Easter 5A, 2011
A LIturgy is also available
RECOGNISING THE ‘JESUS SHAPE’
It happened during the time I was a student at Melbourne Uni.
In the mid to late 1960s.
A member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus,
came up to my lunch table in the student union caf. of the university.
‘Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’
asked a very intense, but earnest fellow student.
I was a bit dumbstruck and didn't quiet know how to answer him.
So I think I just smiled politely (if you can imagine that!),
folded my meat and salad sandwich in its waxed lunch wrap,
and got up to leave.
‘He's the way! The only way to salvation! Get on board before it's too late!’
I left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated.
The desperation of his certainty both frightened and angered me.
Years later the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it,
still makes me feel uncomfortable.
And still more years later, this issue was again raised when in 2000
the former Pope of the Roman Catholic Church
issued a papal statement, Dominus Iesus, which
“set off alarm bells in most other Christian communities, as well as giving offence to the adherents of every other religion on the face of the planet” (Jenks/FFF web site).
So I ask this question:
Is this heavy ‘salvation’ stuff what the storyteller John
was on about with today’s gospel story?
While the John story seems to have been set within the context of
a debate over differences, that debate seems to have been between
those who were Jewish followers of the Galilean (called ‘revisionists’), and
those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy.
They viewed matters differently. Perhaps profoundly so.
But the story’s modern usage seems to have been taken to extremes.
So perhaps we can explore this just a little this morning.
From all that I have read I have come to the not too original conclusion
that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshuha resisted questions about his personal identity.
When pressed, he deflected them toward the central motif of his teaching...
(i) the presentness of a compassionate God, and
(ii) the radical or 'counter culture' demands he made on human living.
But it is also true that when the words
‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’... have been used,
they often make Jesus sound like a heavenly bouncer,
keeping people away from God. Especially from
those without faith,
those with not enough faith, and
those who express their faith differently.
Religious authorities and groups of every age and creed
have often exercised their religion in two ways:
- as a weapon against others, and
- by protecting God from others.
History seems full of such ‘weapon’ stories and events:
The Crusades. The Inquisition. Sudan. Middle East. Indonesia. Northern Ireland.
And the gospel stories are littered with ‘protecting’ stories:
People who brought their children to Jesus, but...
Women who touched, ate with, plead with Jesus, but...
As a colleague pointed out some years ago, ‘ethnic cleansing’
is just a more extreme form of this same motivation.
So what can we do with these words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’...
Let’s not beat around the bush!
Scholars tell us it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim.
The words were put into his mouth by the storyteller John!
So to hear them, we need to hear them differently.
If these words can be read in terms of relationship with the God
rather than describing a content of dogma to be believed,
these words can be an invitation to us
to be on the journey which Jesus chartered.
That Jesus, as sage, provides a way of passage from one place to another.
Becoming and exploring and doubting,
rather than condemning or belting us over the head.
So let me be suggestive, rather than bullying Jesus into what he is not.
• Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership.
He is the pathway into the depths of the
This is the way... into the mystery of our common existence.
• Jesus is the truth about that common existence.
He uncovers what is hidden, and
brings to light the last dimension of human existence.
• Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which
God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation
and flow into each other.
As storyteller John Shea puts it:
“Jesus of Nazareth was the triggering centre of an event which restructured the God-self-neighbour relationship. This event was not only healing and transforming but mysterious and overwhelming’ (Shea 1978:118).
It is in this context that the words of Jesus, as suggested by John, come.
‘I am the way, the truth the life...’
And as Jesus challenged the dominate system of his day,
so these words contend with the powers and principalities of this day.
In this person, we see a concern for
the marginalised and the vulnerable (which included both the poor and the wealthy), and
a rejection of the belief that high-ranking people of power
are the favoured ones of God.
The good news then in this statement is, I am suggesting,
not about Jesus, but about God and us in the spirit of Jesus.
Or as Bill Loader puts it in his comments on this story:
“Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us. That means two things: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us, and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world - there’s a place for all!
But then this important suggestion:
“We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way” (WLoader 2005/www site).
Shea, J. 1978. Stories of God. An unauthorized biography. IL: Chicago. The Thomas More Press.