By Sheri Hostetler
Full disclosure: I had already decided that I wanted to preach on John 14:1-11 and out of curiosity, I went back through previous sermon to see if I had ever preached on that passage before. Indeed I had, three years ago. I read through the sermon and uncharacteristically decided that I liked it AND wanted to preach it again (with changes, of course). I checked this impulse out with Sharon, who affirmed giving this sermon another airing. So, if you want your money back, speak to me at the end of the sermon…
My Mom and Dad are both practical people who plan ahead, and so, for years before my Mom died of Lewy Body Dementia in May 2014, I knew that I would be giving the reflection, on behalf of my siblings, at her memorial service. And for years, I have known what I would say: All of us kids – my two brothers and myself – knew there was nothing we could ever do or not do, nothing we could ever be or not be that would cause Mom to love us any less. We always knew that she loved us, unconditionally. During his turbulent teen years, my brother Phil would come home in the middle of the night, drunk or high at least some of the time, and Mom would wake up – if she had even gone to sleep – and sit with him, sometimes for hours, talking about whatever Phil wanted to talk about. “Some parents of that time,” he said, “ might have thrown me out of the home or at least chastised me when I walked in at 2 a.m. Not Mom. I never felt any judgment from her. Only her concern and care for me.”
This is not to say that my Mom didn’t get angry at us, or lose patience with us – she was human, thank God. It just means that her irritation or disappointment was a temporary wavelet on the surface of a deep ocean of love that we knew she had for us. There was nothing we could do to cause more than a ripple in the surface of that love – the ocean held us up, buoyant, our entire lives.
How odd, then, that my mother could not believe in a God as loving as she was. In the last years of her life, as her body and mind was tormented by Lewy Body Dementia, I believe her spirit was as tormented by the fear that the majority of her children and grandchildren would not be with her in heaven because they were not “saved,” because they had not yet accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior in the quite specific way that is meant in conservative Christianity. She asked that the sermon at her memorial service have an “evangelistic emphasis” – her last chance to “save” us.
I’m sure my mother would have turned to John 14:6 as the defense for her beliefs. In that infamous verse, Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me.” It seems pretty clear, right? Indeed, for hundreds of years this verse has been Exhibit A to make the case that the only way to be “saved,” to achieve “eternal life,” was to believe that Jesus died for your sins and accept him into your heart as your Savior. Everyone who didn’t do this was, alas, going to hell.
But is that really what that verse is saying? I’d like to do a Bible study of this passage. Most scholars believe that this passage is not one of the authentic sayings of Jesus — it is theology that the writer of John later put in his mouth to support that community’s truth claims. It’s clear that by the time John was being written, there was much conflict between those Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who didn’t. And those Jews who don’t believe are vilified throughout this Gospel. So, saying “I am the way, the truth, the life” is another way for the Jesus-following Jews to assert their superior truth claims. But I’d like to deal with the text as it is – to read it as if it did come from Jesus’ mouth. If we assume that, does it then make sense that Jesus is making the claim that the only way to “be saved” is through believing in him as Lord and Saviour?
Some context: Chapters 13 though 17 of John are known as the Farewell Discourse. The whole section is Jesus saying good-bye to his followers. It starts with them eating together and in John’s account, Jesus knows very well that this is the last supper he’s going to share with his friends. He wants to leave them with something that will comfort them in the days to come, that will reassure them, serve as a guide to them. (My approach here is indebted to Brian McLaren’s treatment of this passage in his excellent book A New Kind of Christianity: The Questions that are Transforming the Faith.)
That guide is love. The word “love” is mentioned so many times in these four chapters, I stopped counting. Jesus demonstrates his love for his friends by washing their feet and then telling them that, they, too need to do the same. He says: “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It’s all love.
But his friends are upset because Jesus has also told them that he’s going somewhere that they can not follow him. But they want to follow him – they love him, and they don’t want him to go away. Right before the passage we’re about to hear, Simon Peter says, “Lord where are you going? And, why can’t I follow you there?” What follows is Jesus’ answer to him and to everyone else in the room, where the anxiety is starting to become palpable, I would imagine:
“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 where I am going.” (verses 1-4)
Now, some scholars think that the phrase “Father’s house” here refers to heaven – to an eternal realm where we will exist forever with God after we die. Others think “Father’s house” refers to the kingdom of God – which was, of course, Jesus’ main concern – to a this-worldly place, possible in this life, where we dwell in the presence of God, where we live in a realm already governed by God’s compassion and justice. Either way, I think Jesus is offering his followers comfort by saying: “Don’t worry, I’m going away in this form that you knew me in – but I’m going to be present with you in a new way. We’re still going to be together. And you’re going to know how to get from here to where I’m going. So don’t worry about it.”
But they do continue to worry about it. Thomas says – and can’t you hear the anxiety in his voice? – “Lord, we do not know where you are going…. so how can we know the way?” (verse 5) He’s saying: “Give me more specifics. This isn’t enough. I need to know more. I’m afraid I’m going to get lost and not find you.”
So, Jesus basically repeats and reinforces what he’s just said. He tries to reassure Thomas that he’ll know how to find him, so he says (verse 6), “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Now, how do you hear that verse in this context? I hear Jesus reassuring Thomas, saying: “Don’t worry, Thomas. I am the way to God, so just keep on my path, just keep following the way I’ve been showing you, and you’ll find me and in finding me you’ll find God, like you always have. There’s no tricks here, no spiritual techniques or ethical pathways I haven’t already shown you. You know how to do this. You know the way.”
7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ 8Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus 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”? 10Do 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. 11Believe 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.
This, to me, seems to be the core of this passage. Jesus is saying that the invisible God has been made visible in his life. If you want to know what God is like, Jesus says, look at me, my life, my way, my deeds, my character – because I am doing what God wants me to do, what we should do. I am so tight with God, I have such intimate contact with the Source, that I’m a reliable guide. I am the Way.”
In short, Jesus is saying: “Come and see. Look at what I say, what I do, who I am, and you’ll know who God is.” And when we look at Jesus do we really see a person whose being and message is one of exclusion, rejection, and condemnation? Could this Jesus really be saying (and this is Brian McLaren’s restatement of John 14:6), “I am the only way to get to heaven, and confessing the truth about me is the only truth that will get you to life after death. No one will go to heaven unless they a) personally understand and believe a clearly defined message about me, b) personally and consciously ask me to come into their heart and c) disavow any other religious affiliation and d) affiliate with the new religion I’m starting and naming after myself.”
Phrased this way, it seems strange, maybe absurd that we have interpreted John 14:6 as meaning what we have construed it to mean. Maybe not strange. Maybe tragic. I think of the number of grieving mothers over the centuries and today who believe in a God and a Jesus that would condemn their children and grandchildren to an eternity in torment for not believing in a, b c and d.
I think of my niece, Jessica, who gave a reflection at my Mom’s memorial service on behalf of the grandchildren. Jessica is one of the most sensitive, loving, kind people I know. She is one of the grandchildren I’m sure my mother feared would not be in heaven with her. Jessica told of how loved and nurtured she felt by my mother her entire life – of how my Mom provided her a home of line-dried sheets and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and how important this was to Jessica since my brother and his wife, her parents, divorced when she was young and they moved around a lot and her Mom started doing drugs, and the only solid, consistent sense of home she had was at grandma’s house. And she said, tears streaming down her face, of how my Mother taught her how to be a good person. Of how Mom took her to the Ten Thousand village store when she was 10 and introduced her to the concept of Fair Trade, of thinking about the people who made the things you bought, and what conditions they worked under. I see my Mom in Jessica’s life – in the decision she’s made about what work to do, in how she is raising her children, in the kindness that permeates her being, in her concern for justice. I see my Mom in Jessica’s life, and I also see Jesus. I see someone who is not a “confessing Christian” – rather, I see someone who is walking in the Jesus way, living the Jesus truth, embodying the Jesus life.
I trust that my Mom also sees this, now. I trust that she now understands that God’s love is much more like her own than that what she believed throughout her life. Oddly, I think it might be because of my Mom’s unconditional love for us, because of that ocean that buoyed us up, we could never quite believe in her God, a God who fell short of being capable of unconditional love “Himself.” Instead, I chose to believe what my Mom demonstrated in her life and what we sang about in the hymn sung at her memorial that we will soon sing: that the love of God is greater far than tongues or pen can ever tell. That is goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell – in other words, that this love is an ocean, holding us all up, buoyant, our entire lives – and even after. Amen.