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The Way, the Truth, and the Life

May 15, 2017

“The Way, the Truth, and the Life” John 14:1-14 © 5.14.17 Easter 5A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I sit in my tiny office, a converted church library, my Bible open to the gospel text we heard a few minutes ago. As a fresh-out-of-seminary associate pastor, I’m allowed to preach once every six weeks or so, and to tell you the truth, I had so little life experience, read so narrowly, and labored so obsessively over every word that it took me that long to come up with what to say. I had never heard of the lectionary, so I relied on “God laying the Word on my heart,” as I would have said then.

This particular day, the Spirit spoke through John 14:6. Upon reading Jesus’ words, I had an epiphany. Or to use Martin Luther’s phrase about his discovery of justification by faith, I felt I had been “altogether born again.” I realized that I had been worshipping the Bible, not Jesus. And that was life-changing. It was the day I stopped being a fundamentalist.

Only five years before, in 1972, I had been a college student sitting in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, joining with others of like mind at a conference called “Explo’ ’72.” We spent our days in Bible studies and witnessing on the streets of the city; our nights in the stadium, listening to what are now called “praise and worship” bands, along with noted conservative preachers. One of the groups, Danny Lee and the Children of Truth, had a song that went “There’s one way, one God, one book, and that’s the Holy Bible that will lead you to the promised land.” All the kids in the stands responded to the lyrics with clapping and a rhythmic lifting of their index fingers pointed heavenward. Soon Christian bookstores were carrying silver and red stickers of the “one way” symbol. I put mine on the back window of my hand-me-down ’62 Mercury Comet and on the top of the cheapo fiberboard guitar case that held the equally inexpensive laminate top Yamaha guitar I took to the University of Georgia.

The song, the sticker, the finger were meant to exclude, on the basis of the text for this morning. I went along willingly and with full awareness of what I was doing. But we live in a much different world than that of 1972. The dilemma we face in the globally-aware 21st century is how we witness with integrity to our convictions about how God has been revealed without the kind of arrogance and intolerance my fellow college students and I displayed, and that I later disowned when I paid a bit more attention to what Jesus actually said. As our perspectives have broadened through the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle to include the whole world, we’ve encountered other great religions that teach a moral code and influence people for good. We shouldn’t let the actions of violent extremists of whatever faith color our perceptions any more than we would want our tradition judged by the actions of its own ignorant and violent practitioners. Gandhi lived and died a Hindu, yet certainly he displayed more moral courage and made a greater contribution to human understanding than many Christians. People of good will, peacemakers, folk concerned with the welfare of the most the vulnerable, like children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and the hungry are found the world over, adhering to many faiths and to no particular belief at all. Shall we condemn them to hell on the basis of Jesus’ claim in the text that he is the only way to God?

Of course, we know there are very vocal Christians who want to do so. They thrive on exclusivity; they relish the thought that Christianity, or actually, their version of our faith, holds the only truth. And it ought to be imposed, therefore, by force or law if necessary, in every part of society on everyone. The purpose of such actions, however, is not to save people, but to maintain the power of the in-crowd. Everyone else is already considered to have strayed from the way and is denied life.

The popular evangelical author Rob Bell begins his book Love Wins with a story of an art show about peacemakers. One artist had featured a quote from the aforementioned Gandhi in her work. Many attending the show found the statement compelling. But someone else felt the need to attach a piece of paper to the art which read “Reality check: Gandhi’s in hell.” Whoever wrote the sentence was absolutely sure of the great leader’s fate, thus putting himself or herself in the place of God, and also felt the need to tell everyone else. Bell comments: “Really? Gandhi’s in hell?…We have confirmation of this?” (1).

At the same time we join Bell in condemning such arrogance, we might also wonder if self-assured believers take Jesus’ words more seriously than we do. Are they more faithful than we? Truer to the gospel? But if we’re turned off by their actions and speech, what are we to believe? To practice? We’re sensitive and thoughtful people. We don’t want to reject folk of other faiths and none, certainly not those who do better works than Christians. We don’t want to come off as arrogant, disrespectful, and self-important.

And you and I do believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. We profess that he is the One through whom we come to the Father. And that’s what we would share with anyone who asks us “How can I know God?” Such is our story, and to do or say any less would be to deny our experience. It would also be unfaithful to our Lord.

But what exactly does our claim mean? And when we say “Jesus is the way,” which Jesus are we talking about? The Jesus of John? Of Paul? Of Peter? Of Revelation? Of the medieval church? Of fundamentalist TV preachers? Of movies classic and modern? Of critical scholars? Of progressives? Jaroslav Pelikan’s classic book Jesus Through the Centuries showed us that the titles and character bestowed on Jesus in each age often reflected the social and political viewpoints and concerns of the era. That’s true even in the gospels and epistles themselves. And is Christianity, of whatever stripe, the same as Christ? How do we tell the difference? Are those who wish to use the morning’s text as a polemic against non-Christians willing to turn its bright light on themselves and ask whether they truly regard Jesus, with all he taught, as the way, the truth, and the life?

Big and important questions. Maybe as we look in depth at the text, we’ll begin to find some answers. But the main thing we need to figure out is what Jesus is really saying, why, and to whom.

Let’s start our exploration by noting that neither John nor Jesus knew anything about Buddhism or Hinduism, which were being followed in another part of the world and predate Christianity by hundreds of years. Islam did not yet exist. So whoever uses the words of Jesus to judge other faiths bears responsibility for his or her ideas. No one can justify arrogance and exclusivity by claiming the support of Jesus. As the late Fred Craddock once wrote: “If the interpreter extends the meaning of ‘no one comes to the Father but by me’ as a polemic against other religions…., then responsibility must be taken for that application rather than giving the impression that this was what the Evangelist had in mind” (John: 108-9).

Having said that, though, John did have a polemic purpose. That is, he was arguing with some folks; he meant to criticize. So, unfortunately, he has modeled an approach. But the author launches his attack on groups we would say had a great deal in common with him. One target is John the Baptist and his followers, who believed the hair-shirted hermit, not Jesus, was the Messiah or at least the messenger of God. Read through the gospel sometime and notice how the writer goes to great lengths to say that John the Baptist is not the Christ.

We also know the gospel writer is infamous for his statements about “the Jews,” which have contributed to an ugly history of anti-Semitism in the church and society. The Jewish leaders and Jews in general regarded the Torah, the Law of God, as the way, the truth, and the life, the intermediary between people and God. But for John and his church, Jesus was God himself, and bridged the gap. That’s what all the “I Am” sayings are about in the gospel; John has Jesus claim the divine name of the God revealed to Moses. John was even suspicious of Christians who followed James and Peter and didn’t have the high view of Jesus as the Word, the Logos, who existed before creation.

Finally, John was also battling Christians who claimed new revelations of the Spirit and valued these over the teachings of the historical Jesus. We know that by the time the letters of John were written, the church was split between these two viewpoints. One faction took John’s idea of Jesus as God to extremes, saying that the pre-existent Son of God only pretended or seemed to be human. The traditional group said that this Word from before time truly took human flesh, and his blood was really shed; he had really died. It was this Jesus, not someone who gave new revelations or was a disembodied spirit, that was the way, the truth, and the life.

So John is speaking to his own community, reminding those who sought a different way, another truth, a better life that all they needed was to be found in the Jesus who walked among us as one of us. But if the author engaged for a time in polemics, his main focus ended up being poimenics. That’s just a fancy seminary word for “pastoral care,” from the Greek word for “shepherd.” Take a close look at the situation that prompts Jesus’ famous declaration. He’s about to go away, leaving the disciples, they think, all on their own. He knows they’re troubled, hurting, and afraid. These are grief-stricken men, who know an era in their lives is about to come to an end. Their rabbi and friend, on whom they have depended, is about to go away. Where, they don’t know, and Thomas says as much. And if they don’t know where, they can’t possibly know how to get there.

Jesus’ response is a pastoral one, meant to calm their fear of the future. We might paraphrase it as “You don’t need to know the destination, as long as you know me. I’ll guarantee and make possible your access to God in the times ahead.” They’re afraid that they’ll be cut off from God. That’s what they’re worried about. It’s an intensely personal and real, not a global or merely hypothetical, question. They want to know that God will be near them, that he won’t be hiding in one of those many rooms in his heavenly house, out of sight, while the followers of his Son struggle and suffer and die.

I wonder if that isn’t where this text really touches us. Yes, it’s important in these days to know how we are to regard people of other faiths and none, and this text has been used over and over again, with good intentions and bad, in the argument. But who but God really knows the fate of those who do not follow or acknowledge Jesus? Their destiny, as is ours, is in the hands of the Sovereign One. We ought also to acknowledge that all truth, wherever it’s found, whoever speaks it, is God’s truth, and God’s way with other faiths is mysterious, something we don’t understand. But we can be confident that God’s future for everyone will be both merciful and just.

Of more immediate interest than cosmic questions of salvation is the anxiety we sometimes have about whether God hears us or is near to us. And here is the good news: Jesus brings us into God’s presence when God seems far away. He is our Advocate, our Friend with God. When we seek understanding, he is the truth that reveals God. When we come to the time of death, Jesus is life itself. Everything we need to know about God is wrapped up in Jesus. As long as we know him, we don’t need to fear the future. He’s gone to prepare a place for us, and he himself is both reliable Guide and the Road itself. This Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life is the One who has given his life for his sheep, for his friends, and will not leave us comfortless. In Jesus the way to God is open, the truth is revealed, the life is granted. The One who embodies what we seek—communion with God—has come among us.

This, then, is really a text about hope. That’s the truth to which we will witness to anyone who will listen, to people who need a good word. And that’s the truth we live.

Maybe we’ve come around to talking about our relationship with people of other faiths and no faith after all. Because it’s not merely in making a claim that the power and uniqueness of Jesus is proven, but in the way he strengthens and sustains his people with hope in hard times. The fullness and integrity of life we experience, the quality and inclusiveness of our compassion, the depth of our spirituality will show the world that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. As the song says, we become “living proof.”

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