The Gospel of John attributes these words to Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) This text has often been employed in service of Christian exclusivism. Some hold that those who do not consciously and knowingly accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior in this life will be excluded from God’s salvation. I am convicted of a different interpretation of this text. This sermon explores another possibility of meaning. While holding to God’s revelation as focused and most clearly seen in Jesus of Nazareth, yet God’s love reaches beyond the pale of the manifest church and confessed Christians.
In Jesus’ farewell address he said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For some, these are comforting words indicating the exclusiveness of the Christian Faith. They offer the assurance that we, among all people, are right in our beliefs and all others are wrong. For others, this saying of Jesus raises perplexing questions.
As a teenager in the early wild and wooly Seventies, I was a part of the Jesus Movement. I was a kind of “Hippie Christian” for a while. We encountered chanting devotees to Hare Krishna. We argued with disciples of Maharaji of the Divine Light Mission, “Jesus is the only way!” To the young people experimenting with Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or followers of Maher Baba and the other forms of Eastern religion we issued the challenge, “Jesus is the only way; there is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved.” We hurled John 14:6 and similar texts like stones.
In those turbulent times, many young people fed up with the church and Christianity made an exodus from their churches. They felt the church had failed them with its captivity to middleclass suburban culture, uncritical support for the Vietnam War, compromise with racism and blindness to basic social justice and civil rights. Young people sought other ways of experiencing the Divine, other religious paths to God. Eastern religions, hallucinogenic drugs, crystals, mantras, peace and love replaced the old time religion.
“Jesus is the only way!” we told them. “One way!” We pointed to the sky with our index finger as the sign of the exclusive nature of our faith. We argued frequently believing an exclusive loyalty to Jesus was the only way to God. I still believe these words. I do not accept that God has made many paths and we get to select from a religious smorgasbord the one that best suits us. Yet, I am not satisfied with my answer as I am no longer certain (as I was back then) that I understand the fullness of what Jesus was trying to get across. You see, I read into his words some ideas that came from my earliest Christian upbringing. As I grow and mature, I have had many occasions to reflect on the adequacy of many of my childhood beliefs. Faith grows by accepting some things and rejecting some things. I also have reflected on a few questions that always were nagging me in the back of my mind. For example, what happens to the many billions of people who never heard of Jesus Christ? People are reared as Buddhists or Hindus, or Muslims. People are born every day in lands far, far away that speak languages that would take years to learn even if we wished to communicate the Good News. Many will die before the first missionary ever arrives. They have not heard of Jesus.
The early upbringing that I received would assign them to Eternal Hell without hope. How does that reflect the love of God? What kind of God creates a Hell of untold misery and then makes creatures that, due to no fault of their own, will live in conscious torments forever and ever and ever? Is that what Jesus had in mind?
I juggled thoughts like that with another view that God loves us all; God loves us and sent Jesus to die on the cross for us all. Yet, for those hapless souls who were born in India, or Outer Mongolia, or on a distant island of the sea, or who grew up in Saudi Arabia, will never reap such benefits. They will experience eternal pain and suffering. God loves them, but God also hates them. It was like trying to get two billiard balls to fit into the same space.
The way my church taught me left me confused and guilty. God wills to save these souls but unless I tell them the truth and lead them to say the sinner’s prayer, and secure for them baptism then they are lost (BTW baptism was optional!) They will burn forever….but God lays the responsibility on me. It is my fault and the church’s fault for not being more committed to evangelism and mission. This left me perplexed, confused and in a state of perpetual low-grade guilt. Every friend was a sinner needing my preaching. Everyone I passed on the street was a perspective convert needing the saving message I had but they did not. I must tell them; otherwise, their blood was on my head. I would make it to heaven but they would not. Therefore, I would live forever, enjoying streets of gold, a crystal river and a mansion in the sky all along knowing that their souls were in fiery torment forever because I failed to tell them. Somewhere along the line that began to make little sense to me. Is God that helpless? Is God’s love that fickle? Does God love us if we accept Jesus but hate us so much as to subject us to eternal torture if we do not? Is that really what Jesus had in mind?
I thought about children, say, a six-year-old Hindu girl. Will the loving God roast her for being a sinner who died without accepting Jesus as her personal savior? What about a twelve-year-old Buddhist boy? Should you take the Gospel to a village and the people accept Christ, what would you tell them has become of generations of their ancestors who died before the first missionary arrived without ever having heard of Jesus? Would you say, “Oh, the good news is that you can go to heaven when you die? However, your ancestors, unfortunately, are in the Lake of fire, forever. Sorry that we didn’t arrive 1500 years ago.” Is that Good News?
These questions bothered me. However, as we often do with religious questions, we live with the contradictions and try not to carry our logic to the end. Like most people, we stay confused and bewildered. However, if a preacher says something with an authoritative voice and backs it up with a Bible quote or two we go along figuring everyone else must get it except me.
Now there are Christians who believe that God made a fixed number of people to go to heaven for his glory and created a fixed number of people to go to Hell for his glory. This it called “double predestination.” God will save only those whom God wills to save and the rest God assigns to perdition. Who can resist God? Another part of this doctrine holds that Jesus died only for the elect, for the few chosen and blessed souls whom he predestined to eternal life. Jesus did not shed a drop of his blood for those doomed to perdition. God limited the saving effects of the atonement to the happy few. God consigns the rest to the mass of damnation. They are not objects of God’s love.
This position is logically consistent. The Supreme Being creates insignificant beings and disposes of them as he sees fit. Who can question or resist him? Only what does that do with how we understand God? Do we submit to God as the Heavenly Bully? The Divine Tyrant? Let me assure you that serious and sincere Christians believe this. They are concerned to maintain God’s holiness and sovereignty. That is how they read certain Bible texts. I do not doubt their sincerity and desire to remain faithful to Bible, as they understand it.
However, to me, such a view impugns the character of God as holy love. A Divine being that creates frail sinful human beings and assigns them to a place of fiery torments with conscious misery for all eternity may win my fear but hardly my love. Most of all I would wish to escape Hell but not to fall into the embrace of the Divine Despot. A being like that describes more of a demon than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such a view reflects the cynical quip by Keanu Reeves in the movie Constantine.
“I guess God has a plan for all of us.”
: “God’s a kid with an ant farm, lady. He’s not planning anything.”
Is that the truth? God toys with frail human beings. Are we playthings to entertain a bored Deity? The God who demands that we love one another and punishes human cruelty would do acts of cruelty far beyond anything even the most demented and twisted human being would ever do? Some can live with that and see no contradiction. American Philosopher William James wrote:
“[Consider this]: recognition of the object of highest worship in a being who could make a Hell, and who could create countless generations of human beings with the certain foreknowledge that he was creating them for this fate. Is there any moral enormity which might not be justified by imitation of such a deity? And is it possible to adore such a one without a frightful distortion of the standard of right and wrong? Any other of the outrages to the most ordinary justice and humanity involved in the common Christian conception of the moral character of God sinks into insignificance beside this dreadful idealization of wickedness.” J. S. Mill Utility of Religion [New York: liberal Arts Press, , p.74 Quoted from Kaufman, Gordon D. Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective. New York: Scribner, 1978.
To attribute to God the will to cause unmitigated suffering without remedy forever and ever on billions of his creatures betrays the Gospel as good news and impugns God’s name. I believe in God’s justice. I believe in God’s wrath as Holy Love burning against sin, injustice and cruelty. God opposes everything that is self-destructive and community destroying. His wrath is his love burning against everything that hurts and diminishes human life.
I believe in God’s wrath as the reaction of God’s love towards everything that hurts and destroys in God’s good creation. However, not everything we believe about God’s wrath is true. Some ways of understanding it are positively harmful and distorted. We must temper our concepts of Hell with the vision of the Crucified Jew as the chief symbol of God’s pardoning and reconciling love.
I believe in God’s love and will to save all. I believe as Jesus taught us, If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. Matthew 12:7
The letter of James, the New Testament writing closest to Matthew in spirit and tone, the author wrote, “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” Js. 2:13
I believe in the Good Shepherd who told his fellow Jews, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16
With Paul, I hold “Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Rom.5:18-19
Again, “…where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 5:20-21
I stand with the Apostle Paul who taught, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. Romans 9:32; and again, “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Romans 11:32
I believe in Jesus Christ, “…who gave himself as a ransom for all—the testimony given in its proper time.”
I believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, “who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”
I believe in Jesus Christ of whom the Elder wrote, “…who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” I John 2: 2
I have come to believe the truth that Peter blurted out when the light finally switched on in his head. As he entered the home of a Gentile Italian army officer for the very first time in his life something in his heart ignited and he exclaimed, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10:34-35
God has his own ways of judging the world as Paul stated, For [God] will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. Roman 2:6-7
I ascribe to the view of the purpose of God when Paul wrote, “And God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ…to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Ephesians 1:9-10
I like the way Doctor Luke reported Paul’s sermon to pagan philosophers when he preached good news to them on Mar’s Hill in Athens, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Acts 17:26-28
Why do I believe God’s love is so all-inclusive? Why do I reject the idea the narrowly focused Gospel? It took a long time for me to come to this conviction. It took a long for me to sort out my jumbled up beliefs inherited from my earliest Christian training. I came to take this basic posture because my beliefs are formed around a conviction that the clue to what God is like and what God is doing is Jesus Christ. When we see him, we see God. Jesus is the lens through which we see God rightly, most clearly. Jesus is the focused God; the God brought into clarity as holy love, agape embodied. God’s Word revealed in the stream of human history, God’s Word made flesh.
If we see Jesus, we see the Father. In Christ, we see suffering love willing to pray for us weak and failing human beings, “Father forgive them they don’t know what they are doing.” When we gaze upon the ‘Poor Man of Nazareth’, we learn God’s intention to reconcile the world. When we behold the Crucified Jew, we catch a hint of the extent to which God goes to win our hearts without destroying that tender plant of human freedom. God woos us. God beckons us. God holds out his hands all day long, often to a disobedient and rebellious people.
So, then…how shall we understand these exclusive words of Jesus Christ, “I am the way and the truth and the life? No one comes to the father except through me.”
These do not limit God’s saving will to the few Christians who believe the right things. I cannot say with ancient Church father Cyprian, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Here is what I believe Jesus wants to get across to his disciples.
Whoever God chooses to save is saved by Jesus Christ whether they know it now or not.
It is not our job to pull up the weeds to sort the good from the bad. Our job is to know Christ and to make Christ known. Leave all final judgments to God. Jesus expressly forbade us from making eternal judgments when he said, “Judge not and you will not be judged.” Is that true? Do you believe that? He also taught us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1-2 Is that true? Do you believe that? Can you believe that? God has God’s own way of applying the work of Christ to those who have not yet received the message. That is not our business. Let God be God.
A second statement: There may be persons of authentic faith, hope and love who have not yet named the name of Jesus Christ. To them I must preach Christ. I make no judgments about them. I make known to them through word and deed the message of the reconciling love of God revealed in the ministry, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
Third, There may be persons who name the name of Jesus Christ who are not authentic persons of faith hope and love. To them I must preach Christ. Many name Jesus; they call him Lord. However, they do not know him. He has made no impact on their lives. To them he is a confession, perhaps fire insurance, a ticket to heaven, a nice religious notion, but not their Lord to whom they own loyalty and obedience. I must make Christ known to them also. Perhaps my witness will help lift the blinders, the religious veil that blinds them to their real spiritual poverty.
Finally, There may be persons of authentic faith hope and love who do name the name of Jesus. To them I must preach Christ. Knowing Christ is not a one-time event. We grow in knowledge and love of God. Christ wills that we follow him and shape our lives around God’s will and God’s purposes. We grow in our maturity as God prunes us to make us fruitful branches attached to the True Vine.
Jesus did not intend his words to mean that God’s reconciling grace is limited to the few who hear and accept. O, there may be successful rebels to the end who resist God’s love, who revolt against goodness beauty and truth. Some may refuse God’s Lordship and choose to set themselves up as god. Leave their judgment to God. God will always judge with mercy and justice.
The humble servant of the Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, the self-sacrificing Nazarene is the mark in time and space where God has uncovered the Divine will to reconcile all things in Christ. Our job, our mission is to proclaim this One and to embody the message in word and deed before a world that God loves and wills to reconcile. We are God’s ambassadors for Christ. We are God’s representatives for reconciliation. We herald Good News. We say of Christ he is the “true light that enlightens everyone” has come into the world. We know him. We know the one who is The Bread of Life, who gives us food for eternal life. We walk with Light of the World and therefore escape darkness. We have entered into life through the Gate into the sheepfold of safety following the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. We have experienced the life giving vivifying word of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life and we are connected with him as closely as the branches are to the True Vine. We follow him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life who has brought us to the Father. This is good news. This is the Good News we wish to share with the whole world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.