John 14. 1-14 I am the Way and the Truth and the Life

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, May 18, 2014 - 9:30am

 

"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

 

This quote from Alice Through the Looking Glass came back to me recently as I read an article that had been sent to me by a friend. It was talking about Scripture, and began rather provocatively by saying:

 

‘The trouble with reading Scripture is that almost everybody thinks they can do it.’

 

The point it went on to make was a good one- That, especially in the largely Protestant West, we have come to treat the Bible as a democratic book whose pages only have to be opened for us to receive truth and enlightenment. We are, often justly, suspicious of a priestly caste that seeks to interpret it for us. This has led us to read scripture in a very flat and literal way, and to assume that it has a simple and plain meaning that is easily and immediately discerned by anyone who cares to look, and that this is the only meaning that matters.

 

However, even after a moment’s consideration we can see that this is plainly not the case. We can tell from looking at the world around us and the hot debate that surrounds any number of questions in the life of the church that the meaning of scripture is often open to a number of interpretations. Likewise, when we consider our own experience we may find that we agree with Oscar Wilde when he said that ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple’. More often it is something elusive, or at any rate hard-won.

 

The article went on to point out that it is very modern to read the bible as if it had only one literal meaning, and that a far more ancient way of reading Scripture, is to read it allegorically, which is to say that it is rich with deeper meanings and connexions. That it has a meaning and a truth that reaches beyond itself. It is a way of reading that is more about exploration than it is about discovery.

 

For example, by a literal reading of the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was an historical artefact – a box for the tablets containing the commandments carried by Israel through the wilderness, and the place where God made his special dwelling place. By another reading, however, it becomes a allegory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carrying about within her the very presence of God. By extension, it becomes an allegory for the believer who hears the Word of God and keeps it.

 

In short, it is possible to read the Bible in two ways. One of which is intended to close it down, the other of which is intended to open it up. The question is, where do we find the Truth? In one or the other? The answer, I suspect, is another question; one found on the lips of Pontius Pilate… ‘What is The Truth?’

 

And it’s a good question, because by ‘truth’ we can mean different things. On the one hand, it can mean whatever is factual and correct: ‘The ball is red’, ‘The tree is tall’, ‘My name is Alec Battey’. On the other it can mean whatever resonates within ourselves, and helps us to make sense of the world. This is the sense in which a poem is ‘true’, or a play or piece of music seems to capture the truth of our emotions. It represents a kind of honesty and clarity that we find instinctively attractive.

The first kind of truth is concerned with reducing meaning to a single fact, the second with reflecting the many-layered nuances of our experience.

 

Jesus said: I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. If we were to read ourselves in the same way that we read scripture, what kinds of truth would we discover?

 

I’m afraid that all too often we force a kind of literal reading on ourselves. We bring ourselves to church, and try to stretch and bend ourselves to fit into what we think is the right kind of shape. We put on, so to speak, our Sunday best, and try to ignore the difficult, dark or disappointing side of ourselves.

 

Whereas, I think that the truth that Jesus asks of us, or rather that we need from Jesus, requires us to offer up that whole complicated tangle to God, recognising that human beings are not a series of black and white facts, living lives that are simply good or bad, right or wrong, but delicate and profound mysteries capable of reflecting the beauty of their creator, even as they seem to hide it in the shadows.

 

The ‘Life’ and ‘Hope’ that we find in Jesus’ resurrection, if they are to be anything more than empty words, come not just from our attitude towards the historical fact of Jesus resurrection, but our experience and recognition of that resurrection in our own lives: The resurrection that comes to a widow, when she finds that beyond grief, she can remember her husband with joy and lead a new and fulfilling life of her own. The resurrection that comes to a father when he finds the strength to forgive the killer of his child. The resurrection that comes to a community like those in Northern Ireland or South Africa, soured and scarred by sectarian violence when its members take the first few faltering steps of trust…

 

We can see this in the story of Stephen that we heard today. A man who has found the grace to pray for his persecutors even as they stone him to death, because he has learned to read his life in a new way. His life has become an allegory of Christ’s life. It finds its sense and meaning in Christ’s death and resurrection.

 

When we have learned to read our lives in the light of Jesus Christ, we learn to read the world in a new way- shot through with grace offering the possibility of new life. Fear and anxiety fall away because they no longer have any place alongside the healing and forgiveness and reconciliation of Christ.