The Way, The Truth, and The Life
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
April 24, 2005
Scripture: Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14
“I am The Way, The Truth, and The Life. No one come to the Father except through me.” –John 14:6
For people like us, this is perhaps the most provocative saying in all the gospels. We attribute the bitter fruits of religious exclusionism that we see all around us these days to exclusive claims like the one we have before us, and so we reject them and it. Jesus is not the only way, truth and life, and not everyone has to believe in him in order to be in a relationship with God.
No doubt that there is a link between exclusionist claims and inter-group hostility, but the link is not simple. It is not the case that exclusionist claims automatically entail inter-group hostility. If that were so there would be nothing to call tolerance, since tolerance is the acceptance of claims that cannot be mediated or reduced one to the other, or to some one claim larger than each. To tolerate is to let competing claims lie beside each other unresolved and un-reconciled, to let them be for the time being in the hope that one day all will become clear. This is tolerance – the acceptance of human limitations and the inevitable ignorance they entail. Tolerance is emphatically not to say that all claims are equally valid in terms of some ultimate insight of reason, that all faiths are equally true. Not at all! Apart from the fact that such statements are logically incoherent – there cannot be more than one truth – simple practice holds that tolerance is precisely as I have defined it, namely, not reducing the truth claims of different systems in any way, but leaving them side by side unresolved, until the ability to resolve them, which we do not now have, comes on the scene.
This means that we Christians must affirm with all our heart that Jesus is the Way, The Truth and The Life, that all must approach God through him, and that eventually this will become blindingly clear to every creature.
Recently I heard an impressive Israeli named Alyon, former head of Shin Beth, the Israeli internal security apparatus, now, in retirement, a leader of a small but effective peace activist group. He has a very helpful way if framing issues of tolerance. He says that we cannot be expected to give up our dreams of the triumph of our point of view and the realization of our hopes, but we can be expected to know that in this world dreams do not come true. In this world we live in hope, and at this point we might quote the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:24), “For we are saved in hope. Now hope for what is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees is already to be the case? But if we hope for what we do not see, then we await hope’s fulfillment with patience.”
“Dreams do not come true in this world, nevertheless, do not give them up!” A fine Christian lesson from the former head of Israel’s Shin Beth internal security apparatus! How does it apply to our present text? We can affirm that Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life, without expecting to vindicate that claim in this world. The vindication of the universal rule of God in this world must be done by God and in God’s own time. For us the duty is simply to continue to affirm the validity of our dream, that there is one true Way, one real Truth, and one eternal Life, and that we have found them all in Jesus Christ the Incarnate God.
So let us revel in the glory of our faith. We are on the right way! We know the Truth! And we have received Eternal Life. Death holds no dread for us, falsehood no attraction, and the way before us is clear.
If we do not have to vindicate this maximum faith claim of ours in this world we do not have to show anyone else’s claims to be spurious or enter into competition with their piety. It is enough to affirm and celebrate in ourselves that our way is perfect, our discourse true and our Spirit life-giving. We do not need to turn to denigrate perceived rivals. CS Lewis said of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, (the Parable of the Pharisees and the Tax Collector), that he was well within his rights while he thanked God for the fact that he was able to be conscientious in his pious practice. His fatal misstep was to turn and compare himself favorably with the cringing tax collector who would not raise his eyes from the floor and whose only prayer was “ Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”. His sin was not to rejoice in his own religious practice but to elevate himself by virtue of that practice above others. This was a breach of the equality of Grace. We are all beggars before the divine Grace. Martin Luther’s last words were, “In the end we are all beggars.”
Competitiveness in religion is psychologically speaking a sign of insecurity. If we are unsure of our own spiritual grounding we might project that insecurity as criticism of the claims to security of others. (“It is not I whom am insecure, it is you!”).
Jesus is The Way, The Truth, and The Life, and no one comes to the Father except through him, that is our bedrock truth, and we must not abridge or qualify it in any way. I exhort you to own it with all its authority and all its scandal. Our democratic reasonableness cries out against it, and our scientific anthropology puts it in question, but our hearts insinuate that there is something in play here far more profound that civil reasonableness and science. Faith, hope and charity are in play, and more than all the one who is in himself all of these things, way, truth, life, faith, hope, charity, our beloved Jesus, risen from the dead.
So we are at the critical point of our meditation: Jesus is the risen one, risen and therefore is way, truth, and life. Jesus is risen, therefore he is unique, in a class of one, unlike anyone before or after. He cannot be reduced to one symbol among others, the symbol of new life like the Easter bunny and the Easter egg, or compared to other great religious teachers. Jesus is God Almighty walking the highways and byways of his own creation, and we are privileged to know that, to know who he really is.
You remember from WVC days that it is my custom to try always to relate our Gospel message to our lives at both the individual and the group level. Individually, the Sprit tells us to embrace the person of the risen Christ without reservation, with complete devotion, with reckless enthusiasm. Don’t let a certain polite consideration for the opinion of others deprive you of the fullness of your life. In the end what do others care? Finally it is you alone who must face the darkness alone, and who then will care whether you were polite or crazy. Love Jesus in all his fullness with all your heart, trust him and the power of his resurrection, and the way to true, eternal life will open up inside you and before you like the unfolding of a spring flower.
At the level of society let me say something about the great events of the past two weeks, the burial of one Pope and the Enthronement of another, the latter event which takes place on this very day. Both of these Popes have been incomparably loyal to the primacy of Christ in his church and in the world and in that have fulfilled the first obligation of a Christian pastor. Benedict preached a mighty, moving sermon on John 15, at the Mass of the Conclave. I heard it twice on the Catholic network EWTN, and rejoiced that the church has again such a profound representative of the absolute Lordship of Christ in the church and in the world. This is the unvarnished blessing of the last week and we pray with our brothers and sisters in the Roman ecclesial body of the Universal Church of Christ that their supreme shepherd might be blessed and guided so that we all might be blessed and guided.
If this blessing is a promise then the continuing challenge of the issues of women and sexuality in Catholic teaching and practice, is a threat. The witness of the universal church is to the resurgence of women in the providence of God and the apparent resistance on the part of the leadership of the Roman and Orthodox branches of the Church to this divine initiative must be considered as possibly simply that, resistance, disobedience to an initiative of the Holy Spirit. It is the duty therefore of us other ecclesial bodies in the Church to join Christians within those bodies to witness to the Roman and Orthodox leadership of this impulse of the Spirit for the ordination of women, and other issues, especially concerning gender and sexuality on which we fellow members with the Pope in the universal church, each in our differing ecclesial bodies but united in passionate loyalty to the one Christ, might witness to each other.
Benedict would seem to be less than open to the winds of the Spirit. He warns against being blown about by winds of doctrine; we might remind him that the work of the Holy Spirit is like the wind (John 3), and that he who sits with furled sails misses not only the blasts of confusion but also the wind of heaven. Well folded sails and a tidy locker are not virtues in themselves, especially if the boat never goes anywhere because the captain is too fastidious.
Let us join our brother Benedict in his affirmation of Christ as the Way, The Truth and The Life, and let us ask him to join the whole church as we approach Pentecost, when once we all were constituted “Church” by the sound of a rushing mighty wind, and tongues of fire (Acts 2: 1-4) and lots of disordered activity that onlookers took to be the carrying on of drunks. (Could you imagine a Pentecost like this in the marvelously controlled pageant of the papal election?). Let’s all look forward to a rough ride on the wind of the Spirit!