This sermon was found in a copy of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Congregational Church Romford, published in February 1949.
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. - John 14:5-6
Human nature is always hungry for truth. It is unnatural to be content with a recognised deception. The philosopher is concerned with what he calls ultimate truth, which means the generation is, generally speaking, impatient with such questions. To-day the emphasis is on scientific truth, that is on the facts concerning the physical world in which we live. This change of emphasis is understandable when we remember the practical advantages of such facts once discovered. The discussions of the philosophers seem rather profitless. The discoveries of the scientists have an obvious effect upon everyday life. And so we tend to be more interested in questions which begin with the word "how" than in those which begin with the word "why". We can see this is reflected in a simple fashion by the little boy's passion for engines and his desire to know how they work. He is modern man in miniature.
But the philosopher, the scientist, and the practical man who is neither, all ask Pilate's question in various ways. That is because our minds require objective facts to rest in. Certainty, about some things at least, is a necessity.
Thomas's question, "How can we know the way" is also a perennial one. He knew that Jesus was inviting him to follow a way of life. But since, he says, we cannot see the goal even in imagination, how can we choose the road? This question represents a demand to know the correct way to live. It arises from a desire not for intellectual but moral certainty. It is the question of ethics rather than philosophy. What is the good life? By what principles must we live?
These two questions, "What is the truth about life?", and "What is the way to live?", have been asked ever since the dawn of history. But no agreement has been found. Philosophers and moralists find themselves continually in conflict amongst themselves and with one another. In one generation a particular philosophy perhaps becomes paramount, and seems to be unanswerable. But inevitably another will arise to challenge and destroy it by pointing out its inconsistencies and fallacies. After which another so-called "final truth: will be built on the ruins of the old, as Marx built on the ruins of the defeated Hegel. And side by side with varying conceptions of what life means, we find, inevitably, varying conceptions of how it should be lived. True, Western civilisation has for centuries been bound together by certain basic assumptions, some derived from Christianity and some from Greek philosophers, notably Plato and Aristotle. But it is precisely because the assumptions are being challenged to-day, not by individuals only but by the moving mass of popular opinion, that the questions, "What is truth?", and "What is the way?" must be asked again with renewed urgency. And in any case, while there has been broad agreement on many important matters in the West this has never been true of the whole world. Asia has always provided her own, radically different, answers.
The confusion of voices which is evoked when Pilate and Thomas speak is apt to be discouraging to a man who seriously wishes to hear an answer to their questions. The most natural, and the most disastrous, response is apt to be the conclusion that no final answer is possible. This is expressed by the view, frequently heard, that it does not matter what we truly believe so long as we are sincere. The implication is that truth does not exist, or at least this it is only relative. Similarly, we are apt to say that it does not matter what a man does so long as he follows his conscience faithfully. But this answer is the mouth of the abyss. There is no limit to the evil men will do or the nonsense they will believe if they seriously accept such an answer. The result will be that we shall concentrate on practical and ascertainable facts of a scientific nature and leave ethics and philosophy and religion to look after themselves. This is precisely what is happening in the modern world. Therein lies its peril.
If we say, and as Christians we must, that there is a final answer and that it is to be found in the Christian religion, we immediately find ourselves in difficulty. The critic will point out the multitude of Christian sects, each with its particular emphasis and version of the truth, and will enquire which is to be believed and why. And if we refer him to the Bible he will find there a great variety of points of view, bound together by an underlying unity certainly, as the Christian sects are, but not containing a clearly consistent answer to either Pilate or Thomas. The Bible is the despair of the philosopher and the moralist alike. It does not present us with a rational interpretation of God and the Universe. It does not provide us with a thesis on the Good Life.
And now let us notice how our Lord deals with Pilate and Thomas when they put these questions. To Pilate no answer is given save silence. That is because he has already decided that answer for himself. His question is merely rhetorical. He does not even wait for a reply. The impatient man of affairs is weary of the religious wrangle taking place before him. It is beneath his dignity to take the issue seriously, except in so far as it effects the just administration of the law. But even that is not of primary importance. What matters is the public weal, the security of the state. For Pilate, everything is governed by expediency. (Notice, by the way, that when we separate justice from truth we find it impossible to be just. In the same way goodness, divorced from truth, cannot exist. That is the danger of separating ethics from theology.)
But to Thomas, Christ makes this great statement. "I am the way, the truth, and the life." It is a strange and, at first, curiously unsatisfying answer. What is the way? "I am the way." What is truth? "I am the truth." The personal pronoun seems out of place. We are looking for a moral code or a system of ethics, we find we are presented instead with a personality. How can this be an answer? Evidently the disciples are themselves confused. Philip demands, "Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us." Let us see some clear, objective, unmissable fact. Do not leave us in the condition of men who speculate and search for what might be. Show us once and for all what is. (It is a great illustration of the power of Jesus over these men that they should thus simply ask Him to let them see God.)
In our Lord's reply we can feel that restlessness of spirit which He sometimes displayed, as though astonished at their lack of comprehension. "Have I been so long with you, Philip, and you have not known Me? He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father." This tremendous claim does not, I think, refer to those who saw Him with physical eye only. It was possible to do that, as it was possible to hear His words, without seeing or hearing anything. ("Everyone that is of the truth heareth My voice.") It means rather that God is not to be known either by observation or by comprehension of an intellectual sort. God is to be known in relationship with Christ. "Hast thou be so long with Me and hast not known Me?" It was by being His friends, not be listening to His teaching only, that they learned the truth. And it was by this same fellowship that they learned the way of life. The Christian revelation is discovered in personal encounter with Christ. It is a truth known only in and through communion. And this is Christ Himself both truth and way.
This fact runs counter with all our natural ways of thinking. So it is not surprising that even the Church has resisted it. It is the peculiar temptation of Catholicism to substitute for the "I am" of Christ a body of doctrine, thus transforming the Christian faith from a glad entering into relationship with Him into submission to dogma. And Christian behaviour, instead of a way of love, learned in relationship, becomes obedience to a Christian law.
Protestants may yield to the same temptation of course. For them it is easy to equate. Christian truth with the opinion that the Bible is true. They have avoided the danger of turning the Christian way into a rigid legal code. But they readily substitute for Christian love obedience to some form of conventional "goodness", forgetting that middle class morality is not a perfect expression of the Christian way.
Christianity is not the problem for the intellect or a challenge to the will. It is a discovery of God through relationship with Christ. It is not enough to say that the creeds are "true", though we need a creed as an intellectual expression of faith. It is not enough to say that the Bible is "true", though a return to the Bible as the source of truth is one of our necessities. It is not enough to indicate the Sermon on the Mount as an ideal for living. All such attempts to reduce the Gospel to a rigid system of whatever kind ignore the "I am" of Christ. And that is the greatest heresy. For outside a living relationship, informed by the Holy Spirit, there is no Christian truth at all. That is why all those who examine Christianity from outside, looking for a truth and a way without the life, are inevitably baffled. That is why Pilate received nothing but silence from Christ.