This is the Sunday that Patricia Lyons is preaching at Latour.
And she shared with the Friday Bible Study
how she is going to open her sermon this morning.
Its so insightful that I think I need to offer it for you as well.
It’s a story about a man who dies and who is whisked up into heaven
where he is met by a couple of angels.
They greet him and welcome him,
up the stairs, through the clouds
to the grand foyer of a HUGE mansion,
the house with many rooms.
The angels proceed to lead him on the grand tour.
They walk along and come across one room with a huge table
luxurious spread of cheese and meats
fresh grapes and strawberries
people milling about with glasses of wine
or pop, if that’s your thing
talking and laughing and having a great time.
The Episcopalians, explain the angels
as they take a bite of manchego passing through the room.
They continue down the hall a bit
and come across another decent space.
There are many people there, chanting beautifully, rhythmically
in Gregorian style.
One of the Roman Catholic rooms, the angels explain
as they point to a few other of their rooms down a corridor.
We have wings for all sorts of worship styles
there are so many rooms…..
They press on. In a few minutes the guides start whispering,
and turn to their new guest asking him to start walking gingerly
tip-toe if possible, they say.
And they quietly glide past another room in the house.
A bit further on, where it is safe to talk again,
they turn to him to explain:
That room: those are the fundamentalists.
They think they’re the only ones here…..
If you’ve been to many funerals in your life,
then you are NOT used to hearing this passage from John
without a casket or urn
or at least a memorial picture and some Kleenex in sight.
Its one of the all-time great passages of consolation,
in which Jesus assures those who love him—who are LOSING him—
–that they will ALL be together again some day.
It is HIS casket sitting in front of them—or at least it will be very soon,
and he is doing his best to comfort them ahead of time.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says—
–but he is wasting his breath.
Their hearts are BREAKING.
How can they not be sad?
He is going to get things ready for them, he tells them.
He is going to prepare a place for them—
–and his destination is NO mystery.
They know how to get there.
They know the way to where he is going.
ONLY…this is the Gospel of John—
–in which almost EVERYTHING is a mystery…
…as only Thomas has the chutzpah to point out.
“Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says.
“How can we know the way?”
It is a TEACHING MOMENT at which John excels—one of Jesus’ last—
–in which someone’s baffled question
gives him the chance to say who he is.
By now Jesus has already said: “I am the bread of life.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I am the good shepherd.”
NOW, Thomas’ question allows him
to add three last pieces to the puzzle.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,”Jesus says,
letting Thomas and all the others know
that there is NO map he can give them to where he is going.
Jesus HIMSELF is the way—the route, the road, the path.
He is the door…the gate…the key….the access.
The truth and life he embodies are NOT available in the abstract.
They are ONLY available in relationship—
–through Jesus’ love for his friends,
through God’s love for him,
through their love for one another.
Inside that life-changing web of intimacy—
—they will find their way home.
OUTSIDE of that web—NO compass on earth will do them any good.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,”Jesus said.
And the whole history of the world might be different
IF he had stopped right there…but he didn’t.
“…No one comes to the Father except through me” he went on to say,
giving his followers all the warrant they would ever need
to turn his way into the way of crusades,
Many rooms in the house…no matter.
Many sheep not of the fold to save…no matter.
Came to the world not to condemn it but to save…no matter.
It did NOT happen immediately.
When Jesus first spoke these words—
–and even 60 years later, when John first wrote them down—
–the followers of the Way were still a small, persecuted band
living on the edges of society.
Evil and death circled over their heads like a cloud of patient vultures.
It only seemed like a matter of time before they became extinct.
No one was telling them they were right to follow Jesus.
On the contrary,
people were lining up to tell Christians that they were IDOLATROUS,
and DAMNED…all for following Jesus.
NOTHING could have sounded sweeter to their ears
than Jesus’ reassurance that they were on the right track—
–the ONLY track—to God.
Their faith in that was what allowed them to go willingly
to their own deaths,
and EVEN to forgive those who punished them,
who stoned them, who threw them in the lions ring.
By imitating Christ, they embarked on the way,
and the life that would lead them home.
All that changed in the 4th century–
–when the persecuted band became the official religion
of the Holy Roman Empire.
All of a sudden, “No one comes to the Father except through me”
was backed up by an army,
and an increasingly powerful church—
–which was NOT bashful about using some of the same tactics
it had picked up from its earlier tormentors.
Over the next 1500 years,
Jesus’ sweet words of assurance around a last supper table
became a banner under which countless Muslims, Jews,
and even Orthodox Christians were killed.
Then the protestant reformation: so so bloody, in some parts of Europe.
When there is ONLY ONE WAY—
–all other ways must be cut off—for God’s sake,
for their own sake,
for the sake of those they might lead astray.
In recent years, the killing in places like Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur
(just to name a few of the recent killing fields)
has its roots in this conviction.
As long as it survives,
there will be NO end to the enmity and retaliation.
This is a problem no 21st century Christian can ignore—
but it is such a difficult one that most of us
do NOT know what to do about it.
…Shall we “demote Jesus,”
conceding that his truth is one among many—
— or shall we insist that his way is definitive
and that all other ways are thereby LACKING?
I never lost much sleep over this growing up.
Even though I grew up in a decidedly diverse environment
and went to high school with Jews, Muslims, atheists and Nones
for the most part, I have lived my life among other Christians.
Even 20 years ago, we didn’t fight about whether Jesus was the WAY.
We fought about what way that was, exactly.
Was it the way of social action or the way of quiet devotion?
Was it the way of purity or the way of forgiveness?
Was it the way of Pat Robertson or the way of Jesse Jackson?
Do any of you remember this scene from the Movie SAVED?
We’re still doing that—fighting among ourselves—
–but lo and behold,
while we were doing our intramural squabbling…
…mosques started opening up in storefronts.
And then Buddhist groups started getting their fair share of time
at Barnes and Noble’s Spirituality Series.
And I see Hindu children at a local grocery store with their parents…
Now, which WAY…is which?
As long as these neighbors remain the MINORITY,
many of us will NOT feel compelled to think through
our relationship with them.
The burden will remain on THEM—
–to learn how to live in a culture that regards their religion
at best as STRANGE
and, at worst, as WRONG.
And, it will remain up to THEM to figure out how to fend off groups
who EITHER want to shut them down,
or to convert them.
Meanwhile, they are our NEIGHBORS–
–these people who do NOT believe in Jesus,
whom Jesus has given us to love—
–so that we cannot escape the nettlesome question of TRUTH.
Things would be so much easier if it were about a truth.
Instead, it’s about the truth:
the way, the truth, and the life
without whom no one comes to God.
Perhaps the easiest way to deal with it
is to dismiss John’s Gospel altogether.
It is the latest of the four gospels to be written, after all,
and the least historical,
and the ONLY one
in which Jesus walks around proclaiming who he is.
But we cannot ignore John.
And even if you were to delete John,
you cannot delete the church that grew up reading him.
What are you going to do about things like the Nicene Creed?
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the ONLY son of God…?”
One thing that helps me is to remember:
this is confessional language—
–it is LOVE language—
—written during the first few centuries of the church
when Christians were still trying to figure out who they were,
even as they knew the Savior they loved.
When Jesus said that he was the way, the truth, the life—
–he was NOT, at that moment, addressing an interfaith tribunal
as the central figure of a dominant world religion.
…He was speaking to a small circle of his friends,
on the night before he died…
Their feet were still wet from his washing them.
One of them had his head on Jesus’ breast.
Another had just run from the room with a wild look in his eye.
The fate of the Hindus was NOT on Jesus’ mind at the moment.
He was NOT focused on his superiority over Buddha
He was swamped with love for his friends,
whose hearts were troubled.
He was giving them everything he could think of
to help them survive without him—
–and he used the singular, exclusive language
that people who love so often do.
And when John wrote it down later, he used that language too:
You are the only woman in the world for me.
You are the best parent anyone ever had.
You are the most special grandmother in the whole world.
No one has ever loved anyone the way I love you.
This is NOT objective language, intended to judge other women,
This is language spoken out of the depths of RELATIONSHIP,
to affirm the truth that ONLY LOVE can grasp.
That night, if Jesus had said:
“Friends, I am one way among many…
…Now, you must decide for yourselves which way is best”—
–they might all have died
of ANXIETY or DESPAIR on the spot!
But he did NOT say that.
He used LOVE language instead.
I am the only one for you.
You have made the right choice.
No one can lead you to God better than I can.
So here’s the thing:
..When we wrench that language loose from its moorings
and use it to separate ourselves from our neighbors,
we DEFORM the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
When we try to use this text as an equation or a formula,
–we vandalize and debase our Easter HOPE.
We turn the way of servanthood—
–into a way of asserting our own dominance.
We turn the truth of God’s presence—
–into a truth that is ONLY available to those
who call it by the right name.
We turn the life of transparent loyalty to God—
–into a life of loyalty to OUR OWN lens.
The DANGER, when we do this, is that
our insistence on Christ…may make us LESS than Christian.
We forget that the spirit of Easter was given to everyone—
–and that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection
is the clearest picture we have
of God’s initiative of LOVE and GRACE for all.
Am I saying there is nothing special about Jesus,
and that one religion is as good as another? I hope not!
Jesus is my Lord and Savior.
He is my truth, my life, and my way to God.
I believe that his life, death, and resurrection changed the relationship
between God and the world forever,
and I am fully committed to following him,
no matter how poor my imitation of him may be.
Because of Jesus, I am able to say my prayers—wherever I may be.
Because of Jesus, I can learn from people who call God by other names.
Because of Jesus, I bow my head before sacrificial love wherever I find it.
Because of Jesus, I can receive the contributions of other religions’
understanding of God, as I remain fervently Christian.
Because of Jesus, I know who my neighbors are.
Because of Jesus, I know how BIG and WELCOMING God’s heart is,
and how big and welcoming MY heart is to be, too.
Its all because of Jesus.
This way of openness to God,
this way of relationship with other people,
this way of unconditional love is the ONLY WAY for me.
I don’t know any other way to God…
Ask me about God’s opinion of other ways…
…and I will refer you to God.
There are SOME ways that bear NO resemblance
to the way of Jesus Christ,
and they are troubling,
and these ways BEG to be opposed for the good of all people—
—but opposed…as Jesus himself would oppose them:
by offering himself to them,
by feeding them,
by showing how God truly acts.
…by living the truth of Easter
in every way,
every breath…with every person.
Meanwhile, how can I hold such contradictions?
….Because I am a Christian, that’s why.
This faith of ours is FULL of contradictions:
We believe in one God who is three.
We believe Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
We believe death is the way to life.
We believe all kinds of things that DON’T go together,
so why not add one more paradox to the list?
We believe passionately that Jesus is the ONLY WAY—
–and that his way teaches us to live in peace with OTHER ways.
…I certainly understand IF this doesn’t satisfy you.
But if it doesn’t, THEN I hope you will continue to struggle
UNTIL you arrive at something that does SATISFY YOU.
Because this is a confusing world,
and lots about our life and about God is NOT clear.
But, one thing IS very clear:
Jesus died in hope of ending all divisions.
He rose with the promise of a world
in which ALL would be made one.
How God will manage that remains to be seen,
but one thing seems sure:
Our lives—yours and mine—how we live,
and how we love
and how we believe—
–are CRUCIAL to God’s loving,
awesome Easter way!
This sermon is indebted to a sermon I heard preached by the Rev. Mark Ramsey entitled “Easter Way.” In it, he cited the theological work of Barbara Brown Taylor and his conversations with the Rev. Dirk Ficca, and the Rev. Stan Davis.
Image credit: Found online, google search for “The Way,” at http://st.gdefon.com/wallpapers_original/wallpapers/545166_they_guard_the_way_trees_road_fog_3456x2183_(www.GdeFon.ru).jpg