Sunday, May 10, 2020
Jesus is my way, my truth and my life.
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
This passage is probably the most popular one to use at funerals. I asked the Tuesday morning Bible Study (which by the way you can always join on Zoom) why they thought this was. As I expected almost all of them brought up the image of the mansion. People love the image of the mansion and the place in heaven waiting for them. I often make a reference to the deceased as redecorating or some other way of preparing the room for the rest of the family. It really doesn’t matter whether the deceased is male of female. Although on this Mother’s Day the analogy of mom getting our room ready does work!
However, I get heartburn sometimes when this is picked. Why you may ask? Well it is when we get to the no one comes to the Father except through me part. Many funerals are full of people who may not darken the door of a church or may be from another faith, especially in an area like Houston which has so many nationalities and cultures. Stop for a moment and think about how this sounds to a grieving person who may not be Christian or a member of a church. We’re glad you’re here to celebrate this person’s life and by the way we believe since you are not Christian you’re going to hell.
I did a funeral several years ago and many in the gathered group had left the church long ago, were maybe nominal members and some were Jewish. The woman who had died was a friend of one of my parishioners who had asked me to visit her towards the end. She was a delightful woman and had I met her earlier I think I might have got her back to church. She had wandered away disillusioned by the way most Christians seemed to behave towards others. Sadly, a common theme in today’s world.
The husband selected this passage for the reason of the mansion and it was very appropriate for this woman. However, he gave no thought to how an exclusive reading of verse 6 would impact the others gathered to mourn her passage and insisted that the full passage be read. Most of them guests, like the deceased had given up on the church in fact the funeral was in their back garden by the beach not at church. This left me with a real challenge.
At another time, I remember sitting with the associate rector at St. Paul’s in Cleveland Hts. and a woman whose husband had just died. She was deep in her grief and part of her anguish was that someone had said to her, “This must be so hard for you. At least I know that when I die I will see my husband in heaven, but to know that you will never see your husband again since he is not a believer and in hell must be terrible.” Now that has to top my list of things NOT to say to someone who is grieving.
I could go on and on with story after story of how this and other passages have been used to beat people into submission. Of course this rarely, no it never works. More often the person walks out the door completely disillusioned with the church and often with God never to return. Think for a moment about all the people who know who have given up on us.
Now I am in good company when I raise this issue. Some of the great theologians have been wrestling with this for years even though I will admit that universal salvation as it is known is still a bit of a minority report and some of you will disagree with this view and that’s fine, you are in some pretty good company.
I believe there are many ways to get a room in the mansion and we do not have an exclusive hold on heaven. Several years ago the Most Rev. Desmond Tutu addressed a group in Pittsburgh and said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. He asked the gathering, “ My dear friends, will someone please tell me at what point did God become exclusively Christian?” If you take nothing else away from this morning, ponder Bishop Tutu’s question.
So how do people like the Presiding Bishop, Desmond Tutu, the writers of all the commentaries that I have on my shelf and myself read this passage in John and come to an inclusive interpretation? First of all my image of God, is a God of love that goes beyond anything we can understand. I would much rather explain to God when my time is over that I preached an all inclusive love rather than a message of too little love. So with that said, I would like to propose another way to look at this passage and we must look at the entire passage not just one verse.
These verses are a high point in the Christology of the writer of the fourth gospel. Notice I do not say that it is Jesus’ high point, but the writer’s. As we have talked about in other classes and sermons, every gospel writer tells the story with a unique spin. In studying this passage we must understand this spin. For the writer of John, Jesus is a unique revelation of his community’s relationship to the Father.
A large amount of our theology of the Trinity comes from John and the writer is developing the relationship of the Father and the Son in this passage. Notice that Jesus does not say no one comes to God except through me. Jesus is teaching us about the unique revelation of God that is contained in both his person and the first person of the Trinity, the Father. The gospel writer is carving out a unique place for his community that has been thrown out of the synagogues by the Council of Jamnia. He in effect is saying to all others that we have a unique access to the Father through Christ. He does not say that nobody else has access to God. He is saying that they have a unique and, in his opinion, superior way to God.
The word “way” is critical and holds the principle place in this argument. The image of a path or way to God was common to all religions at that time. This is a statement from a small struggling minority religion, not the triumphal statement of a major world religion. The context of John’s community is totally different than ours. Reading this passage in our context of a majority religion turns these verses into a weapon to bludgeon others. I cannot think of anywhere in scripture where Jesus does not act out of love and concern for others. Frustration and anger, we certainly see, but hatred and exclusion are not part of the teachings or actions of Jesus. Remember earlier in John, Jesus has said that I have other sheep, that you do not know about. The more critical error is that we tend to skip the end part. Believe in me and you will do things greater than I. Do things greater than Jesus? Now that should make us a little nervous.
The real point of this passage for John is that Jesus is not only the way to the Father, but also the way to Christian discipleship and this is the far more important message. Jesus is leading up to a huge call to mission in the end of this passage, the part we tend to not read, mark and inwardly digest.
This passage is about the fact that we have a way to the Father that is unique to us. For me Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life because I believe in Christ as my Lord and savior. Jesus is the way for me to a deeper relationship with God the Father. This relationship though is a demanding one and requires that we all seek and serve Christ in all people. This relationship is where our Baptismal promises come from. This relationship is what it means to be a Christian. This is the point that John is making and it is far more challenging than sitting back and saying, thank God I’m saved and have my reservation at the heavenly hotel. Salvation is a piece of this, but the mission of Christ’s expectation that we will be able to do even more than he, that is the point of the relationship that this passage is all about. This is all about what we do here and now, not just about what happens at the end of our lives. Salvation is here and now, not later and that’s the most important point.
The question is not if you get your room, but will you lead a life where there is no doubt that you will. Lead a life that says, I am a follower of the way, Jesus, the Messiah. Live a life that if arrested and charged like Stephen in the early church with being a follower of Jesus, there would be no doubt that you could be convicted.
So yes for me Jesus is my way, my truth, my life and my way to the Father. How about you?