Despite the clocks going forward, we had a good number of people joining us both for the 08.30am 1662 Communion at St Swithun’s, Martyr Worthy and the Valley Worship service at St Mary’s, Easton. With myself being on the keyboard, I am so grateful that John Barber was with us to deliver his sermon on Jesus’ statement in John 14: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.
His talk focused on Jesus the Truth: you can listen to it here or follow his transcript (below).
Thanks too for those who in the afternoon joined in the Parish Walk or provided refreshments for us—so much appreciated! Yes, it was the first day of British Summer time, but to be honest, it still felt fairly wintry, but it was a great opportunity to enjoy our wonderful valley together and enjoy some good conversation.
‘I am the way, the truth and the life’
Good morning. Today we are continuing our concentration on the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. As a reminder, there are seven such statements that Jesus makes about himself to reveal and confirm his identity and his mission. They directly recall how God responded to Moses, when he asked him what to tell the Israelites about who was to lead them out of Egypt to the Promised Land and what his name was. God’s reply was ‘I am who I am.’
There is so much to understand in the particular ‘I am’ phrase right at the start of our reading today – ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ – that we’ve chosen to address it across three talks. At Valley Worship last month, Bishop David spoke of Jesus being ‘the way,’ today I will be speaking about him as ‘the truth’ and next month we will be addressing why he is ‘the life.’
As I noted there are only seven ‘I am’ statements in the whole of John’s Gospel and so Jesus must have thought about them very carefully. In this case Jesus’ claim is bold – that he is ‘the truth,’ notably using the definite article and therefore leaving no wiggle room for alternative truths.
Now I hope you have some sympathy for me at this point, since – needless to say – our contemporary culture is constantly questioning the whole concept of truth, whether your truth must be necessarily be different from mine because of our different life experiences and perspectives. The philosophies now on offer often conclude that no ultimate standards can exist and that a concept like absolute truth cannot possibly be valid. This phenomenon isn’t new, of course – as set out a few chapters on from our reading today in John Chapter 18, the Roman Governor Pilate cynically asks the question ‘What is truth?’ as he walks away to leave Jesus to his excruciating fate, despite having found no reason to condemn him.
So we need to start with contending with what this extraordinary self-revelation ‘I am the truth’ really means. Again Jesus’ claim is all encompassing – he isn’t just suggesting that he is truthful as a character or that he always speaks the truth, but rather that he is the truth, that somehow truth is the essence of his being.
At this point, before going further, I’d like to say how indebted I am to my wife Nicky, who has helped me greatly in wrestling with this vast topic. Please stay with me as I do my best to navigate some complex intellectual and spiritual territory over the next few minutes.
So how can we best define ‘truth’? Perhaps very concisely as ‘that which conforms to reality,’ that which accurately describes and reflects reality 100% of the time, in all circumstances, in all places and in every human being’s life.
I think we’d all readily admit that we have finite minds and are confined to one place at one time, so by this standard can only know a partial, indeed exceedingly limited, version of reality. By contrast, only someone who knows all things and sees all things – past, present and future – can perceive complete, unblinkered, total reality. This would have to be someone omnipresent – able to be with us right now while also simultaneously at the ends of the earth, say in Australia, along with everywhere in between – as well as omniscient, aware of every emotion, thought, deed and event, throughout all of time.
This person is God. He is the only being who can perceive reality (and therefore truth) 100% of the time, with complete accuracy and from all perspectives. The truth therefore is what conforms to reality as God, and God alone, perceives it; only he is able to define properly what the truth is. Any other definition or assumption about truth drawn from an infinitely narrower perspective of reality, like yours or mine, is incomplete and therefore flawed — and actually is not to be trusted a lot of the time.
By contrast, given God’s singular, all encompassing knowledge and vision (which ranges from a bird’s eye view to endless horizons), we can therefore trust whatever he reveals about reality and believe it is true. We are told in Hebrews that ‘it is impossible for God to lie’ – in contrast to Satan, who is described elsewhere in the Gospel of John as ‘a liar and the father of lies.’ Consequently, being both the source of ‘the truth’ and ‘the truth’ himself must be fundamental to God’s divine nature. He cannot therefore make promises and then break them nor say something is true at one point but change his mind and later say it is actually false.
So, by stating unequivocally that he is ‘the truth,’ what is Jesus claiming? Clearly that he is divine, he is God and is inseparable from the Father – as he says in verse 11 of our reading, ‘Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’ He has the same unique divine perspective on reality, able to take it in comprehensively, and therefore to discern what the truth really is. The same is said elsewhere in John of the Holy Spirit, the counsellor and third member of the Trinity, who is repeatedly described as ‘the Spirit of truth’ a few verses further on in Chapter 14 and elsewhere.
It’s time for a deep breath and a step back – I know there has been much to absorb in what I’ve just set out. Before returning to the passage, let’s pause to think about the implications of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit all being the truth – ultimately and absolutely – and being utterly consistent, reliable and trustworthy.
Sadly I’m sure we’ve all experienced breaches of trust, broken promises and being lied to – sometimes with even greater pain involved when we’ve been betrayed or let down by family or close friends. We have a friend whose father denied for years that he was having an affair. Only after incontrovertible evidence of his extramarital relationship emerged did he finally admit that he was. The destruction of trust along the way was awful, but our friend has found complete healing in building a relationship with Father God through Jesus, who will never let her down, mislead her nor fracture deep bonds of love. From that place of total security she has also been able to forgive her father, releasing both him and herself from the corrosive effects of holding on to all the pain and confusion his actions have caused.
Perhaps if this kind of experience resonates with you, you could decide right now to come into the presence of the unchanging, truth-telling, completely safe Father God, by whatever means – maybe by praying with someone on the ministry team after the service – to experience all that he offers in releasing pain and providing a secure foundation.
I know myself what a difference real forgiveness, with God’s help, can make. Many years ago my then business partner and I backed a friend in starting a new business. We put in all the capital needed and he contributed his expertise. He’d had some financial reversals previously and needed quite a high salary, which we financed, to keep him from defaulting on his large mortgage. The business took off after a couple of years and, to cut a long, distressing story short, he took advantage – pretty deviously — of some unusual circumstances to remove us as investors in favour of an important client. Within a few more years the business was wildly successful – by that stage I had also experienced some financial reversals and was having to watch our pennies very closely, but he was so flush with cash that he took to booking private jets to go on golfing weekends.
I’ve been able to forgive him and to let it go, but even after all these years my former business partner has not and is still deeply angry about what happened. Thankfully for my own equanimity I’ve learned that it makes sense to bring these stresses to the God who never breaks a contract and who is always true to his word.
It’s time now to return to Jesus’ claim, implicitly, that he is God by describing himself as ‘the truth.’ If he really is, what are the implications?
Then he too is completely trustworthy, all knowing and all seeing, and has a complete understanding of reality in every dimension, situation and place.
His words carry the full weight of God and are true.
And, going beyond what I’ve said earlier, he was true to himself and his mission and he had the courage of his convictions, even to the point of death. He was willing to risk it all to bring the truth to lost people, willingly sacrificing himself to bring them back to God through acceptance of the truth.
What do we do with this understanding of who Jesus is as the truth?
Perhaps we can start by being entirely honest with ourselves and with him about the partial truths or even counterfeit Gods in which we have placed our trust. What have we put before our relationship with Jesus? To what have we given higher priority – our careers, our entertainments, even our own families? What are the lies we have fallen for? Maybe it is time to do an audit of how we spend our time and resources and what gets our attention – if we are uncomfortable with our conclusions, there is always a way to, or a way back to, the endlessly forgiving Saviour who gave up his life for us.
We might then want to look at our sources of truth, being freshly aware of how limited and flawed the perspective of any social media platform, newspaper, book of philosophy, self-help manual or even leader or teacher will be. Indeed, this assertion could be stronger – how detached from ultimate reality these sources will be, however well-intentioned they may be. Why not turn instead, every day and as a preferred option, commanding the best of your time and attention, to God’s Word, the Bible, in the knowledge that ‘the entirety of God’s Word is truth,’ as Psalm 119 states?
Finally, we could also hear Jesus’ invitations at the end of our reading, in verses 12 through 14, to do the works he did and to come to him in prayer. Those works are meant to advance his kingdom on earth, to spread his love and to act in the ways he would want us to act – what might that mean in practice for each of us? We can also realise afresh that our prayers can also have huge impact, if offered in Jesus’ name and therefore in keeping with his character and teachings – maybe we could leave today with confidence in the power of prayer to make a difference?
I’d like close by drawing on the great promise of Jesus earlier in John’s Gospel, in Chapter 8, verse 28, that ‘the truth will set you free.’ I can attest this is the case, reaching back to my second year at university when I came to understand who Jesus really was and to accept his invitation to a life spent with him. I grew up in a nominally Christian family, but one that stopped going to church when I was about 8, meaning that any real exposure I had to Jesus and his teachings stopped then. Meanwhile I came to maturity in the post-Vietnam era and with the Watergate scandal front and centre. While I am not a naturally sceptical person, I was definitely influenced by the associated erosion of trust in leaders and institutions as well as by the intellectual culture of my university, which emphasised critical thinking to an extreme degree.
I found myself at sea, tossing and turning with passing waves, and not quite sure what to believe. By God’s grace one of my roommates, something of a polymath who could move seamlessly from poetry to physics, was also a passionate Christian and a warm, loving friend right from Day One. For most of our first two years at university, we debated all the big questions of life, often until 2am in classic undergraduate fashion, during which he consistently advocated the case for Jesus. Ultimately, again at about 2am one night in May 1978, I remember turning to one side to weigh the evidence. By the time I turned back I just knew it was true – there were no fireworks nor blazing revelations, but rather just a settled, peaceful, freeing feeling of complete security in being accepted and loved by God himself.
Of course since then I have had times of doubt – particularly about why suffering is so persistent in a world God loves so much – but I have learned over the years that doubt is actually an invitation to go deeper into the unsearchable, never ending riches of God and his character, as Paul encourages us to do in Ephesians. More fundamentally, I would say that recognising the truth as I did way back then (although not in all the ways set out today, for sure) genuinely set me free from that point on, giving me priceless confidence in Jesus’ love for and good plans for me.
This Easter we will probably hear again Pilate’s words as he washed his hands of the innocent Jesus – ‘What is truth?’ The real question we can each leave with today is ‘Who is truth?’ Am I willing to place my whole trust in him and to believe that the truth he reveals is absolute and will last for eternity?