In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”
So said Jesus to his disciples, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading. This statement has been a challenging one for many liberal-minded people in recent years. Not wanting to seem narrow-minded or illiberal, many of the guiding lights in our own denomination have stumbled over this very verse when pressed by interviewers. But then again, as St. Peter reminds us in today’s Epistle, Jesus is indeed “‘A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall’; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do,” (1 Peter 2.8).
What does Jesus mean when he says this – that no one comes to the Father, but by him? Firstly, we should say that he means just what he says – that if anyone comes to the Father, they do so by means of him – by him, with him, and in him, as we say in our Eucharistic canon. And this fact of abundant life is just a consequence of the identity of Jesus – he is the only and eternal Son of God – he is all of those things we affirm Sunday by Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father,” and so forth and so on.
The New Testament goes even further in describing him. The first chapter of Colossians says, that Jesus
is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1.15-20)
Jesus, the man from Nazareth, is in this sense totally unique. Other religions do not make these kinds of claims for their originators. For all of Mohammad’s supposed greatness, he was nevertheless (according to Islam), merely a man. For all of the Buddha’s greatness, he was (according to Buddhism) merely a man.
This is a unique feature (as far as I know) of Christianity: that our prophet, our great teacher, was not merely a prophet, not merely a great teacher, but “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven…” That’s quite a claim, and its of the essence of Christianity. We, as Christians, must not be shy about speaking it, proclaiming it, and believing it ourselves.
It is a great mistake to think that coming to the Father only by means of the Son means a condemnation of non-Christians. On the contrary, as St. Paul says, God was pleased, through Jesus, “to reconcile to himself ALL THINGS, whether on earth or in heaven…” This reconciliation is God’s work. It is what he has done in the person of his Son, “by the blood of his cross.” To exclude or include anyone in this great, cosmic reconciliation – even rhetorically – is to appropriate to ourselves a power that belongs exclusively to the holy cross of Jesus. It is his work. No one comes to the Father but by him, and all authentic and lasting efficacy is found only in his blood.
All of this raises the perennial question of how we are therefore to live. The answer is that we must be oriented always toward Jesus. After the resurrection, Peter was walking with Jesus and saw another disciple walking behind them. John’s Gospel says that, “When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’” Our concern for others, and even our AWARENESS of others, must be contextualized by our orientation toward Jesus. The word “orientation” itself implies this. It comes from the Latin word oriens – the East, the direction of the rising sun, and a preeminent symbol of the risen Lord. From the earliest times, our orientation toward the risen Lord was built into the architecture and the ritual of our churches. Altars were traditionally placed toward the east, and when the clergy and people came together to pray, they all faced the Lord together, toward the east. (And this is one of the reasons I am grateful for last year’s altar restoration – so that we can all face our “oriens” as we pray to him together.)
But there is a broader point – a point that our architecture and our ritual, and scripture itself, mean to illuminate. We must orient ourselves – our LIVES – toward the risen Lord. All of our decisions and actions – and relationships and finances and EVERYTHING we do outside these walls – should be oriented toward him, should draw their efficacy and their very meaning from him – just as everything is oriented toward him, present on that altar, inside these walls. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but by him.
To orient ourselves toward Jesus, so that we might come to God by way of him – this requires that we fix our attention on him, and this is the work of prayer. We must be assiduous in coming to mass, and of making use of the other sacraments, but we also have to till the soil of our hearts by a daily habit of prayer, and our daily prayer should be centered in the person of Jesus. To center our daily prayer in the person of Jesus means to look at him with interior vision. So we might read a passage of the Gospel, and then close our eyes and spend some time reflecting on it, or picturing the scene that was described in the text. Or we might pray the rosary, which is designed to be a meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes I feel like this is all I ever preach, but there is little that eclipses it in terms of importance in the spiritual life. God gives us his grace objectively in the sacraments, but private prayer and meditation is how we till the soil of our hearts, so that his grace can take root, and grow, and bear fruit in our lives.
Not only must our inner gaze be fixed on Jesus, but our actions and decisions and relationships have to be oriented toward him too. Its not enough simply to say our prayers, and then to go on living our lives as though they were not touched by the content of our prayer. Because we live in a capitalist society, which means that we tend to abstract our work and our relationships into something called “money,” we might consider what this orientation means with respect to money – how we earn it and how we spend it. Pope Leo XIII put it very well in his 1891 encyclical on the “Condition of Labor”. Leo XIII wrote:
…it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money, and another to have a right to use money as one pleases…. if the question is asked, How must one’s possessions be used? the Church replies without hesitation in the words of [St. Thomas Aquinas]: “Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty when others are in need…. Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of blessings, whether they be external and corporal, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for perfecting his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the minister of God’s Providence, for the benefit of others. (Rerum Novarum, 19)
This is the way of Jesus, the way of divine generosity, of the dispossession of self for the sake of love; and it is the doorway to salvation, what Jesus embodies in his person. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.