Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14.5-6)
I met a most fascinating woman many years ago—so long ago I don’t recall her name or the occasion that brought us together. But our conversation was unlike any I’ve ever had, because her story was unlike any I’d ever heard. She was near or past 70, and had just sailed around the world on a series of tramp steamers. The instant I heard this, my movie brain kicked in. I envisioned her voyage in black-and-white, with her wandering through one exotic port of call after another. Yet when I asked her what the experience was like, she said, “It was tedious.” I would imagine an adventure on that scale being anything but tedious, I said. “Oh, but it is,” she told me, “because of the scale of it. Most of the time is spent at sea on a working ship, with a crew that more or less puts up with you. I read a lot of books, spent most of my time alone, and stared at nothing but blue sea. And while I did see a lot of the world, the touring became secondary to the rest of it. I learned that traveling the world—flying here and there—is much different than sailing around it. You have no idea how big the planet is until you do that.”
Her appearance hinted that she was a woman of means. So I asked if the adventure ever got so tedious that she considered forgetting the whole thing and flying home. “The first two or three times we put into port I battled that,” she told me. “But I eventually realized I’d bit off something bigger than sailing from point to point. The trip stopped being about any particular destination. It became about me, and what I was learning about myself in the middle of nowhere. I began to understand time and space, thinking and not thinking in new ways. I learned how to wake up every day with no greater goal than letting the day be, and being in the day.” Though she didn’t articulate it as such, her comments rang with a sense of destiny, the process of finding oneself—in her case, of finding her place in the world by discovering how big the world really is.
Letting Each Day Be
In many ways, Lent calls us into a similar adventure. We set out across a vast wilderness that may increase our opportunity to experience new and unusual things. But, for the most part, it’s a solitary, increasingly tedious journey that hones our understanding of time and space, thinking and not thinking, listening for every new sound, and most of all, letting each day be while we learn to be in the day. The longer we traverse Lent’s monotonous expanse, we’re less concerned about its destination than coming to grips with our destiny. Being here, wherever we are now, subsumes our concerns about getting there, wherever that may be—whether it’s the cross and empty tomb, or finding a place in our Christian experience that we’ve never before reached.
The struggle between fixating over destination and finding one’s destiny is as old as the Christian faith. It’s the crux of Jesus’s exchange with Thomas in John 14. Jesus is prepping the disciples for His imminent death and departure, telling them that He’s going away to prepare a place for them. “I will come again and will take you to Myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going,” He says in verses 3 and 4. Thomas has no idea where Jesus is going and he panics to think he won’t reach the destination. “How can we know the way?” he asks. (v5) His question triggers one of Jesus’s most frequently quoted statements: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (v6)
Regrettably, this is one of those perfect storms where context, translation, and emphasis have got so garbled it’s possible—perhaps even likely—to read the passage and come away with the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying. To sort this out, let’s start by acknowledging concessions we have to make. With the Gospels being written roughly 20-50 years after Christ’s ascension (in John’s case, 50), we accept that Jesus’s statements, much like my recounting the conversation above, are approximations based on memory, not precise quotes. One concedes they’re more apt to be condensations of lengthier talks in which Jesus explained His teachings in greater depth. Then we must also allow for additional fuzz to accumulate by way of translation. Often what began as rhetorical gets transmuted into something more literal, as with this passage.
Jesus starts by comparing God’s kingdom to a “house” with “many dwelling places” (v2)—i.e., a spiritual realm with room for all. But the King James Bible and other versions translate “dwelling places” as “mansions” or “rooms,” suggesting a literal location that sounds more like a final, celesital destination than an ever-present spiritual abode. The emphasis shifts from Jesus leading us into a new way of life—which is how the original texts read—to a foretelling of life after death and the Second Coming. In this context, Thomas’s question makes sense. Who knows how that’s supposed to work? Thus, Jesus’s response is taken as an explanation that contradicts what He’s actually saying. “I am the way, truth, and life; no one comes to the Father except through Me,” sounds a whole lot like, “Unless you’re a Christian, you’re not going to Heaven.”
Jesus expressly is not talking about Heaven and most definitely isn’t putting up guard-rails that deny access to God. He’s talking about a truthful way of life, describing the believer’s destiny in life, not a destination after death. He’s telling us we can access God by following His way, believing His truth, and receiving His life. And here’s the final twist: Jesus is speaking as God, because Jesus is God. To come to Jesus is to come to God. Not only in this passage, but throughout the Gospels—particularly in John—we hear Jesus dispute the idea of exclusion, based on His understanding as God.
One With God
In John 10, He proclaims, “I am the good shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice.” (v14-16; emphasis added) Jesus’s comments about radical inclusion split His audience. John says many of them say, “He has a demon and is out of His mind;” others, who hear the promise of all-inclusive love and acceptance, protest, “These are not the words of One Who has a demon!” (v20-21) Not long after this, Jesus reengages the religious set and takes up the inclusion topic again. Verses 26-30: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to My sheep. My sheep hear My voice. I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of My hand. What My Father has given Me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are One.” (Emphasis added)
Let’s read this closely. “Sheep that do not belong to this fold” are people outside the strictures of religious law and tradition. Yet they listen to Jesus. Jesus knows them. To them He gives (present tense) eternal life—life now and always—and promises, “they will never perish” (future tense). Destiny, not destination. “What My Father has given Me is greater than all else,” Jesus says. Anything we point to in an attempt to deny Jesus’s message of inclusion is irrelevant. Any doctrine that says anyone who believes will be rejected—whether by creed or creation—is dismantled. “No one will snatch them out of My hand,” Jesus declares. “Nor will the power to include them be snatched from the Father’s hand, because the Father and I are One.” (Those clinging to a masculine God should note Jesus’s word for “One” is gender neutral, confirming God’s inclusive will and nature.)
A Present Calling
This teaching of inclusive unity between God and Jesus, between God, Jesus, and us, climaxes in Gethsemane, where Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one. As You, Father, are in Me and I am in You, may they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory that You have given Me I have given them, so that they may be one as We are One. I in them and You in Me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that those also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory, which You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17.20-24; emphasis added)
Jesus prays that we access a state of being that witnesses His divinity and God’s love to the world. It’s a present calling to access our destiny in Christ, to be united with God as One. Jesus prays that we who believe the Good News passed down by the Apostles will be with Him where He is, to experience His glory revealed in that moment, when Death hovers and the promise of Life will not tremble—to know that God loves us from the dawn of time and will not relinquish that love for all of eternity.
Heaven sure sounds grand; eons and eons in God’s unfiltered presence, where death and hatred and suffering no longer exist. But—oh my—how much grander is the promise that we can access our destiny in God now, that we accept Christ’s way, truth, and life and know that we belong to God! To come to Christ is to enter Christ, to be received as one with God and to live in the world as sheep of a defiantly loving Shepherd. Wherever Lent takes us, I pray we discover our breathtaking destiny in this life as we go through its process.
Lent’s desert expedition opens us to the realization that coming to Christ is about accepting our destiny in present life, rather than focusing solely on a far-off, future destination.
Postscript: Questions 10 & 11
How does accepting our destiny in this life—rather than focusing our energies on reaching a far-off, future destination—reshape our concept of faith?
What does accepting our destiny in Christ require of us in the here and now?