Sunday, May 7, 2023
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
MANY WAYS TO GOD
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77450
For me to be absolutely honest with you, I have a love hate relationship with today’s gospel. The love part is all about the message of hope and God’s love that permeate this passage. The part of this gospel that I struggle with is less about what the words say as how they are used by some segments in the church. What I would like to do this morning is look at how one verse in this passage has been weaponized and used as a battle cry of Christian supremacy. Used as what I call a clobber verse. In this passage it is verse 6 that gets taken out of context. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I have had so many conversations with people who have had the bible used on them as a weapon, sometimes without the person realizes just how hurtful what they have said is to the person hearing these words of hope and love as words of exclusion and to be honest, damnation!
I will give you two examples. The first I witnessed at my home parish before seminary. I remember sitting with the associate rector at St. Paul’s and a woman whose Jewish husband had just died. I had seen her crying in the side chapel of the church and went to go get the associate for pastoral care because I was worried about her. She was deep in her grief. What stunned me was that while in her anguish someone a member of the parish had said to her, after the service had ended “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.” I was dumbfounded and was glad the priest was there for a didn’t know what to say. We both hugged her and the priest assured her that her husband was in heaven, that God doesn’t exclude other religions from heaven.
The second was told to me by a classmate who was caring for an AIDS patient as a chaplain during the time she was discerning her call to the priesthood. The young man was now in the last stages of the disease. The family had been called in to say goodbye. As they were leaving, his sister stopped and came back. Took his hand looked into his eyes and said, “I am so sorry this has happened. I am sorry this is the last time I’ll see you because I know you’ve turned your back on the Lord and will be in hell when you die.” Fortunately the chaplain took his hand and assured him that he was not going to hell and that God loved him just the way he was. That by the way was the first time she had touched an AIDS patent because she was struggling with her own views on gays and AIDS. This was a turning point for her and she spent a good time of the rest of her time as a chaplain at the hospital specifically seeking out and caring for the AIDS patients.
What horrible things to say, but that is in effect what people are saying when they take the stand that only baptized Christians are saved. Or even worse just those who believe like their particular denomination are saved. This is what I mean by weaponizing the bible even in an effort to “console” someone.
There are a couple problems here the first is the word saved. Salvation is so much more that getting your halo, harp and wings when you die. Salvation is more about right relationship with the Father now than a destination after we die! That is why Jesus spends so many more verses talking about his relationship with the Father and how our relationship with Jesus puts us in right relationship with the Father. The ticket to heaven is just a nice side benefit as far as I’m concerned.
You see the problem here is that these people have taken one sentence out of a long discourse. Our passage from today is part of the final discourse of John that goes on for 4 chapters. This is the longest single section in John’s gospel and outside chapter 1 prologue is the most important section that sets the stage for what we would later define as the Trinity. When you look at all of this section you see a theology that is anything but exclusionary.
Now I am in good company when I raise this issue. Our Presiding Bishop as did his predecessor regularly take criticism for raising the issue that there are many ways to know God. I wonder what the response is to the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Charles III who included representatives of a wide variety of faiths, not all of them Christian. I found it refreshing. I don’t think the Archbishop would tell those other faith leaders that there is no place for them in heaven.
There are many ways to get a room in the mansion and we do not have a lock on that way. Several years ago the Most Rev. Desmond Tutu addressed a group in Pittsburgh. He asked the gathering to “Please tell him at what point did God become exclusively Christian?” That is a very good 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? I would like to propose another way to look at this passage and we must look at the entire passage not just one verse.
A large amount of our theology of the Trinity comes from John and the writer is truly 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 principal 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 us 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 to bad for everyone else. Salvation is a piece of this, but the mission is 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. Belief is not the goal, but the start along the path to truly being a disciple of our risen Lord.