John 14. 1-11 (NT Wright Translation):
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus continued. “Trust God—and trust me, too! There is plenty of room to live in my father’s house. If that wasn’t the case, I’d have told you, wouldn’t I? I’m going to get a place ready for you! And if I do go and get a place ready for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you can be there, where I am. And as to where I’m going—you know the way!” “Actually, Master,” said Thomas to him, “we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” “I am the way,” replied Jesus, “and the truth and the life! Nobody comes to the father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my father. From now on you do know him! You have seen him.” “Just show us the father, then, Master,” said Philip to Jesus, “and that’ll be good enough for us!” “Have I been with you for such a long time, Philip,” replied Jesus, “and still you don’t know me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the father! How can you say, ‘Show us the father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the father, and the father is in me? The words I’m speaking to you, I’m not speaking on my own initiative. It’s the father, who lives within me, who is doing his own works. You must trust me that I am in the father and the father is in me. If not, then trust because of all the things you’ve seen done.”
So we’ve been doing this sermon series where you get to pick the topics. So far you’ve asked, “What will the church will look like in 2050?”; “Why is there so much violence in the Bible?”; “How does grace work?”; and this week—“Did Jesus really mean some of the outrageous things he said?”
You people are working me way too hard. If I had any sense I’d take off now and go hang out in the mountains of Colorado for a week—O, wait; that’s what I am doing. So I won’t complain.
The verse I was asked to comment on is right in the middle of the longer passage Dumont read. It’s one of the best known and least understood of Jesus’ sayings. This is verse 6: “Jesus said to (Thomas), ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Here’s the question that came with the request—and I‘m dressing this up a bit: No one comes to the Father except through me? “Really!!? You mean there’s only one way to God? What about all the people who aren’t Christians? Are they hell bound because they don’t believe in Jesus? Did he really mean that?!”
Now, this may sound snarky, so I apologize in advance: Did Jesus really mean what he said? Yes, he did. Every word. But—he may not have meant what you thought he said.
I’ve known a lot of people over the years who get mad over what they think Jesus said. This has always puzzled me. I’m bothered a lot more by what he actually did say.
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.
The person who asked the question for this week reads these words exactly as most of the church has read them for the last several centuries, at least. He’s reading them the way I did until I was well past my seminary training. And he’s reading these words the way the great majority of evangelical Christians read them today.
And that, it turns out, is the problem. Because, you see, what Jesus said in this verse, and what most people hear, are not at all the same thing; they aren’t even in the same Bible. There’s a danger in this. Words are important; thoughts are important. And when we hear something that somebody didn’t say—when we put words in Jesus’ mouth, for instance, things can quickly spiral downward.
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. That’s what Jesus said. This is what most people hear: Jesus said, “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life. NO ONE gets to heaven unless they believe in me”.
So mistakes are made in approaching these two sentences. First we lift them out of their context and try to make them stand all on their own. Secondly, we mis-read this text, making assumptions about what it means. Third, we then take our second mistake literally; that is, after mis-reading the text, we conclude that only Christians get to heaven.
A fourth mistake, the most dangerous of all, follows.
If you live, as many Christian still do, in a two sided universe and your only ultimate options are heaven and hell, and if you believe, as many Christians still do, that only Christians go to heaven, then you have to be willing to say that all who are not Christian go to hell. Logically, that’s where you end up. And theologically, in my opinion, that’s a costly mistake.
Now, you may think this is just some silly, religious argument; the kind of dispute that turns thinking people away from the church and makes us look bad. Well, it does turn thinking people away from the church and it does make us look bad, but it is not silly. I’ll tell you why.
It’s not silly because what we think matters; and what we say matters. Wrong thinking leads to bad words and bad words lead to wrong actions. When violence in your head gives birth to violence in your mouth, violence by your hand follows close behind.
We’ve seen this over and over again in the history the church. Mis-reading this one, little verse has given rise to terrible atrocities done in Jesus’ name. It was the belief that Christians are blessed and loved by God above all other people that led to the church encouraging, and sometimes ordering, the murder and enslavement of millions of indigenous South Americans—along with the destruction of their cultures and the theft of their land in colonial times.
It was this same belief that led American Christians to support, and participate in, the enslavement of millions of black Africans and the brutal genocide of native Americans.
Thoughts and words matter you see. Words can kill. Bad theology, more than most bad words, can kill. Mis-reading Jesus, as we have done with this passage, has led to untold violence and uncounted casualties over hundreds of years.
I would even argue that, in an especially twisted way, this is what we saw 2 weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. We watched in horror as hundreds of young, white men—torches in hand, hatred in their eyes and spit drooling down their chins marched through the street shouting “Jews will not replace us!”
This is what happens, you see, when people think they have some divine right to their privilege; when they are certain, by virtue of what they believe or the color of their skin or the size of their bank accounts, that they are blessed and valued by God above their neighbors.
“I am the way, the truth and the life”, Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father except through me”.
So, if you have ever been uncomfortable hearing these words read in church—or used in conversation by someone to prove his way is right and your way is wrong, I’d like to say, Congratulations. You’re on to something.
But before we throw this baby out in the bath water, let’s back up and look at what Jesus actually said.
I was listening to an interview this week with the Anglican bishop Tom Wright—a highly respected New Testament scholar. He was commenting on this verse and he made the point that reading the Gospel of John is often hard. And because it’s hard, he said, we tend to read this Jewish story through our Christian eyes—so much so that we miss what was actually going on; we miss the point and we miss the meaning.
To get it right, he said, we need to remember that Jesus was a Jew, start to finish; a son of Abraham, a student of Moses, a devoted reader of the Torah.
We need to remember, too, that Jesus was a rabbi. He called disciples, as rabbis did in those days, and he was leading them in his way of understanding Torah. The Torah, the writings of Moses that Jesus studied, was seen by Jews as the way to God, the way to know the truth about God. And every rabbi had a more or less unique way of understanding Torah; each led his students along that way.
A rabbi’s life was a living illustration; his “way” of walking his talk about the Torah. He was, that is to say, a model of the path to God. And finally, the phrase “I am the way…” was a perfectly normal figure of speech for a 1st century rabbi. Jesus didn’t make these words up. Others used them before he did.
And then consider where we find this little gem that causes so much trouble. It’s found in the middle of a 5 chapter long conversation Jesus had with his disciples as they sat around the Passover table. His last evening with them was one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar.
He was about to be arrested, tried and crucified. And so he was preparing his friends for what was about to happen. He was trying to strengthen them for what would surely be a trying few days. No one in the room, least of all Jesus, was thinking about starting a new religion or a church. That was not on the agenda. Encouragement was on the agenda. Assurance was on the agenda.
And here we come to the heart of the matter. With hard times looming Jesus says, “Don’t worry”. “Trust God, trust me. There’s room in the Father’s house for you; and now, after all our time together, you know the way there”.
They know the way because he has been showing them the way—his life has been a living illustration of the way. For 3 years they have been with him on this way.
But Thomas misses the point. “We don’t know where you are going” he says. “How can we know the way?”
What Jesus says next is what any rabbi might have said: “Don’t you see—I am the way. I am the way to the truth about God. I am the way to the life of God”.
And then, speaking here only to his disciples, he says, “You will find your way to the Father only through me”.
Which makes perfect sense if you think about it. For anyone who follows Jesus, Jesus is the only way to the Father. That’s all he’s saying. And it’s almost painfully simple.
Jesus isn’t setting up the Great Exclusion from Heaven of all non-Christians. There were no “non-Christians”, or Christians either, for that matter. He isn’t even talking about heaven or hell. Those words don’t appear in this passage.
Jesus is telling his disciples—as they face their worst nightmare, that they are prepared. The way he has put them on will see them through. His way will bring them home to God.
That’s what this story is about.
So where does this leave us?
It leaves us in a rather odd place—looking over the shoulders of the disciples, listening in on an intimate conversation between them and their rabbi, their teacher. We sense their anxiety. We hear the strange words and images Jesus uses to encourage them. Perhaps we feel sympathy for them.
And then, maybe, we remember—he is our rabbi, too; our teacher, too. We are traveling with him on the same “way” the disciples traveled—some of us for a lot longer than three years.
These words are for us.
There is room in the Father’s house for us.
To no great surprise, really, many of us who follow Jesus have discovered the way of Jesus is the way to the Father; the way to God. For many of us, it is the only way.
This doesn’t mean that we alone are blessed and others are not. It doesn’t mean our faith is superior to their faith. It doesn’t mean we are saved and they are lost.
It simply means what it means—that we have found the way of our teacher to be a good way. Following him we are finding our way home.
For this we are grateful.
For this we say, “Thanks be to God”.