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SHOW US THE WAY Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14

One day this week I had to make a visit to a newly built part of MK. At the last minute I realised that it wasn’t on my map of the city. So I set off, hoping that by driving around in the grid square I might come across the address I needed. That wasn’t helping much, and eventually I saw a postman delivering letters and he was able to direct me. As it happened, I wasn’t far away, although I discovered that I’d also written down the name of the street slightly wrongly, so that didn’t help much to start with!

Finding the Way
Shortly before his death on the cross, Jesus spoke to prepare his disciples for it. We often hear this gospel reading at a funeral, but we need to listen to it apart from that kind of situation. Jesus was teaching his disciples about finding their way once he had departed from them. He said “you know the way to the place I am going”. Perhaps he meant something like, “you have been with me, I have given you a living example of how you are to lead your lives, and this will eventually lead you to my heavenly Father.” Thomas seemed to be the one who was good with questions. He may seem sceptical, but it is always good to have someone in the group who is a bit sharper. “Actually, Lord,” he says, “we don’t really know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas, by his questions, admits that he is not completely clear what Jesus means. If it were not for his question, we would not have one of the most famous of Jesus’ sayings: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Whilst it is one of his most famous sayings, the Thomas in me wants to ask, “Yes, but what exactly does that mean?”

The Way
William Barclay, a great Bible scholar who explained scripture in ordinary words, points out how Jesus’ threefold saying is related to three basic elements of Jewish religion. Jesus was claiming that all three found their embodiment in him. For anyone less than Jesus it would be an extremely arrogant claim. What might Jesus
have meant, making such high claims for himself? The way is an important spiritual idea in the Hebrew Scriptures. God urges his people again and again to walk in his ways; to keep to the right way; to pray for guidance in following God’s ways. Prophets and teachers may teach people about the way. They may help people find the way, pointing it out, much as a signpost directs people to their destination. But Jesus didn’t say, “I show you the way,” he said I am the Way”. What did Jesus mean? Going back to my little adventure this week, if I had stopped a postperson outside my house on Willen, and asked for directions to the place in Broughton where I was going, I would probably have forgotten all the details very quickly! But if, by some act of generosity, the postperson had said, I’ll take you there, and hopped in my car, it would have made all the difference. Just so, in the pilgrimage that is our life, Jesus does not just give us advice or directions, he accompanies us each step of the way. I suppose it’s rather like the difference between a printed map and using a SatNav. Jesus is the Way in himself and he is there to strengthen and guide us safely through life to our heavenly home.

The Truth
In a similar way, Jesus does more than tell us about the truth, he embodies the truth. “Truth” here means more than just the truth about certain facts. We may watch a TV documentary that claims to uncover the truth about certain things in current affairs or history: the truth about someone’s private life; the truth behind a certain social ill like drug abuse; the truth about a battle. But here we are talking about the truth that lies at the heart of all life. Some may call it spiritual truth, but that would be to limit the truth to a certain sphere of our being. The original Greek word means opened up, or not hidden. The Hebrew idea had something to do with trustworthiness, someone on whom you could rely. A person who teaches morality or religion has to demonstrate by the way they live, that they are a reliable guide. A parent has to learn to give a good example to their children, not just to tell them how to behave, for religion and morals are “caught not taught”. Jesus is greater than a moral teacher who gave a good example, for he was perfect. He is the embodiment of truth, of reliability. In him is revealed the truth of the universe, the truth of who God is.

The Life
By now you will be guessing that we can make the same point about Jesus saying he is the life. Not only does Jesus show the way to lead your life if you want to come close to God, but he is the life that leads us to God. Nowhere is this more deeply demonstrated than in the Resurrection. Jesus is that life which will bring us through death and into eternal life. When we rely on the truth he is, when we walk with him as our way, then he becomes that life which we live.

Show us the Father
Once Thomas is bold enough to question Jesus, that seems to encourage Philip to have a go. He says, Show us the Father and we will be satisfied. What Philip asked could be understood in different ways. He may have meant literally that he wanted Jesus to show them what God looked like: exhibit God to us. But he may also have meant, “give us a demonstration of God, prove God to us.” Jesus had to remind Philip that he had been doing just that all along. The sign of the water turned into wine; the healing of a blind man; refusing to condemn a woman caught in adultery: all these and more were signs demonstrating the nature of the Father. Have you been with me all this time, Jesus asks Philip, and you still do not know me? Jesus is not identical with God, but he is one with the Father. Through Jesus’ life, the truth he demonstrates and the way that he embodies, he is the sign of God. Jesus says, if you find my words hard to accept as a proof of God, then take what I have done – all those signs that I have performed. If you have seen me, then you have seen enough to have been shown the Father; “to have seen me in action, is to have witnessed the demonstration of my heavenly Father.” But Jesus does not leave it there, for he goes on to make an even more stupendous claim: “the one who is loyal to me and lives in my way, will do even greater things than those which I have performed among you!” It helps to understand that John was writing this after Pentecost, and years into the life of the early Church. They had discovered that when they prayed in the name of Jesus, their prayers were answered. So he recalls that Jesus said I will do whatever you ask in my name, “so that God will go on being demonstrated”. And indeed Philip and Thomas went far in taking the gospel message with them to Ethiopia and India.

For us these things may seem comforting and reassuring, and indeed they should be. We need reminding from time to time that in Jesus and his presence through his Spirit, we may follow the way that leads to eternal life, the way that leads to God. But the reading from Acts reminds us that this vision was also a costly one. Stephen believed that when he looked on Jesus, he saw the Father in heaven. Claiming that as he stood on trial before the religious court called the Sanhedrin, was his life sentence. To them it was blasphemy, and immediate execution by stoning was the terrible result for Stephen who became the Church’s first martyr. So to see Jesus, to look on him with the eyes of faith, and see in him the demonstration of what God is like, may be costly. This is something that the universal Church has experienced. What comforts and reassures us may be threatening and unwelcome to others. We also need to bear in mind that this conversation between Jesus and the disciples was a prelude to Jesus’ death on the cross. The way that leads to our heavenly home is opened up because of Jesus’ crucifixion. The truth by which we come to know our heavenly Father, is one that makes us gaze on the cross of Calvary. The life that we can rely on, that will bring us to eternity, is also that life which was won at the cost of the cross. When we gaze on the face of Christ, we find courage and strength to bear witness to him. To gaze on the face of Christ, or to consider the signs he performed, is to draw on the same vision that Stephen had. With such a guide we will never lose our way, even though it may lead through dark and difficult days, for the face on which we gaze is that of the risen Christ, who comes to us afresh at each dawn, and who stays close to us every dusk.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith