Passage: John 14:1-7
Date: July 9, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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This past spring I invited folks to let me know of scripture passages they have struggled with and would like to hear a sermon on. I didn’t get much of a response – only three, and two of them were the same passage – but that’s okay.
Today’s passage from John 14 is the first of the texts members mentioned to me. Before we delve into this, though, I’d like to start with some big-picture stuff about how we read the Bible.
I would encourage all people of faith, and for us here, people of the Christian faith, to read the Bible seriously. For me, that means reading it in two ways – as a collection of books to be studied with the best academic tools we have and as a collection of stories meant to undergird the relationship between the human and the Divine. The Bible is not simply a text to be studied, nor is it simply holy writing to be taken literally. We wrestle with it even as we wrestle with what it means to be beloved children of God.
There are some Bible scholars who suggest that when we read the Bible, we keep in mind the overarching themes found in all the books. The love of God is a theme. So is fidelity to God, and hospitality to strangers, and compassion and forgiveness. When one reads part of the Bible, one looks for how one or some of those overarching themes are present.
To take the Bible seriously means that we acknowledge that this one book is actually a library of sixty-six books written over the course of thousands of years in ancient languages. We have no original manuscripts of those first books, only copies of copies of copies of copies. The books have been edited again and again, and translated. Some of the books are like myth and folklore, foundational stories. Some are history. Some are poetry. Some are letters. Some are this thing unique to the Christian Bible – gospels.
When we read the Bible seriously, we first look at what kind of book we’re reading, so that we don’t read poetry as literal history. With today’s lesson, we’re reading a gospel, an account of the life of Jesus that is more than a biography. A gospel is a story about a person and it’s a story that tells good news. John’s gospel differs in deep ways from the other three gospels.
Jesus seems more mystical. The author wrote about Jesus for a group of his followers who were struggling with what it meant to be Jews who believed the Messiah had come and had died and had been raised from the dead. John’s gospel describes seven miracles, from turning water into wine to raising a man from the dead. And Jesus is self-referential, a lot, in this gospel. He uses “I am” statements to describe who he is, and who he is in relationship to God whom he calls Father, and who he is in relationship to his disciples.
This particular passage is part of a long section of the gospel known as the Farewell Discourse, a talk by Jesus after what we know as the Last Supper, after Jesus has said that one of his disciples will betray him and that he will be handed over and killed. They are upset. So he says to them, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” And he continues.
Now maybe, as we try to understand this passage, it might be important to note that Jesus has a big, three-part “I am” statement here: I am the way and the truth and the life. And maybe it’s important to note that these are ideas that John mentioned at the very beginning of his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The themes of life and truth are found throughout the gospel.
It’s also helpful to remember that these words are addressed to Jesus’ disciples, those whom Jesus loves and trusts the most. The words that might be hard and confusing – “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” – are an answer to a question. I think to take them out of this context and to make them universal does a disservice to what Jesus is teaching his disciples, to the comfort he is trying to give them as they begin to mourn his death.
So that’s the academic side of things, how we might take this scripture passage seriously. But how do we take it faithfully? What do these hard or weird words of Jesus have to teach us about our relationship with God, or about God’s relationship with the world?
The phrase I’m focusing on comes after Jesus has apparently said something about Heaven or the afterlife, this mention of his Father’s house having many rooms, that there is a place Jesus is preparing for his disciples. For some, these words “no one comes to the Father except through me” mean that we can only know God through Jesus, or to take a shortcut, that only Christians will go to Heaven. One could read these words and picture Jesus as the bouncer at the pearly gates.
I don’t believe that only Christians, people who follow Jesus, get into Heaven, whatever Heaven might mean. (And I don’t want to duck the issue, but that really is another sermon for another day!)
I don’t believe that for a few reasons. First, I don’t presume to know the mind of God. What God does with us after we die is not for me to know. It’s not for any of us to know. Second, I’m a good Protestant. I believe in grace and not works, that we cannot earn our way to salvation. The gift of life eternal is about the heart of God and not about us doing the right thing, even the right thing of following Jesus.
Third and finally, I don’t believe that this scripture is teaching that only Christians go to Heaven because I take the Bible seriously. As I read and study this passage, I think that what Jesus is saying is that faith is not a matter of signing an agreement about doctrine. Faith is about relationship. Faith is about relationship with God. And for Christians, faith is about a relationship with God made possible for us because of Jesus’ relationship with God.
For Jesus, as he is portrayed in John’s gospel, relationship with God is about a quality of life, what he calls life eternal, or life gushing-up. It’s a life that begins when one takes a first breath, a life that continues after the last breath. It’s not about Heaven and clouds and harps and angels. It’s not about following all the rules so you don’t go to the hot, sulphurous place of pain and torment ruled by a guy with horns and a pitchfork.
Relationship with God is about life, a life that seeks what is true and shuns false rulers and flawed systems. It’s a life that is abundant in good news and not the fake news of the powerful who trample on the poor and outcast. It’s also about being faithful to God, not cheating on God by worshiping whatever thousands of little idols cross our paths.
Relationship with God is about a life that is marked not by prosperity but by abundance; a life that isn’t graded by how many things you got right, but a life that is generous enough to allow sin and grace; a life whose goal is not to get into Heaven, but to be loved and to love in return.
So if this passage is not about only Christians getting into Heaven, what is it about? What kind of comfort is Jesus offering his disciples, and what is he saying about their relationship with God?
The human relationship with God is not a static thing. It really is best represented as a journey or a pilgrimage. We take two steps forward and one step back. What we believed about God as children will not be what we believe about God as adults. Sometimes we stray from the path, we get sidelined by grief or greed or despair, and we have to go back and start over. It is a way, not a destination. It is a road, a path, a trail.
Jesus came to teach people about God, something he was in a unique position to do as the Son of God. He had insider information because he had been inside the heart of God. To truly know God, Jesus says to his followers, you need to listen to what I am saying.
Can we then draw the conclusion that Jesus is the only way to God? I don’t think so, but I do understand why some might believe that.
I think this is a text by a Christian for other Christians. These words are an encouragement and a challenge for those who already follow Jesus. I acknowledge that for some Christians, a huge part of their understanding of living out their faith involves bringing others to Christ, leading others to acceptance of Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I acknowledge that, but that’s not a huge part of how I live out my faith.
I – like so many of you – live out my faith by striving to live the truth that Jesus proclaimed – that God is love, and we are called to show grace and compassion as often as we can. And as a pastor, I see my call, in part, to be in walking with other followers of Jesus as we try to figure out which way he would have us go.
Bible scholar Eugene Peterson summed up the message of these words in a way that serve as a good ending for this sermon today. “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”