Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

The Way of Jesus – Br. David Vryhof

Feast of St. Philip and St. James, Apostles

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” John 14:6

A couple of years ago, Br. Mark and I attended a week-long training for spiritual directors that was advertised as an ‘interfaith’ event and was attended by both Christians and Jews.  As part of the conference we were assigned to a small group, which met to put into practice the principles we were being taught.  One day, as the group was praying together, one of the members offered a prayer which began with these words: “Jesus,” she said, “You are the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” Following the prayer time, there was a noticeable tension in the group.  Several group members, Christian and Jewish, spoke up, objecting to the woman’s use of these words in an interfaith setting.  As one member said, “We all know what follows that text: ‘no one comes to the Father except through me.’ The clear implication is that Jesus is the only way and the only truth and that life is found only in him, which excludes peoples of other faiths and suggests that their way is not an authentic way to God.  It is presumptuous and arrogant for Christians to make this claim.”

Yet, for many Christians, this is exactly what those words mean.  They maintain that one must know about Jesus and believe certain things about Jesus in order to be saved, and that those who do not know these things or do not believe them will be condemned.  But is this really what the gospel writer means when he refers to Jesus as “the Way”?  I don’t think so.

John’s gospel must always be read at least two levels: the level of simple story and the level of meaning for the early Johannine community.  As a simple story, it seems important to note the context in which and to whom Jesus is speaking.  In this instance, it is on the night before he dies. He is alone with his closest friends, his circle of intimates, who are clearly confused and even frightened.  That alone should suggest that this text is not the most congenial as the basis for either formulations of universal doctrine or global missionary endeavors.  And for the Johannine community, at odds with the Jewish tradition from which they had emerged, Jesus’ words serve as a reassuring promise that they have not been misled in following him.

Scripture scholar Craig Koester offers this important insight: “The image of the way,” he says, “can best be understood by noting that Jesus spoke about going the way himself before he spoke about being the way for others.”i What was the way that Jesus himself went?  What was the way for the early Johannine Christians?  And what implications do the answers to these questions have for us who believe and trust in him? How is Jesus “the Way” for us?

John’s Jesus is on a journey.  From the beginning of his gospel, John makes it clear that Jesus has come from God.  It was because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (3:16), John tells us.  Jesus is the eternal Word,
the one who was “in the beginning with God” (1:2),
the one who “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14),
the one who “has made God known” to us (1:18).
Jesus has come from God. In fact God sent him to share our life, to reveal to us the true nature of God, to save us and to offer us a new life, eternal life.  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,” John tells us, “but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17).

Now, in these final days before his death, we see that the one who has come from God is preparing to return to God.  As he gathers with his disciples for their final meal together, we read that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”ii How will he return to God?  What is the way he must take?  It is the way of dying and rising.

And now that “hour” has come.  The path that lies before him will pass through betrayal and arrest.iii One of his disciples will deny knowing him;iv others will flee.  He will be mocked and beaten, and will die a criminal’s death upon a cross.v But God will raise him.  Death and entombment will be followed by resurrectionviall of this belongs to the way in which Jesus returns to the Father.

John is not alone in this understanding of Jesus’ mission.  All three of the other gospels affirm that the way of Jesus is the way of dying and rising.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who died at the hands of Hitler near the end of the 2nd World War, expressed this truth with shocking clarity: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”vii In John, Jesus says: “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”viii St. Paul testifies to this identifying himself directly with the dying and rising of Christ.  “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”ix

What is the way that Jesus himself went?  What is the way he sets out for those who would follow him?  The way of dying and rising.  It is the only way to God.  For Jesus and for many of his followers down through the ages, including Philip and James, whom we remember today, this death was literal as well as metaphorical.  But for most of us, the way of dying and rising is an internal process of transformation.

Jesus scholar Marcus Borg offers a wise caution.  He writes,

“Sometimes this internal process of dying is spoken of as a ‘dying to self’ or the ‘death of the self’… But I think ‘dying to self’ is too imprecise because it is subject to misunderstanding. ‘Dying to self’ has been used to encourage the repression of the self and its legitimate desires.  Oppressed people, in society and in the family, have often been told to put their own selves last out of obedience to God.  When thus understood, the message of the cross becomes an instrument of oppressive authority and self-abdication.

“But the cross is the means of our liberation and reconnection,” writes Borg. “ It is not about the subjugation of the self, but about a new self… The way of the cross involves dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being, one centered in God.”x

Borg goes on to say that “this process is at the heart not only of Christianity, but of the other enduring religions of the world.  The image of following ‘the way’ is common in Judaism, and ‘the way’ involves a new heart, a new self centered in God.  One of the meanings of the word ‘Islam’ is ‘surrender’: to surrender one’s life to God by radically centering in God…  And Muhammad is reported to have said, ‘Die before you die.’… At the heart of the Buddhist path is ‘letting go’ – the same internal path as dying to an old way of being and being born into a new.  According to the Tao te Ching, a foundational text for both Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Lao Tsu said: ‘If you want to become full, let yourself be empty; if you want to be reborn, let yourself die.’

“This process of personal spiritual transformation – which we as Christians call being born again, dying and rising with Christ, life in the Spirit – is thus central to the world’s religions.”

“The way that Jesus incarnated is a universal way, not an exclusive way,” concludes Borg,.  Jesus is the embodiment, the incarnation, of the path of transformation known in the religions that have stood the test of time.” xi

For us as Christians, Jesus embodies “the way” of dying and rising, the way of laying down the old life for the new, the giving up of an old identity and way of life, in order to receive a new identity and a new way of life “in Christ.”  For us, Jesus embodies this way. He is the Way.

Dying and rising has consequences.  It does not leave us unchanged.  It is a way of inner transformation that reconnects us to God.  “It is the life of the returned prodigal, welcomed home from exile,” writes Borg, “It is the life of the healed demoniac, restored to his right mind and to community; the life of the bent woman, standing up and restored to health; the life of the woman of the city, redeemed by her love; the life of Lazarus, raised from the dead… It is (a life) marked by freedom, joy, peace and love…the love of God for us and the love of God in us.”xii

Let’s return for a moment to the gathering of interfaith spiritual directors.  What shall we say in this context?  For Christians, Jesus is the Way to God.  Jesus not only shows us this way, he is the Way.  Through him we have come into a new and abiding relationship with God.  We Christians can affirm this truth boldly – it is what we have known and experienced – while at the same time being respectful in our relations with those of other faiths, whose experience we do not know, recognizing that they too are on a journey to God.

The process of dying and rising takes many forms. How has it taken form in your own life?  To what of the old have you had to die, or to what do you need to die, in order to experience the new life that God gives?  Can you testify to the truth that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”?xiii This is the path to God.  This is the Way.

_________________________________

i Koester, Craig R.; Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community; (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

ii John 13:1 (see also 13:3).

iii John 13:1-2; 18:1-5.

iv John 18:15-18, 25-27.

v John 19:1-6.

vi John 20:17.

vii Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; The Call of Discipleship; (New York: Macmillan, 1963).  (This work was first published in German in 1937.)

viii John 12:24.

ix Galatians 2:19b-20a.

x Borg, Marcus J.; The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith; (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003), pp.112-113.

xi Ibid, p.119.

xii Ibid, p.121.

xiii John 12:24.

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18 Comments

  1. sandra on May 3, 2017 at 12:07

    Thank you so much, Brother David, for this enlightening and moving sermon. I am so very grateful for this. God bless you for all that you do!

  2. Edan North on May 3, 2017 at 02:55

    This insight by the brother, reminded me, that Jesus was reminding us, of the sacredness of baptism even in his last few hours of life. Baptism is noted in the old testament as well, just the same for people who are Jewish.

    Yes, Jewish people called it, ‘Mikva.’ That word sounds more like milk as it spills from my mouth. Even the rocks at the traditional temple in Jerusalem look as if the sun had warmed and dried milk upon their surface.

    That always makes me think of that famous and well known part of the bible about the promise to the Jewish people by God the Father, ‘Of living in a land of milk and honey’ (I put the biblical reference verse at the bottom of this message).

    Maybe the sacred humble place of Jerusalem seemed more human-like. More for Jesus rather than for God the Father.

    I think there is a real connection here to humanity and that Jesus was born a human being. Thus, symbolically, although different from his father (the old testament); it is from that past, those words of God, and those words of his people; that Jesus is brought up on. Just as a human child drinks human milk rather than manna.

    Many people know that God was raised by people. Perhaps I would go as far as to say that, ‘Jesus was raised by the people, for the people.’ The greatest gift from God.

    He becomes the life of the new testament. This written documentary now exists for anyone who wants to read it. Thus, any one man or woman can find the means to embrace the Spirit of God.

    Perhaps most important of all is the Spirit of God that remains with us. The part of Him that guards the future. I pray that humanity never again needs God in the physical sense on earth and that the Spirit will suffice. Meaning that, we as a people will never witness a world as terrible and without Faith as the one described during the time of Moses or Jesus.

    It is upon that prayer for humanity that I will contemplate during this night.

    Ezekiel 16: 9
    Jeremiah 32:22
    1 Corinthians 3:2
    Luke 8:1a
    Mark 14:32 – 42

  3. Dee Dee on April 18, 2016 at 18:18

    I am thankful today for this beautiful sermon. Marcus Borg’s words ring true for me, affirming what I have come to know about losing your life to save it. In my case, the death that I experienced was a divorce after many years of marriage. As Borg explains, I mistakenly thought for a long time that “dying to self” meant ignoring my inner voice, my true self, and putting the marriage vows ahead of “self.” I finally realized that what it really meant was letting go of my false image of what life was “supposed to be.” Allowing that old self to die has made way for a new self, a new “me,” and this authenticity allows me to live in a much more God-centered way than I ever could have while living within that false self. I am finally able to live out my calling now that I’ve allowed that false self to die.

    And as far as Jesus’ words that no one can come to the father except through him…. I think that’s probably one of the most mis-interpreted verses in the Bible. I’ve often joked that I have a “feng shui” perspective on that — namely, that Jesus’ words about humanity coming to God through him simply meant that through his & God’s actions the world would be saved. His death on the cross is an event that happened. Period. Individuals’ belief about the significance of the death does not make it true or not true. Similarly, feng shui says that your belief in it doesn’t affect whether it exists or doesn’t exist, so that is my somewhat silly comparison. (Full disclosure: I don’t believe in feng shui, but I do believe Jesus saved the whole world, and I sure am relieved that my (un)belief has no effect on the truth of either one! )

  4. Ruth West on April 18, 2016 at 11:49

    Br. David, I have always admired your stand for the truth. I cannot believe that one, as committed to Our Lord Jesus Christ as you apparently have been and are, can teach that all of the world’s religions lead to the same place. Christianity does teach, with countless scriptures to support it, that Jesus, indeed, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. I know that we are a people of the Resurrection. That clearly defines the differences.
    I know that millions follow the Golden Rule and other commendable ways of transformation. Muslims believe Jesus was a wonderful man, a prophet to be admired. Jews are still looking for the Messiah, even though they follow the Law.
    Many bow down to and follow the teachings of great men, such as Buddha. I do not deny the good of many world religions, but I still proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Ultimately, you and I are not the judge of those who feel they are on the right path to the Father. But I feel we should not justify and fail to preach the gospel as we are commanded to do. Jesus is the Way!

  5. Paul on April 18, 2016 at 11:25

    I am surprised that you do not mention the possibility that the statement “No one comes to the Father except through me” is just one of John’s many anti-Semitic remarks – which, when taken in historical context, may be understandable in light of the feud then transpiring between Jews and the Christian community. For me, this anti-Semitism argument avoids all of the philosophical and theological head-spinning which is used to explain a remark that has put entire civilizations at war with one another. … When people throw this remark at me, I frequently mention Jesus’ healing of a servant of the enemy, a Roman centurion whose faith was unlike any other that Jesus had seen. So much for limiting Jesus’ healing mercy to members of the club.

  6. Rhode on April 18, 2016 at 09:33

    As a believer in the saving grace of Christ and also being married to a lovely Jewish man and having raised a Jewish son, I do, sometimes, cringe when I hear words of exclusivity. I am a child of the 60s, peace and love for all.
    Yet, God first appeared to Abraham and Moses. Jesus came to his own people first and to fulfill the prophecies He did God’s will. Paul preaching to the Greeks stated there was a time when God allowed the world to believe what they wanted but the time had come for all to repent, turn to God and believe in Yeshua.
    Why not just ask everyone to be good ? As I understand it, If I am to be a follower of Jesus I must accept the hard truth I am so full of self and sin God must deem the acceptance of the life, bloody death and resurrection of Christ necessary to come before Him. And All will come before Him. Jesus’s life, death and resurrection challenges my heart to accept this gospel like a child and to spread the Gospel to all. With the power of Gods own Spirit He reveals receiving Grace to spread Love, broadly, on a narrow road. The cross is the final symbol of intolerance. We crucified God! God could have just said Be Good. Every straight wall needs a plumb line. Every religion points to a need for a true plumb line. God provided Jesus. Can I hope in the end He will accept more people into the kingdom than I ever would have? He can do whatever he wants. He is God. But, He has given me / us a map and a promise. There is nothing to be ashamed for except our own depravities and lack of love. The best answer for our world will always be He who offers the greatest love. I must examine what it means to be like Christ everyday. I am grateful for these SSJE moments.

  7. Claude A. Wheeler on May 8, 2014 at 10:40

    Thank you for the thought provoking message. Although, it would be convenient to think or believe that there are various avenues to experience an inner relationship with God, one would need to illuminate a large portion of the scripture. The Old Testament provided a clear path for those who desired a relationship with the Creator and it pointed to the shedding of blood, that of the Pascal Lamb. If there could be another WAY, God made a horrible mistake in sacrificing his son. Why did Jesus command his disciples to go into all the world and proclaim the good news? What was the good news?

    • Emily B. Osborn on May 9, 2014 at 12:17

      I met Jesus personally through His healing ministry and a vision of Him. I knew it was for real. I followed closely for 35 years. Now at 87 I do not doubt but I grieve sometimes that my healing ministry is now a care for ministry. I care for my 96 year old husband and I hope I model a soul following Christ to others.

      • Dorothy on April 18, 2016 at 10:55

        You do Emily. You do model Christi love by caring for your husband. Your care for your husband is very important for him, for others and even for you. You are doing the hardest job in the whole world…that of care giving. I am a nurse and I think care giving for a family member is one of the hardest jobs there is. You do emulate God’s love to him and others around you. I am so sorry as to how hard this must be. Remember to take some time off for yourself though. You need it. I am a nurse in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I do not know where you are but I will be thinking and praying for you today. Dorothy

  8. Joan Cleary on May 7, 2014 at 21:13

    Brother David, your beautiful remarks resonant deeply to me as mine is an interfaith family in which we honor both Christian and Jewish holidays and beliefs. I have tried to create a sense of wholeness within our family in which love respects, embraces and transcends different Ways to the same God. Thank you for this teaching which has helped me better understand and more fully live into the meaning of John’s Gospel. Daily I appreciate the gifts of SSJE.

  9. Emily B. Osborn on May 7, 2014 at 12:53

    Excellent sermon, true every word. I am still working toward completely being a spirit filled Christian. It is difficult. My ministry is caring for a 97 year old husband. It is difficult but rewarding. I am truly benefiting by your daily posts. Emily Butler Osborn

  10. Jack on May 7, 2014 at 09:22

    I agree with all of what you say, David, and find it very helpful in the interfiqth context in which we live today. I’m a bit concened, though, with the implication that Jesus’ way of dying and rising is for most of us (only) an “internal process of transformation.” While it is true that few in the Western world are likely to be called to the physical martyrdom of the early disciples, we may well be called to a dying to our material wealth by a radical change of lifestyle in order to participate in the rising of a more just and equitable society. Challenging as the internal process of transformation is, I am much more ready to sign up for that than for dying to the very comfortable life I live as a middle-class American.

  11. Robert Shotton on May 7, 2014 at 05:46

    Thank you, this has given me a new way to look at those words of Jesus. I have to ask myself, Is my old self really dead – or is it still lurking there in a dark corner of my heart?

  12. Clarice Boyd on May 1, 2013 at 10:40

    You have affirmed what I have always believed about other religions. People of other religions that live a good and God-ly life are not lost to God. I believe He would not turn His back on those who have dedicated their lives to the Him. The transformation of heart that leads to this dedication is the gift of knowing Our Father intimately. May it ever be so.

  13. Susan Gillespie on May 1, 2013 at 09:42

    Thank you! Thank you! I am posting this on our church bulletin board at coffee hour if I may…I have always (well, at least since I began to get away from my self) that G-d is SO much bigger than we are! and that we dare not, can not second guess G-d!

  14. The Rev. Mark Wilkinson on May 1, 2013 at 09:29

    Thank you for this sermon. I have preached a variation on it for several years especially since this is used at so many funerals in the Episcopal Church. This gives me a new way to state this.

  15. Mino Sullivan on May 1, 2013 at 08:54

    Dear Brother David,

    What a gift you are to the world, how very fortunate are we who have received the gift of reading your words and hearing your voice. I feel I’ve been on the cusp for so long, trying let go of fear, beginning to understand that is Christ and his unbounded love that lives within us and finally learning to love ever more deeply out of that truth.

    Your words that arrived this morning are an extraordinary help. Thank you so much!

  16. sandy tieman on May 1, 2013 at 07:00

    Thankyou, this helps me to see that I am not to judge but try to understand others beliefs aren’t always mine. I’ve,had a strong belief in Christ since I was a very young child but had to be an old lady to realize not evryone sees things the way I do. God”s love has no boundaries !

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