Thursday, March 14, 2013

I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life

The scripture referred to is John 14:1-9.

The person who led the clergy retreat this year has had an interesting life. The Rev. Renee Miller has been an Episcopal priest, been Canon to the Ordinary, raised 17 foster children, gave herself a small facial tattoo of a flower (based on that of one of her foster children), commutes from California to a small parish in Arkansas where she is Priest in Charge, and is a trucker. She told us of this one time, while she was still learning to drive an 18 wheeler, that her mentor and she were late with a delivery. Using GPS, he found a shortcut to their delivery point. The problem was the road had one of those "No Commercial Traffic" signs. It was late at night, though and the driver thought it was just posted because the people in the neighborhood objected to the noise or smell of big rigs. So he turned down it. It turned out to be narrower and a lot twistier than he has anticipated. But he expertly threaded the asphalt ribbon for several miles. Until he came upon a bridge with a height limit. There was no way he could get his tractor trailer under it. And no way to turn around. If he thought it was challenging driving that curvy narrow road before, it was even worse backing that 18 wheeler all the way back to the main road. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.

Still, a lot of innovation comes from needing an alternate way to do something. Human beings can get real creative when they have to. We keep hearing that the last 7 words of a church are, "But we've always done it this way!" And it's true that some things have to change periodically. For instance, a bishop used to be the person who presided over the Eucharist at the one house church in a city. When churches started to grow to the point that new ones had to be established in the same community, the bishop had 2 or 3 Eucharists to perform in different locations. When that became unmanageable, he appointed one of his elders to take over in his individual churches and he was their overseer (what episcopas or bishop in Greek literally means). He visited them as often as he could but the elder, or presbuteros in Greek, ran the local church on a day by day basis. The presbuteros began to be called a priest. He represented the bishop to his people and he represented his people to the bishop. In other denominations they may use different terms but the offices function roughly the same way, like a local manager and a district manager. And I'll bet some people in the churches complained that they liked it better when they had the bishop all to themselves.

But why did the church not switch to a congregational model, where each church had its own bishop and could make its own rules and believe what it wanted? Like Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, which all other Baptist churches have repudiated? The change in structure was made to preserve what mustn't be changed: the truth that launched and sustained the church and which had to be transmitted to the world intact--the gospel of Jesus Christ. The bishop was to act as guardian of the faith.

We see in the New Testament that people were already twisting the idea of Jesus to suit their tastes. The Gnostics may well have existed before Christianity. They believed that matter and therefore the body was evil and only the spirit was good. The way to be saved from imprisonment in the body was through secret knowledge, or gnosis in Greek, that elite, very spiritual teachers had and could impart. Some of them entered the church and started adapting Christianity to their philosophy. Jesus, however, could not have taken on a material, which is to say, evil, body and so the Incarnation was an illusion. The God Jesus came from could not have created this evil material world and so the creator must be some other being than the Father of Jesus Christ. Because the body is evil, some Gnostics were very ascetic, abstaining from all pleasures of the flesh and eating as little as necessary. Others figured since matter is irredeemably evil, what you did with your body did was irrelevant, so long as you remained spiritual inwardly. A lot of people in the church found this version of Christianity to be attractive and so its heresies spread. This is why in John's letters there is so much emphasis on Jesus' bodily Incarnation. This is why the creeds affirm that God created all that is. This is why, I think, James emphasized that faith without works, without any visible manifestation, is dead. Creation and the body are good. People have physical needs, like food and warmth, and telling them to simply have faith is not the Christian response. John echoes this when he says in 1 John 3:18 "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth."

So how do we know what to change and what shouldn't change? I like to compare doctrines and church practices to a bicycle wheel. The hub is essential and must be in the middle of the wheel if you are to make good or indeed any progress. The spokes are important though the number can vary and sometimes one or two may have to be changed. They have to be firmly connected to the hub however and have to be balanced or the wheel will deform. You need a tire, where the rubber meets the road, but the tire not only can be changed but must periodically be changed if the wheel is to do its job properly.

Just so some doctrines and practices are absolutely essential to the church. Without them at the center, the hub, you aren't going to get anywhere. Some doctrines and practices are important but not, strictly speaking, essential. They need to be connected to the center and flow out to the parameter. They must be balanced and on rare occasions they might have to be replaced by something that accomplishes the same function. Some doctrines and practices are necessary for everyday operation but are neither essential or very important. They can become worn out and have to be discarded and replaced. This model shows how both change and changelessness are important to keeping the church moving. The trick is discerning which is which.

Which leads us to today's passage from John's gospel. Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." He is responding to a question asked by Thomas. Jesus had said he was going to make ready a place for his followers and that they knew the way. Thomas protests that they neither know where he is going nor the way to get there. And so Jesus reveals himself to be the way. How is that possible?

If Jesus were talking of a physical place, he would be the guide rather than the way itself. But the place he is going is his Father's house. Normally this means the temple, as Jesus referred to it when he was left behind as a boy in Jerusalem. But Jesus is talking about his death and ascension. He is going to heaven, where God is. So the way is not a physical path but a person. Know why?

Let's say you wanted to meet the President, not just see him at a distance at a public event but actually meet and talk with him. The physical way to see him would be to, say, enter the White House and walk to his office. But you would not get very far that way. Not even important people can simply drop in and wander up to him. You would have to go through a person, like his secretary. You might also get to see him if, say, you knew his Chief-of-Staff and he thought it was worth the President's time to see you. Or, if you were a friend of one of his daughters, she might be able to get you in. The point is your way in is a person, a person with whom you have a good relationship. If you merely tried to barge in, you would not see the President; you would see the White House carpeting real close, courtesy of the Secret Service man holding you down.

Jesus is our way in to the Father. But it is more than him merely securing us an introduction. Let's say you went to ancient Egypt to see the Pharaoh. And let's say the situation was that the Pharaoh was letting his son act as co-ruler, as was the custom. In seeing the son of Pharaoh, who was ruling Egypt with his father's permission, you would in a sense be seeing Pharaoh. He was making the decisions in ruling the land. Provided they were totally in sync in all their decisions, seeing him was as good as seeing the father.

In Jesus we see what God is like. In Hebrews we are told that Jesus is the very image and essence of the Father. The Greek word for "image" here is one used for coins, which were, of course, stamped out so that the image was exactly the same as the original model. So as Jesus says to Philip, "The person who has seen me has seen the father." And as he says to Thomas, "If you have known me, you will know my Father too."

A true image is vital. There is a sculpture garden off Mallory Square that is supposed to have the busts of 36 people important to Key West history. When I saw it, I thought these people must be inbred, because each bust had the same long narrow face, the same cheek bones and the same eyes, including Hemingway! Then I saw a picture of the sculptor and realized he had made all of them, including the women and the people of other races, in his own image.        

We tend to do that: make God in our own image. So if we really want to see what God is like, we need to look at Jesus. If we really want to know what God is like, we need to get to know Jesus. He is the only way to the Father and he is the truth about God, the only true image of the Father. This is the essential truth at the heart of the faith. This is what everything else revolves around.

It is Jesus who says, "No one comes to the Father except through me." Again, just like that trucker could not use that winding narrow road with the low bridge to reach his destination, you can't get to every destination by just any path. If you wish to drive to Key West, you have to take US 1. You can take the Turnpike or 27 to Krome Avenue or a number of other roads to get to south Florida but if you want to enter the Keys, you eventually have to get on US 1. It may not seem fair that you can't take the NJ Turnpike, or Route 66 or the Yellow Brick Road but the fact is that Key West is where it is and there is no other road by which you can reach it.

Why can't there be multiple ways to God? While all religions say there is something wrong with this life, they disagree on precisely what it is and how to fix it. While their ethics overlap greatly, their goals are quite different. Is the problem suffering and the way to solve that to rid oneself of all desire? Is the goal to avoid being reincarnated again but instead going directly to Nirvana, literally the "blowing out" of desire and aversion and individuality and absorption into the world soul? Is the problem is that people have not surrendered and submitted themselves to Allah? Is the goal to earn a place in a vividly described paradise of family reunion, eating good food, sex and watching your enemies being tortured in hell? Is the problem merely ignorance and if everyone has the special knowledge, everything will change? Or is the problem that we can misused, abused and neglected the good gifts of God's creation so that evil corrupts what we think, say and do, how we interact with others, with the rest of creation and with God? Is the goal the reconciliation of God and humanity and making all of us part of God's new creation, where we will experience his love?

And how does one achieve this? By following the Eightfold path? The Five Pillars? The Ten Commandments? Or by recognizing one's inability to perfectly obey any set of laws, accepting the sacrifice Christ offers and trust his Spirit to enter us and change us into people who do not need written laws for he has written them in our new hearts?

The way of Jesus is the way of love. All the commandments boil down to loving God and loving one another. We are even supposed to love our enemies, who, like us, are created in his image. Our ethics flow from love, not fear of suffering or punishment. Our goal is to be with our love forever.

Jesus is the way of love, the truth of love and the life of love. And we are to imitate him and one day we will be like him. There is no other way into the heart of the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit except through Jesus, the Love of God Incarnate.

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