Easter 5, Year A
April 28, 2002
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck
One of the nice things about a hard-covered Bible is that it’s easier to bash someone over the head with it. And unfortunately this stunning passage from John’s Gospel is often cited by those who wield the Bible as a weapon. “I am the way and the truth and the life” is translated as ‘believe in Jesus or be eternally damned.’ And the statement that follows, “no one comes to the Father except through me” becomes ‘if you’re not a Christian, you’re going to hell.’ Twisted theology is a dangerous thing. It tends to exclude rather than include. And of course, everyone who doesn’t subscribe to my particular experience of God or my particular interpretation of Christianity is excluded.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This verse, and I’ll even cite it: John chapter 14, verse 6, has in some ways been snatched away from us, its true meaning poisoned. Instead of embracing this text and celebrating it, thinking Christians often ignore it or treat it as a skeleton in the Biblical closet. It’s become the family member were ashamed to let out in public. What do we say about this verse when it comes up in conversation with our Jewish or Muslim brothers and sisters? Where does it leave us? Where does it leave them? Are we really to believe that our understanding of God as revealed through Jesus Christ is the only acceptable path to salvation? Is it the exclusive and only way to know God? Many Christians who cite this text would say ‘yes’ to this. We alone have figured it all out, God couldn’t possibly speak to any one else besides Christians, and if you haven’t been saved by Jesus, too bad for you. Have a nice eternity.
If you don’t take this passage at face value, your faith is questioned by some other Christians. And if you do, your compassion and tolerance is questioned by the rest of humanity. Not an enviable position to be in. For Christians who do not subscribe to the exclusionary theology of fundamentalism, this verse can be a stumbling block. What do we do with it?
But as is so often the case with the interpretation of sacred text, our contemporary condition clouds our ability to see true meaning. To set these words free, to fully hear them and let them be for us true inspiration, we must go back. Back into the world of St. John’s community, back into the context of the earliest Christians.
And when we do so, we see that these words are not words of exclusion but words of celebration. John’s community believes with all its heart that through Jesus, God is made known to them in a new way. To hear that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus is a joyous affirmation of the incarnation, of Christ’s coming into the world in human form. This is good news, worthy of celebration. Out of the darkness of crucifixion comes the unbridled joy of resurrection.
Many in John’s community needed this affirmation because they had been expelled from the Jewish synagogues. They were without a true spiritual home, cast out by members of their own ethnic and religious background for their belief in the divinity of Jesus. The sticking point, not surprisingly, was the Jewish belief in one God. If Jesus is divine doesn’t that make two gods? So the members of John’s community were alienated by their fellow Jews and at some level probably left feeling cut off from God as well. But when they come to see Jesus as the true revelation of God, there is great joy. They are no longer disconnected from the God of the synagogues but rather they have newfound access to God through Jesus. Yes, there was probably some residual anger at those who shut them out of the synagogues. They were human after all. But they are rejoicing in their vibrant relationship with God, not seeking to exclude others from that same relationship.
John’s community gives thanks for knowing God in their own particular way. It is through Jesus that they have come to know the Father. They hear and respond to God through their relationship with the living Christ. More than one theologian has noted the significance of Jesus saying, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s not that no one comes to God except through Jesus. It is through Jesus that John’s community and Christians throughout the world come to God the Father. God is our Father, that is how we as Christians experience and know God. There’s no comment being made on how Jews or Muslims or Hindus experience and know God. I’m pretty certain God will sort this out. All we can do is rejoice that through Jesus, God our Father is made known to us. That’s what this group of early Christians was celebrating and that’s the cause for our own celebration.
For John’s community, there was a price to be paid. Persecution and suffering were also an outcome of this celebration. Theirs was not an easy path to walk but it was a joyful one nonetheless. This is not a statement of triumphalism over other approaches to spirituality. John’s community was, after all, a tiny majority in the ancient Mediterranean world. But they were confident that for them, they had within their vision the way and the truth and the life.
Above all, Jesus makes God known: that’s the essence of John’s theology and this particular verse of Scripture. And to hear Jesus proclaim that he is the way and the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him, is to reveal this enduring reality; that Jesus makes God known. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2002