Sarah for sermonDon’t Stop Believin

John 14:1-14

Easter 5, Year A

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

How many of you believe that?

You don’t have to raise your hands. We have a lot of visitors here today. In fact, I’m a visitor here today, so I don’t know that we’ve quite built up enough trust here to reveal ourselves so fully to one another. I just want you to think about it.

Jesus said to him, (to Thomas) “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

How many of you believe that? How many of you believe that the only way to the Father is through the Son?

Or, to put it another way: how many of you believe that you will not reach the Father’s house with all its many rooms, if you do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?

And how many of you don’t? How many of you are sitting here this morning thinking that all things being equal you really don’t believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father?

How many of you, regardless of your own personal belief in Jesus, think there must be other ways as well?

Again no need for hands, just think about it. And of course – this being church – feel free to wonder even more about the person sitting next to you.

And finally, how many of you here find a passage like this troubling because no matter what you believe, you’re pretty sure- gosh darn it – that it’s got to be either one or the other?

Either Jesus is the only way to the big house in the sky, (hmmm big house in the sky…that doesn’t sound quite right does it?) or Jesus was momentarily power-tripping here and anything you believe goes as long as you’re sincere about it.

How many of you believe that somehow you have to choose between those two options and deep down, for whatever reason – be it respect for scripture or respect for people of other faiths- this is not a choice you feel comfortable making?

I mean do you hold tight to your Bible while throwing your non-Christian neighbors under the bus or do you stand in solidarity with them and let Jesus, or scripture, or what scripture says about Jesus, take the fall?

This time I will let you raise your hands. How many of you feel like what you have here is a choice between one or the other and that in spite of Jesus’ efforts to calm us, your heart is troubled by these words; troubled whichever way you go?

Well, for you folks, I think I might have some good news today and it begins with the understanding that these troubling words before us are in fact good news, and not just good news for some but good news for all whatever your religion.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ after all and, as one of my preaching professors used to say, if you get to the end of the passage and the news is not good then you need to go back and read it again, because you’ve obviously missed something.

And I think we have, historically, missed the good news in this passage over and over again with a misreading that is so deeply ironic it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

For whatever reason, we’ve come to view this passage as one of exclusion and triumphalism- whether we agree with it or not – a passage that claims Jesus is the only way to heaven, a heaven with a limited number of rooms already reserved for the chosen few, and you either believe that claim… or you don’t get to go.  Right?

Well I’m going to tell you two things about this passage that will hopefully reveal that dichotomy to be false. The first thing may come as something of a relief; the second as something of a surprise.

The first thing you need to know is that when Jesus says “believe…believe in God, believe also in me,” he is not talking about belief as some sort of intellectual assent to certain ideas or doctrines, i.e.: that Jesus was born of a virgin or eternally begotten not made.

The word for “believe” here is more accurately translated as trust.

[1] And this makes sense because the disciples are really upset at this point in the story. Jesus has just predicted Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial and they are freaking out, so Jesus tries to calm them down by saying, “Hey. Relax. Trust God. Trust Me.”

This isn’t about the need for all of us to believe the right things about Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die. These words were spoken directly to the disciples to calm them down and remind them to trust God no matter what… because what was coming…and it was not going to be pretty.

The second thing you need to know is that Jesus isn’t actually talking about heaven in this passage at all.

Surprise!

I know you probably think he is, because we read these verses at funerals all the time. We’ve all been conditioned to think that when Jesus refers to his Father’s house, he’s talking about some place, up there, where we will go, when we die… if we believe what?

That he is the way and the truth and the life. Good, good… except no… not good, not good at all.

I want you all to let go of that idea for second and try to remember another time when Jesus talked about his Father’s house. It was one of the few times when he got really, really angry, and I’m not talking about that unfortunate incident with the fig tree, so it shouldn’t be too hard to remember.

When or, better yet, where was it that Jesus got righteously angry?

That’s right, when he drove the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. He said, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

When Jesus talks about his Father’s house, here and elsewhere, he’s not talking about heaven.  Doesn’t mean there isn’t a heaven, just means that’s not what he’s taking about here. What he’s talking about here is the temple in Jerusalem.

And you might remember that in that same story Jesus goes on to say something very interesting about the temple.  He tells them that if they destroy it he will raise it up in 3 days.

Which people thought was ludicrous because the temple had been under construction for years. They thought it was ludicrous because they all thought he was talking about the building, but he wasn’t talking about the building, was he?

No he was talking about his body, right -are you following me? – his body that would be crucified and resurrected three days later.

So there are two distinct realities at work here:

We have the physical temple in Jerusalem that is the Father’s house.

We have Jesus claiming that his body is also the temple.

And this makes sense because God’s presence resides in them both.

“I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

Right? Are you with me so far?  Good, because here is where it gets a little wiggy.

Because, you see on the cross, these two realities are about to merge. The old ways are about to pass away.  Jesus is about to usher in something new, and he wants all of the disciples to be a part of it. That’s what he is trying to explain to them here.

He’s not telling them how to go to heaven when they die, he’s telling them how to become a part of this new thing he is about to do upon the earth while they are all still very much alive.

The old covenant that God had maintained with his people Israel is about to be expanded into a new covenant that will include all people on earth.

The temple that used to be a place of wood and stone in Jerusalem where the chosen people went to meet God is about to become a person of flesh and blood, who will come and meet us all.

And that person is Jesus.

On the cross he is going to show the whole world why the old temple is no longer necessary.

Remember, people went to the temple to make sacrifices. They went to spill the blood of an animal as an offering for their sins in order to make them clean in the eyes of God. The Jews did this, but actually people of many different faiths did this as well.

There was this persistent belief that God, or the gods, were angry; that the Divine needed to be appeased or won over in some way. And a lot of blood was spilled for this reason; a lot of blood.[2]

Which again was sad and ironic because God, at least through prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah, kept trying to explain to the people that blood wasn’t what He wanted.

“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the LORD. 
“ I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1).

What God wanted was for his people to act with justice and kindness and mercy toward everyone, because – and this is the point so come back to me now if I lost you with all that temple stuff – because God loves everyone.

God cares deeply about the whole world, but somehow that message wasn’t getting through. So God came to us in the form of Jesus.  At least this is how I understand it.

Jesus came to show us just how much the Father loves all of us, not just some of us: the saints and the sinners, the Jews and the gentiles, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, those who wished him well and those who did him harm.

Jesus came to let us know that there is nothing we need to do to make things right between us and our Father, because God loves us already.

We don’t have to say a particular prayer or subscribe to a particular doctrine in order to be accepted by God, because God accepts us already.

We don’t need to get it all together or figure it all out or find the way to God because God in Jesus is finding his way to us.

Jesus is the proverbial prodigal father running down the road to meet us and feed us and love us and welcome us home;

a home with enough rooms for every last one of us;

a home where we are invited to come and live even now the better to know God’s love and extend that love to all the world by doing what’s right, working for justice, defending the oppressed…. by walking in the way of Jesus.

You want to know what God is like, then look at me” says Jesus, “at my way, my truth, my life.”

Was Jesus’ way ever one of exclusion or rejection? Did he ever preach elitism or show favoritism? Did he come that just a scant few of us might know life in all its scarcity?[3] No.

But thanks to a misreading of passages like this one we’ve somehow imbued Jesus’ gracious invitation with all of these negative associations.

Is it any wonder that good, loving, intelligent people shy away from Christianity?

Is it any wonder that good loving people leave the church, or remain but feel slightly ashamed about admitting that to other people?

Jesus the only way to heaven! How can you believe that?” people ask.

It’s hard to know how to respond if the truth is that deep down… you really don’t.

***

Peter Rollins tells the story of a friend of his who wrote a parable about leaving church for just this reason.

I dreamt that I had died and went to heaven. St. Peter was there and he opened the gates to welcome me in. “Ah Phil, great to see you.”

And I was just about to step into heaven when I noticed that some of my friends were there: some of them atheists, some of them Buddhists, some of those God knows what. And I said, “Peter, what about my friends?”

And Peter said, “Well, you know the rules.”

And then I thought of my reference point: Jesus the outsider. Jesus the bastard. Jesus the drunkard and friend of sinners. Jesus the one who would always stood with the oppressed, and I said, “You know what, I think I’ll just stay out here with them.”

At which point St. Peter broke into a glorious smile, shook his head, and said, “At last… at last you finally understand.”[4]

Friends that type of inclusion, that heart for the other, that willingness to lay down your life for your friends, forsake even heaven for love of the world: that is the way of Jesus.

I don’t think he cares so much what you believe about him. I think the real question is do you trust him? Do you trust him enough to live with the same reckless abandon and indiscriminate love?

All right, one last story, and then I’ll finish up.

Peter Rollins told that parable toward the end of a talk he was giving at a fairly progressive Christian College, when a member of the audience spoke up and said: “You know Peter, you talk all this theology but you don’t say much about the resurrection. Do you deny the resurrection?”…which I think was a test of sorts. I think it was this student’s way of saying, Peter you talk a good game but at the end of the day do you believe the right things?

And Peter thought about that for a moment… Do I deny the resurrection? Do I deny the resurrection? And thought, ok, it’s time for me to fess up.

“Yes,” he said, “I do. Everyone who knows me knows I do. I do deny the resurrection. I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve my neighbor. I deny the resurrection every time I walk away from people who are poor. I deny the resurrection every time I participate in a corrupt and unjust system….

 

But I affirm the resurrection, every now and again, when I stand up for those who are on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I weep for those people who have no more tears left to shed.”

 

Friends, I don’t think that’s what it means to believe in Jesus, I think that is what it takes.

Be we Muslims or Methodists, Atheists or Congregationalists, saints, sinners, or a little bit of both – Jesus came to show us that we all have a place in the heart of God, just as he came to show us the way to God’s heart by the way he used his own.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a Jesus I can believe in without apology. I don’t know about you, but that is a Jesus I can trust – not just with my life or the fate of my soul – but with the lives of all those I know and love and respect whether they are Christian or not. That is the Jesus I long to serve alongside people such as yourselves as we make our way to the places where he is still going, those places that cry out even now to know the love and the grace, the hope and the healing, only God can bring… a God who truly does love all the world.

Amen

 

[1] pistuete

[2] See “The Gods Aren’t Angry,” by Rob Bell

[3] See Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity”

[4] Slightly paraphrased from this clip http://peterrollins.net/2013/04/poets-prophets-and-preachers-with-rob-bell/