If you know anything about John’s gospel, you will know that chapters 13-17 are ones that focus on Jesus’ farewell to his disciples, teaching them preparing them, encouraging them, before the coming disaster strikes and they are sheep without a shepherd. The backdrop to this saying is chapter 13. Jesus had been celebrating Passover with his disciples. John doesn’t record the words we use at communion that the other gospels have, but we assume they were said, so already questions must have been buzzing. How could the bread be Jesus’ body and the wine his blood? What did he mean when he said he wouldn’t drink the fruit of the vine again until he drank it again with them in his Father’s kingdom?
John tells us that Jesus got up from the table and performed a highly symbolic act: he took on the role of the menial footwashing servant, laying aside outer clothes and putting a towel around his waist. They must have felt very uncomfortable, because it was not something a teacher like Jesus should be doing, but something that should be done for him. Peter clumsily expressed that discomfort. In fact, Jesus made the point that he was their Lord and if he had performed such an act of service, then they should also follow his example. Now if you think I have forgotten which passage we are looking at, just remember this for when we move into chapter 14.
If this wasn’t troubling enough, Jesus told them that one of them was going to betray him. Immediately they all felt a bit uncomfortable and I guess they were tripping over themselves to deny it was them and must be one of the others. He then told them that he would be going away, but they were to love each other as he had loved them so that people would recognise they were his disciples. Finally, Jesus said that the anchorman, Peter, was going to deny him three times. One blow came after another until they must have been in confusion and turmoil. It is against this backdrop that Jesus calmly says, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ They must have looked at him with incredulity.
One of the things we need to learn to do when reading the Bible, is enter into the story and the emotion of the story. We have treated the Bible too often as a rule book or text book when in actual fact it is a book about the story of God’s relationship with his creation and people within creation. When we start to enter into the story, we appreciate that these were real people who lived their imperfect lives of faith in God and persevered because they knew the presence and action of God in their lives; persevered when they didn’t.
The opening words of chapter 14 will be familiar to anyone who has attended funerals. These are words of comfort that people turn to in the face of death, with varying degrees of hope or belief in eternal life. This is not surprising, especially since they were said at a time of emotional turmoil for the hearers, and they were said to bring reassurance, comfort and encouragement to look to God the Father. We need to pick up on these well known words and understand what they mean. As Jesus told them not to let their hearts be troubled he made a very significant statement: ‘You believe in God; believe also in me.’ Well of course they believed in God. They were Jews and belief in God was part and parcel of society and of their whole world view. Jesus was making the point that in the face of all the turmoil they were to go on believing in God. I have often talked about keeping, on keeping on. It is when we are faced with challenges and difficulties in our lives that the reality of our faith in God is proved. Too often people hit a major crisis, and they walk away from God, because somehow they have believed or have been taught that God should have protected them from any danger. Or perhaps they just haven’t got beyond a young faith.
However, Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them to believe in him as they believed in God; it was said in the same breath. Whilst they had recognised that Jesus had come from God and Peter had made a declaration about Jesus being the Christ which he accepted, I wonder if Peter and the others had really taken the step of equating Jesus as ‘God with us’, which is what Jesus went on to say as he identified himself fully with the Father. I think events show that they didn’t fully grasp this until after the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Paul had come to understand this as he wrote to the Corinthians:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. 2 Cor 5:117-19
It is quite incredible that the Lord of all creation came in Jesus to be the reconciler for the whole world and deal with the world’s sins. This is what declare as we commit ourselves to following Jesus and receive his forgiveness through repentance and faith.
Following on from this comes the declaration that there are many rooms or mansions in the Father’s house and that Jesus, after preparing a place for them, was going to come and take them to be with him. Let me explain the picture. It was not unusual for a Jewish man to marry and then add on a room or two to dad’s place for himself and his wife. In this way the father’s house would grow over the years and become a place of many rooms housing different generations, assuming that he had the space and the land in the first place. So as Jesus said that there were many rooms and space for them all, he was using a familiar illustration. However, the important point is this: just as the different generations would be sharing the father’s house and be in his presence, the disciples were going to be sharing the Father’s house and be in the presence of Jesus, who was and is also in the Father. They would be in the presence of God.
Imagine trying to take this in, against the backdrop of all that had been said and done at the recent Passover celebration. It must have been mind-boggling. Jesus makes the throw away comment that they know the way to where he is going, and Thomas blurts out the response they probably all wanted to make, ‘But we don’t!’ It is then that Jesus made the statement, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ We need to address the exclusivity of the claim made in those words.
Jesus, in saying ‘I am the Way’ is making an exclusive claim. We read it as self-evident, but it was a shocking claim for the Jews as well as the pagan world around; and it is a shocking claim for society today. You need to read chapters 13 and 14 to get the full impact of what he was saying. In chapter 13, in spite of all that he is going to face he expresses confidence in his mission and in chapter 14 he equates himself with the Father in heaven. Back in John 8 Jesus said,
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
This was not something the Jews could easily accept; in fact it was blasphemous to claim that he was God. The pagan world would have been quite happy to accomodate Christian faith if only there wasn’t the insistence that Jesus was Lord over all and Christian believers could not bow down to other gods at the same time as Jesus. It is the same for our society today. The exclusive claim of Jesus is not acceptable, because he is considered to be one of many ways.
We live in a pluralist society and have done since the end of the Second World War. What this means is that there are many cultures and many faiths and secularism is increasing in dominance. What pluralism says is that there are many faiths and many ways of understanding the world and viewing life, some of which are not religious at all. No one perspective is correct, because they all have value and are worthy of equal respect. When it comes to religion, each expresses a different pathway, but ultimately they all lead to the same God: it doesn’t matter which you choose.
There are many problems with pluralism. First of all, at best it expresses an ignorance of the core beliefs of the different faiths. At worst it is patronisingly arrogant, believing that the arbiters and promoters of pluralism are somehow more objective and have a clearer view. Our society goes further, because it is making secularism the dominant culture, to which all others are subject, because secularism knows best. It is a faith system that is imposing itself on others and seeking to modify or restrain the beliefs of others. The fundamental problem with pluralism is that not all ways can be right and lead to the same destination, and no society really believes that.
Look at this slide. The arrows represent the different ways of understanding and interpreting the world. Jesus’ statement is in direct conflict with the view that all routes lead to the same destination, in spite of pointing in different directions. The big question is, which direction do we take, because we may not all want to take the same direction? In any case it makes no sense to say they are all right. Let me demonstrate.I had a great Aunt Maud. Who believes that she was a tall lady? Who believes that she was short? Who thinks she was of average size? Who doesn’t believe she existed? Pluralism says that each of these people are right. It doesn’t matter what you believe about Aunt Maud because all are equally valid. So she was a tall, short, average height person who didn’t exist.
Slide 2: it is no good saying all these religions and those not represented, basically all lead to the same end and all are true. Buddhism and secularism are in conflict with any belief in God because they don’t believe God exists. An Islamic understanding of God is very different from a Christian understanding. Not all belief systems are the same or equal. In the ‘I am’ saying this week, Jesus is making an exclusive claim. The question is why follow Jesus?
The gospels were written for the express purpose of answering that question. They present Jesus, what he did, how he met with people, his teaching, his claims, his life, death and resurrection. John has structured his gospel so that people could see the signs – the seven miraculous signs; the seven ‘I am’ sayings and the presentation of the passion of Christ. Why follow Jesus? Well only you can decide.
He claimed to be God incarnate.
This was backed up by his life, miracles and teaching.
He identified himself fully with the Passover lamb atoning for the sins of the
people, as he celebrated that meal with his friends.
He allowed himself to be the sacrifice.
He was raised from the dead.
He has been attested to by generations of Christians throughout history and across the world.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” We are asked to do what he asked the disciples to do: believe in God, believe also in him. Only we can take that step. Jesus has done everything else.