~ John 14:1-14 ~
I call it one of the “clobber” verses. These are verses that those who adhere to a narrow, exclusive view of Christianity pull out to hit you over the head with if you dare question their perspective. These are verses that are so obviously true, they believe, that the discussion is over. Nothing else need be said.
Well, the be all and end all of these “clobber” verses is the one we encounter today in our reading from John. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except through me.” Conservative Christians interpret this saying in an exclusive way. They claim that this is a concrete truth statement that means if you don’t believe in Jesus, and Jesus only, you are going to hell, because there is no other way to God. It’s quite obvious, they say. An absolute statement for all time and all peoples. Belief in Jesus is the only way to God, to salvation, to get to heaven and avoid hell. Therefore all other religions are not just false, but completely false. Only Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. All other paths end up in, well, hell.
There is more. They would say that the only way to experience salvation is by giving intellectual assent to certain specific truth claims about the life of Jesus. No, scratch that, they don’t really care that much about the life of Jesus as, for instance, a guide for living. Their focus is primarily on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The message boils down to this: Unless you believe that Jesus died for your sins and that he physically rose from the grave, you are a heretic, and will go to hell when you die.
All of this is couched in a very specific kind of religious experience. In this exclusive version of Christianity, the experience of salvation is that moment when you pray to ask Jesus into your heart to become your personal savior. Included in the prayer is to ask that your sins be forgiven. This is often called “the born again” experience. It is the moment of conversion that makes you a child of God. Interestingly, “asking Jesus into your heart as your personal savior” is not found in the bible. It is just the way that this tradition as come to describe this encounter with Jesus. And, it goes without saying, in this moment of salvation you are no longer headed to hell but are going to heaven, which is the whole point. In this belief system this is the only way to God: to pray for Jesus to come into your heart because, Jesus is the only way, truth and life. No one comes to God any other way. You have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven. This is true for everyone in the world, even if they have not heard of Jesus let alone have an opportunity to believe in him. Which is why the job of every “born again” believer is to get others to pray the same prayer. Which explains a lot of missionary efforts over the past two hundred years.
Because of all this, many of us who are of the liberal/progressive Christian persuasion are likely to run away from this verse. Those of us who are inclusive and open and appreciative of other faiths would just like to not deal with it; maybe explain it away, such as “Jesus probably never actually said that” way of dealing with it. At best, we are likely to tear our hair out when reading it. We conclude that Evangelicals have owned this verse to such a degree that there is no way we open and inclusive Christians can take it back, can reclaim it.
Well, this morning I’d like to embark on a reclamation project. I want to reclaim these words. Whether we believe Jesus actually said them or not, there is significant truth in them. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” We, we here in this place who espouse an inclusive and open faith, can claim these words as our own, despite their history of exclusivity and narrowness. Let me make my case.
First of all, whenever this verse is used to claim that belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the only way to get to heaven, it is being taken completely out of context. It has been ripped out of the surrounding verses to say something not intended. It is not about how to get to heaven. It is about how to live this side of heaven. It is about how to walk the same path Jesus did.
When Jesus said he is the way, the truth, and the life, he wasn’t answering a question about whether Buddhists and Hindus go to hell. He was answering a question asked by one of his disciples, Thomas: “Jesus, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, not a flaming liberal by any means, says this: “Very often people have come to the New Testament with the presumption that ‘going to heaven when you die’ is the implicit point of it all… They acquire that viewpoint from somewhere, but not from the New Testament.” People who insert an “afterlife insurance” kind of gospel into John 14, turn ‘coming to God’ into ‘going to heaven’. That isn’t what Jesus is saying. To understand what Jesus means we must look at the entire context of this passage.
Jesus is having a conversation with his disciples. He begins with a fairly familiar line: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In God’s house there are many dwelling places.” If you are familiar with those words you might very well be thinking, “Isn’t Jesus describing heaven?” That’s probably because the King James Version doesn’t say “dwelling places,” it says, “mansions.” That does sound like heaven, doesn’t it? Gospel songs drive the point home, like –
I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop,
in that bright land where we’ll never grow old,
and someday yonder we will never more wander,
but walk the streets that are purest gold.
Jesus, however, is not speaking of mansions in heaven, but room in God’s heart. With God, there is a lot of room for lots of people. Which should immediately raise a red flag to the notion that Jesus is talking about excluding people from heaven. If Jesus wanted to be exclusive, he could have said, “There are very few rooms in God’s house. So, be sure you get it right!” But Jesus wasn’t describing the scarcity of God’s generosity. Rather, Jesus revealed the abundance of God’s generous, all-inclusive love. Thus, an exclusive interpretation of Jesus’ statement that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” fails to account for the abundance of God Jesus is talking about. There are many rooms in God’s house.
This passage from John 14 is part of a larger narrative often called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” As he is saying goodbye to his disciples, Jesus’ answer to Thomas’s question is key. Jesus is saying goodbye to the disciples because he knows where the way, and the truth, and the life are leading him. He knows they are leading him to the cross. Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life in a very particular way. It’s the way and truth and life of nonviolent love. In saying goodbye to them, he was preparing them for his death. Jesus says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Where was Jesus going? He was going to the cross. He was going to become the victim of human violence. Instead of responding to violence with violence, Jesus did something different. He revealed that the way, the truth, and the life responds to those who would kill him with all-inclusive love, compassion and forgiveness.
Jesus then says a startling thing: “If you know me, you will know God also. From now on you do know God and have seen God.” It’s so startling that Phillip asks for clarification, “Jesus, show us God, and we will be satisfied.” And in a nutshell, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen God.”
So, if we know what Jesus is like we will know what God is like. If Jesus is the all-inclusive, compassionate, loving, nonviolent person they see before them, then the disciples can be assured that God is also an all-inclusive, compassionate, loving, nonviolent God.
Marcus Borg (if you haven’t figured it out yet, he is one of my favorite theologians) in his book, Speaking Christian, asks the question about what did the Gospel of John’s original readers in the 1st century understand Jesus’ words to mean. This is what he says:
These words testify to the experience of Jesus’ followers. They had experienced salvation – liberation, deliverance, healing and wholeness, return from exile, light in the darkness, new creation, being born again – through Jesus. From this experience came the exclamation “He is the way!”
I admit that over the centuries Christians have taken that exclamation and turned it into an entrance test for heaven. That if you want to go to heaven you must know about and believe in Jesus. Moreover, it means that in order to be saved you must know and believe the right language, namely Christian language. As Marcus puts it, “This virtually amounts to salvation by words – by believing the right words instead of other words.
It does not have to be that way. Indeed, I say that we inclusive, progressive Christians need to reclaim these words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It is a truth claim, a truth claim that reveals the nonviolent and all-inclusive love of God that embraces everyone, even those we call our enemies.
What we see in Jesus is what we see in God. This is an incarnational Gospel – Jesus embodies what can be seen of God in a human life. What we (and by “we” I mean we who live and move within the Christian tradition) are saying is that, for us, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In Jesus we see a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress the world, a life centered on a God who loves all of humankind with a generous and gracious heart.
Jesus concludes his farewell to the disciples with these words: “Believe me that I am in God and God is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 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, because I am going to God.” Jesus exhorts his disciples to live the life he lived.
Can adherents of other religions know the way, the truth and the life apart from Jesus? Yes, I believe so, in so much as they too embrace the way of nonviolent love and inclusion. All the enduring religions of the world embrace this ethic to one degree or another. For us who are Christian, we see the way, the truth and the life in the person of Jesus. He is our way, our truth and our life. Amen.