Text: John 14:1-14
I almost didn’t prepare a sermon for today. I have been on the schedule to preach on May 22 for several months, since Nancy is taking a well-deserved vacation. I had been thinking about what my text and topic might be until I was informed by a billboard on I-40 near Greensboro a few weeks ago that the world was going to end on May 21. “Well,” I thought, “If the end is coming, I guess I don’t need to write a sermon.” But after a while I decided that I should at least put a few thoughts on paper. And then Thursday I received a clear word from the Lord that I should finish my sermon while reading the Gospel according to Doonesbury. It said by May 22 only the damned will still be roaming the earth. So I figured whatever happened, we would all still be here today. So here is my unraptured sermon.
I remember the experience with amazing clarity, especially since it happened fifty years ago this spring. On a Sunday morning, at the age of eight, I walked the aisle of my Baptist church to make my profession of faith. When I got to the front of the church where the pastor was waiting, I took his outreached hand and said from the depth of my eight year-old heart, “I want to be like the Savior.” I really didn’t know what this decision would mean for my life. I certainly didn’t understand much about theology or the more complex questions of faith. What I did know is that I had been coming to that warm and friendly place since my name was entered on the cradle roll only two weeks after my birth. Kind adults had told me stories about a man named Jesus who loved children, healed sick people, and fed those who were hungry. I had heard over and over again that this Jesus wanted me to have a personal relationship with him and to treat people like he treated them. And I had absorbed the message that Jesus was sent to us by God, who loves and cares for everyone in the world. Psalm 22 begins with the affirmation: Since my mother bore me you have been my God. This has been my story and I publicly affirmed it on that Sunday morning in 1961.
With my mother as an exception, most of the wonderful adults who taught me these things have gone on to their reward. I still get the church newsletter, and I can tell by the memorial gifts listed there if one of my Sunday school teachers or a church leader I knew has died. Each name generates a deep well of gratitude for the ways they nurtured me through their faith. But unbeknownst to them, their nurture also generated questions that would carry me through my life, questions that began shortly after I walked that aisle.
For example, several weeks after I joined the church I attended a series of classes for new members. I sat in the choir rehearsal room with a couple of older kids and several adults as the pastor taught us what it means to be a Christian. For those of you who came from traditions where you do the classes BEFORE you join the church, remember that in Southern Baptist life the hike to the front of the sanctuary is supposed to be spontaneous, a result of the urging of the Spirit. So the classes come later.
I don’t remember but one thing from those sessions. In the last one, the pastor told us that Jesus was the only way to salvation. Immediately my little eight year-old hand shot into the air. “But what about the people in China who have never heard of Jesus?” I asked. “God wouldn’t send them to hell, would he?” Our theologically moderate and very kind pastor looked at me for a minute. He seemed to be thinking about how he should answer this earnest child, who was asking one of the toughest questions of our faith. Then he punted. He quoted scripture back to me: There is none other name under heaven whereby ye must be saved. I didn’t respond to the pastor that day, but I clearly remember thinking, “That is not a good answer. If God loves everyone, why would he condemn people who never heard of Jesus?”
Which brings me to our text for today. John 14 is part of what is known as the “Farewell Discourse” where Jesus explains the significance of his coming departure to his followers and points them toward the life they will lead when he is gone. It is a touching goodbye to his dearest friends, in which Jesus makes that comforting promise: I will not leave you orphaned. He speaks at length of his relationship to his Father, to God, and the implications of that relationship for his disciples. The compelling theme is abiding love—between Jesus and God; between Jesus and his followers; and through Jesus, between his friends and God.
The 14th chapter begins with those familiar words we hear most at funerals: 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 take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going. I don’t know exactly how the disciples received these words, but they can be very comforting when you are sitting in church facing a casket or standing by the side of a grave.
Jesus’ followers had a just a moment to take in the implications of what he was saying before Thomas, the doubting one, the one who was never shy about voicing his questions, blurted out, Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? And then Jesus said it; the words that have been used for 2000 years to bludgeon opponents of Christianity into submission or relegate them to eternal damnation: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. Jesus goes on to explain the closeness of his relationship with God to his confused disciples and that they, too, can be part of this relationship. But many progressive Christians in the year 2011 stumble over the exclusivity of Jesus’ assertion. So much so that we have trouble hearing what comes next.
No one comes to the Father except through me. What does this mean in the pluralistic world we live in? Can we be authentic Christians who try to live according to Jesus’ teachings and not try to convert those who aren’t? What do we do with this verse from our sacred scripture?
I can’t answer this question for you, but I can tell you how I am making peace with it. And making peace with it is important to me. It is not hard to ignore scripture that is obviously set in a cultural context like the verses affirming slavery or women’s silence in church. Verses that prohibit the wearing of what we know as polyester or call for the death penalty for children who misbehave aren’t hard to write off—although the latter has crossed my mind a few times! But when Jesus says I am the way, the truth and the life, I pay attention. I pay attention because I have chosen to take his words and his way of living seriously. If he had just stopped there, I would be fine. But according to the writer of John, he added the next line that seems to say my devoted Muslim next door neighbors can’t get to God through their faith. The mind and heart that worried about the fate of people in China fifty years ago stumbles over this one.
One way to deal with the verse is to conclude that Jesus didn’t really say it. That was the decision of the Jesus Seminar, a group of 200 biblical scholars. In the early 1990s they rated the likelihood that the various sayings of Jesus recorded in the Bible were, in fact, words he actually spoke. This verse didn’t make the cut. Now I respect many of the scholars who participated in the Jesus Seminar, especially Marcus Borg. But this seems a little too easy to me. We all do our share of picking and choosing among scripture, but I am uncomfortable just simply writing this one off.
So if we keep it, what do we do with it? We not only live in a world of many religions; we live in a city of many religions. There are Buddhist and Hindu temples in our community. Synagogues and mosques dot the landscape even here in the Bible Belt. I don’t know about you, but I need a way to think about this passage that doesn’t totally preclude other important beliefs I hold – like my belief that it is arrogant for Christians to believe that we have the exclusive avenue to God; that in a way I don’t understand there are many paths to God; that loving faithful Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus worship the same Holy One I do even if they don’t understand God’s nature exactly as I do.
Gail O’Day is professor of New Testament and Dean at Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem. Her special area of expertise is the Gospel of John. She suggests what I have come to believe about this passage, but in a much more articulate way. Dr. O’Day encourages us to allow ourselves to imagine what might have compelled the writer of the Gospel of John to make such a claim with words that reportedly came from Jesus’ own lips. She describes his statement that no one comes to the Father except through me as the “joyous affirmation of a religious community that does, indeed, believe that God is available to them decisively in the Incarnation of Jesus.” It might feel like splitting hairs, but she notes that Jesus doesn’t say “No one comes to God except through me,” but rather “No one comes to the Father except through me.” God is not a generic deity for the Fourth Evangelist, but rather the one they have come to know in the life and death of Jesus. For the gospel writer’s audience, Jesus defines God.
“It is important,” O’Day argues, “to try to hear this joyous, world-changing theological affirmation in the first century context of the Fourth Gospel. This is not, as is the case in the twenty-first century, the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but it is the conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world.” As a community in conflict with the Judaism that had been their home, the audience for whom this gospel was written was clear that the character of God is that which they saw in Jesus. O’Day explains that the statement that gives us trouble is less about the exclusion of other beliefs and more about one community’s particular knowledge and experience of God. In effect, John’s congregation is doing what Pullen has frequently done, especially at baptism. It is saying, “This is who we are. We are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Jesus Christ.” It isn’t speaking to the merits or demerits of another’s path to God.
So did these words actually come directly from the mouth of Jesus? Unless we believe scripture is the inerrant word of God literally dictated to the people who wrote it down, we don’t really know. Is it what he said, or what a particular community or person understood him to say in the context of their circumstances? We don’t know that either. Our conservative sisters and brothers would likely call this liberal mumbo jumbo. But when I look at the character of God revealed in the life of Jesus, I find it extremely difficult – in fact, impossible – to believe that this God would condemn to hell every person who has chosen a path to God that does not include Jesus—or those who believe something different about Jesus, as some other religions do. This is especially true when faith is so intertwined with culture. Had I been born in India or China, the odds of my knowing about Jesus are low. Having been born into this culture, what I know is that Jesus loved and welcomed all and pointed them to an all-loving, ever-welcoming God. Has God’s extravagant invitation been sent only to a small segment of God’s children? I don’t think so.
But why does this matter? At the recent Alliance of Baptists Convocation in Louisville, Walter Brueggemann described the domination system that pervades life on our planet. It is a world propelled by greed, driven by exclusiveness, and committed to vengeance toward those who won’t conform to its way of being human. The domination system causes insatiable anxiety and fear, which work on the system’s behalf. “Frightened people can be managed,” Brueggemann reminds us.
The remedy for our predicament came to those called Christians most clearly in the message of Jesus: Love this world. Says Brueggemann, “We must meet the deathliness of the world with the loveliness of God.” We must conquer our greed by remembering that the abundance of God is always enough; meet the world’s exclusivism with God’s hospitality; and counter vengeance with forgiveness.
This is a daunting task, to say the least, and Christians cannot do it alone. We need God’s grace and we need people of faith and goodwill from every tradition to counter the domination system. We can’t do that if we are fighting with each other or suspicious of each other. We can’t do it together if we don’t know each other and we get to know each other by telling our stories.
This summer you will have an opportunity to learn more about other paths to God through our summer Sunday school series about “Interfaith Stories.” On seven Sundays we will hear women and men from other traditions share what their faith means to them, what scripture passages are most meaningful, how their faith influences the way they view the planet and other religions, and what it is like to practice their faith in a predominantly Christian country. This is not going to be Buddhism or Jainism 101, but rather a series of personal testimonies about faith and meaning. On the eighth Sunday we will hear from a Christian who has been deeply involved in interfaith dialogue. He will tell us the ways his Christian faith has been enriched by knowing persons from other traditions. I hope you will plan to join us as we learn from our neighbors the different ways people come into relationship with the Holy.
From what I have said this morning, it should be obvious that I am still working on this and you will have to do the same. At this moment, what I can say to you for certain is this: As a person whose family and culture are steeped in the Christian faith, Jesus is my way, my truth, and my life. Like the community that heard John’s gospel, I get to the God of my understanding through Jesus. His life-giving ministry of feeding, healing, and welcoming all is the model I set before me as I try to live my life faithfully.
So when he says sell everything you have and give it to the poor, I have to reflect on what that means for me. When he says one has to die in order to live, I am obligated to sort through what I need to bury so I can find a richer life. When Jesus welcomes tax collectors, women caught in adultery, and people of other races, I am required to pay attention if his way is indeed going to be mine; if his truth is going to become my truth. Jesus has been my way to God, but I just can’t believe that God would shut me out if my approach to God came by another road.
A lot of things have changed for me since I walked that church aisle a half-century ago. But I guess some things don’t change. Insisting that Jesus is the only way to God is still not a satisfactory answer. Now as then, I believe God is simply too big, too loving for that. Instead, I believe we are called to be faithfully Christian AND ardently interfaith at the same time. In fact, for the sake of the life of our broken world, I think we have to be.