Saint Andrew's Presbyterian Church

Blackrock

The way, the truth and the life

Image John chapter fourteen and verse 6, words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper: "I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me."

INTRODUCTION: Timothy Radcliffe, the former Master of the Dominican Order in Britain, tells of what often happens when he checks in at an airport in America on his way home to London. The girl at the desk often asks, "Is that your final destination?" What a question to ask a priest! What a question to ask a preacher! What a question to ask any of us believers! Philip Radcliffe in clerical dress often quips to the girl at the desk that he is hopeful that his final destination, his ultimate resting place will be elsewhere.

In the gospel of John chapter fourteen Jesus is giving instruction to his disciples. They are bothered, baffled and bewildered by the turn that events have taken. Already his instructions have caused them anxiety. In the previous chapter Jesus has warned them that he is going to be taken from them. He tells them plainly, "I am with you only a little longer." He has warned them of an impending betrayal; one of the inner group will hand him over to his enemies. He has warned their leader Simon Peter that before the cock crows he will have denied his master three times. This is a community facing a crisis. Their final destination is uncertain; the possibility of the scattering of the little band of friends is very real; after the disaster who knows what future any of them will have? The story is cherished by John's congregation because they too feel under threat. They too are trying to witness to Jesus in a hostile world where they are a tiny minority out of step with the mainstream of pagan society. They too are traumatised by their recent acrimonious split with the synagogue where they were once valued members, but no longer. It has been a painful time for all of them and as yet there is no sign of a less painful day dawning. The scene at the Last Supper painted by John has great appeal to his first readers in their present predicament. Jesus actually washes his friends' feet to demonstrate his role as servant of all. What a lesson for these pressurised Christians that they should care for each other! And Jesus gives them a new commandment. "Love one another," Jesus tells them, "Love one another; as I have loved you."

So facing death and the scattering of his little band of followers Jesus speaks words of comfort. John's fourteenth chapter begins with those beautiful words beloved of all believers: "Let not your heart be troubled." The Lord goes on to reassure them of his final destination and theirs: "In my Father's house are many mansions, many rooms." But Thomas, always the doubter protests, "Lord, we don't know where you are going. How can we know the way?" How can we know? Yes, Thomas, that is our question too. How can we know the Lord's way amid the hostility of modern times? The world is contradicting us and condemning us and consigning us to the ranks of the deluded and the demented and the deplorable. The world is presenting us with its way, battering us with propaganda in order to persuade us that the path to wealth and success and popularity is the only way worth taking. The world is presenting us with its truth, battering us with propaganda to persuade us that you might as well look after number one in this devil-take-the-hindmost society. The world is presenting us with its life, a life led with no thought of its final destination because there isn't one. An office worker once amused his friends by sending round a spoof memo. It took the form of a management report on the capability of the workforce, the sort of thing which office workers know only too well. This memo purported to be a report on the usefulness to the firm of the twelve disciples of Jesus. It said, "Having investigated the potential of all twelve, we find that eleven of them are lacking in drive, incentive and initiative. Only one of them is motivated, ambitious and can take responsibility, the fellow called Judas!" Thomas' question is ours too. How can we know the way in such a world? How can we know the way?

Jesus' answer to our urgent question is powerful and all-encompassing: "I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me." Here is great comfort for the battered little community! Here is great encouragement for the bewildered little community. Here is great reassurance for the baffled little community. "Hold to Christ, the way the truth and the life," says the gospel of John. This is the trumpet blast that rallies the troops in the turmoil of battle. This is the wonderful awareness of firm ground under one's feet in the swamp of modernity. This is the glimpse of light at the end of the dark tunnel of indifferent unbelief. And please take note of what is the final destination of the Christian according to the Gospel of John. Please grasp the location where the Christian can rest secure according to the Fourth Evangelist. Please make no mistake about where believers are heading. Our final destination is Jesus Christ. It is not heaven, although Jesus Christ is all sufficient both in this world and the next. It is not heaven, lest we become otherworldly and begin to sing that dubious gospel song, "This world is not my home; I'm only passing through." It is not heaven lest we down grade the activity of God in this world and in this time and in this place. Our final destination is Jesus Christ. Three times at crucial stages of the story John's gospel proclaims that whoever believes in Jesus Christ has everlasting life - present tense! Our final destination is Jesus Christ, and him alone.

It follows that this is no excuse for complacency; this is no excuse for self-satisfaction; this is no excuse for smugness. Sadly there are those who would use this text to justify a narrow and exclusive kind of religion. "Jesus is the way, the truth and the life," they say, "and therefore we need nothing else. We need not get involved in dialogue with other religions; we need no religion other than one that asserts our doctrines aggressively; we have nothing more to learn." Of course this is the fundamentalist stance. It is blinkered and confined and sectarian. And it fails to take seriously the text that it quotes. Jesus is the way. Therefore there is a journey to be made along that way. The journey will involve dialogue with others whose concerns are similar and whose way runs parallel to ours. On the way that is Jesus we have much to learn. Jesus is the truth. Therefore we cannot help exploring that truth, like a jeweller holding up a cut diamond to the light and rejoicing in its many light-reflecting facets. We cannot help exploring that truth like a scientist in the laboratory testing every theory to find new possibilities attached to that truth. We cannot help exploring that truth like the scholar at her desk investigating every meaning of old words in order to bring new truth to the surface. Jesus is the life. Therefore we will make His life a pattern for ours in compassion and in forgiveness and in love. So here is the strange contradiction of Christian faith. Jesus is our final destination, but when we come to him, he doesn't give us slippers and a rocking-chair. Instead he gives us a pilgrim's staff and sandals and sends us off on a journey; he gives us spectacles and a desk lamp and starts us studying his word; he gives us a course of keep fit exercises that we may be healthy examples of the life-style that he advocates.

So we set out on to explore the Way, the Truth and the Life - all of them with capital letters. Of course, being human, we will not always see him at our side, we will not always recognise him in our studies, we will not always breathe the fresh air of his presence. But our final destination has been reached in that moment when we allowed him to be Lord. From that moment on at each stage of the journey we will look back and acknowledge that he was never far away. "So it was you all along," we will say. "It was you all along directing our paths to meet that helpful person and that needy soul and that inspiring example. It was you all along encouraging us to watch that film, read that book, listen to that conversation, all of which have inspired us and energised us and enabled us to serve. It was you all along closer than the air we breathe, nearer than a heart-beat, getting us down on our knees when we needed to and raising us to our feet when we didn't want to and gilding dull and cloudy days with a promise of spring. Ben Quash tells a story from the continuing wars and conflicts of Africa. A group of militia men come to a village and kidnap young children to make them into child soldiers. They abuse the children and teach them to kill without thinking and destroy their childhood. But the church does not forget its little ones. Brave church members follow the militia at a distance, spying on their camp and keeping an eye on the children, awaiting that moment of opportunity to help them escape. Then they guide them back home to the village where a church singing the praises of Jesus, welcomes them back with joy and begins the work of healing and rehabilition. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. His power to inspire is inexhaustible; his power to heal is unimaginable; his power to renew is overwhelming. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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