Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” [From John 14.6-7]
This is an edited re-post of an earlier sermon, that has been enlarged and explained. It was occasioned by one of my friends encountering a particularly poor sermon done on the text of John 14.6. It is this text which most directly confronts one of the touchiest subjects in academic culture: What the "Truth" is, who has access to "Truth", and who doesn't.
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block in the modern world is the idea of "Truth". Nothing is more politically charged, more personally controversial, or more socially contentious than one group claiming to know THE Truth (with a capital "T"). This is because this usually implies that others do not have the Truth, and are thus inferior, deceived, or even worse, sub-human.
And yet, Jesus won't let us back down from the stumbling block of Truth. In our reading from John chapter 14 he answers the question "What is Truth?". Oddly enough, he answers a question that has not even been asked yet.
Jesus is good at doing that. In fact, it is almost as if Jesus is the Answer we have all been searching for, and it is our job to go find all of the questions he answers.
But this question, "What is Truth?" is finally asked, four chapters later, by a very practical Roman governor named Pilate.
In asking this question, Pilate was in fact, the first "American" we find in the Gospels. Like many of us Americans, Pilate was a very busy, very active, very important person. Pilate had to get deals done, and keep people happy.
Like many Americans, Pilate had no time for the abstract philosophical questions that the nerdy Greeks liked so much. Nor did he have a taste for the inane religious disputes of the fundamentalist Jews.
Pilate only had time for one thing: Doing what works. Doing what accomplished what he needed when he needed it. Doing what benefited himself most directly.
So, like many Americans today, he summed up his pragmatic disdain for philosophy and religion in one, handy, three-word, sneering question: "What IS Truth?" [John 18.38]
This is, of course, the question that Jesus answered for his disciples in our Gospel for today: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father if not through me."
Mirror Image Misunderstandings
Now, unless we suffer the same fate of pragmatic Pilate, and crucify Jesus in our minds by misunderstanding what he said, we need to listen afresh to this saying of Jesus.
This text is at the top of the list for being misunderstood, and causing people to stumble. And there seems to be two basic ways this text is misunderstood in our culture today. And, in fact, it is not two ways, but rather mirror images of the same misunderstanding.
On one side of the mirror is this common-sense reading: "Of course, Jesus is setting himself up as THE litmus test to get into heaven. Jesus is quite clear about it. He does not say I am A way, and A truth, and A life. He says I am THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life. NO ONE gets to God if not THROUGH me."
And, of course, the subtext of this view is: If you do not know Jesus as MY sect knows him, approve OUR doctrines about him, and follow him on OUR path, then you are going to Hell. Period.
And we know what happens all too often to people and churches who hold this view: They start with compassion on all the poor ignorant people who do not know Jesus as they know Him. They patronizingly try to go out and "save the heathen".
THEN they begin to look with disdain on others who do not know "their" jesus. They begin to use "their" jesus as a huge religious club to beat people into submission, and exclude them from their club. Finally, "their" jesus becomes the mascot for their view of "the good society", and they raise him up only to validate their political agenda.
They raise him up just like a man being crucified all over again.
The other unhealthy view of this passage is merely the inverted mirror image of the exclusionary Jesus I just spoke of. This view understands the text in almost the same way, and does the complete opposite with Jesus.
They RIGHTLY assume that the Love of God could not be as narrow as the exclusionary jesus preached by such modern day Pharisees. BUT they WRONGLY assume that the ONLY way to view Jesus' exclusivity is to see him as exclusionary. So, they feel they must abandon the text altogether.
Soon, you have people finding ways to cut out the parts of the Bible they consider exclusionary, and only listening to parts of the Bible they consider inclusive. This eventually leads to ignoring whole chunks of Christian history and tradition to construct a Jesus we can agree with.
Soon people abandon Jesus and Scripture altogether, just like his own disciples abandoned him when he was crucified, because they were ALSO ashamed of his exclusivity.
The Central Point
But does Jesus' exclusivity HAVE TO MEAN that Jesus is exclusionary? Does the fact that Jesus is the Truth Incarnate in a human person, also mean that everyone is going to hell who does not agree with MY version of Jesus?
I think the reason why many of us assume this is because we often hold unhealthy views of what Truth is. Now, this is kind of wading in deep water. And if what I am about to say confuses you, I want you to chunk it. Get rid of it.
Because the CENTRAL POINT I want you to get is that God IS present in Jesus in an exclusive way, beyond how God has ever been present in any other person. Yet, we do not have to be exclusionary, because God is exclusively present in Jesus. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Because God emptied Godself, and entered into human history exclusively in Jesus, we have a reason to INCLUDE every person in God's Love. God included ALL of humanity in His Love, when He included Himself in humanity in the human being Jesus. It is only on the basis of Jesus' exclusivity that we have a concrete, real, definite reason to say that God Loves absolutely everyone.
In the words of Saint Athanasius of the fourth century: In Jesus "God shared in our human nature so that humans might share in God's nature". Jesus is the Epicenter of Reality, beckoning all people to share in God's Life by the spiritual "gravity" of His Love.
As our Prayer Book says in one if it's prayers for mission: "Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of Love on the cross, so that the whole world might come within the reach of your saving embrace!"
Now comes the DEEP water of WHY this is so. Ready to dive in?
There are several versions of Truth popular today, which are implicit in the way people think, and which cause many of our misunderstandings of what Jesus says in Scripture.
The first vision of the Truth is what is called "SET-BOUNDED" Truth. In this vision, Truth consists in a SET of factual statements about Reality, such as: Nate is almost 6 feet tall. Nate shaves his head. Nate is married to Kim.
Now, in this vision of reality, to know ALL of the Truth, one must collect the complete SET of factual statements about someone or something. If you could collect all of the right facts about Nate, you would know the full truth about Nate.
Yet, this is highly doubtful. Even if you knew every fact about me, it would still not substitute for actually knowing me personally, and loving me intimately. When someone collects fact after fact about someone without actually knowing them, we have a certain word to describe that. That word is "stalker".
When an entire church accepts this theory of Truth, they begin to have a very curious relationship with Jesus. Knowing Jesus becomes merely collecting, and proving, all of the right facts about Jesus. These facts are then expressed in precise doctrinal statements.
Once an absolutely air tight set of doctrinal statements are defined, then they are erected into a kind of fence around the community. Like any fence, this set of truth statements is used to define who is IN and who is OUT, who is INCLUDED and who is EXCLUDED.
Jesus ceases to be a living Lord, and becomes reduced to a dead definition. People must memorize and assent this definition, or else they are out of the club.
In a word, they become "stalkers" of Jesus. Full of facts, with no relationship.
But, Jesus Himself does not seem to believe in this theory of Truth at all. In fact, when He speaks of Truth, he speaks of Truth being a PERSON not a set of PROPOSITIONS. He does not say "This doctrinal statement is the Truth", or even "This Book of Scripture is the Truth".
He says "I am the Truth". "I", the person speaking. "I", who am the Great "I AM" in human form. "I", the Lord who you have a relationship with. "I am the Truth".
So, it seems to miss the boat to codify this living PERSON into a set of dead PROPOSITIONS, and then to make those propositions the litmus test of true Christianity. And this is precisely what those who create an exclusionary Jesus do.
But, those who run screaming from the exclusionary Jesus also suffer from their own peculiar delusion of Truth as well:
They rightly refuse the set-bounded, fenced-off version of Truth as exclusionary, so they often embrace what I call a SELF BOUNDED version of Truth instead.
Self-bounded Truth is very hip, very cool, and very postmodern. Self-bounded Truth takes the insight that Truth is ultimately personal, and runs with it.
In Self-Bounded Truth, the boundary for what is True and what is false is your SELF. Those persons, situations, and ideas that you experience as true are "the Truth". Those persons, situations, and ideas that you experience as hypocritical or deficient or distasteful are simply not Truth.
Self-Bounded Truth is exactly how the internet works. It is relational. It is web-like.
Think about the web of interconnections generated on your social networking website. You are connected to some folks and organizations on that site. I am connected to other folks and organizations on that site. And when we connect together, you have access to all I have, and I have access to all you have.
Self-Bounded Truth creates a web of knowledge much like that.
Some see this as a major improvement from all of the bickering over doctrines and boundaries that have characterized Christian history. We replace "fences" of propositions with "webs" of relationships. And, in some ways this is a real improvement.
But, at least two problems arise from this view. First, where is Jesus? Is He just another friend on your personal web page? Is Jesus just another string in our web of knowledge?
If I say God is cheese, and you say God is Jesus, and another person says there is no God, is there any arbitration available? Is there any way to objectively say "THIS is Truth" beyond subjectively saying "I feel this is true for me"?
Or is it all just relative? It seems like Self-Bounded Truth can ultimately be nothing more than believing what feels good to me. The Centrality of Jesus is left out entirely.
The other problem is that, despite all the talk of "webs" and "inclusivity", this view is ultimately just as exclusive as the Set-Bounded view.
It is exclusive for the same reason that a high school lunch room is exclusive: People only sit with the people they feel like sitting with. They only listen to the ideas that make them feel included. They ultimately despise those who are outside of their little web of inclusivity.
And this is perhaps why so many of those who run screaming from the exclusionary Jesus often become so intolerant and exclusionary themselves. It is almost as if they are saying "If you are not open-minded and inclusive like me, then I close myself to you and exclude you as a narrow minded bigot". And this, of course is a contradiction of both logic and love.
So, if Jesus is not speaking in Set-Bounded or Self-Bounded terms when He says "I am THE Truth", how is He talking? What does He mean?
I think the vision of Truth that best gets at what Jesus means is a "CENTER-BOUNDED" theory of Truth. Center-Bounded Truth tries to maintain the objectivity and realism of Set-Bounded Truth, WHILE ALSO maintaining the subjectivity and relationality of Self-Bounded Truth.
It does this by seeing Truth as a Person, not merely a set of propositions. Truth is found in relationship. It is the conformity of our inner reality to a Real Person outside of ourselves.
In this Theory of Truth, we see this Other Person as the Core, the Center, the Purpose, and the Meaning of what it means to be a Person. In fact, to learn how to really be a person means to participate in, and revolve around, this Person who is at the Center of Reality.
When speaking to the Colossians, St. Paul spoke of this Person by saying: "[Christ] is the image of the invisible God... In him all things in heaven and on earth were created... All things have been created through him and for him... He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." [Colossians 1:15-17]
In Center-Bounded Truth, Truth does not have an outer boundary, but an inner Core. Knowing Truth is not found memorizing propositions, but in remembering a Person. Encountering Truth is found in building a relationship, not building a "fence" or a "web".
In fact, Center-Bounded Truth is a lot like the planets that orbit our Sun. Our lives are set in orbit around the Son of God. He is our Center of Gravity. The closer we orbit around Him, the more we are filled with His Light, and His Power, and His Divine Energy, just like a planet in close orbit to the Sun.
In fact, one analogy of the Holy Trinity is to compare God's inner life with our Sun. Now every analogy falls apart somewhere, and so does this one. So only pay attention to it where it is helpful:
If we analogize the Triune God with a Star, like our own Sun, we begin to see God the Father as the inner Core, the inner Reality of the Sun. He is the fuel, the Divine Life, that gives the Sun the energy to shine.
Jesus is the outer surface of the Sun. Jesus is God's inner reality made visible. Through Jesus we DIRECTLY feel the Light, the Heat, and the Love of the Divine Life.
He, in fact, is the only surface through which we can truly see, feel, know, and experience God. If anyone shines with God's Love and Light, it is only because they are reflecting Jesus, even if they are not aware that it is Jesus they are reflecting!
And the Holy Spirit is the pull of gravity that draws all planets- all people, all created things- toward the Love of God that is visible in Jesus Christ. In fact, the Love of Christ's Spirit IS the spiritual gravity of the Universe.
And just as ONE star never exists without the THREE aspects of its inner reality, its outer surface, and its radiating gravity, light, and heat: So also God never exists without being ONE Reality existing forever in THREE persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.
And, if we follow that analogy a little further, we can begin to understand something else. Just as all biological life on Earth ultimately depends on the Sun for the energy on which it survives, so also all spiritual life on Earth ultimately depends on the Son through whom we are drawn into God's life.
Now, the Sun at the center of the solar system gives energy bountifully to fuel life on Earth. It gives energy to all kinds of life forms who have no eyes to see its light. It gives light to all kinds of life forms who can see it, but who have no comprehension of what the Sun is. And, last of all, it also gives energy, light, and life to a special category of life forms who can both see and have some understanding of what the Sun is. That is, the Sun gives life to us humans.
In the same way, the Son of God gives spiritual life and light bountifully to all people, regardless of how well we see and understand him. How do we know that God's Son is giving spiritual light to someone? Much in the same way that we know that the physical Sun is giving light to a plant: Both will grow and bear fruit.
Physical plants wither and die without sunlight. And human souls wither into hopelessness, anger, fear, bitterness, and addiction without the Light of the Son of God. But, when we see a plant bearing juicy, ripe fruit, we know it has been in the Sun. Likewise, when we see a person, any person, bearing fruit of Love, joy, peace, kindness and wisdom, we know she has been filled with the light of the Son of God.
And we can say that even if she does not yet see Jesus' influence on her life, or even know Jesus by name. As the Physical Sun has given her physical body life abundantly without her being fully aware of how that happens, so also the Son of God has given her spiritual life abundantly without her being fully aware of how that happens.
Jesus himself says that God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" [Matthew 5.45]. And he goes on to say that we can determine who is following him by the fruit of their lives, whether we bear the rotten fruit of being non-Christlike or we bear the good fruit of Christlike character [Matthew.14–20]. In fact, according to Jesus there will be those who followed and served Jesus without knowing it [Matthew 25.31-46], while others did religious rituals in the Name of Jesus without actually knowing or following him [Matthew 7.21–23].
If we take all of this and apply it to Jesus' phrase "no one comes to the Father except through me" we find it actually turns exclusion on it's head. This is because "through me" does not mean some sort of pop quiz about how much we know about Jesus. Rather, "through me" means "through the life which I embody and which I give bountifully to the world".
It could actually be re-phrased positively as "all who come to the Father are coming through me". All who are bearing the fruit of Christ's Love. All who are manifesting signs of the Life which Jesus embodied. All who are living in the pattern of Christlike character. All of those people are actually coming to the Father through Christ, even if they do not yet know or understand it.
Drawing us toward The Center
Now, what does this mean for our Journey with Jesus? What does this "Theory of Truth" do for our relationship with God and with others?
First, I think it means that the Purpose of Life is to be in as tight an orbit as possible with the Person at the Center of Reality. It means that every aspect of our "orbit", including our mental life, our emotional life, our social life, our physical life, and our spiritual life, must be drawn as close as possible to Jesus.
The closer of a relationship with have with Him, the more we will begin to find all these parts of our lives healed and made whole. The closer orbit we are in, the more we will come to share in His Divine Life, and be warmed by the Fire of His Love.
Second, I think that it means we must re-evaluate the purpose of the words we use to speak about Jesus. And I think this includes not only our prayers and preaching, but also our doctrines and our theology.
We have a bad habit, especially in the Western world, of assigning "ultimate value" to getting the "right answer". We fastidiously make sure our doctrines are absolutely correct and precise. And while this can be good, it can also become idolatrous and turn us into "stalkers" of God.
We need to realize that our words about God are signposts and not endpoints. They point us toward the Person at the Center of Reality, but do not "contain" the Center of Reality. When used by the Holy Spirit, they serve as part of the "spiritual gravity" that draws us into Christ. But they are always limited, finite viewpoints on an infinite, mysterious Reality.
When our words about God are treated as "perfections" that can never be changed, or adapted to more accurately point us toward the Center of Reality, they become "god substitutes" that are served and treated AS IF they were Jesus Himself. They become idols.
Third, I think this model of Truth shows us that "relational webs" are very important as tools to draw us into Truth, but they are NOT the Truth either. The Christian belief about the Church is that we are "The Body of Christ". We are members of the Christ, like the cells that make up His Risen Body, who act as his hands to reach out to the world.
So, this means that we who follow Christ, who are members of his Body, are essential to drawing others into His "orbit". Jesus works through our touch, our service, and our words. But it is not enough just to create a "web" of relationships, as if life were merely an internet social network. We must also identify, with words, with prayers, with religious actions, WHY we love others, and WHO is at the Center of Reality.
Fourth, I think this theory of Truth has major implications for how we include others. On one hand, we can identify some people who are way out of Christ's orbit, in the frozen deep-space of sin. They may be hate-filled, or miserable, or numb, or cold, or needy in many ways. It is obvious that we need to include them, and bring them closer to Him who is the Center.
On the other hand, we can also identify some who are in close orbit in knowing Christ, but far away in living as Christ. They may have all the right "answers" to religious questions. They may be able to quote Scripture and Theology off the top of their heads. But they lack love. They lack service. They lack forgiveness and charity. They lack the fruit and growth that show they are filled with the Son's Light.
We need to challenge them to bring these parts of their lives into a closer orbit around Christ. We must challenge them to actually live what they believe, and fulfill the implications of following a God who became human to heal us.
And on the other, other hand, we can also identify some who are in close orbit in living as Christ, but far away in knowing Christ. They show all the marks of Christ's love in self-giving, sacrifice, forgiveness, and charity. But they either do not know about Jesus at all, or they have seen the hypocrisy of Christians, and mistakenly think Jesus is irrelevant or even harmful.
We can realize that these people are ALREADY included in Christ, even if they do not know who Christ is yet. We know this because they show the fruit of God's Love, and the first letter of John tells us "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" [4:7]. They are not without God, nor outside of God's love.
Yet, even though they have some share in Christ's life, and Christ is clearly at work in them, we must still challenge them. We must challenge them to come to know the Jesus they already follow. We must challenge them to become clear about WHO is the Source of their Love. And there is only One Source: Jesus.
The Center and Other Orbits
Lastly, this theory of Truth pushes us to realize that no matter how close of an "orbit" we are to Christ, there are still others who are just as close, but traveling on different trajectories.
To push the analogy further: We know that there are three basic orbits which exist around any object in three dimensions. These are the X, Y, and Z axis (or, put another way: Depth, Width, and Height). Three objects may be equally close to the center, but on three different axis.
If we apply this to God, we will soon see that all types of Christ-followers may be in an equally close, passionate, powerful relationship with Jesus. But they may be "orbiting" on a different axis around Him. Perhaps they are a Catholic, or a Protestant, or a Conservative, or a Progressive, or a Pentecostal, or an Evangelical.
At several points their orbits may intersect, but at many more they will diverge. They will see Jesus from different perspectives. They will know the Truth from different angles. And this is irreducible and unavoidable. It is simply part of life in God's Universe. And it is good, because God enjoys our diversity and multiple perspectives. That is how God made us!
This does not mean that "everything goes" and anyone can say anything is true. There is clearly a common Reality we can point to at the Center and say "THIS is Truth". But, on the other hand, it also means that we cannot lock down our relationship with Jesus into one orbit, one way, one method of following Jesus. It will always be the same Truth experienced from multiple orbits.
And so, apart from some definite commonalities- like Historically agreed Scripture and Creeds accepted by the whole Church- this also means that our relationship with Truth will ALWAYS be messy. We will always have to see from each other's perspectives, and learn from each other's orbits, as we Journey with Jesus.
And by engaging in messy relationships with each other, we will come to help each other KNOW the Jesus that is the Center, the Source, and the Core of all of Reality.
Jesus is Hub around which all the universe revolves.
Jesus is the Plot which guides all History to fulfillment.
Jesus is the Reason which gives all of life Meaning.
Jesus is the Score which directs the music of our lives.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All who come to God are drawn through Him.
May we come to realize that is Jesus who is the Truth at the Center of Reality. May we learn to see Christ in others, and learn from each other's trajectories. And may we always help each other grow closer and closer to Christ.