“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Yes, indeed, I am going to preach a sermon focusing on that passage. I guess I like to do things the hard way. Or, probably more accurately, any sermon I preach I am preaching to myself as much as to anyone else (this is a truth that all preachers must confess to at some point). It is time that I come to terms with this passage, as it is in our scriptures and more practically it comes up in our lectionary every three years and it is the passage most likely quoted to me by those who have been turned off by Christianity (including those who had been born and raised Christian). I can only hope that my personal journey with this passage will help you in your journey as well.
It is a passage that has made me uncomfortable from an early age, though I don’t think I could have quoted this passage to you as a young child. Let me explain. I was not raised in an environment with much interfaith diversity. Almost everyone I knew until I was in college was Christian with a smattering of Jewish people thrown in. Remember, I grew up in very homogeneous Waterville, Maine. But all the Christians in Waterville were not of the same flavor.
The vast majority of Christians in central Maine when I was a young girl were Roman Catholic, including my paternal grandparents. The rest were various flavors of Protestant. Most of the Protestants played well together religiously, but not so much the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Now as I tell my story as a Protestant in a largely Roman Catholic town, please know that I now understand that we Protestants in this country have sinned greatly against our Roman Catholic siblings, but I didn’t know this as a child. So, back to the main story. I knew from a very young age that my father left the Roman Catholic Church for no church when he was 18, and he and my mother were married in the Episcopal Church (her church). I knew that my grandmother would not allow my father’s younger siblings to participate in the wedding, because he was no longer Roman Catholic and it was being held in an Episcopal Church. I knew my mother’s hurt over this decision by her mother-in-law. I knew she felt excluded (as did I by extension, as I was an Episcopalian).
For reasons that I am still unclear about, my parents sent me to the Roman Catholic Elementary School in town when I turned 5. This Episcopal kid was included in all the religious education, but it was made very clear to me that when my Roman Catholic classmates became old enough to receive Holy Communion, I would not be allowed to participate. This was so weird to me because I knew if my Roman Catholic friends came to my church they would be allowed to share in the bread and the wine. And, as far as I could see, our Eucharistic rituals were exactly the same. I was excluded and I knew it and it just didn’t make sense to my young mind. I didn’t know John 14:6 but I was experiencing the traditional exclusionary interpretation of it from my Roman Catholic brethren. Only it was not directed at someone who didn’t believe in Jesus, it was directed at me, a fellow follower of Christ. I developed a real distaste for anything that excludes. Something that tends to happen when you have been on the excluded end of exclusion.
When I went off to college, I experienced exclusion by my fellow Protestant Christians. I was very lost and depressed my first semester of college. I fit in fine academically, but this quiet, shy, religiously minded, intellectual, only child from Waterville, Maine had some trouble finding her place in the social world of college life. I quickly joined my local Episcopal church, but there were few other college students there. I found adult support, which was good, but I needed friends my own age. I discovered that there was an ecumenical Christian fellowship on campus called Dickson Christian Fellowship run by an organization called Intervarsity. I had never heard of Intervarsity before, but it sounded good to me. So, I began attending their meetings. I was assigned to a Bible Study group and was feeling greatly relieved. Maybe I would find a group of friends.
I showed up to my first Bible study and I felt like I fit in, at least for a few minutes. The social time at the beginning was nice. I liked the people I was with. It felt comfortable. Our group leader came in and asked us each to briefly introduce ourselves with our name, our year, where we came from, and what church we belonged to (if we did indeed belong to a church). When we reached my place in the circle, I gave them my answers which of course included that I go to the Episcopal Church in town, St. John’s. I noticed immediately that a couple of the members of my group stiffened when I said this, but I didn’t know why. I had no knowledge that the more conservative of our Christian siblings do not consider Episcopalians to be Christian. I didn’t know what to do with their response, so I ignored it. I would come to find out exactly what they thought as the weeks went on.
I happily continued to attend the Bible study, though I found that I didn’t agree with many of my fellow group members’ interpretations of the passages we were studying, and being the good Episcopalian that I was I would voice my opinion, after all I had always been taught that using my God-given mind was part and parcel of faithfully following Jesus. I didn’t have the expectation that others in the group would agree with me, but I did expect that they would listen and respect my views as I listened to and respected their views. I was wrong.
One evening after our meeting, two of the members of the group and the leader asked if I would stay behind to meet with them. I agreed but was perplexed. We sat down together in a comfortable lounge area and they got quickly to the point. The group leader asked me if I had been saved and if I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was really confused now. This was language that I was unfamiliar with. I think I stammered, “I was baptized as a baby and I have always gone to church.” The group leader said, “That’s nice, but have you said the sinner’s prayer and proclaimed Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” I think I responded with, “I say the confession every week in church, so I guess so and I follow Jesus.” One of the other of the three said, “That doesn’t make you a Christian. You need to say the sinner’s prayer. You need to be born again. Then you can be baptized. And you need to believe the right things. You don’t believe the right things. You are not a Christian.” Needless to say, I was angry, shocked, and very, very sad. I walked away from that group never to return again. I had once again been excluded by the very people I expected to include me.
I tell you all this to explain why when I did begin to come into close personal contact with people of other faiths that it felt wrong from the very center of my being to see their faith as less than mine. But I still didn’t know what to do with passages like John 14:6. The traditional interpretation of this passage means that if you are not Christian, if you do not follow Christ, you will go to hell, rattled around in my brain and caused me pain and confusion. I dealt with this cognitive dissonance as most Episcopalians do, I simply ignored the passage.
But I’ve come to see in my more mature years, that this is not the best way to deal with passages such as these. What we need to do instead is to face these passages head on, dig deeper and see if what has been said about them through the years is really what these passages are saying. When we do this, we will discover something new, we will be freed from the fences and walls we have created with these passages over the millennia, and we will become better followers of Christ. And we must begin by putting such a passage in context.
John 14:6 does not live in isolation. It is part of a larger scene of fear and impending loss. Jesus and his friends are gathered for supper, Jesus’ last supper. The topic of conversation was heavy and dark—Jesus’ impending and imminent arrest, his almost certain death, and the very real possibility that the people sitting around the table with him would be the next to be arrested and to die, because they had thrown their lot in with Jesus. They had chosen his way, his truth, and his life. They were confused. They were angry. They were scared. Jesus is speaking to them, to his followers. He is not speaking to people who do not know him. He is not speaking to people who do not already follow him. They are not having a theological discussion about the eschatological fate of Hindus and Buddhists. Jesus is seeking to reassure very frightened people who follow him.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In 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? 3And 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.
And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:1-7)
You will be ok. Everything will be ok. Just keep following me. Don’t stray from the path you have joined. It will lead you to a good place. I promise you this. You can trust me in spite of everything that is going to happen over the next few days. You can trust me. And what is this way that you are following? It is me. It is what I have done right before your eyes. It is loving God, loving each other and loving your neighbor. It is as simple as that. Keep following that way and you will do more amazing things than I have ever done. Love each other, love God and love your neighbor. Love each other. Love God. And love your neighbor. And when people ask you why you are doing these things, tell them it is because Jesus told you so and for you Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.
This passage isn’t for those who don’t follow Christ. It is not an exclusionary passage. It is a passage to encourage, comfort, and teach those who do follow the way of Christ. It is for those of us who are following the way of Jesus. And the way of Jesus is love—love of God, love of neighbor, and love for our fellow followers of Jesus, end of story.
None of the times I have experienced exclusion have I felt loved, even though those excluding me thought they were showing me love, a “tough love” that they felt I needed to hear so I wouldn’t go to hell. And I am convinced that if my interpretation of a passage from Scripture leads me to an action that makes another person feel unloved then my interpretation is wrong and I am not following the way of Jesus.
But this is scary because this is to remove myself and my faith from the center of the world. It feels much safer to believe that my faith trumps all other faiths. That way I can feel assured that I will be taken care of because I know the exact rules that will lead me to God. But you see, God is bigger than all our rules and all our words. God is bigger than anything we can imagine. And as far as I can tell from looking at the world around me, God loves and is diversity. So why wouldn’t God reveal Godself in many and diverse ways? If humanity and all of creation contain infinite diversity, then why wouldn’t the ways we come to know God be infinitely diverse too? Perhaps we need this great diversity to understand that God cannot be contained. God cannot be defined. God cannot be limited. God cannot be put into a box.
And we also need particularity, and God knows this. We human beings are not good at the unlimited and infinite. Our tiny brains become overwhelmed and overburdened. We learn best through particularity and concreteness. And so, God comes to us in particular paths according to the culture in which we are born. And we need to follow a particular path if we are going to keep moving in the direction of the Divine. If we choose to follow no religious path we can wander around aimlessly and follow many paths that lead us anywhere but the divine. But these religious paths are very different from one another and lead to different outcomes, because we are very different from one another and difference and diversity are good things, are God-given things. But what we do hold in common is that all these different ways to and understandings of the ultimate are all attempts to lessen suffering in the world and to create a world that is good for the creatures of the world, even if we don’t all agree on how to get there. They are all attempts to understand the ultimate. They are all revelations of the infinitely diverse divine.
So, we who follow Christ, can enthusiastically embrace that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that in a unique and special way he shows us exactly what the Father is like in a way that nobody else ever has. We can follow this way and love God, each other and our neighbor with all our heart, mind soul and strength. And we can believe that people of other faiths, including our fellow Christians who see the world differently than we do, also possess the truth, also are possessors of divine revelation. And we can learn from them, because they too know something of the divine, something unique and special that also needs to be revealed to the world about the ultimate, the divine. And in learning from them we can come to better understand what it means to follow the way of Jesus, our way, our truth, and our life.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In 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? 3And 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. John 14:1-3