For the next few weeks we are focusing on this phrase The Way of Jesus. It’s not a new phrase, or a new way -it’s actually an ancient -quite ancient way. A way that small communities of folks that loved Jesus lived their life by – emphasizing Jesus’ teachings, his death and resurrection as the path to transformation. “The Way” gradually grew welcoming non-Jews as well as Jews, becoming more inclusive and grace-oriented. And as the “Early Church” period took shape (these 500 years or so after Jesus’ resurrection), it was a time full of dramatic change in culture, politics, and economy – this “Way of Jesus” helped transform the lives of people in a very chaotic world. AND it wasn’t because it was a religion full of doctrines, or eternal salvation, or beliefs to subscribe to, or reject. But it was a way of living – a way of being in the world – that was about how to live a better life here and now, *with joy* to encounter the truth and the life and the love of God in all places, in all times – even the chaotic, overwhelming, heart-breaking times.
This Way of Jesus is our way too, today.
Today we are going to talk about just that – The Way of Jesus.
And we’ll look at some verses from the Gospel of John including the one where Jesus says,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life…”
A verse that in many ways has been interpreted by contorting the Way of Jesus – into a narrow, exclusionary, harmful set of beliefs about heaven, hell, salvation, what it means to be “Christian”- in a way that truly has taken on a life of its own – but contains little life, and little truth. So will press into that a bit – and consider what we can do when the Way of Jesus gets contorted.
Oh Jesus, in times of uncertainty, could you remind us that you are the way, the truth, and the life. Remind us that your presence resides within, between, and among us – and could this knowledge be our strength and our comfort. Hear this prayer – Oh God, in your mercy, please hear this prayer. Amen.
I’ve officiated and been part of a few weddings since the end of the summer. One of which I officiated here, for a couple in this community – just this past Monday – at 7:30 a.m. Which you might be like, wait – 7:30…a.m.? As in – in the morning? So early. Yes, yes, but as I told this couple – it might be my new favorite time! There’s something about the early morning light, the stillness before the movement of the day takes up – and 8:30 a.m. mimosas – before a staff meeting isn’t so bad either!
It was a near-elopement wedding, with just the couple – and their parents. We gathered in a sweet, understated room upstairs to the right of the organ loft.
And the day prior to their wedding, I watched the couple as they watched other people they know – friends, members of their community group add items/decorations to the space – some plants from the lobby, lights, frames, etc.. and I heard one of the couple say,
“whew! This is a lot for a minimalist!”
And that one comment really opened up so much of what I had been learning of their relationship. How their way of being in the world wasn’t just for the value of simplicity but it was an intention and care for what minimalism could make space for what more could be.
So much within their minimalist posture was punctuated with meaning. And seen in this wedding ceremony – earrings worn by the bride which were worn by her mom on her wedding day, a coffee mug given to one of the Dad’s at his retirement, words shared by the couple to their parents as part of the ceremony. Not as an aside of thanks gratitude – and space for their parents to do the same. Maximizing the sacredness of story, relationships – the love in the room to be shared as much as witnessed. This holy matrimony coming into view – nothing wasted, items/things repurposed unto newness.
How striking it is to experience the beauty of old, shine in the light of today – to see that there’s a luster, a treasure that doesn’t go away. It’s part of the beauty of The Way of Jesus – right? To imagine that the earliest folks that were In the Way were also imagining a better world with prayer, hope, community, scripture, holding on to the promises we still do today. But what about things of old, that haven’t really held up? That are bad – and harmful? What do we do with them? Do we hope they go away? Is that part of the Way of Jesus too?
Environmental activist Annie Leonard says,
“there is no “away” – that “when you throw something away, it goes somewhere.” (McLaren 192)
And the myth in our current society one that centers domination and exploitation as a way of being, has told us
“that if we don’t like something – we can simply get rid of it – kill it, banish it, incarcerate it, incinerate it, ignore it, bury it – and that it will be gone for good.”
But as James Baldwin realized, what is true of time in space, is true of time itself:
“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” (192)
It’s easy to see the ecological effects of this in our society right? With mass production, the rise of disposable products, the invention of plastic. Our desire for more stuff and for profit make us a throw-away society. And yet the forever chemicals absorbed into our land and water sources, the trillions of micro-plastics floating in our ocean, loss of bio-diversity, and so much more – tell us in fact there is ‘no away.’
Author, teacher and speaker – Brian McLaren says that this holds true as we think about faith too. Specifically Christianity. In his recent book, “Do I Stay Christian?” he explores all the harmful, unsustainable, toxic impacts of Christianity over time. And rather than answer this question “Do I Stay Christian?” he offers insights and wisdom to help those of us who might wonder the same – to thoughtfully engage the conversation – rather, I think than offer a reactionary answer of yes or no. Because he says,
“You can leave Christianity, but Christianity won’t leave you. No matter how toxic some of its elements are, they will still be there in the atmosphere/environment, living in the minds and hearts and bodies of people around us, family members, political leaders, etc. – Christianity will still influence you.” (McLaren)
Now how/what does this have to do with the Way of Jesus? The Way of Jesus holds none of those toxic things – well the way of Jesus only holds none of those things, if we address those toxic things. Otherwise The Way of Jesus (our embodied way of being in the world) that is so deep and wide and so good – unto the betterment of ourselves and the world around us – has the same potential to perpetuate the problems we may have experienced, rather than reverse them. So Brian McLaren says Christianity needs to be recycled. Another word for recycled is redeemed, built on the word deem to give value. And another word for redeemed is to re-consecrate, to make holy again what has been desecrated. “Desecrated” meaning polluted… and “Holy” meaning not set apart but brought back into wholeness, into the fullness of life , in truth for everyone.
So let’s take a look at perhaps the second most known verse in the gospel of John (second to John 3:16) – and the verses that surround it – we’ll start at the beginning of John 14:
SCRIPTURE | JOHN 14:1- 7
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God ; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
This scripture is beautiful, holy – it’s an intimate, emotions-running-high-scripture. We enter into this setting where Jesus has just told the disciples that he will be with them
“only a little longer.”
This, the night that he’ll be arrested – he’s washed the disciples’ feet, broken bread with them – he’s told them,
“Oh, my friends above all else love one another – love one another… “
It’s a bit of a swirl of everything – the outside temperature – is heightened with violence and threat. Everything is about to change.
I can imagine the disciples do wonder,
‘what is going on I mean really Jesus – what is going on!?’
It makes sense to me that Jesus would start by saying,
“don’t let your hearts be troubled….because there’s going to be a lot that you don’t understand – but stay with me…Don’t worry – you know the way, friends. You know the way to the place where I am going…”
And I appreciate Thomas’ response,
“Aaah, nope. No, We. Do. Not. We do not know where you are going. And because of that fact Jesus – How? – How can we be expected to know the way?”
This truthful response keeps us grounded in the life, the context, and the setting of this time…Thomas is like,
“could you give us a map – maybe? Simple directions?”
Jesus answers directly to Thomas,
“I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Now there’s a simplicity to this verse – some might even say a minimalism – that maximizes makes room for an expansive Way of Jesus that we all get to embody. Maximizes The Way of living here on earth that makes room for wondering, pain, curiosity, doubt, confusion – and still yet can blaze a path of truth and fullness of life.
But for many there’s a discomfort with minimalism – simplicity – when we talk about God – and really “knowing” God. It’s like somehow to be too simple or too free – means there’s less value.
And so people need to complicate it a bit. The rest of the verse provides some perceived exclusionary language that much of Christianity has jumped on –
“No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Instead of regarding this as an
“embodied way of being in this world [that is] so close to the heart of God/as Jesus says – “the Father” – that God can be known in and through Jesus.”(Diana Butler Bass)
Christians have drawn up a bunch of systems – to make sure they know what “knowing God” really looks like – and so rules to abide by, doctrines to enact, ways to prove that you really are a Jesus follower rise up… Here’s a little check point, here’s a little boundary, here’s a hurdle, here’s a x, y, z – which many times turns into a gigantic pile of trash.
These incredibly expansive, inclusive, grace-oriented words of Jesus,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life”
have been wielded in Christianity as some of the most exclusionary words – desecrated words.
I wonder if sometimes Jesus knew that his words would be weaponized? I wonder if that’s why he starts with
“don’t let your hearts be troubled”
because it’s words that we still need to hear today when we are not only in moments where we wonder where God might be, but also in moments where we wonder if our deep, good knowing of God can ever be re-consecrated – in a way of lived life that actually matters. I know that what troubles my heart most often is when I hear people say,
“Oh I know the way, I know the way… I know the way to God – here it is!”
And then what is outlined is a prescription or a formula that – is impossible to swallow in good conscience — or impossible to calculate in real life… because it at a baseline excludes many people and at a baseline tries to set us v. them religion. “us” apart and above other people – the ones who get it “right” – and so we are beginning with something that is already unholy – polluted.
“We don’t know the way!”
And I say,
“Amen – Thomas”
perhaps you have said the truest thing.
Because don’t we sometimes worry that God is too far? That God has gone away?
And maybe isn’t that why – some of the harmful things of Christianity get set up? It would be nice to at least have our version of God close, and so many people construct what that looks like.
But this statement “we don’t know the way”, it’s the same one Peter asks in the chapter prior – and one that Philip will ask in the verses to follow…
“How? Where? God?”
That’s healthy. Helpful. generative.
HOLY. CONSECRATED. Something that we can continue to work with – because false answers – erode a good God.
How humbling it is to come across people, scholars , theologians, who say
“I don’t fully understand this…”
I met yesterday with an old friend – we are/were both pastors. We’ve been with one another through some serious SHHHHTUUUUFFFF. And we sat there acknowledging we have the same questions about God – our younger selves maybe couldn’t let us ask out loud. And now, we are letting those questions hit the air – and we are letting our lives – as we live them – fill out the answers. This somehow allows God to feel close – and as hard and as messy as it is sometimes is – it still feels like life and truth.
When we don’t have an answer to something about God – We would be well served to just say,
“I don’t know”
rather than provide answers that desecrate the holiness of mystery.
And in part I think Jesus is saying –
“you might not think you know the way”
right now – but with me there is no “away”. With me – there is always a way of truth & life.
People have framed this passage to be about who goes to heaven – who doesn’t – what about other religions… and maybe it is indeed about heaven. It just needs some repurposing on our behalf. Maybe these verses speak of heaven that is also not “away” in an afterlife – but here – on earth – the kin-dom of God in this right-now-life. *And I’ll circle back to this in a second….
As much as this fall season has entailed time spent officiating weddings I’ve also been hiking with a group of ladies – who range in age from 65 – 80 yrs. *this group also hiked Mt. Washington – which I did not do with them!* And I’ve gotten a chance to hear about two of the couple’s weddings. For these two couples their trajectory to marriage – a recognized, legal marriage was long-awaited and hard fought.
Both couples are same-sex couples.
And they talked about the reality of how not having the covenant of marriage recognized by the state or the church as legal was a source of real frustration and pain. But perhaps what was most unholy was that they for a moment thought – well, we’ll just wait until the time comes. We’ll just stay kind of quiet, or hidden until we can really live our love out in the “approved” way. And then they were like, “Heck no!” we aren’t doing that – our love can’t be just tossed to the side of society – as “bad” … or “wrong” or “unholy”. And to GIVE WAY to that – is NOT THE WAY…
And so they celebrated one another publicly – they had commitment ceremonies. They joined communities and communities of faith that would treasure their love for one another – they lived this life, with their truth and found only goodness within. And yes, they also were happy when in 2003 it became legal in MA to marry – but they had already claimed heaven here on earth. They had also re-consecrated what had been desecrated by saying – you know what? The sacredness of love – can not be poisoned, because love also can not go “away.”
Something in the naming of what is unholy – diligently and publicly – you put the toxic thing, the harmful thing in its rightful place (where it doesn’t wield excessive power over your life anymore) and in that a re-consecration occurs that paves a way – lit by love, and compassion, and joy – for others to come. These ladies, living in the Way of Jesus – staying steadfast to one another, staying tender to those around them (suspending condemnation – even as their own humanity was condemned), and refusing to be part of a story that limits the sacredness of all life.
These women remind me of how Brian McLaren talks about re-consecrating – one of the ways aside from recycling or repurposing is to bury.
“And not bury in the sense of secretly – to hide something – but publicly and carefully as we do with radioactive materials or toxic chemicals.” (194)
You know signs you see that say, “hazardous here” – “don’t dig here!” – the message is – “Here’s the harmful thing – and we aren’t going to give it the light of day anymore.”
We do this often at Reservoir when we acknowledge how the
“Bible has been used to justify slavery, the stigmatization of LGBTQ people, and the inequality of women – we publicly bury those interpretations. We don’t forget them – but rather retell them as cautionary tales to guide us going forward. And then we model a better way of engaging, healthily with Scripture unto a good, life-giving, liberating God for and with everyone.” (194)
And the work that gets us to that place – to the recycling or repurposing or burying – is often called deconstruction.
And I want to take a minute on deconstruction – just so we all don’t think that to deconstruct is to begin a slippery slope to nowhere..
Deconstruction is not a criticism-lined path to nihilism – or a way to turn our faith into despair, (it might feel like that at times).
And deconstruction isn’t a way of undoing the truth – it is a way of doing it…
Deconstruction isn’t a way of shedding all the bags of trash about bad faith that you’ve accumulated over your life and just throwing it all away .. RIGHT? Because there is no away. It’s about releasing and opening up – opening up God’s presence in free, untarnished ways.
Re-consecrating what has been desecrated.
And it’s hard – because sometimes when you pull at one string – you realize the whole fabric of what you’ve been taught to know of God is quickly unraveled. But that’s ok – “because we know the way” – it’s just been covered up for a while. We’ve still got the yarn in our hands to repurpose.
Because what is uncovered in deconstruction is the good stuff – that still resides within – the knowing – the truth, the life, the love, the compassion, the potential for healing, that is never separate from God. Those things that led you to faith in the first place -our deepest longing and desires – and we get to discover that all of that is undeconstructible.
It never went – and can’t go away.
Jack Caputo the Catholic philosopher says,
“Deconstruction is not destruction – Deconstruction is love.”
Because you are loving something enough to tell the story behind it.
We have a class here, called Unpack that quickly gets described as a deconstructing class. And I think if it’s in this vein of Jack Caputo – then yes, because Unpack is about love. Exploring how the aspects that you once loved of God, faith and Christianity – became so polluted? And to tell the story of impact in your life – and to inspect the story under the story of how such harm came to be.
Those stories that are wrapped up in doctrines like original sin – heaven and hell – atonement theory – the theory of an all controlling, male-gendered God. How does the story of patriarchy – of whiteness, of power, of wealth – play into how we engage with Scripture, with prayer, how we think about belonging, our relationships to ourselves, one another, the earth.
There’s a whole arsenal in there – that we have to figure out – how to recycle – redeem. And all of us need to do the work of deconstruction – because we are all influenced by harmful Christianity – and it is our work to turn these swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks, we all need to re-consecrate.
SCRIPTURE PART II
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says. My Father’s house has many rooms.. I am the way, and the truth and the life.”
Not a statement about going to heaven or not….
Previously in scripture, ‘Father’s house’ was used to describe the temple. But not the physical temple – but Jesus’ body. And Paul offers a possible explanation in his letters, where to be “in the body of Christ” is to be “in Christ,” which means to be incorporated into the new experiential reality Jesus taught and embodied. The Way of Jesus.
And Jesus’ favorite metaphor for that way of life was “Kin-dom of God.” The kin-dom of God means a way of life lived in harmony with God, others, self, and all creation – here and now – not in the afterlife. We repurpose the doctrine that suggests that heaven is an escape route from a doomed and unsalvageable earth and yet we can suggest that to live the life we have now – is to do the work of seeking justice, of reconsecrating ALL OF LIFE that which has been injured – even if we
“suffer for justice in this life and don’t see the full results of our labors, our labor will not be in vain”, it will live on in a forever, eternal – good way. (adapted McLaren).
And in that same breath we repurpose that hell is not a threat of divine retribution in the afterlife – but a divine warning about the inevitable negative consequences of harmful behaviors in this life – the hells of racism, of conflict, of violence.
And then maybe we could imagine that salvation is about liberation – for all people.
And God is the relational, loving, life-giving heart of the universe – enlivening it from within – not controlling it from above.
The Way of Jesus is multi-dimensional, liberative – not constricting, or bound – but soooo very full of life.
The Way of Jesus is timeless, ever-evolving – not reduced to formulas that can be applied equally across time and identity. It is alive.
The Way of Jesus is altogether holy, consecrated, sacred – but not labeled as such by a separate, outside authority – but given such reverence by what lives within us already – truth.
The Way of Jesus binds the religious and secular into one thing: life.
Wendell Berry says,
“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”
And so our work is to re-consecrate all of life. It’s a little daunting –
But Jesus says,
“do not let your hearts be troubled – you know the way”
so may we lean on one another, learn from one another as we do this work – work that is hard – but opens the way … the way of love, the way of truth, the way of life.
Resources: For Love of the Things Themselves: Derrida’s Hyper-Realism | John Caputo 2001