The way, the truth, the life

Not long ago, I had a speaking engagement at a church about 30 miles from my home. I prepared my materials, double-checked to make sure I had everything I needed, and got on the road in plenty of time to allow for traffic.

It took a few minutes to realize that I was on the wrong freeway.

Living in Southern California, I’m surrounded by freeways, and unfortunately spend a good percentage of my waking hours driving them. To get to the church that morning, I needed the freeway that lies to the south of me. But I got on the one to the north of me, without thinking, because that’s my regular commute. The habit was so ingrained that it automatically directed my behavior.

There’s a sense in which following Jesus is meant to become more and more ingrained over time, like a habit or disposition formed through repeated practice. And that expectation, I think, is part of what stands behind a somewhat odd conversation between Jesus and his disciples.

Dismayed by the announcement that Jesus was leaving, Peter spluttered, “Lord, where are you going?” (John 13:36). Jesus didn’t answer the question directly. Soon after, having tried to reassure them that he would one day return to take them to be with him, Jesus declared, “You know the way to the place I’m going” (John 14:4, CEB).

But that only left the disciples even more confused. This time, it was Thomas who spoke up:

Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 

Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7, CEB)

Here, John gives us another of Jesus’ great “I AM” statements: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” These great declarations don’t simply drop out of the sky as self-contained theological slogans. They are given within the context of real-life and difficult conversations, and through them, Jesus reveals the presence of God in the midst of human concerns.

To those wanting to guarantee they would always have enough to eat, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).

To Martha, who was distraught over her brother’s death, he said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

And here, with the disciples feeling lost over the prospect of losing their leader, Jesus answers that he is the way, the truth, and again, “the life.” As John told his readers right from the outset, “What came into being through the Word was life” (1:4) — and one of the questions throughout the story has been what kind of life Jesus’ would-be followers wanted. Would it be life with a bit of God in it, serving their personal goals and purposes, or life as God would have it, serving his?

Jesus seems to be saying, Don’t worry about the destination, because you know the way. Thomas’ reply turns that on its head: How can we know the way if we don’t know the destination?  It’s a legitimate question. It’s our question: good luck using Google Maps unless you know where you’re going.

But hasn’t the story of God and his people always been like this? Imagine the conversation between Abram and Sarai after God first appears to Abram and tells him, “Leave everything you know behind, and go to the place I’ll show you” (Gen 12:1). Whoa, hang on a minute, Sarai might be expected to object. Run that by me again. Who told you this?  And just where are we supposed to be going? 

It’s not that there isn’t a destination, or that the destination is irrelevant. Far from it. But the journey itself matters. You already know the way, he tells them, because you know me. The Father is the destination, and I am the way. Truth and life are from the Father, and surely you’ve been with me long enough to see their embodiment in me.

The journey matters because Jesus is the way. And hopefully, we’ll get so used to traveling that way that we won’t need to think about it as much.