By the Way

Sermon for May 22, 2011 ||  5 Easter ||  John 14: 1 -14
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

These are pretty familiar words to a lot of us. Words we may have grown up with. Words we see on billboards and bumper stickers. Words we hear at many funerals. But they can be dangerous words, too. Dangerous because they’re words that have been used for centuries to force Christianity on people of other faiths—and far too often in brutally violent, decidedly un-Christian ways–and all in the name of saving “lost” souls. Sometimes the end justifies the means, but the history of Christianity screams that the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

My mother used to ask me with such childlike earnestness, “What about all the people who lived before Jesus? What about all my Jewish friends? Are they all condemned to hell?” My mom had a very simple, yet profound faith, and these words were a terrible stumbling block for her. She didn’t understand how it could possibly be true that “no one”—not one soul—could come to God except through Jesus Christ.

I once went to a lecture that was called, “Living Faithfully in an Interfaith World.” The speaker was one of my homiletical heroes, award-winning preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. I went to hear Taylor not only because she was the focus of my idol worship, but because I really was confused about how to live as a faithful, yet tolerant, Christian in light of scripture passages like this one. I was full of questions, questions like: Do we really believe that Jesus Christ is the unique revelation of God—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—and the only access to God? And if Jesus is the only way to eternal life with God, don’t we have a moral responsibility to save the souls of all the non-Christian folks of the world? Or is it disrespectful and triumphalist even to think about converting others? On the other hand, if we don’t believe Christ is the Way, what makes Christianity different from any other religion? Why be Christian at all? There are certainly a lot of much easier, softer, less-demanding spiritual paths!

Well, Barbara Brown Taylor’s presentation was certainly provocative. First, she summarized a number of different positions that faithful Christians might take in relation to other religions. We all listened expectantly for the one that would work for us. Taylor started with what’s known as the “exclusivist.” The exclusivist is someone who believes that Jesus Christ is, in fact, the one path to salvation; that he’s the definitive, unique revelation of God, and only through him can one find salvation. Next, Taylor described the “inclusivist.” The inclusivist agrees that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, but makes room for the salvation of a lot of other folks he or she calls “anonymous Christians”—faithful Jews, Muslims, humanists, and other folks who don’t call themselves Christian, but who surely act more like Christians than a lot of those of card-carrying Christians do. They’ll be okay too, according to inclusivists, because basically they are Christians, they just don’t know it yet. Then you’ve got your “pluralists”—a very popular category these days. These tend to be politically correct and theologically liberal folks who believe that all paths to God are equally valid. And finally, you’ve got what Taylor describes as the “evolved pluralist,” the person who focuses primarily on the need to be in dialogue with other faiths, and open to the possibility of being changed, transformed, or even converted, by that dialogue. Taylor was pretty clear that she was an “evolved pluralist.”

Well, I don’t know about anyone else at this lecture, but I didn’t really find myself fitting into any one of these categories. I remember leaving that day feeling decidedly confused, alone, and worse yet, theologically incorrect. Because I was most definitely not an evolved pluralist like my hero. In fact, unless this is the first time you’ve heard me preach, you’ve probably already surmised that I do believe Jesus Christ is the unique revelation of God. That’s why I’m a Christian. I do believe that in Jesus Christ, God became fully human, and that he was, in effect, “God with flesh and bones.” And while I love studying and being in dialogue with other faiths, I cannot in all honesty say I think they’re equally valid. I don’t. Nor do I believe, that despite their many commonalities, all religions are basically saying the same thing. Only Christianity teaches that God loves us so much he once became one of us, then gave up his life so that we might live ours free from fear. But I don’t believe for one minute that all non-Christians are doomed to eternal damnation either!

So you can probably understand that it is with no small amount of trepidation that I approach today’s Gospel. Because as much as I cling to my so-called “exclusivist” claims about God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, there’s no way I can affirm the belief that only through Him can anyone know the Father. After all, the gospel this morning also says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Surely some of those places are for non-Christians!

So how do we resolve this apparent conflict?

One easy way out is to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that according to Biblical scholars, these are in all likelihood not the authentic words of Christ, but of the Gospel writer himself—John. John had more than a passing interest in persuading his hearers that the way of Christ was the one and only only way. John was writing at an excruciatingly painful time in the life of Christianity’s break from Judaism. John and his Christ-following Jewish brethren had been kicked out of the synagogue, ostracized by their family and friends, and exiled, in effect, from all they held near and dear. John was writing to dissuade them from giving up as followers of Christ in favor of returning to orthodox Judaism—a real temptation indeed. So we could tell ourselves Jesus never really claimed he was the one and only way, and put the matter to rest.

But I’d like to suggest another resolution, and it goes like this: Jesus says he is the Way. Isn’t a “way” a path or road to be followed, rather than a prescribed set of beliefs? Remember that Jesus also said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” He didn’t say by their beliefs but by their fruits. In fact, Jesus roundly rebuked and rejected the right-believing, but wrong-behaving, Pharisees. And he praised—of all people, a Roman pagan for his faith!

The way of Jesus is the way of death and of resurrection: death to an old way of being, and resurrection to a new way of being; death to the old self, birth to a new self. The way of Jesus is also the way of compassion and tolerance; of humility and self-giving; of healing and reconciliation, of inclusion and truth telling, of mercy and justice. The way of Jesus is the way of making God’s love known in the world, and of attracting followers because of that love.

In Alcoholics Anonymous there’s a saying that it’s a program of “attraction not promotion.” We don’t go around proselytizing folks. We know we can’t force anyone to get sober. Instead, we carry the message of recovery by the way we live our new, transformed, and sober lives. Then when, by the grace of God, someone has ears to hear, we share our story with enthusiasm and joy. The rest, we realize, is up to God.

I wonder if that approach makes sense for Christians, too. Maybe as we strive to be faithful Christians in a multi-faith world, the best place to begin is with ourselves, so Christianity is effective as a faith of attraction, not promotion….

Of course, this means constantly dying to old ways of being and making room for new ways of being. It means incarnating God’s self-giving love in the world ever more visibly, tangibly, and powerfully as we continue on “the Way.” It means learning and listening; inquiring and imagining, encouraging and empowering. It means praying, discerning, and praying some more. And it means dying to self, so that others might live.

But that is, after all, the way of Jesus. So it’s how we can live a faith of attraction, rather than promotion. And maybe then, when– by the grace of God— someone has ears to hear, we will dare to share our story—our uniquely Christian story—with enthusiasm and with joy; knowing the rest, thank heaven, is up to God. Amen.

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