By Dorsey McConnell
There is a lot of talk recently that bears on a question central to the Gospel of John, a question put most famously in the mouth of Pontius Pilate during his inquisition of Jesus in the eighteenth chapter of John. The question is deceptively simple, in response to Jesus assertion that he has come to bear witness to the truth, and that all who are of the truth hear his voice, to which Pilate answers: “What is truth?” It is a sad question, full of world-weariness, like the preacher of Ecclesiastes who has gorged himself on the wisdom of mortals and has concluded that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. It reeks of exhaustion and hopelessness, and is so clearly a dead end that Jesus sees no reason to answer it with anything but silence.
It’s not funny that we are still in the throes of that question: over the last few years the internet and the airwaves have been full of debates over facts and alternate facts, over fake news and real news, over whether there is anything objective that can be known or whether everything in the world is a matter of opinion. Furthermore, if truth in this worldview is not only subjective, it is also implicitly threatening: my truth is not the same as your truth, but I’m willing to acknowledge they both may be “valid,” at least until I can get enough power to snuff out your truth because, frankly, I find it annoying.
This worldview based in subjective truth goes along with a strange arrogance toward the past. We fall into a habit of looking with condescension on previous ages, including the age of the Gospel of John, in which people asserted that practical truth — like how to build a bridge — meant nothing unless it was grounded on existential truth, on a fundamental shared understanding of who we are as human beings, which in turn depended on the deeper question of who God is. And if you are here being confirmed or received, or here presenting such persons to the bishop, or here lending your voice of support and encouragement, I think it only fair to warn you that you are re-committing to this more ancient worldview, with its shocking conclusion that truth is not a what at all. Truth is a who. Truth is Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension and coming again. All other truths — from Newton’s apple to Schroedinger’s cat — find their meaning in him.
That is the ground which Jesus stakes out clearly in the fourteenth chapter of John. The conversation we have just heard takes place at the last supper with his disciples. He is anticipating that interview with Pilate and knows it will lead to the Cross. Throughout this discourse he is alluding to his death, and the life the Father will give through it, but he does so in words the disciples cannot take in very well. (Remember the average age in this bunch is only around twenty-five or so). They are catching the drift — that Jesus is going to leave them — but they can’t grasp the how or the what or the why. They are understandably upset, and they are thrown back on two things that I have been talking about, two major criteria our own twenty-somethings lean on to sort out what’s real — on the one hand, their feelings (mainly their grief and fear, that we can hear so clearly in Thomas’ poignant cry, We know not where you are going? How can we know the way?) and on the other hand, their desire for proof, for more data, as in Philip’s assertion, Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.
To all this uncertainty and anxiety, Jesus supremely, confidently and affectionately brings his questioners back to himself. He draws them close and calms them down. I am the way, the truth and the life, he says. No one comes to the Father but by me. He means that everything human beings yearn for — meaning and purpose, knowledge and a way forward, a sense of how the world works and an assurance that it all won’t suddenly change overnight — all of this is embodied in him, and shows itself in the three specific qualities he articulates, in his way, his truth and his life.
He says he is the way, by which he means there is no other way, at least not if you want to come to the Father. Other ways will lead you to other gods, and while some of them have their good points, in the end they will wind you up in confusion, darkness, and death. Turning science into a god will do that, or politics, or baser things like sex, power, and money, because they were never intended to bear the burden of deity. In the end you wind up worshiping at the altar of your own ego, obsessed with yourself, relying on your own reason and instincts, (and there is no faster route to hell than relying on your own reason and instincts — take it from one who has to re-learn this at least five times a day!).
Jesus is the way because he knows the Father’s heart of love, and he unfailingly knows how to get there: it is a way that seems needlessly circuitous in the world’s terms. It will take you through the lives of poor and needy sinners like yourself, have you waste a lot of time loving the unlovable, washing the feet of the broken, staying in places and living with people the world abandoned long ago. You will be upbraided for not thinking more practically, not having more of a plan, not being sensible, because the way that is Jesus is always the way of the cross and the world hates nothing more than the assertion that its sin is so great it can only be forgiven if it is paid for, and it can only be paid for by Christ who has done so without consulting anyone but the Father, and if you follow Jesus who is the way, you will always be a living reminder of this inconvenient and most precious truth.
Which is why he says, he is the Truth. He is the truth in the sense that He embodies the Father’s very self, is the stamp, image and icon of the invisible God, who is the ground of all being: as he puts it to Philip, if you see me you have seen the Father. His heart of righteousness and mercy, his unswerving love, his fearlessness in the face of death, his full intention and sovereign power to bring the entire created order to the fulfillment of its perfection and to its appointed end, to bring you, as his child, to your full perfection: to allow you to face yourself — your sin in its fulness with all its warts and ugly contours, and your glory your destiny as your weakness is transformed by his cross; whatever is true about you is shown to be true, not because you did such a good job putting the good stuff all down on your resume while concealing the bad.
No, what is true about you — all the good and all the bad — is shown to be true only in the light of Christ who alone is truth. And when you look upon him, you discover yourself — the “you” whom God has intended you to be from the beginning. You find the mercy that will give you the courage to face all the unpleasant aspects of who you are, and you find the love that will give you faith in the person you will become as you are shaped by the Lord’s hand and will.
Finally, he says, he is the life. Jesus means of course, that he is the life of the resurrection: every dead end of mine is conquered in him. My grave is emptied, my death undone. Moreover, my fear of death, and the death-dealing work of my sin, all that is undone, and in its place is only life — the life of the Son of God, flowing in me and through me. He laid down his life for me and when he took up his life again, he took me with him, took us with him.
From now on life isn’t something you have to create for yourself, out of disparate parts and programs, self-help projects of various kinds, getting the right combination of high-fiber and low stress, some of which may be helpful in dealing with your mortality, but it isn’t life, the way Jesus is life — the meaning and hope and joy of his life is already there for you, already done, accomplished, yours to be received by faith, dwelling in you by the power of his Holy Spirit.
All that, you see is the answer not only to Pilate’s famous question, but to our most urgent questions as well, questions such as, how will I get through the next 24 hours? Can I make this marriage work? Will I ever be able to forgive myself for the terrible thing I did or said? When will I get over what happened to me all those years ago? Everyone over the age of five has such questions pulling at our hearts, and the Father knows this, yearns over us to draw us to Himself, to hold us close and calm us down, and give us power to forgive and be forgiven, to love and receive love, to know why we are here, and begin to act on knowing it, and no matter what you came in here with this morning, from this moment on your life begins again — in the one who is the way, the truth and the life, through whom we come to the Father, and so finally come to ourselves.
The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell is the VIII Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.