One of Jesus’ more shockingly exclusive claims is John 14:6 — “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” Bring out the politically correct police, we’ve got a religious bigot on our hands!
How strange, then, that this claim comes in the middle of a passage containing one of Jesus’ most inclusive statements:
“In my house are many rooms … I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2)
Since this passage is often read at funerals, and since we are remembering at this time of the year the brutal slaying of nine people at a Bible study, it might be worth revisiting this fascinating passage from the Gospel of John.
Let’s begin by remembering that Jesus used metaphor a lot and often peppered his talks with powerful images. In this case he painted a picture that in God’s Kingdom there would be a heavenly mansion containing many rooms. Surely he was implying that the Kingdom of God — the Kingdom he said would come and had already started — would be very roomy. In other words, it would be very inclusive.
The fact that many read Jesus’ words in a more literal way than he meant frequently occurs because nearly all of us have been schooled to think that only what’s material is truly real.
The body is important
Well, Jesus did believe in the importance of the material. By contrast, in much Greek philosophy the physical, including the body, was nowhere near as important as the conceptual. In fact, to many in his day the body was downright evil — something we must carry around as a burden. Hopefully, it would be sloughed off as soon as possible.
But Jesus was a Jew. In contrast to the Greek mindset he wanted to clothe the naked, heal the blind, feed the hungry and raise the dead. He celebrated marriage and even turned a simple meal into a sacrament that touched on the deepest of spiritual realities. Jesus was very concerned with the material world.
But he thought that much of the Jewish culture he lived in had got it wrong. Many of his detractors could not see beyond the physical. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom, it made them yearn for a political revolution with a full reinstatement of Davidic rule.
The paradox of Jesus
The paradox of Jesus is that in him these two polarities came together in a way that they could not either in the dualism of Greco-Roman culture, where the body was unimportant, or in first century Jewish culture, where earthly politics ruled. One way to understand Jesus is to see that he lived at the intersection of the material and the spiritual.
When Jesus talked about Eternal Life, the Greeks found him far too materialistic, and the Jews found him far too spiritual. The Greeks wanted a non-corporeal heaven; the Jews wanted an earthly realm.
Jesus’ inclusive/exclusive comments were provoked by Thomas’s question: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Jesus answers Thomas: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
By saying that Jesus is bringing together the two parts of Thomas — the materialist doubter and the spiritual quester. He is saying to Thomas: “the veil that separates matter from spirit, or, if you will, time from eternity, has been torn apart. You can walk through, Thomas — just put your trust in me.”
By conjoining the material and the spiritual, Jesus implied that the way to the Father is not a dirt road, that is it is not a pilgrimage trail like the famous Way from France to Spain that my wife and I visited in 2015. Nor was he saying to Thomas that the Truth is some abstract philosophical principle that doesn’t touch our everyday lives. “No, Thomas: The Way and the Truth come together in the Life you can see in me. In and through me, Thomas, human life touches spiritual life. It’s here that time and eternity come together.”
Rethinking what’s real
Richard John Neuhaus, the Roman Catholic scholar, writing about a near-death experience he had, wrote: “Life does not revolve around politics, business, family, country or any of the other things we include when we use that unfortunate phrase “the real world.” These are not “the real world.” The real world is what we encounter when we encounter Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The cross of Christ “is the axis mundi, the center upon which the whole cosmos turns.”
Notice the phrase “Christ crucified and risen.” Jesus was able to say this to Thomas because he knew that he would rise again. If Jesus’ body had been left to rot in a Jerusalem grave, his words to Thomas would have been meaningless — sheer fantasy. But the Resurrection changed all that, and on his Resurrection the church’s message either stands or falls.
But grant the Resurrection, and you can see how materialists and idealists come together. Both can be hopeful. Jesus Christ brought together the prospect of heaven with the materiality of earth. Because of Christ crucified and risen there is just a thin veil between them. Believers like the Emmanuel Nine now know this.
But Jesus’ has to have a physical Resurrection to do this. As the novelist John Updike wrote:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules re-knit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then re-gathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with analogy …
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
Peter Moore is the director of the Anglican Leadership Institute, S.C., and a scholar-in-residence at St. Michael’s Church. He and his wife live in Mt. Pleasant.