The Way, the Truth and the Life

Homily, Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture
.” (John 10:9)
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me
.” (John 14:6)

How have we heard these words throughout the history of the church? As exclusive, as restrictive, as judging who’s in and who’s out; as superior …

What if … this is not about which religions are acceptable and which are not? What if this is not about who is right or wrong? What if this is not about who is “saved” and who is “not saved”? What if this is instead about being a certain person, about becoming a human being fully alive, about following in Jesus’s footsteps, literally?

Many conceive of truth as an objective, unchanging reality, and that the only truthful way is to believe in Jesus. But Jesus presents truth as an identity, as something relational and dynamic. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the expression “I AM” eight times.

That’s very significant – in the Hebrew Scriptures, when Moses asks God for his name, God answers, “I am who I am.” So Jesus says, “I am …” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am … the Vine, the light of the world, the |Good Shepherd. Jesus didn’t say I possess the truth. He didn’t say I have truth and others do not. he didn’t say that he is leading the way. He said I AM … is the way, the truth and the life.

He ties truth to BE-ing (I am statements in John’s Gospel) and the “way,” points to a journey. He ties it to “life,” which is relational and full of potential, much of it sadly unrealized for the majority of people. Jesus ties the Truth to himself—as a living, breathing expression of God in the flesh, as a human being fully alive in God. Living is profoundly relational and constantly “on the move.”

Our Trinitarian God is profoundly relational, a community of LOVE & Mercy & Grace. Look at me, Jesus says, and you will see God. To know Jesus is to know God (“the Father”): But Jesus is also saying here: Look at me and you will see who you … are called to become as well.

We trip easily over the phrase, “no one comes to the Father but by me.” It’s a bold, challenging statement, and it sounds exclusive. In the history of the church, these words have indeed been interpreted in exclusive ways, served to keep people out of God’s kingdom. But let’s recall the original context of the words.

When Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” “The way” refers to the way of LOVE. And because the world rejects this generous loving, the way, far from an ego trip, is the way … of the cross. God is Love, and Jesus embodied that love in his very BE-ing. Those who are self-absorbed, who insist that they alone possess truth perceive all the love-giving and mercy-giving ways of Jesus as a threat. Worldy powers always see connections of love as a threat. Worldly powers understand that when people begin to see each other as sisters and brothers, instead of as enemies or adversaries, the powers of division and animosity are diminished.

Love – that mysterious force, that connective tissue that fosters mutual responsibility and affection between the most unlikely people – can be stronger than any human-made division and strife. That … is what constitutes the way, the truth and the life. The way that Jesus walked, the truth he embodied, the love that he lived is often more than we can grasp and embrace; that is why too often to live the Jesus-way leads to a cross.

Christ dies, again and again, nailed to a cross, every time we his followers fail to live God’s inclusive way of loving, forgiving and welcoming. It makes the usual use of the “I am the way” passage so ironic. To quote this line in triumphalist, exclusive tones, is to miss the point entirely. We Christians have mistakenly used this passage as proof that we are right and others are wrong. We attempt to conquer others rather than submit ourselves to a path of radical love and mercy that may lead to our crucifixion.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” calls for mutuality. It calls us to care for one another. It demands that we acknowledge that salvation lies in continuing to make the Word flesh in our own flesh. It means honouring the physical, economic, social, and spiritual needs of all people.

Once again I turn to Pope Francis to show us what this Way-Truth-Life business looks like in concrete form. In September 2013, in the first year of his papacy, Pope Francis published a long letter in La RepubliccaLa Republicca is a major Italian secular newspaper, with a professed atheist editor at the helm. The atheist editor had written to Francis and was not shy with his questions, such as: will God forgive someone who doesn’t believe in God?? In his letter, Pope Francis called for an urgent dialogue between the church and nonbelievers and called such a dialogue an “intimate and indispensable expression” of Christian love.“Since it is born of love,” he wrote, “faith is not unbending, but grows in respectful coexistence with others… Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all. I would not speak, not even for a believer, of ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense of absolute as  disconnected, lacking any relationship,” the Pope explained. “Truth, according to Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ … Truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life.”  Truth equals love and requires humility and openness. Therefore truth is a relationship.

“This does not mean that truth is variable and subjective – on the contrary,” he wrote.“But it means that truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life… In other words, truth being after all one and the same as love, requires humility and openness in order to be sought, welcomed and expressed.” Asked whether the Church condemns those who lack and do not seek religious faith, Francis replied that the “mercy of God is unlimited if directed to someone with a sincere and contrite heart”. “The question for someone who does not believe in God lies in obeying one’s own conscience,” he wrote. “Sin exists, even for one who does not have faith, when one goes against conscience. To listen to and obey it means, in fact, to choose between what one perceives as good or as bad. And on this choice is staked the good or evil of our action.

Far from dividing the world into the saved and unsaved, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” testifies that we are all God’s children. It calls us to spiritual respect and nurture of one another in openness to the Spirit. Truth in God sets us free for holy, wholesome and healthy relationships – with God, ourselves, others and creation in ways intended by divine design. Truth sets us free, not just from wrong facts, but from wrong BE-ING. Truth will set us free to walk with God and with all people – but not simply because we possess right facts about God and Jesus. No. We will be free because our knowledge of God in Jesus, and consequently, our relationship with God in Jesus, will be according to the Person who IS the Truth, Jesus; a human being fully alive in God’s image and likeness.

So how do we follow Jesus today? The same way the disciples did long ago. They heard the words of Jesus and believed them. Sure enough, they struggled to grasp this Jesus Way, as Thomas and Philip’s questions to Jesus illustrate so well, so don’t feel bad if you have trouble to understand also. But ask questions, be open and ready to learn and grow. And once the disciples “got it,” they took Jesus’ example as the pattern for their own lives, every day and everywhere. They formed a counter-cultural community of love and mercy, where they confessed their sins, forgave one another, and proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and God. In Jesus they had seen living proof that radical and inclusive love and mercy have the power to break the bonds of strife and conflict, of sin and death. Jesus didn’t just die for our sins; he also showed us the way to live free from the chains of sin and evil.

In today’s excerpt from Peter’s letter we are reminded that “we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:2–10)

As followers of Christ, as God’s own holy people, we are to live in certain ways, renouncing the world’s conniving ways of dividing us one from the other. Instead we are called to relate to all people in certain ways that characterize new life in Christ, precisely because Christ’s death and resurrection has transformed us from the inside out. AMEN

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Mysterium Tremendum

It’s that time again — musing about Eucharist, ordination and church. After all, my own ordination to the diaconate is approaching. It has been a long journey to this time and place; a deep joy and fullness is overtaking my heart. At the same time, I find my heart super-sensitive to critical comments. I was stung by one recently that went something like this:

A friend cited two reasons for not taking communion in an Anglican church. First he highly doubted whether Anglicans really believe in transubstantiation, i.e. that they truly believe to receive the actual body and blood of Christ. Second, he feels that he cannot receive in a church that is not “in communion” with Rome.

I replied by referring to the substantial agreement on the Eucharist that exists between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The following excerpt is taken from one of these agreements: “We believe that it is of utmost importance for the clergy and laity of our two Churches to acknowledge their substantial identity in the area of Eucharistic doctrine, and to build upon it as they go forward in dialogue. Whatever doctrinal disagreements may remain between our Churches, the understanding of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is not among them.”

“I’m not interested in ecumenical documents,” my friend fired back. “I’m interested in the actual beliefs of the people. A lot of Anglicans don’t even think it is a Mass. And the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice is not one of the key elements of Eucharistic theology as far as I am concerned. You either believe in transubstantiation or you don’t. And the Anglican church, as a whole, does not. Individuals within it do. That’s not a position that makes any logical sense as a basis for inter-communion.”

The exchange stung, piercing the bone of my heart. The sting alerted me to the need to pay attention and ponder what is going on in me. The above comments cut to the heart of my own experience of and faith in the Eucharist as well as my 25-year journey with a priestly calling. In less than eight months, I will be celebrating my first Eucharist as a priest in the Anglican Church, pronouncing the sacred words in the community of faith: “This is my body, my blood.” I continue to cherish my Catholic faith, especially in the Eucharist.

First of all the argument about being “in communion” with Rome. While respecting the RC position on this, I also know there is no Scriptural foundation for the ecclesial communion concept the way it is applied to receiving the Eucharist in one another’s churches. I know that Rome consistently holds that unity at the Eucharistic table can only arise as a result of ecclesial unity. But that does beg the question: how do we know that we have achieved enough unity to share the table of the Lord? And who gets to determine this? We now have some substantial and significant ecumenical agreements between Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans that clearly state that the current differences no longer need to be church dividing.

Moreover, the Gospels portray Jesus as sharing himself indiscriminately with all types of people, regardless of criteria for full communion. It is Pope Francis who insists that we trust the unifying and healing power of the Eucharist as a “powerful medicine for the weak.” So continuing to limit access to this unifying and powerful medicine in one another’s churches seems to set up a contradictory logic. The Eucharist is Jesus’ banquet of complete self-giving; he is the host, the church is merely its servant.

The fact that some Anglicans deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not make it official Anglican theology nor is it an exclusively Anglican phenomenon. Roman Catholic theology holds fast to the same understanding of Real Presence in the Eucharist, yet some Catholics are sharing the same doubt and ignorance that my friend is so quick to place at the feet of my Anglican sisters and brothers. Is Jesus really more fully present in a Roman Catholic Eucharist than in an Anglican one? Both traditions cite the literal Words of Institution within Eucharistic Prayers that bear close family resemblance.

And what role does the faith of the communicant play in grasping this concept of Real Eucharistic Presence? The Anglican reverence for the individual’s capacity of faith allows for the person to appropriate the Eucharistic mystery of Real Presence in whatever way they can. This comes through in lovely language in the prayer that accompanies the distribution of Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful. (Order for Holy Communion, Book of Common Prayer)

In her seminal work The Interior Castle St. Teresa of Avila said: Let us look at our own shortcomings and leave other people’s alone; for those who live carefully ordered lives are apt to be shocked at everything and we might well learn very important lessons from the persons who shock us. Our outward comportment and behaviour may be better than theirs, but this, though good, is not the most important thing: there is no reason why we should expect everyone else to travel by our own road, and we should not attempt to point them to the spiritual path when perhaps we do not know what it is. Even with these desires that God gives us to help others, we may make many mistakes, and thus it is better to attempt to … try to live ever in silence and in hope, and the Lord will take care of His own.

Do any of us really and fully grasp Jesus Christ’s self-giving to the point of death? I do not expect to ever fully exhaust the meaning of this profound mystery. Growing into Anglican spirituality is fostering within me a deeper humility along with a greater reticence to pass judgment on how others understand and live their Christian faith. Some will call this wishy-washy and “Anglican fudge.” But maybe one person’s maturing in faith only looks wishy-washy to those who feel overly secure in their own convictions. When all is said and done, I can only stand humbly before a mysterium tremendum.

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