Today’s reading from John’s Gospel presents us with a famously – or, depending on your point of view, infamously – difficult passage. In particular, verse 6, in which the author of John’s Gospel has Jesus declaring: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” is especially problematic. This one verse has a sad and dubious history. Some Christians have used this verse to justify aggression against other faiths and cultures, while others have seen in it the basis of a claim for exclusive truth, a claim that reduces all other faiths and worldviews to mere myth and superstition. On the other hand, many critics have seen in this verse evidence that Christianity is an inherently aggressive and bigoted faith, a faith based in arrogant spiritual imperialism and a conceited sense of its own importance.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that this one verse has been so ill-used by Christians and non-Christians alike. But the question immediately arises: what are we to do? How are we to read this passage? What sense are we to make of the text in the present world? And how are we to perceive the passage itself: as a living text that still speaks to a modern understanding of faith – or as a relic of a dead past, an irrelevancy that is best ignored or forgotten?
It seems to me that the first thing we need to do is understand that plucking out this one verse and declaiming it in isolation does a grave injustice: to the verse itself, to John’s Gospel, and to ourselves. For this verse is embedded in Chapter 14, even as Chapter 14 is embedded in the whole of the Gospel, and even as John’s Gospel is embedded in the entire canon of Scripture. So this verse does not exist in isolation and cannot be read in isolation; for John’s Gospel is not a mere collection of the sayings of Jesus, it is a theological statement about who Jesus is. And it is in that light – and in the light of a text embedded within a wider narrative – that we must read this passage.
Let us begin with what happens in the preceding chapter of John’s Gospel. In Chapter 13, two horrific events coincide with two events of astounding grace. The two horrific events involve prediction: Jesus foretells both his betrayal by Judas, and his denial by Peter. Jesus knows what is about to happen, and knows how profoundly his disciples will fail him. But even as this knowledge, which surely must have torn at his emotions, is at the forefront of his consciousness, he performs two acts of grace. In the first, he washes the disciples’ feet – and given that John doesn’t say anything to the contrary, we must assume that Jesus also washed the feet of Judas, his betrayer. The text certainly makes clear that he washes Peter’s feet. In the second act of grace, Jesus issues a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. So, on the verge of betrayal and abandonment, Jesus both proclaims his love for the disciples and gives them the central talisman of their faith: love.
That is the setting for today’s passage from John’s Gospel. And the passage begins with a further act of grace, for Jesus tells his disciples: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Despite everything he knows is going to happen, Jesus is the good shepherd who will not abandon his flock to darkness. The loving grace which Jesus has already displayed in washing the disciples’ feet and issuing the new commandment is again evident. John, Chapter 13, verse 1: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” So in issuing this reassurance at the beginning of Chapter 14, Jesus is making clear that the Father’s love for humanity, present in the person of Jesus himself, will never be broken: not by betrayal, or abandonment, or even death itself. It is a love that can be trusted to endure, a trust that will be vindicated in the Resurrection, and at Pentecost.
And this love is further illustrated by the rich metaphor of the mansion with many rooms. Jesus again reassures his disciples through verses two and three: “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself…”. This reassurance has traditionally been a source of comfort to the bereaved, an assurance that our loved ones are not lost to death, but will partake of the Resurrection embodied in Christ. And this is precisely the comfort which this metaphor offers to the disciples: Jesus knows his time among them is drawing to an end, and wants them to understand that they ought not despair as a result. They are not being abandoned: on the contrary, the mansion with many rooms is being constructed; the mansion that is God’s promise, fulfilled in Christ and present in the Holy Spirit, that we are not alone in an indifferent and arbitrary universe. We are born, not in order to succumb to eternal death, but to be born into the death of Christ that gives rise to eternal life.
But the metaphor of the mansion with many rooms is also an inclusive metaphor, one that refutes both the claim to exclusivity and the accusation of spiritual imperialism. As already noted, in the absence of any other information, we must conclude that Jesus washed Judas’ feet as well as the other disciples’. And although Judas had left by the time Jesus issued the new commandment, the critical phrase – “as I have loved you” – is not issued with any qualifications; it is directed at the whole of the disciple group, of whom Judas had been a member. Thus, the metaphor of the mansion with many rooms is a metaphor of inclusive hope: God’s love is the love of the good shepherd, searching out and saving the lost. And not only this, but that God’s love also transcends any human notions of association or membership. God is not a club to whom we either do or don’t belong; God is not a guild from whom we exclude outsiders. We all of us belong to God because we are God’s creation, made in the image and likeness of God. John, Chapter 1, verse 4: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. That word, all, spells out the extent of God’s love: all-embracing, all-inclusive.
And it is the inclusivity of the metaphor of the mansion with many rooms that provides the context for Jesus’ self-proclamation in verse 6. In stating: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life”, Jesus is not making an exclusive claim on behalf of Christianity; that is a claim which later generations of Christians have imported into their faith. What Jesus is declaring is that his personhood, his presence on earth, is God’s decisive act that makes effective God’s universal love for humankind. And in declaring: “No-one comes to the Father except through me”, Jesus is not giving Christians an excuse to claim they possess full and absolute knowledge of truth. Rather, Christ is making clear his own Godhead, his own divinity; as he says in verse 8, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. Instead of being the basis of pride and arrogance, this declaration is instead a call to humility, for it confronts us with the deep mystery of the Sonship of Christ, of the eternally Begotten One incarnate in Jesus.
And this becomes even more apparent if we consider the Old Testament resonances which this passage contains. When Jesus says “I am”, he is declaring his identity in the same way that God declared God’s own identity to Moses: I AM. This is the same I AM heard by Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the same I AM heard by the prophets. This is no temporary claim of pride and arrogance; it is the eternal statement of God’s own being. But it is also once again a call to humility; for just as the Jewish patriarchs and prophets were humble before the terrible mystery of God’s presence, so we are called to be humble in our discipleship to Christ. For in Jesus, God humbled God’s-self and entered into our humanity that we might be justified and brought within the orbit of God’s saving grace. And that is a mystery and a love and a graciousness that is truly terrible in its extent and beauty, for we cannot comprehend its scope, nor discern its nature. We are called simply to the ministry articulated by the prophet Micah: to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly before God.