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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 6: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Good Friday)

Reading: John 13.36-14.7
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” In the last address, we met Thomas the doubter who would not, could not, believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Here he is again, in the upper room on the night before Good Friday. Jesus has been telling his disciples that he must go ahead of them to his Father’s house, where there are many mansions. “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, interjects. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” You can hear the rising anxiety in his voice, the panic of anticipated separation and loss on the part of a man who had once said, “let us go with him, even if we must die with him”. But now that the hour has come, the disciple panics – and who is to say that he wasn’t feeling for them all, giving voice to the fears that the others dared not utter? 
So the theme is the way: the way to the place Jesus will prepare, the way home, the way to the Father. It’s been introduced by another disciple’s anxious question. Simon Peter has asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” And once more, Jesus replies enigmatically, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterwards.” “Why can’t I follow you now?” demands Peter, always impatient. Impetuous too. “I will lay down my life for you.” “Oh yes?” replies Jesus. “I tell you, before cock-crow, you will deny me three times.” Already, it seems, the way is announced as problematic, beset with difficulties and temptations. The coming night will defeat Peter. How can he, how can any of them not stumble on this hard road of loyalty and faithfulness that it will take to reach the destination?
This clear focus on the way suggests to me that we haven’t got the translation of this famous saying quite right. Truth and life are, indeed, among the great themes of the Fourth Gospel. But here, right now, the focus is not on them directly but on the way. I think we have a Greek figure of speech here (called, if you want to know, a hendiadys). The second and third words are adjectival, describing the first and principal epithet which is way. A better version is, “I am the way that is true and living”. And that makes the dialogue clearer. To the puzzled question, “How can we know the way?”, Jesus responds by pointing to himself. Let’s paraphrase. “You ask how to find the way? Let me show you. It is I myself who am the true and living way. Choose this path, walk in and through me, and you will assuredly come to the Father. You have come to know me already. Therefore you will know my Father too, for in me you have seen him and touched him and begun to learn how to love him. And when you reach that point of finding and knowing him, you will realise that it was by me that you made this journey all along – whether you realised it or not”
Like light, the way is one of the great words you find in all the world faiths. I suppose this is because the idea of travelling, making the journey, walking the pilgrimage is such a basic metaphor of human life. You could say that the entire faith of the Hebrew Bible is founded on the image of the way, the journey made by the Israelites when they were led out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, out into the desert, and then over the Jordan into the land of promise. Some of the prophets said that this was the Hebrews’ golden age, when they were a people on pilgrimage, unencumbered by the burdens that go with occupying land, building houses, shrines and institutions, and living the settled life. On that journey, Israel, God’s child, came to know God as their king and be bound to him with an intimacy they would never know again. Maybe Jesus is recalling that era when he spoke about the true and living way which, when we walk it, leads us to God. 
It’s significant that he should use this image as he approaches the cross. We are familiar with the idea of following Jesus on the way of the cross: the via dolorosa in Jerusalem expresses this journey in which pilgrims accompany Jesus in his passion. A progress through the Stations of the Cross imitate this pilgrimage in every Roman Catholic church (and some Anglican ones), not least on Good Friday. To walk with Jesus on the road to Golgotha is to try to empathise with his loneliness and pain, share in his suffering, not because we can add anything to what he is carrying for humanity, but so as to glimpse the infinite cost of self-emptying love. 
This perhaps reflects an aspect of how the wisdom teachers of the Hebrew Bible spoke about the way. To them, life came down to the choices we make about which way we intend to follow in life. There is the way of folly that is enticing and seductive and offers easy pleasures but which ends up diminishing and eventually  undoing human character and virtue, what the psalms and proverbs call destruction. Then there is the way of wisdom that looks hard, narrow, steep, exacting. Yet this is the way that leads to enduring reward and satisfaction. that builds people up so that they realise their true humanity. “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” says the Book of Job. On Good Friday, we feel particularly starkly the force of the choices we must make between falsehood and folly on the one hand, and truth and wisdom on the other. It’s a life or death decision, in the terms the gospels put it.
To many people, the cross looks more like folly than wisdom. Why spend today gazing at the crucified Messiah when we could be out playing football or going shopping? Is this immersion in suffering good for us? That very question is faced head-on in St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. He plays with what wisdom means, what folly means, and concludes that on the cross, we see both the power of God and the wisdom of God shown forth to the world: power in the powerlessness of the victim, wisdom in the folly of a crucified God. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men” he says, “and the weakness of God is stronger than men”. And that’s precisely the paradox of the way of the cross that we are walking today. By any human criteria, it makes no sense. But turn towards the crucified Lord and follow his way – and the journey of this season brings its own understanding and its reward. For this is not just any path but the true and living way. 
Because on Good Friday, the invitation is held out to find in him the answer to our human quest. This path of wisdom, this path to God is what every seeker after truth is drawn to. Carl Gustav Jung had a saying from classical antiquity placed over the lintel of the door that led his patients to his consulting room, “whether he is recognised or not, God is present here”. When we feel after God and find him, a voice tells us that we are walking this true and living way, this path of wisdom that pilgrims have proved trustworthy and life-changing. Like Israel of old, we experience the journey as asking of us everything we have, for as the hymn says, “love so amazing, so divine / demands my life, my soul my all”. It tries our resolve and tests our resilience. Of all the days in the year, today is the one when we recognise the cost of discipleship.
But we believe that this path we tread, this cross-shaped life we live, will open our eyes to wisdom and truth, and lead us to the Father. Through the cross and into the resurrection, we discover how God’s movement is always from dying to living, from imprisonment to release, from despair to deliverance, from the portal of the grave to the joyous gateway of resurrection and life. On this day we stand before “the wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.” Here, at the cross, the fugitive pieces of our lives are put back together once more, and new worlds open up before us. And if the path is rough and steep, and we wonder if we have the strength to complete the journey, nevertheless we willingly walk it for the sake of the One who will be our true and living way till travelling days are done.
Malcolm Guite’s sonnet on these words.
“We do not know… how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission. 

1 comment:

  1. its very important for people to have material like this to read and open their eyes to the truth