Wednesday, June 01, 2011

the way (john 14. 6)

I have the skill, I will confess, of getting lost. When I moved to Charlotte eight years ago, after about seventeen years in the Triad, it was disorienting. All these streets names that had variations of Queens and Sharon in them, and everyone else seemed to know exactly where they were headed, but not me. I was lost, and more than one fellow traveler expressed their frustration with my disorientation. Having been here a few years, I realize that I have now become that frustrated person! But that is another story!

I actually had the skill of getting lost long before I came to Charlotte. Years ago I was serving a group of churches way out in the country. Early on someone would say to me, “you should visit Miss Irma”. Then another person would mention, in passing, “you really ought to go see Miss Irma”. So I would ask: “How do I get to Miss Irma’s house?” And I remember one man responding to the question like this: “You pass the oak tree near where the red barn used to be…”

Many of us have the skill of getting lost. Maybe we just need good directions. “We don’t know where we are going…how can we know the way?”

The disciples, it seemed, had the skill of getting lost too. They were asking for directions. Jesus had given them a promise: I go to prepare a place for you. He has shared the Passover meal with them, and washed their feet. He has experienced the betrayal of Judas and commanded them to love one another. And now he gives them a promise: I go to prepare a place for you. The place, according to John, is in the presence of the Father, in heaven.

But how will they get there? They are asking for directions. Jesus says, “ I am the way, the truth and the life”. We sometimes interpret this verse in an intellectual way----we imagine that Jesus is actually saying, “I am the truth, the way and the life.” But this is not what he says. He says, “I am the way” first, which means, he is calling us to follow him, to be his students, to learn from him. In the modern world to learn from a master teacher is to agree to a body of material content, usually what we need to know to pass an examination. But in the ancient world it was different: There is a saying in the Mishnah, a source of Jewish teaching: “may you be covered in the dust of your rabbi”. Rabbis taught as they walked around, and their students, their disciples, followed them. As the rabbis walked and talked they would kick up the dust as they made their points. By the end of a day, their disciples would be covered with the dust of their rabbis.

To follow Jesus is to cover the ground that he covered. Do you ever recall saying to your children, when they were very small, “stay close to me.” It is similar: to stay close to Jesus is to be on the way that he is going.

That way is the journey, but we do sometimes get fixated on the destination. And so we read this verse, John 14. 6., one that many of us know well, and we go all the way to the endpoint, the destination. Some have read it as a passage about who will or will not be in heaven. As with all verses of scripture we know well, it requires a careful reading: Jesus says, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Christians believe that God is Trinitarian, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do come to the Father through the Son. Lesslie Newbigin, the missionary and theologian, wrote:

"We do not know the destination. We have no map of what lies beyond the curtain, though theologians---and others---often use language to suggest that we have. We do not know the limits of the possibilities for our personal lives or for the life of the world. We do not know, and cannot know, all that God has prepared for those who love him. It is beyond the highest power of our imagination (1 Corinthians 2. 9)."We do not know the destination; but we do know the way. That is the heart of the matter…”

Jesus is the way. He says, of himself, “I am the way.” We are often too focused on outcomes, end results, goals, destinations. We do often give less attention to the process, to the preparations, to journey. We give more attention to where we are going than the way we get there.

I have always enjoyed hiking, and one of my favorite memories is hiking Mt. LeConte, in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee. It is only a few feet less in altitude than Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi river. It is tempting to be preoccupied with what you experience on the top of LeConte: they prepare a delicious meal for you, the vistas in every direction are stunning, the air is cool and clear, and the sunset is a wonder to behold.

But there is more, much more to LeConte, than getting to the top. What also matters is the way up there. There are four or five routes to the top; one is long and winding, another is quicker, with a steeper incline. So you choose a particular trail, based on your needs, the time you have, your physical capacity. It matters how you get there, and it matters who you are walking with, your traveling companions. As you walk you get to know them, and they come to know you. If you can pay attention, you will discover that along the way the vegetation changes, the ferns, the mountain laurel, the rhododendron. You may see a small bear. Along the way you will need to stop to drink some cold water, or else you will become dehydrated. And unless you hike a great deal, you will need to take care of a blister that is likely to develop. You will ignore the blister at your own peril!

The place, at the top, is important. But the way comes first. I go to prepare a place for you, Jesus says. We do not know where you are going, the disciples comment. How can we know the way? Jesus says, “I am the way.” Now, this verse requires out interpretation. There was a community, in the lifetime of Jesus, that saw itself as “the way.” We learned a great deal about this community, Qumran, in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They saw themselves as the ideal and only “way” a person lived a life that was pleasing and obedient to God. The implication was that anyone outside their community was not a part of “the way”; anyone outside their community was living a life that was not pleasing to God, that was in fact disobedient to God.

So it is significant that Jesus says, of himself, “I am the way.” Christians have always struggled with this, and we must always be reminded of this statement of his: our tradition, our denomination, our way of worshipping and serving and believing is never “the way.” Now the United Methodist Church is my home and I am grateful for it, but it is never true to scripture to say, “if you are not a part of my denomination, you are not really a Christian”….but that message sometimes gets communicated!

Jesus is the way, and insofar as we are following him, as closely as possible, we are on the way with him.

Another issue arises, this one more personal. Sometimes we attach out understanding of what it means to be a Christian to the way we see another person living it out: perhaps a Christian preacher or teacher or servant with some celebrity or extreme dedication, and we try to emulate them. But for one reason or another, this fails: you want to be Mother Teresa, but you actually have two or three children who need you, and so you can’t pick up and move to India; you want to be a missionary but you actually have a mortgage and you are putting your son or daughter through college, or helping an aging parent. You would love to move the crowds with your testimony like Billy Graham, but there is that small matter of a fear of public speaking.

I think we fall in step with Jesus wherever we are, and we become his traveling companion, and he ours. And just as Jesus walked the roads of Capernaum and Emmaus and Jerusalem and Nazareth, we walk on our particular routes that take us to our appointed places. That is the way we follow Jesus.

There is yet another complexity in this verse, John 14. 6: it has been understood to say that only those who confess Jesus as Lord will be in heaven, in the house with many rooms, or mansions, as the King James translated it. What do we make of this?

When Will Willimon was here in the spring he reflected on another saying of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”. He used this image: “Like a great magnet that indiscriminately picks up all kinds of metallic trash, Jesus says that when he is lifted up, he will extravagantly draw all to himself.”

Early in John’s Gospel we are told in fact been told that Jesus is the light that lightens every man and woman. So who will inhabit those many mansions? If we read the gospels closely, we are not inclined to set limits on what God cannot or cannot do, whom Jesus can or cannot save. The question of who will be in heaven is one that is really beyond our grasp, only God knows. It is like describing a mountain peak we have actually never seen. But what have we seen? We have seen Jesus, who is the way, the sufficient guide to that place.

I want you to think about Jesus today not as an abstract idea or name that you have learned, the right answer that will get you into heaven, you get that clear in your mind and you say it and you pass the test. I want you to think about Jesus today as the way, he is the way from God to us and from us to God, he is the traveling companion who helps us to consider the lilies of the field, who teaches us to live one day at a time, who comes not to condemn us but to set us free, who opens our blind eyes, who commands us to take up the cross.

Not everyone says “yes” to the invitation to follow Jesus. Indeed, in the words of Robert Frost, who said, “I took the road less traveled by…”, not everyone becomes his disciple. But for those who say yes to his invitation, he is the way, the truth and the life.

The journey is just as important as the destination. In this season of graduations, we often gather for the ceremony, we hear the commencement speaker, we take a picture with our Smartphone to capture the moment. The outcome----the degree, the completion----is important. But if you are a parent, sitting there, you are also thinking about the journey, the sacrifices, the detours, the failures, the discipline that allowed you to take that next step and then another one and then another one.

To climb the mountain with Jesus is the great adventure of this life. In the words of one of the saints, Catherine:

All the way to heaven is heaven, because he said, I am the way.”

Sources: Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way. Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come. William Willimon, Why Jesus?


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