As I’ve hinted at previously, I am doing CPE at a home for the elderly, serving in the capacity as Chaplain Intern. The Chaplain Interns take turns creating the morning chapel services, and last week, I attempted something very ambitious for a non-fundamentalist Christian: I decided to preach on John 14:1-7.
“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 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.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”
What follows is my reflection on this text (delivered 7/7/08).
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
As a Christian who is also a religious pluralist, that is, one who believes in more ways to God than simply rote Christianity, I’ve always preferred that this passage weren’t in the Bible. It seems so…exclusive. Evangelical. Frankly, a little unlike the Jesus I’d prefer to know. In no uncertain terms, this Jesus declares himself to be the exclusive gatekeeper: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” – and he’s not speaking metaphorically here. If I read the Gospel of John at face value, it seems fairly clear to me that Jesus is saying, unequivocally, that the Father is off-limits for those who don’t know Jesus. Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, too bad, so sad. Wow.
Well, so much for my pluralist theology. How can I possibly square this idea of inclusion with such direct, specific, exclusive language: the way, the truth, the life, no one, except through me.
I tried to make it all work, believe me, I tried. First, I investigated the possibility that something got lost in translation. Maybe I’d find the balance I was looking for if I got even more literal and looked at the Greek, word for word? Yeah, no. It turns out, those translators actually know a thing or two about their craft, and even with my one entire year of seminary training, I found nothing to dispute.
Next, I tried dismissing John as having an agenda that caused him to put words in Jesus’ mouth that Jesus probably didn’t say. Now this theory actually has some scholarly support; it is indeed worth noting how different John’s Gospel is from all of the earlier ones. I would not be the first person to suggest that John made some things up to suit his theological purposes. Still, some of my favorite Jesus stories also occur only in John. Must I throw those out too?
To make a long story short, I’ve wrestled with this passage for quite some time, and didn’t particularly want to use it for today’s morning chapel, though I felt strangely compelled to do so. And then, after yet another weekend of trying unsuccessfully to make this passage fit, it finally occurred to me to try and let Jesus, as portrayed by John, have his own say.
All of Jesus’ words here are in response to a great amount of fear expressed by his disciples. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them right off the bat. (Their hearts are troubled, by the way, because he had just previously predicted his death at the hands of the state, and also Peter’s denial of him.) The disciples are scared on behalf of their beloved Lord, and for their own lives in an increasingly hostile environment. Not knowing which way to turn in their fear, they ask Jesus – which way is God? And Jesus answered: I am the way, the truth and the life. And he ups the ante: No one comes to the Father except through me.
It comes down to this: in their moment of fear, Jesus is first and foremost bestowing grace upon his disciples, letting them know that they are on the right path. Furthermore, he asserts, we Christians cannot cannot come to the Father – a highly specific manifestation of God – except through knowing the Son. We cannot understand God to be the Father if we do not also understand Jesus to be the Son.
This is an affirmation of ourselves, much more than it is a condemnation of others.
It is worth considering that if Jesus is the way, then what is not the way? Who, or what, is being excluded here?
To Jesus and his followers, it was clear that the way of the tyrannical governmental powers, married to the religious elite, was not the path to God the Father. Even though the forces of the state were powerful enough to ultimately kill the very Son of God, Jesus, through God, had the ultimate power to triumph even over death, in his resurrection. Knowing this, let us proclaim: Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life. He is the gatekeeper to God the Father, to the exclusion of the powers and paths of death and destruction.
This is a wondrous gift of love, from Jesus to his followers. Let us accept this gift.