Finding the Way
John 14.4 You know the way that
leads to the place where I am going.
In the African bush getting lost
is easy and dangerous. When walking through the bush it's essential to
constantly stop and look behind you. The reason? On your return the bush
will look completely different because you'll be facing the way you came.
So on the way out you must store a mental map of the terrain you will see
on the way in.
At the end of a day's walk as a
boy in central Africa, I recall reaching what I thought was the area from
which I had set out early that morning. In the sub-tropics it gets dark
fast. Familiar contours and colours quickly fade. I didn't know quite in
which direction home lay. The sense of relief as I saw the lights of the
farmhouse in the semi-dark valley below was considerable.
The author of John's Gospel probably had in mind a similar experience when
he worked out the image of Jesus as "The Way". His readers would have
known better than we the dangers of travel. Their world was much less safe
than ours. But more than that, as new Christians they were covering
completely new ground in life. They were travelling a road never before
taken, full of unknown hazards.
We don't easily
recognise after 20 centuries how revolutionary Jesus was, and the
swiftness with which ordinary life-maps of the day became outdated.
The Hebrews expected a glorious Messiah who would impose God's rule upon
the entire earth. What they were given was an unclean, trouble-making
peasant who died a disgraceful, cowardly death at the hands of the Roman
Roman and Greek Christians knew only
the many, colourful gods of their civilisation. They anticipated a
glorious, civilised, thousand-year Reich
led by an Emperor-god. Instead, they got an Israelite, a low-born
foreigner, who expected them love even barbarians as though they were
In such a situation it wasn't difficult to
feel lost. The pilgrims were at the beginning of a journey. Jesus was for
them something like the reassuring lights of the farmhouse I saw as a lad
in the dusk across the African savannah. He is offered as a reference
point for a radically new way of life.
In the 21st
century we can look back and chart a history full of both self-sacrifice
and cruelty, of burgeoning love and selfish ambition. But though we can
look back, we can't go back. Ours is a one-way journey through
Nevertheless, the air is thick with the
cries of those who want to do just that. "Go back," they say. "Go back to
the days when the faith was pure. Return to the Jesus of the Bible who is
the True Way."
Some of these cartographers claim to have an infallible map which
shows us the straight and narrow road to heaven.
There is now a strong
consensus that, contrary to their claims, our map is in fact rather like
maps of the world made in the 14th century. The general outlines of the
continents can be recognised. But critical details either aren't there at
all, or the legend simply says, "Here be savages."
Since John wrote his
Gospel map of Jesus as "The Way", at least two major things have changed.
First, while the terrain of life is no more difficult then before, the
potential penalties of taking a wrong path seem greater. How do we
navigate the terrifying storms of nuclear war? What ethical mountains must
be scaled if euthanasia becomes the norm? Where is the fertile land which
will feed ten billion people? How will erratic and often meagre water
supplies be justly shared out?
To say glibly that "Jesus is the Way"
simply doesn't wash for most people in the face of such issues. One test
of this fact is that mass-produced "Jesus maps" are worth nothing in the
market place. They can't even be given away.
Second, how we read maps
today is different. We know more about the routes taken by travelers over
the centuries than anyone ever has. Our maps of the past are more
comprehensive than any before them. But it's clear that life remains as
uncertain as it always has been and always will be. No map can tell us
where we will
go, but only where we might go if ever we choose to set out.
Jesus-maps used to be highly valued because they were thought to contain
clear directions to the Golden City in the Kingdom of God. Very few people
today are persuaded - or can be persuaded - that such maps are anything
but fanciful. These people aren't completely correct, for the Jesus Map
does contain some genuine geographical features. But those features are
only broad guidelines to life's journey.
The truth is that we are
increasingly challenged to live life as we find it. The way can't be known
in advance. We can refer to Jesus as "The Way" for a hint about this
perilous mountain track and for some idea of that dangerous river
crossing. But life will always be largely uncharted territory. The road is
constantly changing. "The Way" has to be discovered and pioneered before
it can be mapped.
And what we learn along the way is the art of
travelling and mapping, not how to read ready-made maps.