Troubling Texts: I am the way

Since the beginning of organized religion, people have been claiming that their way is the only way. In this famous passage from John, Jesus appears to do the same thing. He says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to God except through me” (John 14:6). This text is simultaneously used to bolster claims of Christian exclusivity, meanwhile causing concern for people who believe God’s truth is revealed inside and outside of Christianity. 


In Jesus’ own words, is he substantiating a view that Christianity is the only way to God? Our combination of in-the-weeds interpretation and over-arching scriptural themes can help us here. This is another challenging passage when held up to the scriptural themes we’ve focused on: order, love, justice, renewal.


As a traditional statement of the exclusivity of Christianity, it’s hard to see where love and renewal might be experienced. Perhaps there is an element of order and justice for people who are willfully disregarding Jesus’ invitation to life in God. But even then we are forced to come back around to our other themes and, I think, admit that this seems a bit vindictive in light of God’s word revealing God’s heart for love and renewal. 


So let’s get a bit into the weeds with some context. 


IN Judaism, but not OF Judaism


Scholars think that the Johanine audience was a close-knit community of Jews who had come to confess Jesus as Messiah … but they were still active and participating in the Jewish community, perhaps trying to convince people of Jesus’ salvation. John was written within and to this group: Jews who were now following Jesus.


After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, scholars think this group of people was expelled from Jewish community, which would have resulted in deep feelings of social, religious, economic, and familial dislocation. Although John is sometimes criticized for only being concerned with the community of Christ-followers, it’s understandable given the history of the audience. 


Read with these circumstances in mind, John 14:6 is perhaps more about an appeal for unity within an oppressed community, than it is a statement of exclusion.


The way to God is God


Broadening our view out to the wider textual context brings further clarity. This is Jesus’ farewell to the disciples, a group of people who (at least on their good days!) already believed. Jesus assures them that he must leave to prepare a place for them (with many rooms!), but that he, God, and the spirit will be with them. He encourages the disciples that through love, they already know what to do: love Jesus, and act in that love as Jesus acted. This will bring them to relationship with God. 


Which, perhaps, is what this passage is actually about, when put in the context of the original audience and the Johanine early church: Relationship. It’s may not be about other religions at all, or even about salvation. It’s about Jesus inviting those who follow him to relate to God through him. 


Author Steve McSwain puts it in a way I find particularly helpful: Jesus is saying, “If you believe anything, believe not WORDS but the WAY to Life itself. My way ... will guide you into the Eternal. In fact, you cannot separate the way to God from God herself. The way to God IS God.”


Another way I think about it is this: beyond being a literal, 33-year-old person who walked and talked among us (something I do think is true, and beautiful) Jesus was the divine in-breaking of God, ultimate Love, the Word, good news. He was, is, and will be earth-altering Love that dwells in us and around us, calling us to a place of right relationship while nurturing our brokenness. Wherever we see these things taking place, Jesus is there reconciling creation to divine Love. 


Faith accompanied by action


Like in so many other passages, when we really drill down, and simultaneously take a birds-eye view we see a call to action: a call to right relationship, to follow Jesus on the way, to live the life he laid out, and embody the truth we claim. We get to know God though Jesus who, like he told his disciples, is God-in-action. We find Jesus in so many places. Understood this way, I think we can flip this passage from being a statement of exclusivity, to a statement of inclusion. And this, perhaps, is one of the most beautiful threads of scripture.