Sermon, May 18, 2014
When the ‘good news’ is troubling news
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Text: John 14: 1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In 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? 3And 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.
4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus 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’? 10Do 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. 11Believe 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.
12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Additional reading from Children’s Time
An anonymous proverb: Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.
During a portion of my high school youth group experience, we engaged in a form of Bible study. It was led by a well-meaning couple who were committed Christians and dedicated youth sponsors, but without any formal training in Biblical studies or pastoral ministry. The format for the Bible study was to sit in a circle with our Bibles in our laps and to take turns reading aloud from the book of scripture that was our current assignment. After covering several verses, the reader would pause and everyone was invited to give their opinion as to what they thought the passage meant. During a particular season, we read John’s gospel and eventually made it to the fourteenth chapter and our assigned lectionary reading for this Sunday. The reader arrived at the sixth verse: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” We discussed our understandings, and then one of our youth sponsors summed things up. “It’s clear what this means. It means that if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to go to hell. And, in particular this means all your Jewish friends at high school who don’t believe in Jesus by definition because they are not Christians, well they are going to hell. I don’t feel particularly happy about it, but that is just the way it is. It says so right there in the Bible.” The other sponsor nodded in agreement.
As startling as this statement was in general, it had an even more personal impact on me. Our youth group sponsors were not just talking about “the Jews” or even all the Jewish students I happened to know at school. At this point in my life they were talking about my sister, and about Melanie, my date to the upcoming homecoming dance. I loved my sister; even as addled as my sophomoric brain was, I don’t think I thought I loved Melanie, but I certainly liked her enough to invite her to the homecoming dance and was quite elated that she said yes. So, what the youth sponsor said felt troubling in a particularly personal way. I didn’t like their interpretation. Yet, I wondered, is that what is required to be believed in order to be a Christian? Must we believe that those who do not believe like us are lost? Are condemned? Cannot know God? Will spend eternity in hell? It didn’t seem right. My sister and my dance date are good people. Hardly deserving of hell, in my view. Certainly no more so than I am. It was hard for me to imagine why God would want them to end up there.
Was this a reasonable response on my part? Or, if I were a more committed Christian should I have thought, “I love these people too much for this to be their fate, so I need to re-double my efforts at witnessing to them about the saving power and grace of Jesus Christ.” As a Christian, should I have said, “I don’t want you to spend eternity in hell and so I want you to believe that Jesus is the way and the truth and the light. I’m sorry, but you cannot get to God without accepting this. So please do so in order not to be condemned.” Is that what I should have said? It was not my response, and it still isn’t. But I know that it is the perspective of other believers. I also know that there are those who believe it without rancor, without hatred, without disregard for others. They believe it out of their understanding of love. I acknowledge that this is so for some others, and I want you to hear that I know and honor this. But I also share this morning that I disagree with this perspective. It does not speak to me and my experience of Christian faith. This is not what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus.
Although I know that loving Christians disagree with me, and that they care for non-Christians, I also know that this passage has been misused. Someone has called it one of the “clobber texts.” The perspective that Christianity is the only way and that it is our Christian responsibility to impose our will on others led to the Crusades. European Christians rose up to wrest the Holy Lands from the “Muslim infidels.” A distorted view of Christian exclusivism gave rise to a blessing of the Nazi regime by the German state church. By extension, this “justified” the Holocaust. A distorted view of Christian exclusivism also led to the decimation of Native cultures on this continent as Christian missionaries imposed their brand of Christianity on indigenous peoples. I am not suggesting that all Christians who believe that there is no salvation outside Christianity support these things, but I do believe that the texts have been misused.
I do not believe that Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except by me,” means, “everyone who does not embrace this is going to hell.” There is no mention of hell in the text. There is no commentary that states, “This means you are lost, you are not saved, you are condemned and you are damned.” Those things aren’t in the text.
What then, might this text mean? As preface to attempting an answer, I offer two background observations. One is that I believe for almost all of us, our response to scripture is influenced by our experience, whether we are aware of this or not. With regard to this text, I know that my response is shaped in part by my reaction to my high school youth group involvement and by my relationship with my sister and Melanie. My response continues to be informed by many other people I know who are not Christian, and who are exemplary human beings. So firstly, our experience shapes our approach to scripture. Your experience may be such that what I find troubling about this text doesn’t really speak to you one way or the other. Secondly, my approach to scripture is shaped by a nonliteral understanding. I take the Bible very seriously and I believe it is a faithful account of how the followers of God have understood that God spoke to them. But I do not ascribe to inerrancy. I believe that in order to understand scripture we have to try to understand the context of the writing and to employ the tools of literary, historical and theological analysis. With these things said, I invite you to look again with me at the text.
In John’s gospel, there are numerous statements attributed to Jesus that are quite unlike those Jesus speaks according to the other gospels. Over ninety percent of John’s gospel has no parallel passages in the other three, and that includes this morning’s reading. How likely is it that Jesus actually said what scripture attributes to him? We have no proof as to what Jesus actually said. We have no transcripts, no tape recordings, no firsthand accounts. We have the memory of those who came after Jesus, and we have the testimonies of communities that grew up around certain teachings attributed to Jesus. I know both from my own experience and from studies about memory that memory is not always reliable. There are plenty of things that I believe that I remember. I may even have profound mental images of them. But what I’ve come to learn is that sometimes what I remember is what somebody told me about an event. I think I remember things that happened when I was two years old. But for the most part, what I remember is what people have told me about what happened when I was two. It feels like I remember it, but I don’t. It feels like it surely happened a certain way, but it may or may not have. So, when we encounter scripture, we are encountering the memory of what has been handed down. Scholars, therefore, ask of any given text, “Is this something Jesus actually said? How likely is it that he did? What contextual clues and background understanding can help us with our conclusions?
Interpretation is not just about accuracy of memory and whether Jesus said something. It is also about why something might have been written, and what it meant in its original context. Interpretation also has to do with what we might read into the text. Sometimes we do not consider context and we do not read carefully. Verse six is often taken out of context. In it, Jesus is not making a general pronouncement about Christian life and faith. Rather, he responds to a specific question asked by Thomas, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In response, Jesus says, “I am the way.” As one commentator has observed, Thomas’ question was not, “What do you think of Hindus, Jesus?” How about Buddhists? Are they going to hell? Hinduism and Buddhism are world religions that predate Jesus’ time on earth, but there is no evidence that Jesus ever met a Buddhist or a Hindu, or rendered a perspective on these religions. Buddhists and Hindus, not to mention Muslims or practitioners of indigenous religions, are not part of the conversation. The question Jesus answers does not address the concerns that some read into the text.
Still, there are words that follow Jesus’ statement that he is the way, the truth, and the life. They are words that do not appear necessary to answer Thomas’ question. “No one comes to the Father except by me.” Why are they included? One possibility is that Jesus is telling Thomas something specific about the disciples, not something general about all people. Another translation of the text can be, “None of you come to the Father except by me.” If so, Jesus is testifying to the meaning of discipleship. These words are part of what John has assembled as Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus’ disciples are the ones who follow his way. Not only this, they are the ones that have come to know the way because they have abided with Jesus. Jesus tells his followers that it is because of him that they know God. It is because of their abiding, because of their relationship. Jesus embodies the way to God; Jesus becomes the way to God. It is not just about showing; it is about knowing. This is what Jesus is telling Thomas and the others. He is in effect telling them, “It is in relationship with me that you know God. It’s not just that I show you the way. I have involved you in the way because you are in relationship with me. You have come to my house and abided with me, you stand beside me. You are inextricably connected to me, and I am the way.” Perhaps that is what Jesus is telling Thomas. No one of you who are involved with me can know God without knowing me.
This verse may also have its origin in the struggle within the synagogue between John’s community and the Jewish authorities. It was a profound conflict. John’s community was experiencing persecution and ostracism. In reaction, they may have declared an either-or choice. This “over-againstness” is seen throughout John’s gospel.
Have you ever reacted to rejection by defiantly declaring, “You can’t reject me; I reject you first!” John’s community was not accepted, and they define themselves by this rejection. At this point in history, Jesus’ followers were a marginalized sect that was not even a blip on the historical record of the time. The followers of Jesus were unknown outside their own writings. When a minuscule, marginalized group says, “We have exclusive access to the truth” it is a very different thing from a dominating superpower religion saying those same words. John’s context is that of a beleaguered community that is in danger of being extinguished. They utter the defiant claim, “We have the only truth,” from below. It is a whisper that nobody even notices. But when modern day Christians say it, it is very different. Modern day Christians are on top. We can impose our will and amass armies and march across the globe and use our truth as a weapon to wipe out everyone who does not accept it. Context makes these words very different.
I have spent the bulk of the sermon sharing with you why I am troubled by this exclusive claim, why I believe that sometimes the “good news” is troubling news that I cannot accept. I believe that sometimes such a word needs to be preached in order to heal the hurts that our witness has caused. But can’t leave things here. For spoken in a different way, these words of the gospel are positive, energizing, and life giving! I invite you to receive them in this way. I invite you not to focus on how some have used them to judge the faith journeys of others. And, whether you believe that the last half of verse six makes an exclusive claim on the truth, or not, I implore you, I implore all of us, to remember that this is the secondary clause in Jesus’ answer to Thomas. The first clause is, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” That is the good news, my friends. It is not about someone else; it is about you and me as followers of Jesus. “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Receive this good news and know its transformative power. Abide in Jesus and discover how to live lovingly, peacefully, compassionately, and justly with all.
The power in this proclamation is that it is about the way. It is not an argument about doctrine and belief. Jesus does not say, “I am the doctrine to which you must assent.” Jesus doesn’t say I am the rulebook, and life is about following the rules and if you do, in the end you get to the place of reward. Jesus doesn’t even say that I am the roadmap that you need to learn how to read in order to understand where I’m going and how to get there. No. Jesus says, “I am the way. My life, my relationship with you and your relationship with me, is life giving.” How do we respond? We love each other. We feed each other. We heal each other. And not only each other, but the whole world. That is the way. Jesus came that the world might be saved. What good news this is. What a way to live it is. What a transforming possibility it gives. We can learn to live and love together. It is life giving, and it is a way of life, a way of truth, a way of love. That’s the good news, my friends. It is also challenging news to be sure. If Jesus is the way, not everything goes. I can’t say, “I’m following Jesus while whacking you on the head, because I’m doing it in Jesus’ name.” No, that is not the Jesus way. That is not what abiding with him produces. Our actions have consequences and the Jesus way demands our allegiance. But before it is a challenge, it is a joy. It is a life giving way. It is the way of love; it’s the way of possibility to live and move and be as God has created us to be. That is the good news to tell and show and be involved with this day and in all our days. May we know the way even as the way knows us. Amen.