“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” 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.”
Jesus does not just tell us about the Father’s house – he reserves a room for us. It’s a gift. And it grieves his Spirit that we assume we’ll have to pry it from his hands. All along, it’s been his good pleasure to tell us the way home! And yet, we suspect this gift will be for everyone but “me.” I can understand why – my hopes have been built up over and over by ministries with wonderful teaching about the path of godliness. Another teaching is lifted up and I lift my gaze with a hope for healing. I’m careful to remember all the fruits of the Spirit and I aim each step toward the Promised Land – but, the information rarely gets paved beneath my feet. Eventually, all the friendly faces of “straight and narrow” guidance start to frown. They abandon the people who are prone to wander. And now – I’m wounded. I’m angry. I’m afraid. Does anyone else feel like a lost cause? Is there any purpose to all the pain? The answer is yes. God’s law is bringing your heart out of hiding. And our hearts are filled with Adam’s sin and death. So, it’s not going to be pretty – the purpose of the law is to bring out the very worst in us, not the best (Rom 5:20, Rom 7:13). In doing so, the law is giving each of us a firsthand experience of the fall. In a sense, the law is God’s way of taking us back to the Garden – back to our family tree – so we will steal the fruit for ourselves. Then we’ll know, the Old Adam and Eve live within us, bowing our knee to the god of self. And so, the law is not sin… it is the revelation that every sinner is a walking dead end. And – we hate that interpretation. Don’t expect us to just sit back and listen… not if we have anything to say about it! So, when the law begins to corner us, the flesh makes the most clever shift – it steps up into the pulpit. As the saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach!” The Old Adam avoids confessing that he can’t do the law, by teaching incessantly about the law. We become rhetoricians concerning what everyone everywhere ought to be doing (as though that will suffice)! But… are we really so foolish to think that speaking fondly about the law will hide what we’ve left undone? Do we really think that insightful speech about sinning less or doing more is going to change anything? I’ll say this much – I think that whenever Moses is read, we’re content to interpret politely through a veil. Face it – no eye wants to see, nor ear hear, nor heart imagine, how hopelessly lost we really are! And so, we keep trying to talk our way out of it. We keep hoping to beat the system – and we build our strategies as tall as Babel! But, let’s not be deceived… this tower is carried on our backs and built by self-made men, not God’s Spirit. The point is, it’s futile – a sinner can never carry God’s holy law. And those who love God’s law do not relax its demands when the flesh starts to squirm beneath it. We preach the full weight of God’s demand for perfection, so a human’s knees will buckle under the impossibility. Again, those who truly love God’s law don’t just talk about it – they confess their utter failure to fulfill what it demands. Yes – God’s law is at war with our towers of self and it will not cease until all our appearances of wisdom crumble into nothing. Then you’ll know, it’s not useful advice you’ve gained from the law… it’s a death sentence. And so, God’s law is beckoning you to give up all talk about a righteousness of your own. And that’s exactly where we meet the righteousness that comes from God. As for me – the destruction of my tower has chased me far off the path of self-improvement. And, I’ve stepped in every bit of rubbish along the way. But once we begin to see that the self is unworthy of our worship, we will have eyes to see the Son approach us. When I finally saw the Master, he was waiting below me – and everything in me wanted to climb out of his reach. But the law kept pressing me down into Adam’s fall. It was as if I had become the paralytic being lowered into the Rabbi’s presence. Then, I hit rock bottom. And, I expected Jesus to condemn me with what I already knew quite well… the road home is too steep for someone like “me.” As the Son drew near to me, I can remember waiting for the worst. But, what came for me will cause fear and trembling in my heart forever. The God-man knelt before me and washed my feet with a defiant word, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
We need to understand what is really at stake when Jesus calls himself “the way.” If you’re reading this, I expect you might consider that Jesus is “the door” into the Christian life. Many of us will also confess that Jesus is the destination for anyone who truly believes. In a sense, Jesus is “the way” in both cases. But knowing Jesus as “the way” for everyday life is a joy that escapes us quite easily. Why? Because Jesus is not the means for progress along the road of religion. To explain, when we first read the promise that Christ prepares a place for his disciples… it strikes us as a hospitable word, but nothing that will unravel us. But as Jesus is walking away perhaps… possibly over his shoulder – we might picture Christ mention casually to us, “and you know the way to where I am going.” We think, “Of course I do. I’ve been a Christian for quite a while now. Jesus will help me find my way.” But maybe, just maybe, we start to doubt ourselves. We rethink, “After all the wrong turns I’ve already made? Will I really choose the right path? Honestly, I’ve already forgotten where to turn!” But that’s just it. Jesus knows our hearts are troubled. So, his comment is not casual… the Savior is begging you to ask him for assurance. It’s an invitation to come asking again and again, so we can be refreshed by the gift. The man who knows himself, knows his lostness. And so, Thomas asks, “Lord, wait. Run it by me again. What’s the road home?” If we ask, we will sense the smile of Jesus turn toward us, “Great question my friend. Remember, you don’t need roads anymore. I am the Way.” Finally, a comfort with some permanence. I can’t get lost when the Way has befriended me! And yet… if we’re honest, his answer is a little disappointing. Sure we get a little wayward, but I thought I was getting warmer… what about the thrill of the hunt! So, we object, “Slow down Lord, I really would have preferred some directions. Can’t I save you some trouble? Is a free ride really necessary? What can I possibly do with good news?” If you’re asking these questions, you’re on holy ground. Because, only the Son of God can uphold the answer: Nothing. There is nothing you can do with a one-way promise. You can only hear and believe. And that is how we are buried and raised with Christ – because, the gospel leaves your flesh with no kingdom left to invade. The Father has lowered the bridge and opened the gates. Just like that… you’re in! And that’s exactly the point – it is a word of welcome that we’ll never outgrow. It’s a message of acceptance that is so relentless, we might as well drop all the pretense and accept the truth about ourselves. The truth is, we weren’t getting any warmer and God had to put a stop to all our pious daydreaming. The Old Being would have walked through the gates of hell with talk of a spiritual “comeback” on his lips! You see, conditional directions are the sacrament of the flesh. “Do this, stop that, turn here, go there,” accompanied by a subtle “or else.” The threat of exile keeps the Old Adam living and active. Only the death of religion as we think of it can call us into new life. As Horatius Bonar puts it, we’ve been grafted into a new way, “Christ, not an assistant, but a Savior.” The Old Being loves to think of Christ as his personal assistant on the road to glory. What a wonderful testimony the flesh would have! I can hear us boasting now, “I met Jesus in the wilderness and he gave me nothing but a match and a compass and an old map… and, well, I finally made it! I learned to walk the tightrope from Sinai to Canaan.” But, those dreams are gone now – that highlight reel belongs to Christ alone. And that’s going to break our hearts far more than we expected. Oh, but there is good news! Our God is waiting for the brokenhearted – the God who loves to give new hearts.
The point is this: the Christian way for everyday life is not a path, but a person. Under law, “the way” is tread by walking a path of perfect obedience to God’s demands. If you fall off the path, you’re forsaken. But… under grace, “the way” is tread by footsteps of faith in God’s Son. Jesus walked the perfect path, even unto Calvary, so that nothing could separate you from the love that God has for us. So then, here is your daily bread… God’s proclamation to the lost: If you go left, Christ is for you. If you turn right, Christ is with you. Ultimately, it is never anything about us that offers hope along the way, instead, it is the promise of God’s presence. So, Christians are not charging upward and onward… the kingdom is descending upon us! Don’t you see? The law leaves the lost for dead, but the Son came to seek and save the lost. And now, even when a Christian ceases to follow the precepts of Sunday school virtue… we can say with confidence that, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” That’s why we have to listen to the law paired (not mixed) with the gospel – and, part of listening is learning to recognize the difference between the two voices. So yes, the law points a finger and declares, “You made a wrong turn. I saw that!” But yes and amen – Immanuel gives us His right hand and reminds the flock, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Now, if you’re like me… all this seems too wonderful! I mean, really… since Christ is for me, every path must work out for my good? It sounds too good to be true. But, I suppose that’s why John tells us that Jesus is “full of grace and truth.” St. John is not giving us permission to balance gospel with law – he’s announcing that the “too good to be true” grace of Jesus really is true! The question is… have you heard the word of the gospel? Jesus loves you and he gave himself up for you. To deny his love for you is the nature of all unbelief. Oh, the protests against pure grace can become quite desperate. The flesh will appeal to the most pious imperatives in scripture in order to stay alive! Something like this, “But what about all the widows and orphans? Who will care for them if we are free from the obligation? Are you saying I can do whatever I want?” These objections cause us to second guess our liberty. We become ashamed to suggest such an interpretation of the gospel. We suppose God didn’t read all of his Bible before setting us free. And that is exactly where hell wants us… suspicious of God’s great love. So, I must urge you to resist the devil. And, there is only one defense against this scheme of satan. We must boast in our sin – O felix culpa, Oh blessed fall – because it sends us into the arms of God’s Son! We must stand with Paul and reply, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” I have no hope but Christ’s charity. I am not under law. I am under grace. And yes – I can do whatever I want. If you confess these things, I have only one more question for you. As Forde says, “who is this I?” You see, the conditional being cannot survive the embrace of the unconditional gift. In other words, when a person becomes unashamed of the freedom we have in Christ, the Old I is slain and the New I is born! Oh yes, this changes everything. The question is no longer, “what should I do?” But the question becomes, “now that Jesus has done it all, what do I want to do?” That’s why the Cross is folly to the wisdom of the world! It never occurred to the Old I, that God’s kindness might lead to a life that is chock-full of repentance. It never occurred to us that being rescued from the obligation to march toward heaven, might cause the Church to erupt into a holy dance! But it does. It is a dance of spontaneity, and yet, it doesn’t step on the toes of biblical imperatives. On the contrary – it fulfills them.
The flesh is at war with the theology I’m explaining. True grace is an explosive extinction to our careful spiritual maneuvering – it teaches us to surrender to the work of God’s Spirit. And the Spirit sanctifies by creating a deepening awareness of God’s patience, not our progress. But surrendering to the attack of God’s unconditional love, as Capon says, “is admittedly, a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know.” In the end – the law brings out the worst in us, so that God might exchange it for his best – the gift of Jesus. Our perfect lostness exchanged for His perfect love. That is our Father’s final offer. So, I’ll end with this: I’m praying for greater awareness of Christian liberty in my own life and in the Church. It will happen, I think, through a radical rediscovery of what the Bible teaches about sanctification. According to Paul, we are built up in Christ Jesus in the same way that we receive him, namely, Sola Fide – by faith alone (Col 2:6-7, Gal 2:20, Rom 1:17). Good works are a part of the Christian life, but focusing on bearing fruit is not what causes the fruit to grow. If we don’t get that, we don’t understand the meaning of the word fruit very well. Oh, I hope we get this! Growth in grace is not about where you go or what you intend to do – it is about a Redeemer who loves you wherever you’re at. His love for a new and improved you is non-existent. He loves you right now. And the contra-conditional love of God is the only thing potent enough to change us. In other words, sanctification is learning to embrace the stunning news that we’ve been permanently embraced in God’s Son. So, spiritual progress is never about advancing along a path – it is a deepening retreat into God’s secret. The secret? We have already arrived, because the destination has come to us! And – it’s the announcement of our “already” arrival in Christ, that ushers us into our “not yet” transformation. Behold, in any and every circumstance, the risen Savior swears, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Now – that’s something to talk about. And that’s how we approach the throne of grace with confidence. I dare you to believe it. Immanuel dares us all.