by The Rev. Lisa Caine
May 18, 2014
1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-7
Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and I enjoyed a visit from my daughter’s family. When my son and daughter were young children, I told them all the time, “you are the best boy (or best girl) in the whole wide world!” And they, bless their little hearts, would respond, “And you are the best mom!” That ritual was repeated this past Sunday, but now, of course, Meg is not only the best daughter, she also is a candidate for “best” mom as well. And with two grandsons, I have to be careful that I differentiate between the two best boys. Isak is the best four year old boy, and Lukas is the best three year old boy in the whole wide world. I wouldn’t want either of them to think they were not the best for one second! I imagine in your own families there are a lot of “bests” too – best moms, best dads, best children and grandchildren.
But objectively speaking, I have no illusions about being the best mom in the whole wide world. I would never win that contest, if there were to be one. And probably, again objectively speaking, there are other little boys out there in the world who might possibly, by some stretch of the imagination, equal Isak and Lukas in the best category. In fact, some of them and they are right here in this church. The thing is these statements of superlatives – best boy, best girl, best mom, best dad – are meant personally and privately. When I say them, when you say them, we mean it within our individual families. And we are telling the truth from our own experience, knowing full well that these are personal evaluations and statements of affection, not meant to apply to the entire planet, but just for us and our relationships. The people next door, or down the street, or on the other side of the globe know the best in the whole wide world also within their families. So, these are not words of absolute, universal truth, but particular words of love and attachment meant for particular individuals.[i]
This realization has helped me to come to an understanding of today’s scripture reading, the words of Jesus to his disciple Thomas who had expressed concern about Jesus’ leaving them. “Lord,” he said, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus answered him – answered Thomas particularly—that’s how John describes it — “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Jesus had told the disciples earlier in this last conversation with them, “do not let your hearts be troubled.” But Thomas, you know – the one we’ve labeled the doubter, but who probably should better be remembered as the questioner – is troubled. He doesn’t know what to think; he’s worried about Jesus’ talk of going away. Probably the other disciples don’t have a clue about what Jesus is talking about either, but Thomas is the one who speaks up and asks for more information. “How can we know the way?” And Jesus responds directly to his personal question; just as he responded after his resurrection directly to Thomas’s need to see Jesus’ actual wounds before he could believe along with the other disciples that he was risen.
Unfortunately over the centuries, Christians have turned these words of comfort from Jesus to his questioning disciple into what some call a “clobber text,”[ii] a passage of scripture often wielded as a weapon in theological debates. They have been used to bludgeon opponents into submission and have become in some religious circles a litmus test for faith or a rallying cry for Christian triumphalism. These words of encouragement and comfort have been used to “prove” we Christians have the corner on God, and that people of other faiths are condemned.[iii] Of course, it is my personal belief that whenever we turn the Bible into a weapon against others, it ceases to be the word of God and simply becomes a tool of our own fears and desire for power and control. And nothing is more sinister than cloaking what is really our own personal anxieties and needs, in the garb of God’s word. Truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
If we put this passage into its historical setting, hopefully it becomes clear what John is trying to do for his congregation. He was writing somewhere around the year 90 or so, to a small group of believers, probably living under persecution, who had found in Jesus a revelation of the nature of God. He had become their way to God. They clung to his memory. When they heard about him, when they thought about his life, when they reflected on his deeds of kindness and mercy, when they contemplated his death and the forgiveness he offered from the cross, when they reflected on his miraculous resurrection and his return breathing peace, they knew that he was, as Paul had written earlier, “the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In life and in death Jesus was the embodiment of the unfailing love of God, consistently leading through all circumstances toward what was good and just and holy.
When John was writing these words for his little congregation, he wasn’t thinking in terms of the world’s great religions. He was thinking in terms of his small group of believers. And Jesus’ words would have been heard by them to mean, “None of you within this community will come to know God except patterning your life after mine.”
I would not be here this morning if I did not believe these words to be true for me and for our community as well. I was born into a Christian, specifically United Methodist, family and the way of Christ has been the way that I have been taught to follow since my baptism as an infant. It is my tradition; it is my heritage; it is my identity. And I believe that Jesus shows us the way we are to live; his way incarnates the truth about the nature of God; and his way of truth leads us to God and to abundant life.
Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is our way to God, but at the same time Jesus is God’s way to us.” If we follow Jesus’ way through faith, obedience, prayer, acts of kindness and mercy, and sacrificial, unselfish love, we will find our way to God. And likewise, God finds God’s way to us by revealing God’s self to us in Jesus, as John wrote at the beginning of his gospel: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory.” (John 1:14)[iv]
These words of faith are a confessional celebration of the transformation that John’s community found and our community has found through Jesus, the Christ, and the eternal life available in the here and now if we will but accept his invitation to follow. When he spoke these famous – sometimes infamous words – I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” he wasn’t speaking a warning to unbelievers. He was not thinking of Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. He was speaking encouragement to Thomas and his own disciples, his friends, the ones who knew him best, among them Peter who had already said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living god.” He wasn’t so much speaking about being the gateway to heaven as a means of excluding people from the presence of God, as he was speaking about being the inclusive model for life lived in the eternal presence of God right here today.
And this is the good news that we share with the world today. But nowhere in this great good news is the reason to believe that Christian believers are any better or more loved by God than anyone else. In our Epistle reading we heard, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Mercy is God’s to give, not ours to restrict. God’s relationship with other people is God’s business, not ours. I don’t’ know about you, but it is with great relief that I say, it is not our job to be God! God is free to act in whatever way God chooses to act, and one of these ways was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.
Our task is not then to beat other people up with the gospel, or feeling superior to them because we have it and they don’t, we’re in and they’re out. Our task rather is to love others as God in Christ loves them. But that’s hard to do. The Jesus way is not easy. In fact, Eugene Peterson calls “the Jesus way” “the most frequently evaded metaphor” in contemporary Christian culture because it goes against everything our American culture thinks of as good and successful. We give it lip service, but we don’t like to give up control; we are not satisfied in being in on God’s action and participating in what God is doing. We’d rather assume we are in charge and that God is participating in what we’re doing. But Peterson warns, we cannot insist on our own way, for when we don’t do it God’s way, we mess up the truth, and we miss out on the life.
I love the way Fred Craddock describes someone who is doing the Jesus truth in the Jesus way and is thereby living the Jesus life. He says, “I am sure all of you have known a person . . . who, when you are in his or her presence, makes you think better thoughts, live a better life, reflect on God, become more devotional, more spiritual.” . . .someone who, when you see them, by the way they are and what they do and how they relate to people, makes you think “God.”
We are called to be this kind of person. It will take work, persistence, willingness to sacrifice, forgiveness when we falter, courage to try again. And as we focus on what it means to live the Jesus way, speak his truth, and offer his life, perhaps someday, someone will see us being who we are and will say or think, “he (or she) is the best!” not meaning that we’ve won some kind of world-wide contest, but simply that by seeing us being us, they have caught a glimpse of God. May it be so for you and for me as well.
[i] Carl Gregg, “Lectionary Commentary: A Progressive Christian Reading of John 14:6,” Patheos, May 13, 2011.
[iii] Gail O’Day, Gospel of John, New Interpreters’ Bible, Vol. IX, 1995, 743.
[iv] Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 2007, 37-38.