By Dr. Mark Poindexter
I am sharing with you a sermon that I recently preached at my congregation. The text is John 14:1-14. The particular focus of this sermon are the words found in the sixth verse, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” In our pluralistic world, these words are often understood to be problematic. I challenge the interpretation that creates this problem by seeking to understand these words in their context. They are part of what is known in John as the “Farewell Discourse.” In that context, these words were never intended to be a polemic against others, but a way to understand God’s presence in Jesus.
On the day it was preached, at the communion table even before worship was over, I was met by a church member who said that over the past several years she has been able to make the movement in her own faith that this sermon describes. It was very touching as her pastor to hear her say that. Several weeks have passed since this sermon, and I have had other conversations with other members about it. For some of those folks, it has been as if a theological weight has been lifted off of them. For that I am grateful. Maybe you can find something useful for yourself in these words.
"No One Comes To The Father Except Through Me: What Does That Mean?"
The opening words of our reading are some of the most beautiful in all of scripture, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, . . .” They are often read at times when we are indeed troubled. When we have suffered a loss and our hearts are heavy with grief. Maybe some of the comfort in these words comes not just from who says them, our Lord Jesus, but when he says them. This is the night when Jesus stands at the edge of his own grave. It’s Thursday night. Tomorrow is Friday. The day of his crucifixion. So when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” we know that this word of assurance comes from someone who is not unfamiliar with the most difficult parts of our journey.
Now, because we most often encounter the words of the 14th chapter of John as words of comfort, we are able to avoid the theological quagmire that is present in other places in these verses. Like when Jesus says that those who believe in him will do even greater works than he has done. I mean, just a little earlier Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He was in the tomb three days and Jesus gave him back his life. Before that, Jesus had fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish. Before that, he had turned 180 gallons of water into the best wine imaginable. Now I believe the church does a lot of good in this world and that’s what we are called to do, but what does it mean that we will be doing greater works than Jesus? His works are pretty high up on the ladder in my mind. Are we supposed to be miracle workers in the same way Jesus was or do we redefine what his words actually meant?
Then there are those last couple of verses that can cause a lot of trouble. “I will do whatever you ask in my name, . . . If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Listen friends, in our westernized version of Christianity, with our consumerized culture and our service-oriented mentality, there may be no more problematic words than these. There is a brand of Christianity out there, you can find it without much problem, one that has turned Jesus into a divine maître de. Just standing ready to do what whatever you ask. Name it and claim it. Claim it in his name, of course, and unless your faith is weak, it will happen. You come across that brand of Christianity and it won’t be too long before you hear these words from this chapter of John, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” There are some sticky situations in this 14th chapter of John that are often glazed over because of how we most often hear the words from this chapter.
Then there are those words that occur earlier. Words that are closer in proximity to the words of comfort. Thomas asked Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It is the last words – “No one comes to the Father except through me” that create a matter that we have to deal with – thoughtfully, honestly and in a straightforward manner. Because in our increasingly small and pluralistic world these words can seem embarrassingly exclusionary and narrow minded.
Back in my first congregation in Dublin, Georgia – a town in which on St. Patrick's Day the local country club sponsored a “Green Grits Breakfast” (all the food was dyed green, not just the grits – the eggs, the ham, the pancakes, everything was green – even the orange juice was green); well, back in Dublin we welcomed a family into our congregation, the St. John’s, who came to us because they had heard someone in the church they had been attending say, “Isn’t it a shame that in this community of 25,000 people there are only ninety of us who are Christians.” Meaning, of course, the ninety people who were members of that particular church, who had their particular practices, traditions, and understandings. Those ninety were somehow the sole possessors of a pure and unadulterated Christian faith. That is quite a bombastic and arrogant claim isn’t it? One that pretty much thumbs its nose at those of us who claim to be Christians but understand things in a different way. The St. John’s did not want to be part of that type of church and I don’t either.
I do wonder, however, if the way we often use these words of Jesus about being the only way to the Father often comes across to others outside of the church with that same sense of bombastic arrogance – “We’ve got the truth and you don’t!” We have to ask, were these words originally intended to be a polemic against others? Because too often that’s the way they are used. I’ve encountered it numerous time. I have seen some of my colleagues paralyzed by these words. They set in an interview with an ordination council or a church search committee and somebody who wants to defend the faith and make certain that the new minister is doctrinally orthodox, asks “Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven?” A question which when asked that way means this beautiful Christian faith has been reduced to a prize we get at the end IF we get our ticket punched properly.
In the New Interpreter’s Bible we find this commentary about these words of Jesus:
We have turned them into a weapon with which to bludgeon one’s opponents into theological submission. A litmus taste for the Christian faith in a myriad of conversations and debates within the church. Church triumphalism, proof positive that Christians have a corner on God, and everybody else is completely and utterly lost. (Vol. 9, p. 743).
Now let me ask, in the midst of these beautiful words of comfort and hope that have brought such peace and assurance to countless people through the centuries, does Jesus then turn on a dime and offer a word of eternal damnation on people who aren’t part of the church as we come to know the church. Is that what this is? Because I’m afraid that is often what we have made it.
A few things to say about this. First, don’t ever forget when these words are spoken. In John it is known as the “Farewell Discourse.” In all of John 14, 15, 16, and 17, Jesus is speaking to the disciples or praying in their midst. Then with chapter 18 comes the betrayal and arrest. These are some of Jesus’ last words before his passion. Some of his last words before the betrayal, the denial, the beating, the mocking, the desertion, his crucifixion and his death. He is emphasizing to his disciples that this path he is on, a path in which he does not respond with vengeance to the evil he encounters, a path of self-sacrificing love, a difficult path of grace and forgiveness, that this path is indeed the path to God. That this journey is the way. This journey is truth. This journey even through death is where true freedom and life is to be found.
The words Jesus says here about being the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him, spoken on this night before his crucifixion, are John’s version of what we find in the other gospels when Jesus says to his disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands and undergo great suffering and be killed.” And the scriptures read that the disciples did not understand what he was saying.
Jesus is trying to tell his disciples that in all that is about to happen to him, God is present with him and in him. These words spoken on that night before his death we’re not spoken by Jesus to give the church through the centuries a line in the sand to determine who is in and who is out. They are words that are to help the disciples understand that in all he was about to experience and they were about to witness – God was not absent. God was present in the very midst of it all, consuming into the divine heart all the betrayal and cruelty and evil that could be thrown at it and yet continuing to love. These words are ultimately about the character of the God we claim to believe in and is present with us in Jesus. And shame on the church, shame on us when we have turned these words of our Lord Jesus, who loves this world and gave his life for this world, shame on us when we have used them to bludgeon others.
We should also remember that Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life – not the doctrines of the church. The theologian Paul Tillich in his sermon “The Truth Will Make You Free” writes it this way:
The church, very early forgot the word of our gospel that he is the truth, and claimed that our doctrines about him are the truth. But these doctrines, however necessary and good they are, proved not to be the truth that liberates. Soon they became tools of suppression, of servitude under authorities; they became the means by which to prevent the honest search for truth – weapons to split the souls of people between loyalty to the church and sincerity to the truth. (“Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching” Vol. 10, p. 71)
I remember a few years back meeting with a group of pastors who started getting together because we were concerned about some things happening in the larger church. I think some of our concerns were legitimate and we met over a course of a few months. I remember how uncomfortable I got, however, when one of the pastors said, “You know it may not be enough any longer in Disciples churches for people simply to express faith in Christ. We need to know what they mean by that. We need to have it clearly defined exactly what folks believe. We need ourselves to line up with the historic orthodox beliefs of the church.” He said that as if there is one completely pure, unadulterated faith that is out there for us to get in line with. That statement by that pastor made me so uncomfortable that I quit attending the group. I knew if that pastor started drawing lines about who was in and who was out based on how they explained their beliefs, he was very likely to draw the line in a way that would not include me.
Presbyterian Minister and author Fredrick Buechner, writes this about these words of Jesus in John:
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine or religion was the way, the truth and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that is was believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life he embodied, that was his way. (“Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC”, p.14)
I believe Jesus is the fullest revelation of God the world has even known and I believe that we experience the Sacred and Holy by participating in the life of Jesus – his teachings, his healings, his feeding of others, his life, his death and his resurrection. That belief is not intended to be a polemic that sets Christians apart from others. If anything, participating in the life of Jesus should help us to be people whose arms are open as wide in love as his are. Amen.