Sunday, May 7, 2023

The True and Living Way


John 14:1-14

Easter 5 / Year A

One of the real blessings of my life has been the three pilgrimages I have made with colleagues and friends in the last few of years.  Each was remarkable in its own right, but one stands out from the other two in a particular aspect. 

The English and the Portuguese Ways of the Camino are two of several different paths leading to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.  The routes have been well travelled for centuries and are well-marked in two different ways.  One is a scalloped seashell (the symbol of the Camino) and the other is a simple painted yellow arrow.  Without fail, any time the path offers a choice of directions a yellow arrow points the way.  Urban centers can be challenging and more than once my fellow pilgrims and I stood at a busy intersection scouring high and low, to and fro to find a marker to guide us.  Only once or twice on these two pilgrimages did I get ‘lost’ by missing an arrow telling me to turn.

I cannot say the same thing about the Way of St. Cuthbert along the English/Scottish border.  The route went along roads, through fields, and on remote paths, but was not nearly as well marked as the Camino.  Being ‘lost’ happened several times a day and more than once I had to access my google maps to figure out where I was and how to get to where I was supposed to be. 

This morning we hear St. Thomas say to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus famously answers, “I am the way.  I am the truth.  And I am life”.  As with last week’s image of the gate, in its original context this teaching is much more generous than what it has become.  Today it is used by some to say any person who practices a religion other than Christianity (or who doesn’t practice any religion at all) is lost and will never get into heaven.  But as Jesus intends it, he is assuring his followers he will guide them through life. 

I have never warmed to how philosophical “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” sounds.  One scholar I read years ago pointed out the central theme of the passage revolves around the concept of way so he suggests a better translation of Jesus’ teaching might have truth and life modifying it.  He advocates we hear Jesus as saying, “I am the true and living Way.”  On last Tuesday’s clergy zoom call with the bishop we began our time by talking about this passage.  When I shared the translation “the true and living Way,” Bishop Susan said it suggests there are a lot of ways you can go that aren’t nearly as life-giving.  Amen, I thought.  I can tell you every single time I lost my way on a pilgrimage I only made it harder on myself.  I never once found a shortcut or an easier path.

In case you haven’t guessed, my favorite metaphor of the life of faith is a pilgrimage, a path, and a way.  In the 9th chapter of the Book of Acts we learn before Christians were called Christians and before anyone used the word church, we learn following Jesus initially was known as “The Way.”  It is a rich image used throughout Scripture.  The Psalmist professes,

You will show me the path of life;

In your presence is fullness of joy,

At your right hand are pleasures forever more.


In Matthew we hear Jesus teach this to his followers:

Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  (7:13-14)

Wendell Berry, in an essay in his book The Art of the Commonplace, invites us to ponder the difference between approaching the spiritual life as a path or as a road.  The road mindset looks like rushing into church once a week (or once a month), tanking up, and then rushing out afterward to a life of, well, rushing around.  Berry notes,


“A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.  It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.  As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape.  It is not destructive.  It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.”

Roads get you efficiently (and mindlessly) from one place to another.  Paths change you.  I have never once sat in a traffic jam and contemplated all the people who have travelled on that particular interstate before me.  But I can tell you I have been on many different paths where I felt connected to people and events from across the centuries.  A couple of years ago I blazed a trail through a gorge in downtown Akron on a beautiful fall day.  At one point I stopped to take in the sights of falling leaves and the sound of rushing water and realized I was standing in a moment and a place unchanged since the end of the Ice Age.  It is times like these when I sense I am walking on the true and living Way.

Paulo Coelho, in his book By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, cautions “It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think yours is the only path.”  Please don’t hear me saying you have to go on a pilgrimage in order understand the Christian life as being like a pilgrimage.  And please don’t hear me saying only I know the way.  I am in the best position to determine the true and living Way Jesus invites me to go, but it is not going to be the exact same path Jesus invites you to walk.  But, as Jesus promises Thomas, so he promises us, “I will show you the way.”