ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 17, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Ash Wednesday
“I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE”
Psalm 102: 1 – 12; John 14: 6
Of all of Jesus’ “I am” statements, “I am the way, the truth and the life; No one gets to the Father apart from me” is the hardest one for our world to hear. Most people today would say it smacks of conceit and exclusivism. When it’s quoted by Christians, we sound arrogant, haughty and superior. Rather than hearing words of help and grace, people hear prevention and judgement. Jesus spoke these words shortly before his death, as he gathered with his disciples in the upper room. He was preparing them for the loss they were about to face.
We come today to prepare for our own “death”. To sit in an ash heap is to be reminded of our lowliness. We are nothing. As God told Adam, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Humanity started out as dirt and we end up as dirt. To cover ourselves with ashes is to acknowledge our humble origins and our degrading fate. It is also to confess that our lives are dependant on God alone. In Christ alone are we able to side-step our destiny.
In Biblical days, people covered themselves in ashes, humbling themselves before God and remembering their need of him when they were burdened by guilt and needed to repent, or when they were making a serious plea to God, or when they were in mourning. The ashes reflected the depth of their pain, their sorrow and their need. On the night before Jesus arrest and crucifixion, if the disciples had been aware of what he – and they – were about to face, they’d have shown up at the Last Supper covered in ashes. How would this teaching of Jesus “I am the way, the truth and the life” have brought them hope? As we come with our shame, guilt, sorrow and fear, what does it mean for us?
“I am the way”. Just as it is much easier to find the route home if I’ve come from there, so Jesus came from God and returned to God. He knows the way because he’s travelled it before. But Jesus doesn’t claim to be a GPS. He doesn’t simply show us the way, he is the way. He is the one who builds the bridge back to God. He is the only one that offers reconciliation and takes us back to God. He is the only one who took our sins on the cross and conquered the power of death. He is the road on which we walk; the path that we must travel. Given the time and place this was announced, that path led to the cross. Through the cross, Jesus takes down the traffic barrier between our self and God, opening the way for us to travel freely. This is an invitation to walk that road. But for us too, the road goes through the cross. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16: 24). To belong to Jesus, to walk the Way, we are called to crucify the “flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Following the Way isn’t an intellectual assent to a theological concept; faith is a way of being. It is living as Jesus lived. It is self-denial and sacrifice.
“I am the truth”. For John, truth is the word that encompasses everything God is and everything that is in God. When Jesus says he is the truth, he is equating himself to God. Jesus is the revelation of all that God is. Ash Wednesday is a time of truth-telling. We hold our self up to the light of Christ and see what he reveals about us. As good as we may be, our truth is never pretty. The Truth makes us look at ourselves. The truth reminds us that we are dust and without divine intervention, that is our destiny. It causes us to grieve the things we see. It calls to us to make amends. It leads us to change (or repentance).
“I am the life” Not only was Jesus leaving his disciples, he was also returning. Not only was he dying, he was on his way to resurrection. Because he is Life, life must prevail. This is the grace Christ offers us. United with him we die, and we rise. We must sit in the ash heap, dying to our self, owning our actions and our nature. We can do this only because in Christ we are assured victory. He is the light that shines in the darkness. It is this gift that gives us the courage to walk the Way and face the Truth.
Jesus went into the pit of hell. He shone the light of God’s truth and came face to face with humanity’s sin. And then he rose to life. On this Ash Wednesday, we follow the Way down into the hopelessness of death, where we are dust. We sit in the ash heap, where we are dirt; there we can’t escape the Truth of God’s holiness and therefore the truth about our wretchedness. And through this process we find Life. In a word that process is Jesus. I would very much like to take a short cut, but this is the only way. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Through him alone we come to God.