May 18 2014 John 14: 1-14
Rev. Catherine Purves
Last week I was sitting with you in a pew, which was a very strange experience for me. I was sitting there because I had only just arrived back from California at 6:30 that morning which felt to me like 3:30 AM. You would not have wanted me in the pulpit last Sunday. Most of you know that I was in California for a conference and that I stayed a few extra days to visit with our daughter, Laura. The conference was held in a Catholic retreat center in San Francisco which we all referred to as “The Nunnery.” Conditions were a bit primitive, but the food was tolerable and the gardens were lovely. It was good to meet with people from all over the country who have been part of the Company of New Pastors program. This was the final celebration of our time together when we officially proclaimed that our new pastors had now graduated to the elevated status of old pastors.
But since it was a conference, we had to have a speaker. So they brought in a woman who works as a spiritual director and who is a retired seminary professor and author. You would think that she would have had something worthwhile to say. But from the very start, something didn’t quite feel right. It was hard to put your finger on what was wrong with what she was saying. As a spiritual director, she tended to talk in terms of feelings and experiences rather than thoughts or convictions. While that was not my cup of tea, I tried to go with the flow. But by the second day, it suddenly dawned on me what was missing. She never used the name Jesus. Everything she said was about God. Occasionally, she referred to the Holy Spirit. But Jesus was decidedly absent from her presentation. How could that be, you may well ask. She was a professor, she was ordained, she was a spiritual director for others in the faith. How could she talk about God without mentioning Jesus? Lots of people do, every day in life. But as Christians, we can’t, because Jesus is our way of talking about and knowing God.
In the book of Acts there are several places where the newly emerging church is referred to as the Way (with a capital ‘W’). Before his conversion, Paul went to the high priest asking for letters which gave him the authority to arrest any men or women he found “who belonged to the Way.” Later in Acts when Paul was making his defense before Felix the governor at Caesarea, he insisted that the charges made against him were false, and then he went on to say, “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors.” Felix, we are told, “was rather well informed about the Way,” but he still didn’t release Paul from prison. What was this Way that was thought of as a sect and that even the Roman governor knew something about? And why was it called that, the Way?
You could probably come up with a lot of answers to those questions. Perhaps the most obvious would be to say that Christianity was initially perceived to be a movement within Judaism. It was a new way of being a Jew and a new way of worshiping the God of Israel. That also explains why it was called a sect. As such, it might have taken its place alongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees and others who claimed to have their own particular way of understanding and living their faith as Jews. But this isn’t an entirely satisfactory explanation, and, certainly, in time it became quite clear that the Way was far more than a Jewish sect.
It’s interesting to think about how this name, the Way, that was initially given to those who believed in Jesus, might be related to our reading for today from John’s Gospel. There, remember, Jesus himself explicitly said, “I am the way.” I am the way. If we were inclined to think of Christianity as simply a way of life, or a particular religious lifestyle choice, then how do we reconcile that with this claim of Jesus who specifically identified himself as the Way. And he follows that statement with a second assertion, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We could put that in a positive way too: “I am the way that you can come to the Father.” Sometimes when we think of this as an excluding statement, by emphasizing the ‘no one’ and the ‘except’, we can miss the joyful good news that is expressed in Jesus’ declaration, “I am the way.” And that is, that there is a way, a way for us to return to the Father, in spite of our sin and our brokenness and our past rebelliousness. There is a way, a marvelous and a gracious way, for us to be in relationship with God, and that way has a name. The way is Jesus.
This is what the woman who was leading the conference that I attended didn’t seem to understand. When she spoke about God it was hard to know who she was talking about if she didn’t mention Jesus. It sounded like just some generic notion of God that could be slotted into any religious framework. Maybe it’s a California thing, but at the Nunnery, next to their labyrinth, which is a circular path meant to assist you in prayer, there was a statue of a Buddha. What was that about? If you were unsuccessful walking in circles in search of a spirituality were you supposed to sit with Buddha for a while in your quest for God?
It makes me think of Thomas’ response when Jesus said to the disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Surely, we shouldn’t still be asking that same question, “How can we know the way?” Shortly after the resurrection of Jesus newly converted Christians were asserting with confidence that they knew the way, so much so that their new faith was even called the Way. And it wasn’t just a particular lifestyle, a set of values, or a religious sect. It was how they identified with the risen Lord who called himself the way.
But what exactly did Jesus mean when he said that he was the way? This becomes clear as his conversation with the disciples continued. Philip then said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” We have already seen that the way is our route back to God. And we know that route is through Jesus. That’s why he said, “I am the way.” But Philip seemed to be assuming that this new way to God was a long one. Perhaps they could get lost on the way. Would they even recognize their destination once they got there, or might they be walking in circles praying for a good long while? Could they mistakenly park themselves next to a Buddha and think that they had reached their destination? So, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus had to be exasperated by that point, because, obviously, they still didn’t get it. Do you get it? The way to God the Father through Jesus is a very short road, a very short road. Once you’re on the way, you can’t get lost, and you can’t mistake something other than God for the one true God. Because, as Jesus said to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” That is how direct and how short the way is that leads from Jesus to the Father.
Everything that we need to know about God is revealed in Jesus. More than that, everything that we need to be in order for us to be in a reconciled relationship with God is given in and through Jesus. When we know Jesus, we know the way. When we love Jesus, we are on the way. When we begin our journey on the way we have already arrived, because, as Jesus says elsewhere in John’s Gospel, “The Father and I are one.”
How could you say all of that without saying the name of Jesus? You can’t. And why would you want to? Why make the journey harder and longer and less certain than it needs to be? Jesus said, “I am the way.” The early Christians so identified with their risen Lord that they became known as the Way. And their life together was a celebration of their new knowledge of God and their saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, who was himself their way back to the Father. Let us join them on the way. Let us say with confidence and joy the name Jesus.