‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’
Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 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.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?” Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
On the face of it this passage from John’s gospel is a straight forward account of a conversation that Jesus had with some of his closest friends. Telling them that he will be leaving them soon Jesus says “You know the way to the place that I am going.” Thomas, puzzled, asks, “‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus replies with a statement familiar to all Christians. Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
I recall as a young teenager in London, England back in the 1950’s seeing this phrase writ large on a banner over a stage where Billy Graham was preaching. Persuaded by his argument I found myself, along with a number of others standing under this banner as his compelling message drew to its end. I’ve tried since to follow that way, as best I could, though I have wrestled over the years with Jesus words that immediately follow this, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Over the centuries and continuing today the church, or at least large parts of the church, uses these words in an exclusive sense, stating that there is ‘no salvation apart from the Church’ (extra Ecclesiam nulla salis). Indeed, the desire to bring others to this understanding lies behind much of the missionary movement where converting people to Christianity is regarded as its primary task, even in countries where another of the great faiths is the principle religion. The question for me is whether such exclusive claims to the truth can be maintained given the diversity of faith in our world.
I am helped by what follows in this same passage of scripture. As we continue to read John’s story it becomes clear that what Jesus is pointing to is a way of being human. Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father” to which Jesus replies “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?…. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” A paraphrase of this that helps me has Jesus telling Philip “If you want to know what God is like, look at the things that I am doing”.
As he taught his followers about the Father Jesus describes God as love and he has given his followers “a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Throughout his life Jesus lived a radical form of love that called for compassion and caring, even towards ones enemies. He calls all who would follow him to do the same; to practice a life of compassion and caring that is the truth about the very nature of God and what God requires of all God’s children. It is a way that brings life to those who follow it. And we know from our own experience that this is a way of being human that is not confined to Christians but may be found in other faiths and among people of good will.
I still stand under that banner where Jesus tells me that he is the way, the truth and the life. It is a way that I have trusted and done my best to follow over the years, though there have been a number of twists and turns along that way. It’s a way of being human uniquely revealed in Jesus, the one who has helped me to understand a truth that is life giving – the truth that each one of us throughout creation is loved by God. Looking at Jesus I see God revealing God’s very self, a love that reaches out to all people.
It’s a truth that I embrace but it’s not one, it can never be one that excludes others outside of Christianity from their own experience of this same God, who is love.
Rev Canon Philip Wadham
St Stephen’s Anglican Church