The Fifth Sunday of Easter 2014
I Peter 2:2-10
In the Name of God: the Incomprehensible, the Revelatory and the Uncontainable One…
Today, we have the privilege of once again hearing from the Gospel of John. You might remember a few weeks ago we spoke concerning the scholarly view that not a single word claimed to be Jesus’ was ever actually uttered by the prophet some 2,000 years ago. Rather the Gospel of John was an attempt of a fairly well established Christian community to see within Jesus the doctrines they had constructed around his life and teachings. The gospel itself claims to be written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I am guessing Jesus actually loved more than one of his disciples, I dare venture he loved even Judas but for the community who compiled this gospel it didn’t hurt to throw such possible weight behind its authorship. Until the close of the 18th century most historian and biblical scholars simply adhered to church tradition, which claimed this illusive “loved disciple” to be John, the one who laid his head upon Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper.
However, as it became increasingly common to finally approach Christian sacred texts and church traditions with the same literary and historical scrutiny, as other works and belief systems, it became increasingly clear John himself did not write the gospel. Rather it is generally held that the gospel is a work of a Johannine community, followers of the likely deceased Disciple John. It was probably written over several years, layered with new thoughts and dogmatic interpretations as the community continued to evolve in its beliefs, likely rooted in John’s teaching. It didn’t reach its final composition until around 100CE, some 30 years after the Gospel of Mark was completed. Therefore, it is very understandable why it paints for us such a vividly different picture of Jesus than the other three synoptic gospels do. We tend to convolute all four gospels in our heads when reading them separately, but they are each very different books - even contradicting one another at times.
I prefer to read the Gospel of John not as a historical piece but rather as a love poem written by a Christian church. A community of “The Way” wishing to express their views and adoration of the one they called the Christ. When we approach the Gospel of John from this direction, rather than as a historical book, we can begin to appreciate its stories and words in a much different and more holistic light. We go from hearing dogmas and irrevocable commands seemingly made by Christ, to understanding early followers of Jesus trying to live out their faith to the best of their ability and understanding.
Poetry is often exaggerated, it worships its hero and loves to place within the hero its own thoughts and desires. We see this occurring in the Gospel of John. The text is an interpretation of Jesus’s life that was desired by the compilers and editors of the last written gospel book to be included the main Christian canon. Many of us have heard the phrase “self-fulfilled prophecy,” in a way that is the Gospel of John. The community needed Jesus to be the fulfillment of the prophecies that they had long waited to come to pass…enough of his story lined up. So ultimately they felt the blessing and freedom to poetically bring it full circle. This is fine, however it needs to be understood when approaching the text and interpreting in the light of our beliefs and Christian communities today.
Today, we heard a passage that is both comforting and horrifying for many of us. Many of us here grew up in very traditional Christian circles. We likely learned the 6th verse of the 14th chapter in Sunday school as a very young child. Next to John 3:16, it is probably the most cherished and, dare I say, abused Scripture in John. It says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” As children many of us cherished this verse, it was after all unquestioning proof that we were in the correct religion! The only one that led to heaven - no ands/ifs/or buts about it. The verse seemed to be absolute in its proclamation, and as humans we tend to cherish the idea of things being clear-cut and without question. Once upon a time I also cherished the idea that I was secure in where I would spend eternity, even if the same verse seemed to claim that million would not be joining me.
However, as I continued through my life journey, and I am guessing the same is true for many of you, this Scripture became a burden rather than a blessing. No longer could I read it with ignorant eyes, easily dismissing the fate of millions of individuals through out all time. As a child it seemed simple: “Jesus is the only way to heaven and this verse proves that!” However, as the Scripture says, we grow and put childish ways behind us, moving from drinking milk to eating meat when it comes to the understanding of God. Suddenly as a critically thinking adult, aware of the beautiful diversity of faith and pluralism in the world, this verse seemed or felt more like: “Jesus, what the heck did you really mean by that, if you ever said it in the first place, and how does this affect my faith in the world around me?”
Most of us are dear friends with Muslims, Jews, agnostics, atheists and pagans, you name it, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so easy to throw all these people into a heap worthy of the “fires of hell” because they have a different belief system. As children most of us were raised in a fairly small world where our families and communities were composed of like-minded individuals who all practiced the same religion. In that closed little world we are able to easily interpret passages, such as these in John, to be literal, historical and absolute verses of unwavering dogma. Not so as we entered real life and the pluralistic world. It becomes even more difficult when we acknowledge that many of the claims Christ supposedly made in John are made by other divine figures throughout human history. Also, we suddenly learn of an academic and critical approach to the Bible and realize these “I AM” claims are more likely the work of Jesus’ followers some two, to three, generations after his death and never spoken by the man himself. Ah! It is intense to say the least.
How our small world of Christian religious supremacy begins to crumble before us! This can be frightening or it can be beautiful. When people reach these truths in their spiritual journey they have the choice to engage them honestly or to flee back to their literal fundamentalist roots for fear they burn in hell or begin to doubt. I am a strong believer that genuine faith requires questioning and curiosity – even doubt. I dare wonder: if faith doesn’t exist apart from dogma and doctrine can it truly be called faith at all? The Bible tells us faith is: “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Contrary to popular contemporary Evangelism, faith is not agreeing about set doctrines of Christ’s divinity nor hating those of different sexual understandings or even believing every single word of Scripture is some sort of literal and absolute decree from heaven. Faith is hoping, in the midst of questioning; faith is holding onto the promise of hope, even when there is nothing much left to hold or see with human eyes. Faith is being honest, faith is questioning and faith is exploring and seeking.
So today a Scripture that is often known as a clobber-text, a text that is used to refute all contradictory arguments based solely on its few words, must be viewed by the critically thinking Christian in a new possible light. One of these possibilities has already been mentioned. The likely fact that Jesus never said a single word of John 14:6 and therefore we might not need to bother with interpretation; we could simply leave it behind as unnecessary. However, this option doesn’t leave me satisfied. It could be because I have yet to totally let go of the fundamentalist trappings, with which I was raised, but I think it’s deeper than that. I truly believe that all of Scripture, even those parts entirely made up and concocted by men, seeking to push their own agendas, can still be significant. They might meaningful simply because they act as warning signs of what can happen in religion if we become carried way with ourselves. Or they might have a hidden message of gold within them. I feel today’s passage has some hidden gold once we get past literal interpretations and the slippery belief that Jesus made this statement as some sort of authoritative proclamation promising heaven to his disciples while promising hell for everyone else.
Let’s look at it briefly with new eyes. One beautiful realization is that this question and answer segment between Thomas and Jesus is just that - a dialogue between a follower of Jesus and Jesus himself. Never is the question proposed: “What happens to those who are not your disciples?” Due to our childhood religious training we tend to forget to look at passages in context rather than heaping on our own beliefs. This reading is Thomas simply wanting to make sure that that he makes it to the place where Jesus is going, as in typical style Jesus is going on “ahead.” Never for a moment is he trying to determine the value and worth of the world’s religions or the fate of every man, woman and child who walked the earth. The Johannine community who composed this passage layer by layer was undoubtedly the actual ones seeking an answer to this question. Could they be sure they would spend eternity with the one they had deemed to be the Christ, the savior of all? Poetically they put into words the truth they believed, something like this: “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the revelation of the Father, the creator. And in Jesus is the way to place of many dwelling places.”
No doubt, these words were absolute truth for the community composing the text. I am reminded of a child who tells their mother or father they have the best parent in the whole world! They are speaking truth, what they are saying is completely factual to them, their experiences and their surroundings. However, I believe even the parent being praised would take great issue if their child went down the street and told a neighborhood parent theirs was the only “best mother or father in the world” and the neighbor parent was subpar, unnecessary or, at worst, evil. Truth is often found in love and relationship but to turn such truths into decrees forced upon every living person somehow misses the mark, doesn’t it?
Therefore, it is our calling as progressive faith people, many progressive Christians, to cherish these words while understanding they are truth to us in our beliefs and relationship with God but may very well may be only partial truth to someone of another belief system. For many of us Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and the method to which we see God manifested before us, but for another it might not be the case. And contrary to how many of us were raised, this is okay and a beautiful part of living in a world where God created and allowed for diversity in all things!
Thich Nhat Hanh best writes another possible understanding of this passage in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Here it is:
"When Jesus said, “I am the way,” He meant that to have a true relationship with God, you must practice His way. In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians always spoke of their faith as “the Way.” To me, “I am the way” is a better statement than “I know the way.” The way is not an asphalt road. But we must distinguish between the “I” spoken by Jesus and the “I” that people usually think of. The “I” in His statement is life itself, His life, which is the way.
If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus."
I encourage you as you continue in your journey of seeking the way, the truth and the life to be open to the Spirit of God as the Spirit whispers, “Here I am and there I am.” The Spirit of God alive in Jesus is also found in each one of us and we are to become the way of truth and life for all those around us. We do not simply show the way but we allow ourselves to become the way as Jesus did. This is not an easy calling. It took Jesus to the place of death. I personally hope it doesn’t take any of us to the place of physical death but it will likely take us to uncomfortable places, to places and people we would rather not be bothered with. But in those moments be reminded, you could very well be the saving grace that helps another through their darkest moments, you could be the one who reflects the Father, the Creator, and gives them hope and security. You could be the one possibility, the only way, they have to find what they are seeking and if you turn a blind eye they may never arrive at the place they are meant too.
Buddha once said, “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” Tomorrow, you will be born again, how will you demonstrate the way, the truth and the life for yourself and others? How will you become the “I AM” to the world around you? I encourage you to no longer simply point to God but become one with God, so that those who see you also see God.