“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” –John 14:6
John 14:6 is an eschatological favorite Bible verse. Eschatology is theology—thinking about God, or, in practice, studying Christian beliefs—that is concerned with death and the afterlife. I’ve heard it read at more funerals than I can count. In those moments, it’s surely a comforting scripture for the Christian community. However, its pertinence and power are not limited to last things.
I’m returning to John 14 in light of yesterday’s news. February 23, 2021 marked one year since the death of Amhaud Arbery. The 25-year-old Black man was jogging—just taking a run—through a Georgia neighborhood when he was chased by two armed white men in a truck. They stopped Arbery, confronted him, and shot him twice, killing him. Not until ten months later were arrests made of the two men and another allegedly connected to the murder. Arbery’s death made his name a hashtag of remembrance alongside so many People of Color who had gone before—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland—and those who would follow—Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. To be sure, Black lives matter, and remembering and saying their names is crucial for knowing the terrible parts of our history, learning from it, and moving forward in a different direction (what Jesus followers call “repentance”). But Amhaud Arbery’s mother never wanted him to become a hashtag, just as Jesus’ mother never wanted him to become another publicly executed human being on a cross. They wanted their children to live; and, although their lives were cut short, they certainly did live.
This is what taking John 14:6 out of context sells short by slipping it into the Christian doctrine of salvation and focusing only on death. The emphasis on the latter part of the verse—“No one comes to the Father except through me”—turns our attention toward a territorial interpretation of Jesus, claiming that what is meant here is that only us Christians go to heaven. But what about the former part of just one verse among more than 31,000 in the entire Bible that, standing alone, shifts our entire focus? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus was life. Jesus lived. Yes, he died by crucifixion, and, yes, his death bore the sins of the world; but Jesus of Nazareth—Mary’s son, Joseph’s boy—lived. And what a life he lived!
Amhaud Arbery lived. Did you know that he was a shy kid, and that playing football made him want to become a football star, pulling him out of that reserved social shell by sheer determination in pursuit of his dream? Did you know that he had a big heart, that he was deeply empathetic, the he would keenly observe even adults when he was a teenager, such as his high school football coach, recognizing that his coach was having a bad day, which prompted Amhaud to playfully imitate him until the coach cracked with laughter? Did you know that he wanted to become an electrician like his uncles, and that he had been taking classes to that effect, hoping to turn the page on his vocational life? It’s important to know these things, because the more we know about one another, the more we value and celebrate our lives. And the more we uplift and celebrate the lives we know, the more we know the heart of God.
The very next verse after the one commonly read at funerals is a continuation of Jesus’ discourse, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” (John 14:7a). To know Jesus is to know the Father. To know the life of Christ is to know the heart of God. And we who follow Christ, especially in these Lenten days that lead to a cross at Jerusalem, are instructed to see Christ on the face of one another, to know Jesus in the relationships we nurture between each other, and to celebrate the life of Mary’s son, Joseph’s boy in our celebration of each precious life in our beautifully diverse human family—each life that truly does matter.
I’m thinking of Amhaud Arbery and his life in the last few days of this Black History Month, because knowing his life is a glimpse of the shining life of Jesus. Knowing Michael’s and Tamir’s and Sandra’s lives reveals the light of Christ. Knowing Rayshard’s and George’s and Breonna’s lives ushers in more and more of the light of Mary’s son, Joseph’s boy, the one we call Lord, Savior, Rabbi, Friend, Emmanuel: God-With-Us. And to know the life of Christ—all he said, did, shared, taught, preached, exemplified, and embodied—is to know God. Let’s remember that Jesus was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, and that if we were to see him walking around today with his dark features and thick black hair, we would be called to do more than just say, “His life matters,” but to also know his life better, know him better, know one another better, and, thus, know God better.