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 resurrectionvi – all 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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