The other day one of our parishioners in the diocese asked me where I usually was on a Sunday. I thought for a moment and then said that “usually” isn’t a word that’s in the bishop’s vocabulary. “Usually” happens so infrequently that it’s hardly worth mentioning. “Usually” the bishop is on the road, but that’s all that’s usual about it. The road can take you to New Johnsonville or McMinnville or even to Murfreesboro, but the only thing that’s regular about the course of the day is the road itself. Occasionally you have bad luck and run into Bonnaroo or a tornado, but most days it’s clear sailing. The real constant is the journey, the way that’s traveled.
Bishops are keeping good company, because Jesus’ own ministry was itinerant, passing from Galilee to the Jordan to Jerusalem itself. Often Jesus encounters people on the road: blind Bartimaeus, sitting by the road in Jericho; or the widow of Nain, traveling in funeral procession with her son; or even the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, journeying with Jesus after he had risen from the dead. At the end of the Gospel of Mark, the angel tells the women at the tomb, “Tell the disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Mk. 16:7). Even in resurrection mode, Jesus is moving out ahead and hitting the road.
In our Gospel reading today, from John’s Gospel, we find the same idea defining Jesus’ teaching. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”, Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jo. 14:6). Jesus sets this teaching within an invitation to faith: “Believe in God; believe also in me” (Jo. 14:1). Here, the road isn’t the setting for Jesus’ ministry, but the actual substance of his message. It’s the great denominator of his ministry, stitched up within it. In the other Gospels, Jesus’ ministry takes place on the road, and the road leads to Jerusalem; while in John’s Gospel, Jesus himself is “the way,” the road or path that leads to the Father. For John, the disciples are not traveling with Jesus on the road; Jesus himself is the road they have to travel.
To get a sense of what Jesus means here, we have to go all the way back to the beginning, to the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve disobey the commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was a sting in the tail of the serpent’s temptation, because they certainly gained knowledge, but it was not edifying. They discovered that some things are better not known at all; some knowledge corrupts. As Genesis tells the story, as a result of their actions, our first parents were exiled from the garden. “God drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24).
When Jesus calls himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jo. 14:6), he’s claiming not only to be the way forward but also the way back. What had become a dead-end road, guarded by the angel’s sword, is now accessible through the blood of the Lamb. Adam and Eve had inherited mortality and death as a result of their disobedience; now Jesus has blazed a new trail by his one perfect offering of himself. New life, and new possibilities, are now on offer. The angel is no longer barring the way forward, but now, at the empty tomb, rolling the stone away, and inviting the disciples to hit the road.
In this triad of way, truth, and life, the way is the controlling concept. If the angel barred the way to the tree of life, Jesus has now made life available by turning the dead-end road into a superhighway. He himself is the way forward, the road back to the Father. We could multiply biblical references to “the way of life” or “the path of life,” so strong is the connection between the two ideas. To be on this road is to be where he is, as he says in our Gospel today, and where he has prepared a place for us.
Jesus is the truth, as well, the irreducible fact of God’s love for us. He doesn’t illustrate some other, more fundamental truth: he is the truth! He sums it up and incarnates it in himself. Another way of saying that Jesus is the truth, is that he can be depended upon. To be with him is to believe in him, to be in relationship with him, to “walk” with him. Our confirmands today are testifying to this truth. With Jesus, we’ve come down to the bedrock of God’s character. We can’t go any deeper because there is no deeper. On this road, we’ve arrived at our destination.