a sermon on John 14:1-14
preached on May 18, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The church I was baptized in had a very formal sanctuary, with a large traditional chancel area, big, high windows with clear glass to let in lots of light, and a beautiful stained glass window in the front of the sanctuary, all matched with a very simple, maybe even bland, color scheme that was designed to keep the congregation’s focus on God. Below the stained glass window, were some words that were probably among the first words I could ever read
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
These nine simple words of Jesus stand at the center of our reading from the gospel of John this morning, but their impact has been felt well beyond these fourteen verses. For centuries, some Christians have used these words and a few other passages of scripture to support a claim that one way of religious belief is superior to all others. In our day and age, and especially in this city, we are surrounded by so many different varieties of religious practice and spiritual experience that do not line up well with the immediate appearance of these words. The standard practice for Christians in such moments has been to boldly and brashly proclaim the gospel, insisting that all other ways must be set aside so as to follow this way, this truth, and this life, and that those who do not do so stand in eternal judgment.
But nowadays, that approach doesn’t work very well. When was the last time you saw the bold and brash proclamation offered by an angry street preacher actually convince someone to take up Christianity? Does it really work in our world to attack the beliefs and practices of other religions in hopes that their followers might take up our own? Some people insist that we must maintain this kind of exclusivist proclamation, standing firm on these words of Jesus to the absolute exclusion of everyone who does not fully embrace them as their own. But it might be worth thinking about them a little differently. It might be worth wondering if God might just work in ways unknown, through other religious and spiritual paths to show God’s love—the way, the truth, and the life in Christ—to the whole world. So what is the most effective way to live out and proclaim this gospel message of the way, the truth, and the life in this time and place where we see so many different varieties of belief and practice?
I for one think our focus on these words of Jesus turns far too quickly to others. We easily give in to the temptation to use these words to sort out the salvation of others before we think carefully about what they might be saying to us. I think there may be more going on in these nine words for us than we might first expect. They might be less a statement of required belief and instead an affirmation of faith and confidence in God’s love that matters first and foremost for our own lives.
If we zoom out a little from them and put them in their immediate context, this view becomes a little clearer. Jesus didn’t start out this discussion with his disciples trying to convince them of any sort of theological point—he was simply trying to prepare them for the time when he would not be physically and personally present with them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. All that follows these opening words, even those nine simple words painted on the wall of my childhood church that have so often been used to exclude people from the fullness of God’s love, is a part of Jesus trying to offer the disciples some comfort and hope for the time when he would no longer be with them. His call to belief, his promise of going to prepare a place for them, and his assurance to them that they know the way to get there are all at their core a statement of his care and concern for their life and faith when he is no longer with them.
Then, when the disciples start asking questions that show their discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety, he keeps assuring them that they have all that they need. They have the way, the truth, and the life in him. They don’t need to worry about how to find their way to God or how they will know God, because they know God in him. They have nothing less than God’s own words offered in his life. And in their relationship with him they have a relationship with God that is beyond compare.
So maybe we have to take a different look at these words from John’s gospel. Instead of using them to condemn others, maybe we should hear them calling us to deeper confidence about how God is working among us. Instead of using them to exclude those who have different varieties of religious belief and practice, maybe we should consider them as offering us hope that God will work for the wholeness and restoration of all creation—and even us, too. And instead of using them solely to build up one way of understanding of how God works in our world, maybe we should use them as the basis for sharing the joy of how we see God working in us and through us even as we listen for how God is working in and through others, too.
When we hear Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” we are called to deepen our relationship with God in Christ, to examine our lives for places where we have allowed something else to be the way, to commit ourselves anew to discovering the truth that comes from the one Word of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, to look for our own life in nothing less and nothing more than the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. And when we relate to those of other spiritual traditions—and even those of our own tradition who might disagree with us!—we are called to tell the stories of how this way, this truth, and this life has been lived out in our relationships with God, not so much so that they might change their spiritualities and practices to match ours but so that together we all might gain greater insight into how God is working to shine light into our weary world and so make it just a little brighter for everyone.
I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ. . . .
[God] is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.
When we listen to the stories of others, whether it be the testimony of another faithful Christian, a devout Muslim who pauses to pray five times a day, a practicing Jew who finds delight in Torah observance, keeping Kosher, and pausing obediently for the Sabbath, a Buddhist spiritual teacher who has found great inner peace, a scientist who inquires into the mysteries of our created world, or even one who does not practice a particular religion but who tries to live with a moral and ethical center, in all these stories we can gain a better understanding of how God is at work in our world making all things new. In our listening and living with people in this way, we do not deny the words of Jesus so much as we honor them all the more as we recognize that God’s ways are not our ways, that our understanding of truth cannot encompass the whole of God’s truth, and that God’s promise of life cannot be restricted by our human limitations.
So may we follow this way, this truth, and this life, this man who challenged us to follow his way that led to the cross, this divine one who offered us a glimpse of God’s truth in all that he said and did, this Lord who makes it clear that all life is being made new, so that all we say and all we do show this way, this truth, and this life each and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.