The Preaching of the Word
First Presbyterian Church
116 South Loudon Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor
Third Sunday of Easter
April 10, 2016
“In Jesus Name”
First Reading: Acts 3:1-7
Gospel Reading: John 14: 1-14
Text: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John 14: 6
I have officiated at hundreds of funerals and memorial services over the past forty years, and on almost every occasion I have read these glorious words of the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. 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, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
These are comforting words, some of the highest and loftiest thoughts of our faith. Many of us have drawn solace from them as we have let go of those we love in the hope of seeing them again in a better place and time, envisioning them in mansions of heaven. But at the end of that beautiful passage which has given us a glimpse of glory, there is a shift in mode that doesn’t seem to fit. “Thomas said to Jesus, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, 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.’” Now this seems arrogant and exclusive. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Is Jesus the only way to God? Does no one come to God except through him?
It seems to me that all people in some way or another want to make sense of life’s experiences. The Greeks and Romans long ago knew life as strangely affected by the wars and passions of gods and goddesses who had all the frailties and foibles of the human condition. So rain, war, peace and love were all governed by deities to whom these qualities were assigned. The Hebrew people believed in one true God and knew God to be, YAHWEH, who created all things and who ordered human life, a higher authority that took a special interest in the social, political, and historic events of a chosen race. Buddhism looks to a twelve-fold path of enlightenment that negates the world. The Hindus worship many gods, including Vishnu, Shiva and Brahman. Islam recognizes Abraham and Jesus as prophets but places priority upon the teachings of Mohammed. Native American spirituality understands a great Spirit to be behind all things uniting humanity with stars and moons, earth and sky. People of different cultures and places in their own way and in their own time have attempted to understand what makes the world tick. Even science becomes a kind of religion in attempting to explain the mysteries of life. An editorial in Time magazine pointed this out.
“The currency of science is not truth, but doubt, and paradoxically faith.
Science is nothing if not a spiritual undertaking. The idea that nature forms
some sort of coherent whole, a universe, ruled by laws accessible to us, is
a faith. The creation and the end of the universe are theological notions,
not astronomical ones.”
When Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” is he putting down science, all other faiths, all other ways of believing? Is he dismissing the possibility that we may come to God in any other way except through belief in Jesus Christ? Maybe not.
Jesus, and later the apostles, had to struggle against pagan gods of Rome and the worship of idols which was current in the world in which they lived. Many thought Christianity to be a form of Judaism. In fact it wasn’t until the gospel went to Antioch late in the first century that the followers of Jesus were known as Christians. So, Jesus announced that he is “the way, the truth and the life.” Threatening times call for extreme declarations.
How else do you differentiate a religious faith except to make a claim for its distinctiveness? Perhaps Jesus was simply trying to make a point that sometimes you have to decide something once and for all. In this case, compared with the religions and mythologies of his time, Jesus was asserting the distinctiveness and priority of being his disciple and following him. He did, after all, see his role in a divine plan to fulfill the law and the prophets. There are times and seasons when it is important to declare where you stand over and against the competing claims of religions which also offer definitive explanations of the mysteries and order of life.
There are still many pretenders to the throne of God that offer explanations behind the mystery of life, including New Age consciousness and the Bahai faith. And don’t many people think, “Well, we all believe in the same God anyway so it doesn’t really matter what you believe because we all want to get to the same place.” The problem is that this would come as startling news to a Hindu or a Jew, to a Buddhist or a Muslim. Although, Jews, Christians and Muslims are all children of Abraham we have different scriptures. Different faith traditions understand the divine in different ways, and it does a discredit to the sincere beliefs of other faiths when we dismiss our differences so easily.
Somehow rather than dismiss the distinctiveness of other faiths, we need to find a way to honor those differences while preserving the claims of our own. That, it seems to me, is the spirit and thrust of the gospel, not intolerance and religious fascism, but humility, patience, and the strong power of love which knows that God can make sense of all that we have confounded, and that as sure as Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, God is able to manifest that way and truth and life in many and various forms. “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus advised his disciples, and elsewhere John, in one of his letters, suggests that we “test the spirits to see if they are of God.”
Now our faith is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of the world. He performed a unique and unrepeatable act of love and sacrifice on the cross that has revealed the true nature of God’s love. God raised him in power, and by his resurrection we know how great is God’s power to overcome evil and sin in this world. To know the story of Jesus is to have a special and beautiful knowledge of God and the way the universe hangs together, the meaning of the human experience, and the mystery that surrounds us all our days. Our imperative is to share that story with all who do not know it, and with all who would hear it. It is still the way of salvation, to wholeness and to communion with God, which is what salvation means, being whole and at one with God. The great commission to go into all the world baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is our mandate.
But to interpret Jesus’ saying that “No one comes to the Father except through me” as a polemic against all other religions is, I think, to say more than we know. In the case of every passage of scripture, we have to weigh what is said in the measure of the whole force, spirit, and power of the gospel. And the gospel never seems to me to identify as its enemy other religions as we know them.
There are instead two enemies of the gospel which war against it. One is idolatry, the great sin of the Hebrew Scriptures, worshipping human-made deities, like loving money, and work, and status, and drugs, anything that would become so important in your life that you would make any sacrifice for it, substituting what is earthly for what is heavenly. The other enemy of the gospel is Satan and his legions, which to say evil and its power among us.
In 1962, the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth presented a lecture series at Princeton Theological Seminary. Following one of his lectures, one of the students asked, “Dr. Barth, does God reveal himself in other religions or does God only reveal himself in the Christian religion?” The room was quiet, waiting for the answer. Karl Barth replied, “God does not reveal himself in any religion, even in the Christian religion. God reveals himself in his Son,” What did his Son say? “Follow me.” His Son did not say follow a religious doctrine. His Son said, “Follow me. I am the way.” The Christian life is not a religion. It is a relationship with the triune God. Sometimes we get too narrow in our neat little religious boundaries. God is bigger than what we have ever known.
Let me say that I think there is more than one way to worship and honor Jesus Christ. He is more than simply one man who lived long ago and far away and walked the dusty roads of Galilee. I think Christ is praised and served wherever acts of justice and mercy and peacemaking are done. He is present in the meditation and worship mantras and prayers of many people who may not know his name. The undeniable rhythm of life and death and resurrection writ through the creation is a silent praise and witness to his name without ever naming him as such.
Is this too mystical, too heady, too generous—this understanding of the way to God that leads through Jesus Christ? Well let me simplify it—as best as I can. The late Joseph Campbell, who did so much to make us familiar with mythology and the human search for meaning common to all cultures, was once asked by Bill Moyers why, after seeing so many commonalities in religions, one might believe there was more truth in one than another, why believe in the Christian assertion that God took flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ. His answer was that this is the story we know, that other explanations do not usually move us in quite the same way. “Why be a Christian?” he was asked. “Because you dance with the girl with whom you came,” he said. While his answer is only a fraction of the reason of why we would pursue our faith in Jesus Christ, it is a start! It is the story we know and there is much truth in it, so much of the way, so much of life, that in him, our experience has shown us that his words are undeniably true “I am the way, the truth and the life.” If nothing in my experience or yours had ever shown that it was so, we could abandon it. But that is not the case for many of us.
God has, no doubt created an infinite number of ways to be known. But the unique claim of Christian faith is that while other religions reach up to God, the God made known in Jesus Christ reaches down to us and is known in terms we can all understand. For God comes and dwells among us, “full of grace and truth.”
The Crusades and the centuries of persecution of Jews and Muslims have been painful and tragic misapplications of Jesus’ saying, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” And knowing how these words have been misguided I think I will always rest uneasy with this saying. I find myself in agreement with Roman Catholic theologian Gerard Sloyan’s suggestion of how to understand this passage. He writes “Jesus must be proclaimed as the one way to God to whoever is willing to listen, while leaving the faith and the fate of those who have never heard the gospel to a God who is equal to the problem. The church will always be missionary because it is convinced it possesses in the gospel a peculiar treasure… but (at the same time) there is a much greater trust in the providence… of God’s mysterious ways of self-disclosure to all peoples of the globe.”
“You dance with the girl with whom you came,” said Joseph Campbell. And in marriage you know that there are others you could marry, or could have, but that your character and your identity is bound up in making a commitment to one whom you will love with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, without averting your eyes. Maybe that’s something of what Jesus meant when he said that no one comes to the Father except through him, that at some point you have to make a commitment if you are to know true fulfillment in life, and that your way, your truth, and your life is found there.
Returning to the context of John 14:6, the disciples’ hearts were troubled and Jesus was giving them everything he could think of to survive without him. He used the singular, exclusive language that people who love so often do. “You are the only man/woman in the world for me. You are the best mother anyone ever had. No one has ever loved a child the way I love you.” This is not objective language intended to judge others, other mothers, and other loves. This is language spoken out of the depths of relationship, to affirm the truth that only love can grasp. Notice, Jesus did not say, “Friends, I am one way among many, now you must decide for yourselves which way is best.” He used love language instead: “I am the only one for you. You have made the right choice. No one can lead you to God better than I can.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he said. “Believe in God, believe also in me. I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”