Following Along the Way
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 7 May 2023 Easter 5; Year A
Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 14:1-14; John 14:1-14
One question and a request anchor this day’s gospel lesson. Both stem from what Jesus says about himself: namely, that I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. [John 14:6]
In response to Jesus’ statement, Thomas (of “Doubting Thomas” fame) presents the question. When Jesus reassures the disciples that they should know where he is headed, I hear as a bit of frustration and irritation in Thomas’s voice, when he bluntly confesses that he has no idea where Jesus is going. How could anyone know the way?! (14:5)
Then, our Philip (that is, the Apostle, not the deacon) reveals himself as a mediating sort, cutting the tension of the moment by making what at first glance seems to be a simple and resolving request: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content,”(14:8) to which Jesus (with understandable exasperation) essentially answers, “What do you think I’ve been trying to do?!”
All this evolving drama centers around Jesus’ pointed proclamation about his identity: I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. And from this, some nagging issues arise. Baseline, what does Jesus mean by his assertion? Moreover, how does Jesus’ statement strike you? What do we do with his claim?
I find that many among us are offended by this comment or at least given great pause by it. What Jesus says sounds so exclusive and even arrogant, especially to those who hold to the erroneous belief that all religions are basically the same and, therefore, there are many “ways” to God and the God-life. Given this perspective, posing that there is one way to God and that Jesus is that way simply sounds haughtily narrow and rigidly self-serving. And yet – and yet -- mature Christians do recognize the implicit scandal surrounding belief in Jesus as God’s Christ because in our faith’s tradition we are saying something extremely specific and unique about Jesus: namely, that out of all the grains of sand on the beaches of the world, one grain makes all the difference.
So, where are we – where are we in terms of this gospel statement? Are we arrogant, even spiritually imperialistic; or do we seek shelter from such social and political incorrectness by avoiding the issue entirely?
In this sermon I want to suggest that neither holding Christ as some sort of self-validating trophy nor sheepishly ducking the issue of his uniqueness are very helpful or faithful. Rather, I want to suggest this: that in order to understand what it means that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”, there is a clear pre-requisite involved; and that pre-requisite is the willingness and commitment to follow him – to follow Jesus steadily along the way he walks and lives.
I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
In terms of Thomas and his concern, the only way we can possibly know the way that Jesus embodies is by following him – every step of the way. And Philip, if you really want to see the Father and gain that peace which passes all understanding, be open and pay attention to what is “seen and unseen” along the way .
The unspoken truth about our reticence in facing what Jesus says about being the “way, the truth, and the life”, that “no one comes to the Father but by him” – I think that our real reticence lies in the fact that we’d all rather have a spiritual “E-Zpass” that allows us to zip along unimpeded on the highway – no tolls; no detours; no traffic jams. But following Jesus along his incarnate way allows for no such traveling. In many ways, Jesus walks the “road less traveled”, the one tourists avoid for lack of room service and clean sheets. Of course, our reticence to follow Jesus along this way is because this less traveled road goes directly through the reality of the cross, the reality of death’s betrayal as well as death’s crucifixion.
Poor Thomas, there was no way that he or any of Jesus’ followers could know or imagine this way, much less want to go there. And with Philip’s mediation, there is no possible way to see the Father unless we are willing to face death itself and consequently to know in our deepest selves that with God there is more to life than fear and loss.
One can be shown this hard truth. One can be told this. We can pray about it, sing about it, preach about it; but none of this is the same as following Jesus, living the way with him, and eventually embodying the truth of the empty tomb.
Jesus, the Christ of God; Jesus, the Savior and Redeemer of the world; Jesus, the Shepherd of our souls: this Jesus is not a personal possession we can pull out like some “get-out-of-jail-free” card. This Jesus is not some victory flag we condescendingly wave in the faces of those who are not like us. Nor is this Jesus like some religious uber cab that will take us wherever we want to go. No, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”. The centrality of his truth and of his way is that Jesus uniquely confronts the power of death and reveals life that only the Father can and does give. And more than this, those who commit themselves to following Jesus will grow – will grow into being able to do in our lives what we have seen in the Risen One. What is required – and it is nothing short of a pre-requisite – is that we follow him, asking for the steadiness to live in his Name. Amen.