John 14:1-14 The Way the Truth and the Life
Two Sundays ago the BBC broadcast a debate on their morning programme The Big Questions entitled ‘Is it more rational to believe in God?’ The question arises from the 18th century French philosopher Blaise Pascale’s famous observation that it makes sense to be a Christian: if God exists and you are a Christian you gain everything, but if God does not exist then you lose nothing. Thus, he argued, it is more rational to be a Christian.
Unlike the majority of these debates, it was an extraordinarily civilised affair with the representative atheist in particular, Julian Baggini, making his case in a very courteous way and with great respect to Alister McGrath and Vince Vitale who were defending Christian orthodoxy. I recommend that you see the video which is no longer on the BBC I player but is on You Tube –and I recommend that you watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjrobB2n340
But these debates in recent years have not always been so civilised. And I believe that there is a prevailing view amongst some outside the church that Christian faith is irrational and is opposed by science – not a conclusion reached by the consensus in the BBC debate, incidentally. I suspect that, like the crowd in Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the Emperors’ new clothes, the evidence suggesting God’s existence in front of our eyes (see for example The Evidence for the Resurrection) is rejected by some, only out of a wish not to appear stupid.
The reading from John we have just heard, however, makes it clear that this is not just a contemporary debate and indeed was a concern for at least two of the apostles in the first century– Thomas and Philip. Responding to one of what must have appeared to be Jesus’ enigmatic sayings ‘and you know the way to the place that I am going’ Thomas says: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In other words – “how can we find our way to the destination, if we don’t know what the destination is? Don’t bother with all this ‘way’ business – tell us about the destination, and we will find the way by ourselves”.
Then Jesus utters the memorable and most important words in the whole of the New Testament ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no-one comes to the Father except through me’.
This sentence is the answer to the human condition; to death and to the anguish of a life of emptiness and irrelevance. But it also demonstrates how in this whole area of God, we so often start at the wrong point. You see we want to dive in, hear and evaluate the truth. Like we do with all natural phenomena. How does this work? What natural law is in operation?
Because once we know how it works we can predict it and that is the first step to being able to harness or control it. Is there a God? We ask. Is it true? If so, how can we control Him? How can we get Him to do what we want? So that we can turn him into the Genii in the lamp who obeys our commands – and we become God – the ultimate idolatry.
In any event, it’s clear (and as was demonstrated from the BBC debate) that you cannot prove or disprove the existence of God beyond doubt. As Vince Vitale pointed out, it is no less rational to believe in a virgin birth than a universe which appeared suddenly out of nothing. Both theism and atheism are beliefs. It’s an intellectual stalemate.
But how can we know the Truth? That’s what Philip was asking in the passage from John -“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” – in other words ‘forget about the way – show us the destination – prove to us the truth’.
But there is a significance in the order that Jesus speaks these words. First, the Way, then the Truth and then the Life. It’s only when we have encountered the Way that we can see the Truth and thus have the Life.
It’s a truism that travel broadens the mind. As we travel on a journey through unfamiliar territory we change as we experience new things. And change is what is necessary if we are to see the Truth which is already all around us. We have to follow the Way to recognise the Truth and to receive the Life. And Jesus is the Way.
In some respects you see, Christianity is not a religion at all. One of the definitions of a religion given by Websters is “ an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods”. This harks back to pagan times when it was thought that if you performed certain ceremonies then particular gods would be appeased and the harvest would be successful or the rain would come etc. It was an attempt to control the gods according to a system.
Christianity isn’t a religion at all on that basis. This accounts for the strange use of the word ‘Way’ when Jesus says ‘I am the Way’. The means of getting to the Truth and the Life is through the Way but the Way is not a set of rules on how to worship and harness God – the pagan understanding of religion or even a set of rules on how to live a holy life – perhaps the Jewish or Islamic understanding of religion. Instead, Christianity is a person not a religion. How do you engage with a person? Through a relationship. It’s as if we have a guide on our journey, pointing things out to us on our way and guiding us along the path. And He is a guide who leads us to understand the real Truth and enables us to receive eternal Life.
So if we are foxed by questions of truth, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. The real question is ‘Are you there Lord?’ So often I hear of people who have come to faith in Jesus when at a crisis point in their lives they have they have called out to Jesus and said ‘if you are there Lord please help me’ and help has come.
And yet so often people are hung up on intellectual obstacles to faith that they never get round to experiencing the person of Jesus Christ speaking to them. If that’s you, then the Alpha Course we will be running in the Parish from September is just the moment to discuss these issues and to meet with Jesus. Alpha allows you to ask all the questions you have about Christianity in a friendly and open environment (after supper). All questions will be treated with respect, however wacky. No-one is going to think you foolish for any opinion whatsoever. Take the opportunity, while it is on offer, to discover the Way.
So, the real question in our anguish is the personal one ‘are you there Lord to help me?’ not the academic ‘does God exist?’ The answer to only one of these questions is of any use to you as your life draws to its conclusion. Don’t leave it too late!