When Jesus said I am the way, did he mean the ONLY way?
I remember a time, in one of the parishes I served in my thirty plus years, when I just couldn’t get the Vestry of the church to agree to use the word inclusive in our parish vision statement. No, this time I just wasn’t going to get my way. It’s often said, Pick your battles wisely. I lost that one.
I licked my wounds for a week or so after that Vestry meeting, and I just preached on Free Grace and non-exclusion all the harder the following Sunday. Well, as one who stood on that soapbox for a long time, I can tell you that the sixth verse from our Gospel from John this morning is one that I have had quoted to me and waved in my face far more than any other:
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
This verse is very often quoted by someone with a twinkle in their eye, as if to say, Try to wiggle your way around that one.
I have had many conversations with church members as well as ordained colleagues on this sixth verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and when I look back on them, it seems to me that I can sift those conversations down to three basic groups:
The first group says, with great assurance and a visible sense of righteousness, that this sixth verse of this Gospel means just what you might think it means at first glance and should be viewed with a wooden literalism.
For these people, I am the way means that only if you profess right belief in Jesus, and acknowledge acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, will you be saved or otherwise fully accepted by God, and that’s why evangelism is so important a task!
The second group is equally well-intentioned. The I am the way verse of our appointed Gospel means for certain that those who profess right belief in Jesus, and acknowledge acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, will be saved and fully accepted by God, BUT, as for everyone else, well, we can’t really say for sure what will happen to them.
We must just leave it in the hands of God, but it certainly doesn’t seem look good for them.
The third group, the one to which I belong, usually says something like,
Given everything else we know about Jesus in the Gospels, groups one and two cannot possibly be right!
It seems to me that with great conviction, and with great consistency, Jesus is committed to a totally inclusive kingdom. Even within our often-misunderstood Gospel this morning, Jesus makes an incredibly inclusive claim when he says, In my Father’s house there are many rooms.
God’s house is apparently an extremely roomy place. There is room for all sorts and conditions of men.
One of the things I had to get used to when I would make the long drive from Sacramento to Mountain View, California many years ago to visit Kathy, trying to convince her that she ought to marry me out of the goodness of her heart if nothing else, was there was always some kind of bizarre stranger living at her house.
Kathy’s father had a very big heart, and he would take in all sorts and conditions of people. It wasn’t until I had earned my Master of Divinity and many years later that I realized that Kathy’s father’s home mirrored God’s home.
As I watch the news and commentary on television, it seems to me that there is a kind of lurking fear of diversity in an awful lot of people, good people, in this country. I hear people talk as if they really believe there was a time when we weren’t diverse in America. Some refer to them as the good old days. There never was such a time. We are strong because of diversity. We thrive because foreigners dared to make the long trip to our shores. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s real.
I was watching a news special some time ago; it was a piece on the anniversary of the Brown v. The Board of Education ruling. They focused on a school in Brooklyn that was inviting white parents to bring their children to their school to experience racial diversity.
They interviewed one of the new white students whose parents took the principle up on her invitation, her name was Sophia Lavion. When the reporter asked how it was going, Sophia spoke right up and said, In this school I see a lot of blacks and more Hispanic people, I was happy for the fact that this school wasn’t segregated. I hate segregation.
Sophia Lavion was in the sixth grade.
God’s house is not just in heaven. God’s house is also the everyday web of life we call God’s Kingdom. Sometimes in our fondness for keeping Christianity a private club with restricted membership, we have taken the words I am the way, and we have tweaked them to mean, I am the ONLY way.
But the word only simply isn’t there.
If Jesus actually said that NO ONE can come to the Father except through me, then keep this in mind. Remember that Christ is the very Word of God, and that Word is now risen and ascended; that means the entire world is part God’s Word.
Never should we use the words, No one comes to the Father except by me as a kind of weapon of mass destruction, making sure that people understand that in the end it really means our way or the highway.
Do I believe this 6th verse of the 14th chapter of John to be true? Absolutely I do! Jesus was unique in his understanding of God as Abba, Father. Jesus is a living window into the intimate relationship with God as a loving parent.
There really is no way for me, and I suspect for you, to really begin to understand the God of Jesus except through the life and the love of Jesus, and I prefer and therefore choose to follow Jesus as my way to God.
I personally know of no other way to the Father to whom Jesus wishes to introduce me, nor do I feel I need to pursue another way to God.
And yes, I do believe we have an evangelistic task to share with others the God that Jesus knows, but just because the words evangelism and exclusion both begin with the fifth letter of the alphabet doesn’t mean they always complement each other. In fact, I would say that sometimes they are mutually exclusive in the eyes of Christ!
The Abba of Christianity is a God of universal, unconditional, and all-inclusive love! Whether it says that in a Parish Vision Statement or not!
Marcus Borg tells the story of an Interfaith worship service that he attended, where a very unfortunate oversight occurred:
The Buddhist reader was assigned our Gospel this morning as his reading (What were the liturgical planners thinking?).
When he finished reading the words, Jesus is the Way, he stopped and said, This is absolutely true.
He later explained that he was not telling all the major world religions that they had to believe in Jesus, but that they should all believe in the way that Jesus is; that all religions strive to stay on the path to the sacred, and that we will know we have found the sacred when we find universal, unconditional and all-inclusive love.
So let us never forget how roomy God’s house really is. Don’t be afraid of diversity, of the mixing of cultures and ways of life. We will be all the better for it!
There are many rooms in my Father’s house!
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