“I am the way” (John 14): from elitist exclusivism to gracious friendship?

The reading this Sunday contains some very familiar, oft-quoted words attributed to Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). And especially oft-quoted is the next sentence that follows, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b).

That second sentence is frequently used to interpret the first sentence, to give it a sense of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence. Especially amongst more conservative theological elements in the church, this sense of “only one way”, “no other way” is regularly advocated.

But is this the only way to understand “I am the way”? Let me put the verse into context, consider a number if factors, and suggest why we may need to seek other ways of understanding this declaration about “the way”.

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The first observation to make is that this statement draws on traditional Jewish terminology used by the people in the movement which Jesus initiated. “The Way” is a term which occurs in various chapters in the second volume of the orderly account, the book of Acts (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). This, according to these references, was the earliest term used to describe these people. (The term which eventually came to dominate, “Christians”, is first referenced at Acts 11:26, and is less-used in Acts.)

Calling the early followers of Jesus “The Way” may owe its origins to scriptural usage in association with God’s activity. The term is used in this way in Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. We might also note the occurrence of the term in Isa 40:3-5, and observe that it is cited in a prominent position at Luke 3:4-6. The return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.

The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17-18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This may reflect competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. The Qumran group, of course, was strongly exclusivist (it kept strong boundaries around the membership of the community) and could also be seen as being somewhat elitist in its theological outlook (some documents reflect the worldview that can be crudely summarised as “we have the truth, everyone else is wrong”).

In subsequent usage (beyond the first century) this term, The Way, has come to be completely overshadowed by a term used less often by Luke, that of “Christian” or “messianist” (11:26; 26:28). The latter term initially referred to the fact that the followers of Jesus, from early on, claimed that he was the anointed one, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ).

So by using the term “the Way”, Luke emphasises the thoroughly Jewish nature of those communities which declared Jesus to be Messiah.

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The second observation for understanding the verse in context is that it is one of a number of “I Am” statements that are placed on the lips of Jesus in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. These sayings comprise a verb (“I am”) followed by a predicate (the entity which Jesus claims to be). The predicates in most of these sayings are drawn from traditional Jewish elements.

Jesus presents himself as “the vine” (John 15:1–11), drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).

Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), evoking the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he is clearly evoking the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.

Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).

Although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the references to the “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).

In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.

Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the Gospel according to John are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis.

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A third observation is that the book of signs was written in a context of polarised disputation and growing hostilities. There was deepening conflict between the followers of Jesus, who acclaimed him as Messiah, and the scribes and Pharisees, teaching the traditions of the ancestors in the synagogues of the post-70 period.

After the destruction of the Temple in the Roman—Jewish War of 66-74CE, as there was no need for priests, the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. Synagogues became key places for instruction in the Law, communal worship, and also community hospitality. Those claiming that the Messiah had come (as the followers of Jesus did) were problematic to the Pharisees. Tensions grew. Hostility broke out in some places.

There are three references to being expelled from the synagogue in the book of origins (John 9:22; 12:52; 16:2). These are widely understood to refer, not to the time of Jesus, but to the time when the Gospel came to take its final form—probably around the end of the first century—when the conflict between the synagogue authorities and the followers of Jesus had come to a head.

Biblical scholars have drawn on the insights of sociology in this regard. A group which acted in the way that the followers of Jesus were acting, is described as a sectarian community. Differentiating itself from the parent body by means of distinctive belief claims is typical of sectarian groups.

As it had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community. This emerges over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. The messianists are confident about their faith. And they are certain about the absolute importance of following Jesus and believing in him. He is The Way.

Each of the “I am” sayings noted above is reported in this Gospel in this context of dispute and controversy. The sayings function as markers to differentiate Jesus from his Jewish contemporaries—and, by association, the followers of Jesus from their Jewish contemporaries.

Thus, when the Johannine Jesus expresses the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, there is an obvious and (to first-century ears) very clear claim being made about how the community of Jesus’ followers saw themselves, in relation to other groups in Judaism of the day. Like others, they were making claims about their exclusivity as the faithful one, their elitist understanding of what fidelity to the Law meant—and about the singular and central place of Jesus in their faith.

This Gospel consistently sets out a clear claim for Jesus as a distinctive figure, set apart and set higher than other religious leaders. Those who follow him have “the truth”, and are very clear what exactly is “the way” to God. Following Jesus was seen as the way—the only way—to gain “life”, or access directly to God. This is a polemic claim in the context it was first made.

The community in which the Gospel of John was compiled and valued was functioning in precisely the way that sectarian communities operate, holding fast to their exclusivism and elitism.

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How do we read such a text in our contemporary situation? We live in a world where retreating into a corner, keeping separate from other people, and treating anyone different from us with suspicion (if not outright hostility) is practised by some, but it really is an untenable and unhelpful way of living.

In the Uniting Church, our Basis of Union advocates that as we live our faith, we seek to be critically informed (as we enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry), ecumenically engaged (as we relate to our partners within the world-wide fellowship of churches), contextually relevant (through contact with contemporary thought), and missionally oriented (as we engage with contemporary societies) (see paragraph 11).

Engaging with contemporary societies and participating in them such that we better come to understand our own nature and mission, is a key commitment of this church. Multicultural societies, such as Australia, offer many opportunities for such engagement and learning. Seeking to understand the cultural practices and commitments of friends and neighbours in our midst, means that we will better understand who we are as Church: what it means to be in relationship with one another, to serve one another, to proclaim the living Word afresh.

I wrote a blog about this last year (after the tragic events in the Mosque in Christchurch), which you can read at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/04/friendship-in-the-presence-of-difference-a-gospel-call-in-a-world-of-intolerance-and-hatred/

The Uniting Church Assembly has advocated, “Friendship in the presence of difference is regarded as being a central Christian attitude and value. Engagement with those of other faiths is welcomed as a pathway on which we may rediscover the heart of the Christian way while also being enriched by wisdom others have to share.” (Adopted at the Thirteenth Assembly (2012), from a statement prepared by the Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths, entitled Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multifaith Australia.)

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So: with this theological commitment to living with those different from us with an attitude of acceptance and friendship, a generous attitude of embracing diversity, an intention to hold to an informed faith, on the one hand; and a biblical text (John 14:6) that recounts how a deepened understanding of Jesus emerged through the process of antagonism, aggressive argumentation, and hostile actions—what do we need to do to hold these two together?

Should a text which originated in conflict, with the intention of carving out a space for a smaller group with a distinctive set of beliefs, still be interpreted in the same way as those first readers and hearers of the Gospel understood it?

Or do we allow the changed context in which we live, and the different perceptions that have developed in our time, to reshape our understanding, to recast our interpretation, to challenge long-held views and to invite fresh appreciations?

Is it the case that we MUST read this biblical text as requiring us to have an attitude of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence?

Or—is there another way to understand “I am the way”?

 

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

On the commitment to an informed faith in the Basis of Union, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

Human sexuality and the Bible

The recent Israel Folau controversy has highlighted various issues: freedom of expression in modern society, the place of religion in Australian society, the ethics of professionalism … and questions of biblical interpretation.

For people within the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union provides a foundation for careful and prayerful thinking about scripture. The Basis affirms that the witness of scripture is to be understood through the work undertaken by scholarly interpreters, by insights that have arisen in scientific and medical investigation, by understandings that have developed in society, as we better understand how human beings operate and how they function. All of these are important matters to consider when we think about human sexuality.

A number of passages are regularly cited in relation to matters of human sexuality, and particularly homosexuality. We need to think about those sections of scripture in the light of this way of approaching the biblical texts.

Elizabeth and I have written a brief discussion of the texts most often cited when “homosexuality” is debated by Christian people–especially conservative Christian people. It is an expansion of our earlier blog post (noted below).

A longer discussion of these issues is now posted on the Uniting Network website (see http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf) as part of a collection of resources for Open and Affirming Churches (see http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/open-and-affirming-project/)

LGBTIQ+ people often refer to these passages as the “clobber passages”, since they are regularly (mis)used to “clobber” people who identify as LGBTIQ or other related designations.

These texts were originally written either in Hebrew or in Greek, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. Many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.

A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it.

Scripture does not include anything relating to the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. So we need to take care when we use these “clobber passages” in our discussions. None of them should actually be used to criticise LGBTIQ+ people.

Alongside these passages, there are many sections of scripture which provide a more positive outlook on human sexuality. So we have offered a short reflection on a number of the key affirming and inclusive verses.

Our discussion of these passages can be read at

http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf

Geoff Thompson has a careful consideration of the cluster of issues in the Israel Folau scenario at https://theconversation.com/amp/why-christians-disagree-over-the-israel-folau-saga-118773

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/marrying-same-gender-people-a-biblical-rationale/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/13/affirmations-we-can-make-together/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/26/once-again-affirming-our-diversity-celebrating-joyous-marriages/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/15/when-you-suffer-the-whole-body-of-christ-suffers/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/26/marriage-of-same-gender-people-a-gift-to-the-whole-church/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/09/19/discernment/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/abundant-grace-liberating-hope/

So, what just happened? (An Explainer, Updated)

The last six months in the Uniting Church has been something of an intense roller-coaster, revolving around the issue of marriage. Our processes are somewhat idiosyncratic and, as events unfolded, matters came down to a rather arcane provision in the UCA Constitution.

I offered An Explainer about this process some months back. In light of more recent events, here is An Updated Explainer.

Continue reading “So, what just happened? (An Explainer, Updated)”

Seven Affirmations

In the light of the debates and discussions about human sexuality over the past 18 months in Australia society …
and, in particular, in the light of the recent letter from the Assembly General Secretary of the Uniting Church, regarding the decision of the Assembly about marrying people of the same gender …
I want to offer the seven affirmations below to my LGBTIQ friends and colleagues, and to the allies who are seeking to support them at this time.

They aren’t original to me. They simply come from decisions made by the church in council. They were important at the time, and they still stand as guides and standards for who we are, together, as the church, today.

Might all within the Uniting Church reflect on and pray about these affirmations, and each of us seek to live up to them in our personal discipleship and our life as a community.

Continue reading “Seven Affirmations”

Recognising Pain, Working for Reconciliation

The church is a community where people of different perspectives and varied commitments gather together in fellowship. It has always been the case, and it is especially evident in the present time, that the church is marked by diversity—a range of cultures, a range of skills, a range of theologies, a range of understandings.

This diversity is in focus in a particular way, in the life of the Uniting Church in Australia. The decision of the recent Assembly, to acknowledge two distinct understandings of marriage, reflects this diversity. The range of views across this diversity has led to some challenges.

Continue reading “Recognising Pain, Working for Reconciliation”

Continuing faithful discernment

I have been doing some further reflection, in recent days, on the decision about marriage made at the 15th Assembly, in July, and the ongoing discussions about this matter that have been taking place within the various Congregations and Presbyteries and Synods around the country.

There has been a lot of discussion that has taken place. There have certainly been some intense conversations about this, over the past few weeks.

I think it is important to note that the decision of the Assembly gave due weight and specifically honoured the position of those who hold to the traditional view that marriage is a relationship involving a male and a female.

Continue reading “Continuing faithful discernment”

A diversity of religious beliefs and ethical understandings

The Uniting Church has a long engagement with matters of sexuality, stretching over more than thirty years of conversation. The most recent stage in that process took place in the middle of July, at the meeting of the 15th national Assembly. In decisions made at that meeting, the church has decided to move forward on the issue of marriage of same-gender couples.

This was the first national meeting since last year’s change to Australian marriage laws, so there was a clear opening for considering the church’s understanding of marriage, and to move to permit the marriage of same-gender couples within Uniting churches.

Continue reading “A diversity of religious beliefs and ethical understandings”

In celebration of diversity

Today, I celebrate diversity.  My church has been wrestling in an intense process for a week (and for many years before that, through numerous conversations and processes), regarding “a diversity of religious beliefs and ethical understandings” that are held amongst its members.

We have determined that “the Church is able to accept this diversity within its life and make the decisions necessary to enable its ministry and members to act with integrity in accordance with their beliefs”.

Continue reading “In celebration of diversity”