Did you memorize Bible verses as a kid? Church school or summer camp, memorizing verses as a child was often a key way of connecting children to the Bible. Even as adults, we sometimes find a key verse or phrase that represents a story or has some fuller meaning than just those words and it becomes important enough for us to remember literally. And that can be a great thing when it inspires us to remember the fuller meaning to which it’s connected.
The problem, of course, is that a single verse out of context can take on a life of its own. Biblical soundbites can positively affirm or connect us to a deeper meaning, but they can also become something different all together. I could give you a list, but it’s long and there’s a particular verse on my mind this week.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” That’s a popular verse from John’s gospel (John 14:6) that we can hear as an affirmation that following the way of Jesus will bring us closer to God. That’s great. We can also hear it as decisively commanding that Jesus, and only Jesus, is the one and only way to God.
I suppose I want to be okay with that. After all, I like the affirmation that the figure I believe in, that I follow, is the right one. But the hole’s getting deeper already, isn’t it? Am I believing the way, or the figure who represents it?
This puts me on thin ice with some folks, I know. It seems like I’m doing that thing of questioning something that as “a believer,” I’m somehow not supposed to question. So let’s be clear: I am.
In this verse, in this story, in John’s telling of it, I can’t bring myself to believe that Jesus meant to exclude any and everyone who does not come to God “in his name.” That’s not the Jesus I believe I know.
I think the “me” Jesus refers to, when he says “no one comes to the Father but through me,” is the “me” he just described: “the way, and the truth, and the life.” To live as Jesus lived, to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35) is to live true to who and what we are in our deepest heart and soul and that is the way to God. If we live into our potential as being created in the image of God, then we are living the way Jesus lives. Then we are truly People of the Way. And that’s life-giving.
We may also want to consider the context of John’s gospel. It was written later than the others, at a time when the fledgling Christian community - who, incidentally, called themselves “people of the way,” not “christians” - was threatened by persecution from Romans and Jews. It makes sense that, in that context, John’s Jesus would say “I am the way, follow me,” not “there’s lots of ways, pick one.” And he’s not going to point at Fred and say, “Fred’s the way, follow him.” He’s going to say let me show you, follow my example, live as I have shown you. Don’t just talk about it, do it.
Am I splitting hairs here? I don’t think so. A key feature of what Jesus taught was action. You must live out what is being preached. Sadly, we have lots of examples of when and how that hasn’t happened. One of the greatest criticisms of the church, of any religious institution, by those who don’t “follow the label” is that we don’t, literally, practice what we preach always.
I also don’t think Jesus means for us to blindly follow without thought or consideration. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need freewill or choice, would we? The moment we make our “label” exclusive, I think we deny a key feature of living the way Jesus lived: Jesus welcomed all, regardless of their place in society, their gender, their cultural or political views.
I believe that Jesus knew that, before God, we are one family, but we are also all unique and individual. I think that’s why, just before the “I am the way” verse, he says “in my Father’s house are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). There is room with God for everyone.
We are constantly referring to “the family of Jesus Christ.” That’s who we are, and we are all part of the family, a worldwide family. If we believe that, we are going to need to accept the challenge of being a family, that sometimes we aren’t always alike, we don’t think alike or act alike, yet we are still family and we must still love one another. If we believe that we are the family of Jesus Christ, then we accept each other for who we really are, not who we can pretend to be because someone tells us to behave a certain way. And when we stumble, or we have questions and differences, our family should be there to support and help us.
I believe that’s “the way” that Jesus had in mind, the way we can travel together.