‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In 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? And 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus 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”? Do 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. Believe 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. Very 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Ramakrishna, Indian Yogi and Mystic, From: Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion. One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way.
MESSAGE – “The Way”
I have shared this story before but some stories bear repeating and for those who may not have been here when I did it is worth telling again, at least I believe. Col. BeBe Sharma, a good friend of mine loaned me his abbreviated copy of the Hindu Gita and asked that I read it and let me know what I thought. I read it and met with him again and told him I was struck by the similar teachings I found as the Gita was written several hundred years before Christ. Written by Krishna words such as, “I am the living water,” “I am the bread of life,” and others. My friend responded, “That surprised you?” I said it did. He went on, “It doesn’t surprise me.” I said, “Say more.” BeBe replied, “You believe Jesus is the son of God?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “So do I. I also believe Krishna was the son of God.” And gesturing up and down with his hand he said, “Same root.”
So, as I studied, reflected, and pondered this week and remembered my friend BeBe, I wondered what it might be Jesus would tell me about my Hindu friend…or even my Muslim friends, Buddhist friends… Etc. Anyway, what do I believe, we might hear Jesus saying about being the “Only” Way, and the Way to what? The most obvious place to start is with our scriptures, the bible.
What does it say? Well, many of us are pretty familiar with that passage. If nothing else we have heard it read at the funerals of loved ones and friends and has often brought great comfort to those of us bidding farewell to those we love and who have loved us. “In my house there are many dwelling places…I go to prepare and place for you and I will bring you there and you know the way… because “I am the Way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Pretty cut and dried really, doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room. It is one of the many “I am” sayings of Jesus in this book of John. Linking Jesus words back to those words God spoke to Moses on the mountain with the burning bush…” I am who I am…”
For the author of John and the community this author is writing for… there is one God, and if you want to know or encounter this God it is only possible through this Jesus. “Period” end of story. There is really no way around it if one does the work of good scholarship with this passage. These claims are inherent in monotheistic (belief in one God) faiths. And John is a monotheist.
However, I tend to appreciate Thomas. not afraid to ask what everyone else is thinking. “Now wait a minute Jesus, what is this way you are speaking of that we are supposed to already know?” In my opinion this passage has been used and abused over the centuries. First of all, I think it is important to know many contemporary scholars believe many if not most, and particularly those sayings of Jesus that are only found in the Gospel of John are more the voice of the early church at the time than actual teachings and stories from the historical Jesus. A movement that has been kicked out of the synagogues and needs to be reassured they are on the right …” Way.” And if these words do come from Jesus it is important to remember the literary context, they are found in the midst of the farewell discourse.
I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor works with this story. She says to imagine Jesus sitting with his disciples who are very anxious about the fact that Jesus keeps saying he is leaving. He shares this saying with them as a comfort, to reassure them, that they are on the right track… to remember what he has taught them, shown them, to remember HIM and do likewise. i
Jesus never says anything here about this passage indicating who gets in and who is kept out of heaven. This passage is about encountering God and knowing the way to make that happen, one follows Jesus. He does not say that unless you confess with your lips you are doomed to hell. Many in the church have turned this passage into a tool of fear rather than words of comfort and grace. We are not given permission by Jesus in this passage to use the bible as a tool to scare the hell out of them, literally or figuratively.
There are other passages that might give us another clue or two into how Jesus might think in regards to encountering those who may think or believe differently than us.
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Based on the fact that Jesus was a Jew and he tended to be the hardest on those who tried to limit access to God and the things of God. This passage is not just about those who are not Jewish…or Christian. This passage can be seen as about even those within the Christian faith that are “against” the things Jesus stood for and spoke to… justice, care for the poor, the sick, imprisoned, the marginalized and excluded. I believe we have a lot of that going on in our world today …still!
John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’ Again, this passage could be construed to embrace anyone who goes about doing good to the poor and outcast and excluded… speaking up against injustice and working to participate in the Kindom here and now.
So, I hear you ask…as we stand here in the middle of the road, what do we do with these passages, how do we understand them, do we believe there are many ways to heaven? To God? In spite of what the author of John’s Gospel has to say about it? Is this passage about heaven at all? Does it really say anyone who is not following Jesus is doomed to hell…or at the very least lost and misguided?
I suspect there are many of you who know exactly what you think, believe, practice, and live. And there may be those here who are still trying to figure it out and perhaps those who don’t care. When talking about these passages and trying to put good scholarship, meaning, and understanding in place we can often feel a bit like Thomas, confused, perplexed, unclear…. How do we drag this teaching into the 21st Century that is filled and ever increasingly multi-faithed in the immediate world around us? How do we as those who follow the Way, follow Jesus work, play, exist alongside those of differing religious traditions or no religious affiliation or believe at all and not come off as arrogant, exclusionary, and dismissive?
I think for those of us in the Christian tradition it is important to own the fact that this is what the Gospel of John says…. And the passage, be it from the community at the time, or from Jesus own lips… seems exclusive. However, I do believe it is important to remember it is no more exclusive than other religions of a monotheistic view… we didn’t invent this…it is not “just ours.”
I liked the way Brian McLaren approached the topic in his recent book, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” He wrote owning much of what I have just said… but stated he wanted to approach it more from a pastoral level than perhaps a scholarly or even perhaps a theological one. He invited Christians to earnestly consider the question…. how do you think Jesus would treat Moses, Mohammed, and the Buddha if they came to a crosswalk together? Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first, trade insults with Mohammad and demand he cross behind and not beside him, or demand Buddha kneel at his feet to demonstrate submission? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome each to a table of fellowship. Not demanding any special status or privileges, maybe even taking the role of servant, making sure each felt welcome, safe, and at home? It is very likely he would embrace them with open arms and without hesitation, proving himself over time to be the best friend they ever had. It is pretty hard to imagine Jesus cursing or “smiting” them, but entirely natural to imagine him blessing them and “doing unto others” as he would want them to do for him. ii
I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practice the neighborliness he preached rather than following our [so often] example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion, or demonization.” We have turned this passage into a reason to instill fear and judgment rather than an opportunity to invite and serve. Many in the church have turned Jesus into a sword wielding, condemnation slinging, warrior rather than the suffering, loving servant who came to serve and not be served.
Brian McLaren again… “If, in our ancient narrative, a serpent once tempted us to eat from the tree that would allow us to pronounce “us” good and “them” evil, perhaps we need a new narrative today in which a beautiful songbird sings from the tree of life, inviting us to eat again of its original fruit: love,. joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” iii
Our own John Wesley shed light on this issue with his own words. He also believed Jesus was “the only Way.” Though he left room for those of other traditions or lack thereof might be judged on their own merits… but stated it was still always and only through Christ. Wesley spoke of Christian Unity and Caution against bigotry within the church universal but I ponder in our ever increasing multi-faith world if his words now would reach beyond our beloved Christian faith into the relationships we have with those of other religious traditions or non-religious traditions in his words; “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. I’m not so sure in the context of today… Wesley would still be so exclusive…he was committed to education and growing understanding I believe.
I don’t think I need my Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist Friends or non-religious to only encounter God through Jesus but rather be seen through the light of Jesus call to bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed; to visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, feed the hungry and clothed the naked… it seems to me this is the Way Jesus was….is. The way to encounter God…. The just way to encounter one another… is in these ways… his is the Way to encounter the Divine, to be connected to one another and immersed in a love that will not let us go. The Prophet Micah spoke of the Way as well… Act Justly. Love Tenderly. Walk Humbly. I am deeply rooted in the Christian faith. I am a Christian though I confess there are days when I hear “Christians” speak of Christianity I consider changing my label… But at the same time, I refuse to let them have my Jesus. And as graceful and welcoming as we try to be, there are times when one can walk away, sad yes, but knowing there are just some who refuse to make the journey with us.
I look at my Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist, humanist friends…. And I see within them the light of justice, compassion, service, welcome, inclusion, kindness, and love and say, yes they are my brothers and sisters too. I say this in commitment to my own journey and as Eboo Patel, a Muslim acquaintance of mine said, “To see the other side, to defend another people, not despite your tradition but because of it, is the heart of pluralism.” I work for respect among the religious and non-religious not because I can’t make up my mind… it is because of my deep love and commitment to the one I follow. iv
Anyone who is about justice, kindness, and humility is walking in the Way. Look for peace, patience, kindness, generosity, goodness, faithfulness joy, and self-control, there is where you will find the Way of Christ. Truth is Truth wherever you find it.
May we embrace the Way of Christ…. Practice peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, goodness, joy, and self-control. Speak out for justice, be Kind, and live humbly. May it be so. May it be now. Amen.
i Taylor, Barbara Brown, The Only Way to God, a sermon at Duke Chapel, May 2, 1999.
ii McLaren, Brian D. (2012), Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Jericho Books, New York, NY.
iii McLaren, Brian D. (2012), Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Jericho Books, New York, NY.
iv Patel, Eboo, (2007) Acts of Faith, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.