Several years ago I went to Copenhagen, Denmark, to give a paper on my favorite philosopher, the 19th-century Danish Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard. At the conference dedicated to his writings there were old friends of mine who work in the same area of philosophy, and as usually happens at these things, I met some new friends.
One of the latter was a rather dramatic young woman, a local Danish student pursuing a degree in theology. She had her hair cut in an extremely impressive Mohawk and multiple piercings and tattoos, and when the conference was in its last day she dragged me and some of the other attendees to a dingy bar around the corner from the university where she insisted we try shots of Gammeldansk. Gammeldansk is an old-fashioned Danish liqueur, kind of a national aperitif. If you read the label, it says that it is good for consumption not only while hunting or fishing but also “in the morning.” It tasted a bit like herbal kerosene.
It was in this setting that one of my old friends noticed one of our new Danish drinking buddy’s tattoos, on the inside of her wrist. It said, in Greek, “hodos/aletheia/zoe.” He asked her what it meant. Mellowed by the drinking of Gammeldansk, I gently reproved him for his curiosity and said something like, “Oh come on, man, you can’t read a simple Greek phrase?” Feeling very proud of myself I triumphantly announced, “It says ‘the way, the truth, the life.’”
We are used to hearing this phrase of our Lord’s, often in an evangelistic context. It has the feel of a slogan almost, a sort of compact proclamation of the Gospel message. That potent quality makes it the most famous passage in today’s reading from John.
And I think we can appreciate this famous passage in the way so many people obviously have, so much so that they might choose it as a tattoo and have it permanently inked on their body.
But I also think we should take a moment today to appreciate the context in which this phrase occurs. The beginning of chapter 14 is also the beginning of what we call our Lord’s Farewell Discourse, a long passage in John where Jesus speaks to his disciples about his imminent departure, reminding them of who he is and what he has taught them, and comforting them with the promise that the mission they have shared together will continue even though Jesus is about to be betrayed to the Romans and crucified by them.
And so the tone Jesus sets as he begins his last conversation with his disciples is one of loving reassurance and consolation. “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
This sets the tone for everything we read here, and again it’s an encouraging one. Particularly because Jesus knows what is about to happen to him, and the disciples do not quite seem to understand even at this late stage. So there is something strange about the timing of our reading.
We are in Easter season, and Jesus said all these words in John before he was executed. So why are we reading this now? I think we are reading this now because while Jesus’s words were spoken before Easter, they are about what happens after Easter. After his resurrection. Jesus is teaching his disciples about what is to come on the other side of his passion and death. Indeed I think he is teaching us all about what it is like to be the church. There are three famous parts of this passage I want to concentrate on this morning, each of which I think speaks to our situation today, to the Easter life of the church.
First, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be there also.”
This is another justly famous part of this chapter. We hear it often at funerals, and that is understandable, but again I would encourage some attention to context. The word for “rooms” is the same word in Greek that in John’s gospel normally gets translated as “abide.” That’s an important word for John. He cites Jesus saying “Abide in me as I abide in you” and “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” It would sound odd though for us to say, “In my Father’s house there are many abiding places,” so we say “rooms.” Again this gets used a lot at funerals because it sounds as if Jesus is talking about what awaits his disciples after their death.
I am not so convinced this is primarily what is going on. In John’s gospel Jesus is encouraging his disciples to abide with him now and to abide with him after his resurrection and ascension so that they will bear much fruit. They are not going to bear fruit in death—no one does; they are going to bear fruit in life. In the new life that they will enjoy when Jesus has returned to his Father and the Holy Spirit will come to inspire the universal church. There are many places to abide in our heavenly Father’s house, and that is something you and I can do now. The clue to this is that Jesus ends this part of his teaching by saying “And you know the way where I am going.” You know this already. This is not just about the life of the world to come but about our Easter life here and now.
Thomas’s question on this point proves though that the disciples have not yet figured this out. “How can we know the way” to where Jesus is going if we don’t know where is going? Thomas seems to think he can be provided with a map that will aid his journey.
But no such map is needed, because everyone in the room already knows the way. If you know Jesus, you know the way, because Jesus is the way.
Jesus himself is the way to God;
Jesus is the truth about God;
and Jesus is the life of God.
This is the second famous passage, and what it shows is that in every way, it is Jesus who makes possible our relationship with God the Father.
Jesus opens up the way to God by his death and resurrection and ascension.
Jesus reveals the truth about God through the wondrous signs he has performed and his teaching of the commandments to love one another.
And Jesus lives the life of God; Jesus repeatedly says he does nothing, he teaches nothing, on his own; rather he speaks and acts only for one purpose, and that is to make the Father’s life known among human beings.
And that is why he says, “No one comes to the Father but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. Henceforth you know him and have seen him.”
When we hear Jesus say, “No one comes to the Father but by me,” I expect our first thought is that this is somehow meant to be restrictive. This sounds like a statement about who gets in and gets left out. Once more though, I want us to pay attention to context and enlarge our view of this, the third fairly famous sentence from this passage.
Jesus has had plenty to say to an unbelieving public about the dangers of their unbelief. He has warned his listeners about the reality of judgment and about the need to hear and obey his commandments, which are nothing other than the word of God itself.
But that is not what he is doing now. He has nothing more to say to the public at large. He is talking only to his followers and friends. “No one comes to the Father but by me,” isn’t Jesus’s warning about judgment; it’s his reminder that he is making possible something that we cannot do for ourselves. This s not discouraging; this is encouraging. We do not have a way back to the Father. Jesus does. He is going back to the Father because he and the Father are one; they are distinct persons but united in perfect love.
The disciples too are going back to the Father but not because their love for God and for each other is perfect. It is not. They are going back to the Father because Jesus is about to open the way to the Father, the way that is his own crucified, resurrected, and ascended body.
And those who go through Jesus, who go through what he went through, those who walk in his way, those who go through Jesus get to God.
“No one comes to the Father but by me” does not mean the way is closed. It means the way is open.
And in case we missed this, Jesus tells it plainly to his disciples: “henceforth you know him and have seen him.” Jesus again wants to be reassuring and comforting, so he makes it plain: You, my friends, you my followers, already know God—you have already seen God. You have everything you need.
And that is why Jesus can begin his reassurances with the exhortation to “believe also in me.” These words are for us as much as they are for the disciples. Jesus says to you now, “No matter what happens, no matter how grim things become, don’t worry, my friends. Let not your hearts be troubled. There are many places to abide in the Father. I have lived a life that fully reveals the Father. I have made all truth known to you. I have held nothing back. I am the way, and the way is open.”