"The Way, the Truth, and the Life" : John 14.6
Easter 5: 2 May, 1999
The Revd. Canon Professor J. Robert Wright, D.Phil. (Oxon.), F.R.Hist.S., D.D., D.Cn.L.,
St. Marks Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, New York City, and Canon Theologian to the Bishop of New York in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
In John 14:6, Jesus says to Thomas: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me." Not an easy text to preach from, in this age of universal affirmation! A former professor of the institution where I teach in New York, in a sermon from the pulpit there, said that these words are the one verse he wished were expunged from the text of the Canonical Scripture! Well, I don't agree, but I think its meaning must be faced head-on.
This verse from John's Gospel, it should be said at the outset, presents two important and inter-related themes, both of them challenging. 1) The Fatherhood of God and thus the use of masculine language for God, and 2) the claim ascribed to Jesus himself to be the unique way to the Father, to God.
I do not intend to spend much time today on the first of these two themes, other than to say that I, in common with many, but not all, intelligent late 20th century western catholic-minded Christians, wish very sincerely that the Christian faith that I believe did not seem to tie me to the male imagery of God that the Bible seems to imply. But it does. Unlike language for human beings, it can not be changed without changing the Scriptural canon; but it can be given a more positive interpretation, and that I try to do. In this endeavor I take my stand with St. Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian Father of the later 4th century, who in his Commentary on the Song of Songs said: "No one who has given thought to the way we talk about God can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. Mother, for example, is mentioned [as the name for God in the Song of Solomon 3:11] instead of father. Both terms mean the same, because there is neither male nor female in God. How, after all, could anything transitory like [gender] be attributed to the Deity, when this is not permanent even for us human beings, since when we all become one in Christ we are divested of the signs of this difference along with the whole of our old humanity? Therefore every name we invent is of the same adequacy for indicating Gods ineffable nature, since neither male nor female can define the meaning of Gods pure nature." [J. Robert Wright, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, p. 132].
I stand with Gregory of Nyssa, and his is the only comment I want to offer today on the first theme of todays Gospel reading, because I want to concentrate upon the second: the claim of Jesus himself to be the unique way to the Father, to God. This is sometimes known as the scandal of particularity. Here I think several remarks can be helpful: In one sense, of course, in the context of the time and world in which our Lord lived, if Jesus was to be confessed by the Fourth Evangelist in human imagery as the Son, then it was logical to assume that he had a Father. Every son has a father and the father can be known through the son, so the way to the Father is through the Son.
There is also another sense in which it may be said that the underlying doctrinal affirmation that is being made here, as well as in the first paragraph of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, is that "the Father" is to be understood as the common term then used for the Creator of the universe, even by the fourth Christian century as the source or ground of the ousia and unity of the Trinity, a term not originally intended to imply physical, masculine paternity. Jesus was "in" God in the sense, already developed by the Apologist-writers of the earlier Church, of the so-called Logos Endiathetos, the Indwelling Reason or Immanent Word or independent mental function that was in and with God from the beginning and eventually became incarnate in Jesus the Christ. Surely this can be inferred also from Johns gospel later in the same chapter at vs 9 when Jesus says to Philip: "He who has seen me has seen the Father" and at vs 11 when Jesus says "I am in the Father and the Father in me."
I do NOT think, however, that todays Gospel need be reduced to the conclusion of the great modern scriptural scholar and my personal friend Raymond E. Brown, when he says in his commentary on John 14:6 that "Jesus is [here] presenting himself as the only avenue of salvation." No, to believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, need not necessitate a denial of salvation, or even of Heaven, to other religions, such as Jews or Muslims. It is possible to believe that they, in reaching their goal, may be reaching Heaven as Christians understand it, and may even be reaching it by means of Jesus as Christians understand Him, even though they themselves do not recognize him or heaven by those names. For us to believe, as catholic Christianity does, that Jesus is the fullness of Gods truth and thus the perfect way to the Father, the Creator, is not to deny that other religions may have their ways which from their perspective are just as valid, even though we may regard them as types and shadows that have their ending. Consider for example how Jesus accepted as valid the Jewish faith, the religious experience of Moses and the prophets and the psalmists, and then built upon it. He used their teaching as a true revelation of God and then expounded His revelation, His incarnation, in terms of their vision.
Consider also, back in the 5th and 6th century of the Christian Church the places (such as northern Italy) where this text - the Way, the Truth, and the Life - was most commonly used, which were situations still in opposition to Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ and thus in effect denied that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The common imagery there, for example in the mosaics of Ravenna, was of Jesus treading upon a serpent representing Arius while he holds an open book that reads "Ego sum via, veritas, et vita". This text, therefore, need not be pressed all the way to a claim of Christian exclusivity over other religions, but may be allowed simply as a plea for catholic orthodoxy over Arian heresy.
I believe there is also another sense in which the claim of particularity can be allowed, in the sense that we can believe, together with such a respectable modern Roman Catholic theologian as Karl Rahner, that Jesus as the Logos or rational mind or Indwelling Word within God, the logos endiathetos, is indeed the way in which all human beings who reach God, do reach God. When we consider the claim of Buddhists, for example, that their eightfold Path of Salvation is the way, we can surely believe that in their holiness and goodness of life the Logos of God also dwells, although imperfectly and not incarnate from our perspective. In pledging ourselves to Jesus, even in adoring Jesus in the Host elevated at the altar, we need not dismiss the truth that can be found in them. In dialogue with a sincere Buddhist, or Jew, or adherent of some other non-Christian religion, I would first be sure I knew my own faith, then study theirs, then seek as much common ground as possible, and only then advance our belief that Christianity best fulfills their deepest affirmations and longings. Such an approach acknowledges the goodness that we can see in them, at the same time preserving the uniqueness of our own Christian conviction. It may or may not convince them, but it does meet them part-way.
That we as Christians do therefore still have a mission, even in this modern and more tolerant and multi-cultural world, to proclaim, in a non-condemnatory way, Jesus to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, can be seen, finally, in the lives of the many holy persons whom we as Anglicans celebrate in the calendar of the liturgical year whose principal lifework was to appeal to non-Christians, including followers of other religions, to convert and to accept Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I have not studied the Australian Anglican Churchs calendar of such persons, but I invite you to listen to the honor roll of those whom we commemorate in the calendar of American Anglicanism (the Episcopal Church) who are remembered primarily for their efforts at evangelism: holy persons who gave their lives primarily in the effort to proclaim Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, among non-Christians, even among adherents of other religions. I dare say that you as Anglicans in Australia honor many of the same names. There would be little reason to commemorate most of these people if their had not given their lives that others might come to believe in Jesus. I list them in order of their feast days from January to December: Thomas Aquinas, Anskar, the Martyrs of Japan, Cyril and Methodius, Thomas Bray, Patrick, Cuthbert, Gregory the Illuminator, George Augustus Selwyn, Augustine of Canterbury, the Martyrs of Uganda, Boniface of Mainz, Columba, Bernard Mizeki, Alban, Aidan, David Pendleton Oakerhater, the Martyrs of New Guinea, Ninian, John Coleridge Patteson, Sergius of Radonezh, Remigius, Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, Henry Martyn, Alfred the Great, James Hannington, Willibrord, Edmund of East Anglia, and Channing Moore Williams. What an honor roll! We would not be honoring them if we believed that their efforts and lives were given in vain.
Pray God that we in our time, and in our ways, may be as faithful in proclaiming Jesus to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as they were in theirs. Pray also that these Holy Persons themselves may pray for us.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.