Written by Pastor Ed
I Am the Way
Nov. 12, 2017
John 14: 1-14
Psalm 86: 8-13
“I’m about to leave,” said Jesus and the anxiety level of the disciples went up, if you can imagine that. If you look at the structure of John’s gospel, you will see a shift in chapter 12 as Jesus enters Jerusalem and then begins to talk to his disciples about what was coming. John includes a long section of teaching following the triumphal entry and the last supper, which in John is the account of the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus. And it is in that context that we have today’s text.
Jesus has washed the disciple’s feet, Judas has left the building, and Jesus has told the disciples that he is going away and they won’t be able to come. “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews, so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’” (13:33)
Peter, ever the spokesman, asks, “Where are you going?” and Jesus replies with that familiar passage which we heard read. As I noted previously on this passage, the disciples, as usual, are confused. If I say I’m going somewhere, and you ask me where I’m going, I can give you an address, 3003 Benham Ave. Elkhart, Indiana and you can plug that into your GPS unit or your phone and it will tell you how to get there.
But Jesus wasn’t talking about an address or somewhere to which you could give directions. Jesus makes a rather interesting statement as he says, “Believe in God, believe also in me. (14:1) I’m going ahead of you to prepare a place.” For anyone who knew their scriptures, the allusion would have been clear. If you studied the Gospel of John with Jake Enns, as I did, you would know that John makes a great deal of reference to the book of Exodus, and to the exodus itself as a template for Jesus work.
In Deuteronomy 1, as the people are about to enter the promised land, Moses says this to the people,
“30 The Lord your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place. 32 But in spite of this, you have no trust in the Lord your God, 33 who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take.”
It was God who led the children of Israel through the wilderness, showing them the way they should go and preparing a place for them to camp. So Jesus says, now I am the way. There is a lot of discussion among scholars about the relationship between way, truth and life, but most agree that the primary description is, the way, which leads to truth and life.
“Where are you going?” Thomas asks. And the answer is that you don’t need to know the address, the where, you only need to know the way; and the way is Jesus. It’s a journey, not a destination. “Follow me,” was the initial invitation and it continues to be the invitation.
Just recently a friend of mine, a retired pastor, posted a picture on Facebook which just happened to fit in well with my sermon for today. Ron and his wife Ruth were hiking in Arches National Park in Utah and he said this.
“Day 2 in Arches National Park: We hiked several primitive trails today, which I find more challenging and enjoyable. Hiking gave me time to reflect on the sign we saw frequently: “This is not a trail: you walk off the trail you cause extensive damage.” It made me think about re-translating Jesus’ words, “I am the trail, the truth, . . .” It seems like many so-called Christians walk off the trail and cause “extensive damage.” Jesus also said, “Follow me,” or better “Stay on the trail I am walking on.”
I like that image. Jesus didn’t say that if you believe certain things you’ll get there. Rather he talked about staying on the trail, following him and the way he was going. And, a bit later he promised them that they wouldn’t be on that journey by themselves, but that the Spirit would come to help them figure out the way. And if you continue to follow that way, you will come to know God more and more, because you will be living the way of Jesus, who showed us what God is like.
It’s interesting, and informative, to know that the followers of Jesus were first known as “people of the Way.” So we are told in Acts 9 that “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (9:1-2) It was only later, in Antioch that followers of Jesus began to be called Christians. (Acts 11:26)
And what was the primary component of that way. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35) This is the way to follow, because it leads to truth and life. I recall a Jewish ethicist who spoke to a group Christian clergy and chided us a bit. He noted that for Jews, truth is something that gets debated, noting that rabbi so and so said this, while another rabbi said something different. But you Christians, he noted, say that you have the Truth, with a capital “T” and that has led to all kinds of divisions and arguments.
One of the ways that I think we have often gotten off the trail, is that we have been more concerned about Truth, with a capital “T” than we have been in following the one who said, “I am the truth.” He wasn’t talking about belief, but rather about his mission, to show us who God really is, and to show us the way. It’s not about a set of dogmas, do you believe in the trinity, or in the two natures of Jesus – I’ve just been rereading my Preface to Theology lectures – it’s rather a way, a trail, a path.
We are just past Reformation Sunday which we didn’t pay much attention to, but this year marked the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. When the Anabaptists, our forebears broke away from the followers of Luther and Calvin in 1525, it was primarily over the fact that they did not see any change in the way Christians were living. An emphasis from then until now has been that being a Christian is not only about what you believe, which is important, but als on whether you are following the Way, staying on the trail.
So Jesus’ commandment to love becomes important, not only love for each other, but even love for enemies. On Thursday I attended a special afternoon assembly at Menno Simons Christian School labeled a Peace Festival, to recognize that Jesus calls us to the way of peace rather than to war. I was reminded that the original celebration on November 11 was to celebrate the Armistice, the coming of peace and the end of the war. Somehow the focus has changed.
Jesus showed us the way in the Sermon on the Mount, and gave us an example of love by laying down his life for his friends, which he says is the greatest love anyone can have. We may not know where all the trail may lead but that’s ok, even if it is a little scary at times. He also assured us that if we continue in the way, on the trail, the Spirit will continue to guide us along the way. And we believe that is still the case. Jesus, and the New Testament writers who gave us the record of Jesus, couldn’t anticipate all the issues and questions that the church would face through the centuries, or that we face today. But the call is still the same, “Follow me.” Stay on the trail that I started you on, and you will, with the help of the Spirit, come to know where the trail is leading and what it means to love. We haven’t always gotten is right; we still see through a glass dimly. The church has made numerous corrections along the way as the Spirit continues to guide us.
But we have someone who has gone on before us to scout out the path and find us a camping spot down the trail a ways. And, Jesus assures us, there will be plenty of room for everyone, perhaps even for some that we didn’t expect to see there. “Keep on the trail,” the signs say and you won’t do so much damage. Not bad advice, whether your hiking or following the way of Jesus.