03 May 2019

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Melbourne

“Amen! Alleluia! Praise the Lord!” are common words of assent, even praise, amongst black American congregations as they prod their pastors to even greater heights of preaching. On the other hand, “Help him, Lord, help him,” is sometimes heard when preacher or congregation is evidently lost.

“We feel like you’re taking us on a ride to who-knows-where,” the congregation of disciples say today, “we don’t know where it’s all heading…”

“I’m taking you to heaven,” replies the Pastor.

“Alleluia,” they respond. But how to get there? “You already know the way there,” the Good Pastor insists.

“Way to heaven? We’ve got no idea!” Thomas responds on our behalf. “Help him Lord, help him.”

Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή, Jesus responds: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6-14). These three self-designations provide us with a kind of ‘mini-creed’. Musing on this passage, St. Augustine said it’s the answer to all humanity’s searching: “By what route should we go? I am the Way. To where do you want to go? I am the Truth. Where must we abide in the meantime? I am the Life.”[1]

Of course, by the time Jesus says this at the Last Supper, we already know He’s the Truth: from the very beginning of John’s Gospel, we learn He is the Word, reason or argument, thought by the Father from all eternity, spoken in time by Him in Jesus Christ; He speaks the Father’s words, reveals God and God’s will to us; His truth liberates and guides; we must abide in His word, live His truth, testify to it; and to this end He will bequeath us the Spirit of Truth.[2] And if we already know that Jesus is the Truth, we also know He is the Life: “in Him was life, and this life was the light of all people,” we heard in the Prologue to John’s Gospel; He is “the Resurrection and the Life,” He explained later; those who believe in Him have eternal life; those who give their life for Him regain it; His are words of eternal life, food and water, flesh and blood for eternal life.[3]

He’s Truth, He’s Life, but what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Way? There’s a little talk in the Gospels about preparing the way of the Lord and being sent on our way by the Lord,[4] but not nearly so much as the talk of Him as Truth and Life. So Augustine continues his explanation: “Everyone can attain some understanding of the Truth and of the Life; but not all find the Way. The wise of this world realise that God is eternal life and knowable truth; but [only Christians know that] the Word of God, who is Truth and Life joined to the Father, has become the Way by taking a human nature.” Many religions believe in God as Truth and Life; even some secular philosophies; but only Christians grasp that Jesus Christ is the way to that Truth and Life, the road or bridge or gateway between heaven and earth, uniting God and man. And so we Christians were first known as the followers of the Way.[5]

Via, Veritas, Vita. If our words ‘veritable’ and ‘vital’ come from the Latin words for truth and life, so our word ‘viable’ relates to the word for way. For something to be viable, it must be passable, possible, workable. If the veracity and vitality of the Church are challenged in every age, it’s very viability is threatened today. In the end our answer must be that Christ is the Way, the only Way, for the Church. We must join the holy apostles Philip and James and Thomas in asking our honest questions of Him. No answer derived from some other wisdom about institutions or protocols or public relations will help us unless it aligns with His Way. Indeed, the most truly ‘viable’ way, the way of the One who is the Way, may sometimes be a less popular, less desirable direction, but one that ultimately surrenders to Him as the one true compass.

As successors of the apostles, we are naturally encouraged by Gospel passages such as this morning’s in which the first apostles are every bit as confused or curious, cautious or courageous as we. We first encountered Philip at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, when Jesus said “Follow me” and he did (Jn 1:43). That was Jesus’ Way. Philip then followed that Way by going to get his mate Nathanael and repeating the invitation to him to ‘Come and see’ (Jn 1:45). This makes Philip an example to us of an invitational, out-reaching, invitational bishop after the heart of the Good Pastor. And this searching and finding, inviting and receiving – this is what makes the Church in every age viable, the Way.

Likewise the pastoral letter attributed to the Bishop James is very much an encouragement to his fellow Christians to live the Sermon on Mount. He had some great tweets: “Every good and perfect gift is from above”; “Be quick to listen, slow to speak”; “Be doers of the word, not hearers only” (Jas 1:17,19,22); “Faith without works is dead” (2:17,20,26); “The wisdom that comes from above is pure and peaceable, gentle and yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (3:17); “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (4:4); “Religion pure and undefiled is this: caring for orphans and widows in distress, and keeping oneself unstained by this world” (1:27); and so on. Many words of practical wisdom for his flock, again following the Way Jesus taught, and offering us bishops examples of the kinds of teaching and action that will make our Church truly veritable, vital and viable.

As we gather in the name of the One who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” we ask again and again for our ACBC Plenary, our forthcoming Ad limina and the Plenary Council beyond for “the wisdom that comes from above”. We pray that the successors of the apostles and all the Church may proclaim to all the Truth of Christ, may mediate to all the Life of Christ, and may prepare for all the Way to encounter Christ. “Help them Lord, help them.”

[1]     St. Augustine, De Verbis Domini Sermones, 54

[2]     Jn 1:1,14; 3:34; 4;23-4; 5:24,33,38; 6:63,68; 8:32,37,43,51; 14:10,17,23-4; 15:3,7,26; 16:13; 17:1-20; 18:37-8; 19:35; cf. Mt 4:4; 15:6; Mk 2:2; 4:15-23; 12:14; 13:31; Lk 1:2-4; 4:22; 5:1; 6:47.

[3]     Jn 1:4; 3:15-16,36; 4:14,36; 5:21-9; 6:27-68; 10:28; 11:25; 12:25,50; 17:2-3; 20:31; cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; 19:29; 25:46; Lk 10:25; 18:18,30.

[4]     Jn 1:23; 4:50; 8:11; 14:31; cf. Mt 3:3, 11:10; 22:16.

[5]     Acts 9:2; 18:25-6; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22.