“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”

In the late 1990s, I was a graduate student in Chicago.  Jill and I lived in Wrigleyville, but I went to school on the south side.  To get there I took a circuitous route.  I boarded the Brown Line L a couple of blocks from our house and rode to the Loop, where I got off the L, walked a block to the train station, and hopped a shoreline train to the 59th Street depot, where I’d walk into Hyde Park with the lake at my back.

During that time, I had a recurring dream that I would hurriedly board the train just as it is leaving the station, take my seat, and settle in relief that I haven’t missed the train and therefore been late for class.  But in the dream, just as my breathing calms, the conductor enters the car and yells, “Tickets!” and I’m aware with a new sense of foreboding that I don’t have one.  As the conductor makes his way down the aisle, punching tickets along the way, I search every pocket, my backpack, the seat next to me…but there is no ticket to be found.  When the conductor reaches me—every time—the look on his face makes clear that he knows I am ticketless even before I admit it.  His look reveals that I don’t belong on this train.  The seat in which I sit is not mine.  At the next stop, I am ushered off the train, onto a platform in a neighborhood I do not know, left alone to find my way.  It is fearsome and shameful.  And then I wake up.

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Another story.  An actual one this time; not a dream. Fast-forward a few years.  I’m in seminary in Austin, and I’m engaged in a summer of student hospital chaplaincy.  A man is in the hospital who has had a stroke.  He’s not bouncing back, and in addition to the severe physical effects of the stroke, he has aphasia: he can’t craft sentences that make sense.  There is a disconnect between his brain and his speech.  The man’s wife is afraid for his life, both present and eternal, and one day in agitated desperation she asks me, the student chaplain, to come into his hospital room and coax him into repeating the words after me, one-by-one, “I. Accept. The. Lord. Jesus. Christ. As. My. Personal. Lord. And. Savior.”

What is the connection between these two stories?  In the second story, the wife worried as I did in my nightmare of the first story.  Her husband’s life was almost over.  He was about to board the train to whatever is next, and she feared that he didn’t have a ticket, the password, the map key to get him where he needed to go.  Lacking a ticket, he’d be kicked out, in fear and shame, into some other place where he would not be able to find his way.

This is a prevailing understanding of Christianity, perhaps especially in the United States, and it is undergirded by our Gospel reading this Sunday, in which Jesus discusses with the twelve disciples that he must soon depart from them.  The disciple Thomas is apprehensive, and he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  To which Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

There is an exclusivity and a finality to Jesus’ words.  Standing alone, they seem crystal clear and unassailable.  Jesus is the ticket, and without a ticket, we are lost.

But here’s the thing: Where this interpretation prevails, despite a veneer of grace and mercy, despite forced smiles and upbeat music, despite outwardly confident testimonies of one’s faith, such flavors of Christianity are often characterized by shame and fear.  God becomes the abusive father in whose presence we flinch, to whom we choose what we say with trembling care, hoping we’re stringing together the words that are acceptable and that do not betray our crippling inner doubt.  Indeed, many who leave Christianity behind altogether are leaving this Christianity behind, having recognized that it smothers and in no way fulfills Jesus’ other claim, which we read just last Sunday, that he “came that [we] might have life, and have it abundantly.”[i]

As is so often the case, if we let scripture interpret scripture and read Jesus’ words today in their context, we come away with an altogether different understanding.

First, let’s parse Jesus’ central sentence itself, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  The order of words here is not incidental.  First and foremost, Jesus shows us a Way.  Indeed, the Book of Acts tells us that before followers of Jesus were ever called Christians, they were called people of the Way.[ii]  And “Way” here means a way of being in the world, a path, a manner of life.  Truth and life in Jesus’ statement are derivative of this Way.  In other words, Jesus’ words might best be translated, “I am the Way, which is truth and life.”

I am the Way

And what is the Way of Jesus?  Is it stringing together the right magic words?  Is it testifying to a specific belief that gets our tickets punched?  No.  The Way is the life that Jesus himself has demonstrated and into which he has called us throughout the Gospels.  The Way of Jesus is the life that embraces the leper, listens to the voiceless, shares table with those the world would call unworthy.  The Way of Jesus is the life that looks upon every fraught situation not as a battle to be won with an enemy to vanquish but as an opportunity to extend and receive grace.  The Way of Jesus is the Way of love.

Importantly, this is not merely a program for good deeds, and it is not a doctrine of earning salvation.  (That’s worth saying again: This is not merely a program for good deeds, and it is not a doctrine of earning salvation.)  Rather, and as Jesus himself says in the Gospel today, living the Way of Jesus is how we come to know God.  That word—Know—is a crucial one.  In scripture, it almost never means “to know about.”  It isn’t about collecting datapoints and compiling facts and figures.  Rather, it almost always refers to a deep and intimate understanding.  It can even mean sexual intimacy: to know “in the biblical sense,” as you’ve undoubtedly heard someone joke at some point in time.   But that gets at it.  To know God, to really know God, is to have a depth of connection, understanding, and trust with the divine ground of being that is as real as our relationships with our spouses or lovers, that is as intimate as our awareness of our own souls.  That is what it means to know God, and Jesus teaches today that we can only come to know the God who is love when we live the Way of love.

Think about it this way: I can tell my spouse that I love her—I can string those words together—but the words are meaningful only when they are a verbal expression of a life of love towards her and with her.  Only as I walk that way with her does my life become the love that I claim for her.  And so it is with the Way of Jesus.  Any words we might say about Jesus, or God, or our faith are just words.  They are not magic.  They hold no weight, and especially no weight toward our salvation.  The Way of Jesus is not about words.  It’s not about getting a ticket punched.  It is about living grace—extending it and receiving it—until we are transformed into being different people, until we are transformed by love into love.

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That is what Jesus means when he says no one comes to the Father except through him.  Jesus means that we know the God who is love only when we walk the Way of love.  And that is self-evident.  When we begrudge, or hate, or dismiss, or undercut, or tear down, we shut out love.  When we bind up, reconcile, and extend and receive grace, we are transformed by love into love.  And then, we have life abundantly.  Then, we know God.  Then, we are never lost.  We know the Way because we have walked the Way until we have become the Way.  No shame; no fear; only love.

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[i] John 10:10

[ii] Acts 9:2