I am the Way

This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle A. In yesterday’s post we considered possible understandings of the manner in which Jesus would return to prepare his disciples. In vv.6-11 we have the explanation the disciples seek.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. 

In v.6 there is a shift from the “where” (as in , “where you are going” – to the way to get there (“how can we know the way”). In response to this shift Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life.” This statement contains the sixth of seven ‘I am’ sayings with predicates in the Fourth Gospel (6:35, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5). Fundamental to Jesus’ response to Thomas’ question was that Jesus himself is the way. It is in this context that Jesus as ”the truth and the life” seem to be supporting statements.

Within Judaism, “the way” denotes the life-styles of the “wise” – those who live in accordance with the teachings of the sages (Prov 28:2,20).  In the Psalms the “way” describes a life lived in accordance with the will and desire of God.  Within this context, O’Day makes two interesting notes on these verses:

This is the heart of the good news for the Fourth Evangelist, that in Jesus, the incarnate word, the Son of God, one can see and know God in a manner never before possible. (743)

In many ways, John 14:6 is both truism and tautology, because, following John 1:18, it is indeed only through the incarnation that the identity of God as Father is revealed. John 14:6 is not a general metaphysical statement about ‘God’; Jesus does not say ‘No one comes to God except through me,’ but ‘No one comes to the Father except through me,’ and the specificity of that theological nomenclature needs to be taken seriously. John 14:6 is the very concrete and specific affirmation of a faith community about the God who is known to them because of the incarnation. (744)

O’Day goes on to assert that these verses (vv.6-7) are simply a joyous affirmation of a particular religious community, in a particular place and time in history, and was the means of defining themselves – who are in fact a minority within their own time and place. She asks the question of the verse “No one comes to the Father except through me”: is this a firm ontological statement that admits of no exceptions – e.g., a 21st century Muslim would find a different way to God, but not to the Father – or is it simply a statement of what we Christians believe?

This topic is called the “scandal of particularism.”  In short, the scandal (that which causes people to stumble) is stated as: Would God really have uniquely picked Israel, and its fulfillment in Christianity, as the one and only particular way to achieve salvation?  Some answer that “for Christians, yes; for others, who knows?” The Catholic Church proclaims Christ as the sole and unique savior for all and strongly rejects any idea that Christ is one among many others. But then that is just the start of a debate of extra ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the church there is no salvation.

The expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a Christian bishop of the 3rd century. The phrase is an axiom often used as shorthand for the doctrine that the Church is necessary for salvation. It is a dogma in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, in reference to their own communions. It is also held by many historic Protestant churches. However, Protestants, Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox each have a unique ecclesiological understanding of what constitutes ‘the Church’. For some, the church is defined as “all those who will be saved”, with no emphasis on the visible church. For others, the theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that Jesus Christ personally established the one Church, and that the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers. There is no shortage of views.

Image credit: Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255–1319), “Jesus taking leave of his Apostles,” ca. 1310 | Panel 4 of the Maestro, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena | Public Domain

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