I can’t hear today’s gospel passage without wondering how you hear today’s gospel passage, in particular, verse 6. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says Jesus. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Do those words sound like good news to you? Do they encourage you? Inspire you? Or, do those words sound exclusive? Do they turn our faith into a threat directed at those who don’t share it?
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this passage quoted by anyone other than a person who wants to justify a claim that non-Christians go to hell when they die.
I’m not sure why it is so important to justify that claim. Maybe the argument goes that “that’s what the bible says, and if you don’t give authority to the bible you have nothing to base your faith on other than your own opinions.” Or, maybe it’s more that somebody has to be right. “You can’t go the wrong way and expect to reach your destination.” So, if Christ is right then the others are wrong. And if you devote yourself to the wrong then in the end you’re going to be wrong too. Maybe there are other reasons as well. In fact, I’m sure there are.
My concern with hearing verse 6 this way is that it turns us into something we weren’t meant to be. It turns us into judges. It opens the door for us to find security through our evaluations of others. And, Jesus doesn’t want that for us. It’s not good for us. It makes us like dinner guests who miss the feast because we are preoccupied with the seating arrangements. It turns us into 10 year olds arguing politics (have you heard those arguments?) We miss out on the better things when we assume the role of judge, which is a role when in dealing with divine mystery and transcendence we aren’t qualified to occupy.
On top of all that, condemning non-believers to hell just doesn’t jive with our experience of a loving God and of the good people we know who for whatever reason don’t subscribe to the faith.
A few years back now Rob Bell, who was the founding pastor of the Mars Hill megachurch and rising star in the evangelical world published a book called “Love Wins.” He caused a huge fuss in evangelical circles when he rejected the certainty that his own community tends to have about the criteria for getting into heaven. He wrote that he just couldn’t imagine a God who would, “inflict unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life.”
Think about it: God loves us in this life. Roots for us to believe the right thing. Hopes that we choose faith. But, if we don’t, God then turns from love to relentless torture??? Bell writes, “If there was an earthly father who [acted like this]… we would call the authorities… we would contact child protection services immediately.” Yet, many Christians are comfortable ascribing this way of being to God.
I wonder if part of the issue is that we haven’t heard anyone make use of verse 6 in a way that doesn’t seem so problematic. “No one comes to the Father except through the Son.” I think that we can reclaim these words in a way that is true to John’s gospel and true to a God of radical, far-reaching, love.
To do that though it is helpful to start with John’s purpose in writing his gospel in the first place. He says it in a number of places. John wrote his gospel so that you would come to believe. Why? Because when you believe you have hope. When you believe you have trust. When you believe, life is different. When you believe, you have life that lives in the care and purpose of God who is greater than us all.
What does John want you to believe? He wants you to believe that the Son and the Father are one. To know the Son is to know the Father. This he says over and over again. In fact, once you catch on to this message it’s almost unbelievable how many times he repeats it. He starts in chapter one: “In the beginning (which, of course are the first words of Genesis’ first creation story) the “Word” was with God and the “Word” was God.” John makes it clear that this Word is Jesus. Jesus is the eternal expression of God. The eternal voice of God. The embodiment of the eternal God from the very beginning.
John drills the point in all the more with Jesus’ famous “I am” statements. “I am,” of course, is the divine name, the name that with which God answers Moses when Moses says, “Who should I say is sending me to free these people.” “I am,” is sending you, says God. Jesus repeats that “I am” over and over again. I am the living bread. I am the light of the world. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. I am the true vine. I am the resurrection.
So, it’s not simply that Jesus and the Father are one; it’s that Jesus shows us who the father is. God sustains us, guides us, knows us, calls us, grants us life. Jesus shows us what God looks like, feels like, acts like, thinks like. Jesus shows us that God is self-giving, undying, eternal love.
“No one comes to the Father except through the son,” is another way of saying, “No one comes to God except through God,” and I have showed you who God is. Don’t think that God is anything less than the greatest love that you can imagine. Don’t think that God wouldn’t rather die than let you go. Don’t think that God wouldn’t conquer even death to be with us.
So, the question for us is: is this the type of God we have? Do we have the type of God that Jesus embodies, or do we have something less than that?
…My father in law and I have different political views. And, he keeps forwarding me emails for my consideration.
Now, I love my father in law. And, I admire him. He is good, and faithful, devoted, generous, interested. He’s faced death a number of times now with grace, and courage, and faith, and he’s bounced back to keep on going. During his last few years of work he’s spend time at the office thinking of new and ingenious ways to engage Charley, who was two or three. I remember him being so excited to assemble a contraption he had devised with a marble, and a paper tube, and some other components. These were the things that gave energy to his day. And, as I said, I admire him and would like to be more like him.
But, these emails that I get! They are so wrong! He’s just so off! And the last one in particular was just ridiculous. I read it and I was annoyed, and disgusted. I wanted to say something that would let him know and would fix his thinking and make him ashamed for falling for such stuff. But, then I didn’t. Thank God.
I was watching this video on Facebook the other day. I think the guy was a Harvard professor. His thesis was that we don’t have a political problem in this country. At least, that’s not our primary problem. We have a social problem. We have a contempt problem. We speak with contempt, think with contempt, and act with contempt toward those with whom we disagree. This professor is also somehow friends with the Dali Llama, and so he asked him what to do about it. The Dali Llama told him to combat contempt with warm-heartedness. Every opportunity for contempt is an opportunity for warm-heartedness too. We have that choice to make.
Interestingly, just a few weeks prior I heard the Pope say a similar thing. The Pope called it humble tenderness. Practice humble tenderness. The more powerful you are the more you are called to humble tenderness.
 Christian Century, May 17, 2011, page 23.