Sermon, May 14, 2017

Sermon.05.14.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-4

 

Last week we noted some of the “I am…” statements of Jesus: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9.5; NRSV); “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10.7; NRSV); and “I am the good shepherd” (John 10.11; NRSV).  In today’s gospel, a part of Jesus’ farewell address, we encounter another of the “I am” statements: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6a; NRSV).

Fully knowing the trauma which lays ahead, not only for himself but also for the disciples, and having just informed Peter that he will deny him three times, Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14.1; NRSV). Emotions are running high. Jesus explains that his Father’s house has many dwelling places. He reasons with them, “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14.2; NRSV)? He assures them, since he is going to prepare a place for them, he will return for them such that they may be with him. And then Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14.4; NRSV).

But Thomas objects, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (John 14.5; NRSV)? Thomas is thinking literally, “Where is this place, and what is the road that will take us there.” He was likely wondering, is anyone else as confused as I am? I rather doubt that Jesus gave him the answer for which he was looking! Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14.6-7; NRSV). Well, that cleared things up!

Now it is Philip’s turn, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied” (John 14.8; NRSV). Jesus admonishes Philip:

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’? Do 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. Believe 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 (John 14.9-11; NRSV).

In other words, if you cannot accept that my words come from the Father, then rely on your having witnessed the works that I have done. I think most of us would confess that there are times when it is hard to faithfully accept the gospel message. If we have walked in faith, if we have lived it, it is good to recall moments when we have experienced God’s presence in our lives – those times when we have had a quiet assurance when beset by problems, those times when our hearts have been warmed, those times when deep joy has welled up within. These are deeply personal encounters with Christ. We often share these experiences with other Christians as we break bread together. In doing so, our lives are blessed.

Let’s ponder something – what did Jesus mean when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? How are we to understand this? To interpret it?

Many have, and many still do, interpret this in a very exclusionary manner. If you do not know and profess Jesus, the person, as the son of God, you are damned. From this perspective, if you are Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, animist, etc., you do not yet have the way, the truth, and the life. All too often we who know Jesus somewhat smugly look down on those of other faiths. Our arrogance leaves little to commend. This exclusionary position precludes our acceptance of these faiths and blocks our communication and fellowship with others of such faiths. I must confess, as I was raised in a fundamentalist environment, I held this position for many years.

Of course, Christianity is not the only faith to hold an exclusive position. Even before Jesus’ death and resurrection, we read in John 9.22, “For the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (NRSV). We can all point to intolerant practices in other faiths. What gives rise to our exclusivity and intolerance? I suspect we could point to several causes, e.g., the environment in which we were raised, our egoistic impulses, our desire to control the actions and attitudes of others. From a more positive standpoint, our exclusionary tendencies and practices are grounded in purity codes. A careful reading of Leviticus reveals the prominence of purity codes. In matters of belief, purity is concerned with orthodoxy. A belief is orthodox if it conforms to established doctrine. One who fails to conform to established doctrine is a heretic, and we all know what happens to heretics! Historically, they have been excommunicated, shunned, or executed — just like Jesus. Yes, Jesus repeatedly broke the purity laws and his teachings were deemed heretical! From the standpoint of Judaism, Jesus was a heretic.

Let me submit – Jesus was more concerned with orthopraxy, i.e., with how we live out God’s commandment to love. After setting forth the two great commandments, Jesus told the scribe, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.31; NRSV). Mark tells us:

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Vss. 32-34; NRSV).

 

I think this discourse points to a more inclusionary interpretation of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

As we have seen, the exclusionary interpretation focuses on Jesus the person. When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also,” the “I” and the “me” are interpreted literally as “Jesus, the person, God’s son, is the way; Jesus, the person, God’s son, is the truth; Jesus, the person, God’s son, is the life. No one can come to the Father except through Jesus, the person, God’s son.”

What if Jesus had something else in mind? What if Jesus, God’s Son, meant he is the personification, the very Incarnation, of the way, the truth, and the life? What if Jesus’ life epitomizes the way we are to live our lives? Wouldn’t a life lived fully out of love for God and one’s neighbor reveal the truth to us, the way we should live our life, indeed, the ultimate fullness and meaning that life offers? If we live our life as Jesus lived, a life of love, wouldn’t we be in the Father and the Father be in us?

In 1 John 4.7-9 we read: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (NRSV). A bit further on, we read:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (1 John 4.16-21; NRSV).

God calls us to a radical love.

The Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, who has experienced God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, knows the joy which Jesus Christ can bring. It may be argued that he or she possesses a knowledge which those who have not yet encountered Christ do not share. Yet, this knowledge is no cause for exclusion or exclusive claims, for “Lording” it over another. To the contrary, this knowledge places an even greater burden on the Christian to live out of love.

If all love comes from God, aren’t we called to embrace others who love, regardless of their faith, as fellow travelers on God’s way? Aren’t we called to encourage them to walk more deeply into the love they have come to know and experience, and in love, to share the meaning and joy we find in Jesus Christ in ways that are genuine and respectful? Our actions of love and acceptance may ultimately permit others to see that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God’s incarnate love.

Amen

 

 

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