest-religious-system-franchise that rejects all other religious systems, set himself up to be in direct opposition with all other faiths.
It’s that competitive understanding of this text which is the cause of so many of the church’s most arrogant practices of the past and probably still is today. It’s not Christ, but what we’ve done with Christ by believing that our cultural brand of Christendom is somehow better than any other religious or cultural system, and how we’ve believed our most important job is to get those ‘other’ people to become like us, convert them to our way of culturally religious thinking. That is so desperately unhelpful.
That’s what feeds every piece of fanatical, ideological form of fundamentalism, and sets Christianity up to be in direct opposition to all other religious faith systems. Totally divisive! And just about exactly the opposite of so much of the inclusive unity that so much of the New Testament tells is central to God’s will! It’s certainly not what this text is saying.
And So, What Is This Text Saying?
Just How Are We To Understand Jesus’ Words?
Where Is Good News Here?
I’m grateful to those scholars[i] who have pointed out how the Gospel of John is fundamentally different from the other Gospels. ‘The synoptic gospels, they say, and I’m paraphrasing wildly here, put Jesus’ words into the mouth of the physical man: Jesus of Nazareth. But John’s gospel, written many years after the synoptic gospels, allows for a much wider, deeper, more inclusive interpretation[ii]. He was an old man by then, living in exile on the Isle of Patmos where he had time to think deeply on all those things.
And so, we find him writing from a deeply insightful, resurrection-perspective, putting the words of the now risen Christ into the mouth of the then still incarnate, historical Jesus and aiming at a far wider audience, people generally. As he wrote in 20:31: these (things) are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Let me repeat that: John’s writings are not the words of the incarnate Jesus so much as the teachings of the now ‘risen-and- everywhere-at-once’ presence of Christ.
… the way of the risen Christ understood as this mystery, this amalgam of matter and spirit, which is the way for everybody to experience God’[iii].
In his book ‘The Universal Christ’, Richard Rohr calls ‘Christ’ another name for everything in its fullness, as it’s intended to be. How about this: ‘Christ’ is another name for how we encounter God’s Spirit in this material universe, and if that is true, well, then it must be true for every religion, be it Indigenous, Judaism, Hinduism, and particularly for we who intentionally call ourselves Christ-followers!
This truly is all one sacred universe. A universe which we believe is infused and holding together, pulsing with the fluidity of God in Christ. Christ as the empowering Spirit that binds us all together, the catalyst-glue-energy-essence of everything at our best.
For the physical Jesus – a single man bound by time and space to have made any of the seven great ‘I AM’ statements of John’s gospel[iv], would be pretty ludicrous. No one man could ever be all of that, but for those teachings to be from the mouth of the risen Christ and describing Christ’s purpose – all equally true for all people, quite regardless of religious or cultural background – well, that’s saying something entirely different.
This is Christ saying that his way of poured-out, suffering living/ his way of loving/ of doing is primarily what feeds us as the bread of life, the light that illuminates the best of creation/ the door that opens us up to this awareness/ the good shepherd that leads us to living as we have been made to be. That is something quite wonderful and ultimately unifying for all of creation.
That was the point of his High Prayer of Jn.17 where it’s the Living Christ who calls on God for there to be a rising awareness of our unity with God and everyone and everything:
‘Oh Dear God that they may be one as you and I are one, me in you and you in me and them in us…’
This is the risen Christ describing himself and his way of radical love and inclusive solidarity with everything, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable as being the most essential way for us to know holiness in our lives. ‘Anyone who has seen me – and the life that I represent – has actually seen God’, he said to Philip!
By drawing his disciples to focus on the elements of bread and wine as having been filled with his presence, surely, he was saying that we are to understand how there is nowhere where he is not. God’s sacred presence, in Christ, is in everything, everywhere, including this here on the table, in front of them. And then, by our taking of that food, giving thanks to God for it, and eating it, internalizing it, we are own how we are aligning ourselves and our awareness of being one with God and God with us, and all of God’s creation.
I guess the challenge is for us not only to come to know that, and even to be transformed by that, but also to come to live our lives in ways that demonstrate that.
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[i] I’m thinking, of course, of Richard Rohr, but also CK Barrett and his excellent commentary, Prof John Suggit, my New testament teacher in seminary, a very fine Johannine scholar, Esther DeWaal, Cynthia Bourgealt, Will Willemon etc
[ii] While each of the synoptic gospels were written quite soon after the events of Jesus: Mark in about 40AD to people in Rome, Matthew, about 20 years later to Jews in Jerusalem, Luke at about the same time as Matthew but to Greeks, in Antioch. …John, we now know, was writing about 50 to 60 years later.
[iii] Paraphrasing Richard Rohr
[iv] I AM the bread of life (6:35), I AM the light of the world (8:12), I AM the door (10:7), I AM the good shepherd (10:11, 14),
I AM the resurrection and the life (11:25), I AM the true vine (15:1) I AM the way, truth and life (14:6)