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May 07, 2017

The Way (Reading and Sermon)

The Way (Reading and Sermon)

Passage: John 14:1-14

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Series: May 2017

Category: Faith

There was once a man who died and was ushered into heaven, which appeared to be an enormous house. An angel began to escort him down a long hallway past many rooms. "What's in that room?" the man asked, pointing to a group of people dressed in white, spinning and spinning around. "That's the Sufi group," said the angel. "The whirling dervishes. They are very lively."

"What's in that room?" asked the man, pointing to a group of people meditating to the sound of an enormous gong. "That's the Zen group," said the angel. "Very quiet. You would hardly know they were here."

Then the angel stopped the man, as they were about to round a corner. "Now, when we get to the next room," said the angel, "I would appreciate it if you would tiptoe past. We mustn't make any sound." "Why's that?" asked the man. "Because in that room there's a bunch of Christians; and they think they're the only ones here." 

 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That is the most “famous” line of this scripture passage. But famous not necessarily in a good way. Famous in that it has been used by Christians through the years to proclaim Christianity as the superior religion. Or even as the only true religion. You can only know God, or you can only get to heaven, or you can only be considered God’s beloved child if you are Christian. It says right here in the Bible - Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except through Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but that exclusive, restrictive, even arrogant reading of this passage really makes me uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable, but I flat out don’t believe that way of reading this passage. There are many ways to know God. There are many ways to worship God. There are many ways to love God. I couldn’t fathom telling someone of a different faith that Christianity was the only way to God.

What do we do with this passage, then? I could preach until tomorrow, or even next week about all the different ways biblical scholars have interpreted these two sentences, but I’ll stick with just two ideas for today. First, as we should do whenever we read the Bible, it is important to keep in mind the historical, social, and religious context in which this was written. John was writing to a very specific group of people - early followers of Jesus trying to figure out their place in the religious landscape. They were having significant conflicts with people of the Jewish faith, which was once their religious home, and they were needing to find a new religious space for themselves. Their survival was at stake, both as a religious community and as individuals daring to follow Jesus. When John wrote these verses, they were never meant to be the final say on all the world’s religions. They are simply a celebration of the beliefs a very particular religious community ... something that they could claim that set them apart. For them, Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life. None of them go to the Father except through Jesus.

John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop, suggests the community was saying this, “We know of no other way that we can come to the God of our fathers and mothers except through this Jesus.” Spong then writes, “That was a testimony to their experience. It was not a prescription claiming that they possessed the only doorway into the only God. This is an attempt on the part of the early disciples of Jesus to validate their experience journeying through Jesus into the mystery of the God they had known in Israel. It is amazing to me that this would someday be used to judge all other religious traditions as unworthy, wrong, or even evil.”[i] This passage is particular, not exclusive. The Gospel writer wants this specific group of people to recognize and name the distinctiveness of their identity as a people of faith.

Thinking about the passage in that way makes me wonder, what do we celebrate about being Christian today? There is a reason that you are worshipping here, at a Presbyterian church. You are not at Kol Shofar, the Jewish synagogue up the road. Or at Green Gulch, the Zen Buddhist center in Muir Beach. Or at the Islamic Center of Mill Valley. I have a deep respect for the practitioners of all of those faiths. I think there is much I can learn from them about God and about myself. In fact, I have visited all three of those places before to learn and grow in my spiritual life. But, I am a Christian. We are a Christian community. And, like that early community to whom John was writing, it is important for us to celebrate what is unique about our Christian faith.

We will do that today when we come to the Lord’s Table. When we remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we remember the extravagant welcome that Jesus showed the night of that last meal, dining even with the one he knew would betray him. When we remember Jesus’ commandment at that final meal to love one another. In John’s Gospel, this commandment immediately precedes the passage that we heard today. Jesus says, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. Everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” This is what we remember, this is the tradition we claim, here at the Lord’s Table.

Which brings me to the second point I want to make about those pesky sentences, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I actually put the second point on the front cover of your bulletin. What is the way of Jesus? Love. What is the truth of Jesus? Love. What did the life of Jesus embody? Love. Of course Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, because love is the way, the truth, and the life. We come to God through love. We, as Christians, call this love Jesus, but there are many names for this love. Pastor and author Roger Wolsey says it this way, “All who follow … the way of unconditional love, of radical hospitality, of loving-kindness, of compassion, of mercy, of prophetic speaking truth to power … (all who follow) the way of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and the pursuit of restorative justice – by whatever name, and even if they’ve never even heard of Jesus, they are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and his Way.”[ii]

That one makes me wonder … are we living like that? Before we worry about people of other faiths or of no faith finding their way to God, what about us? If we are bold enough to proclaim that we, as Christians, are followers of Jesus … are we living the way and truth and life of Jesus? If you didn’t tune out after those two sentences, Jesus actually has more to say in this passage. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

Lest we get caught up in the, “I’ve got to work my way into heaven” mindset, remember that Jesus begins this passage with the assurance that he is already preparing a place for us in God’s house … that there are many dwelling places there. We don’t need to work our way into heaven. By the grace of God we are loved and cherished just as we are. And yet, Jesus does ask us to do the works that he does. To do even greater works than he does. To follow in his way. Jesus tells his disciples if they know him, they know God. Could it be that if people know us – if they know our love; if they know our work for justice in the world; if they experience our forgiveness and our compassion and our mercy – then they will know God?

Let me close by sharing with you a poem titled “Face of God” by Andrew King.

We thought you wore the skin of thunder, spoke in verbs of stormwind, majestic and mighty as lightning upon summits, unreachable as the cold and silent fire of distant stars; hidden behind a curtain in the temple, an untouchable invisibility approachable by the highest priest only …

And then somehow the veil was parted: we gained glimpses of the glory of the nearness of your love as the hurting were healed, the outcast befriended, the lost restored, and everywhere the powers of death had their dominion challenged, by the son of a Jewish carpenter from Galilee.

If you have seen me, said Jesus, you have seen the Father.

And we do see you there, in the Gospels, healing in synagogues and in houses, feeding the hungry on hillsides, embracing the lepers and the sinners, turning over the tables in the temple, nailed to a cross of injustice but risen, greeting women at the graveside, sharing bread with your friends, the dominion of death overturned. Approachable, reachable, the accessible God, visible in the skin of Jesus.

But you are not done, not content to wear such skin only in the pages of the Gospels. The many-colored, multi-shaped body of Christ –the Church wide as the nations of the world – bears your image where it acts in your love: still feeding, still healing, still teaching mercy, making you visible not in great structures nor in high saints alone, but in the ordinary persons in the pews, as here, on a day like any other, a woman making dinner and packing it, knocking on the door of a neighbor newly home from surgery: the face of the one receiving it lit with thankfulness, the face of the one freely giving like the face of God.

 [i] The Sins of Scripture, by John Shelby Spong.  Pg. 236.

[ii] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2015/04/jesus-isisnt-the-only-way-they-cant-all-be-true-except-when-they-are/