Rev. Teri Peterson
A Particular Way
20 July 2014, Faith Questions 5
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘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.’
A few years ago, the Presbyterian Church USA put out a survey. It was mostly your run-of-the-mill questions about age, ethnicity, length of time in a particular congregation, mission involvement. It also had some theology questions, and among those was a question that asked about level of agreement with the statement “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” The options were Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree.
On the surface, the answer to this question is obvious. Of course we Christians would all strongly agree that God saves those who follow Christ.
But theology is never just on the surface. As people who believe God created the world with a word, every word matters. So the word “only” became problematic for many people taking the survey. Are we really willing to say that our friends and family members who don’t go to church aren’t saved? What about the classic conundrum of people who never hear about Jesus? What about people who lived before Jesus? What about people who faithfully follow another religion? What about people like Gandhi?
These are all good and important questions, and they bring up the question of what it means to follow Christ, and who gets to decide what constitutes being a good enough Christian.
But there is another word in the question that is even more difficult. It comes at the end of the statement—only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.
Nearly half the people taking the survey said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. This pesky word can is at the root of many of those answers. Because in the Reformed theological tradition, we affirm first and foremost that God is sovereign, and we are not. God is the one who creates, redeems, and sustains. God is the one who calls even those who are not good enough. God is the one who rescues people from Egypt long before giving them the 10 commandments. God is the one who leads, and who even uses those who are not part of the “chosen people” to fulfill God’s purpose. We say that the good news is that while we were yet sinners, Christ lived and died and rose for us. We baptize infants as a sign that God loves us before we can respond. For us to say what God can and cannot do is to claim sovereignty ourselves, to usurp the position of God and make an idol of our human understanding and judgment. As we heard last week in the Ephesians reading, our salvation is a gift from God, not the result of works. There is nothing we can do to control God’s saving grace, no words we can say or actions we can perform in order to earn salvation—for ourselves or for others.
And yet we have stories like the one we just heard, where Jesus says to Thomas “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Doesn’t that seem to imply that the statement is right after all? That it’s a requirement that we affirm belief in Jesus in order to get to the Father? The verse has certainly been read that way in many other traditions, for many years. It has been used to say that non-Christians are going to hell, or even that some flavors of Christians are not good enough. How do we reconcile the idea that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation with the idea that we have to believe certain things about Jesus in order to be saved?
It’s always a good idea to pull back a bit and look at the whole story any biblical writer is telling, especially since chapter and verse numbers were added later, so it helps to have the full context. The original hearers of John’s gospel were Jews who followed Jesus, and their community was being kicked out of the synagogue because they proclaimed Christ’s resurrection, and because they were a community that believed they could experience oneness with God through Christ. John starts his story of Jesus with “in the beginning was the word…and all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Right from chapter one, he sets up Christ as the conduit for God’s power of love and creativity. In chapter 6, Jesus talks about how God gives manna from heaven, bread that sustains all life, and then he says “I am the bread of life.” He tells us that “no one comes to me unless drawn by the Father” and that he will not lose any of those whom God has given to him. In chapter 10, Jesus says he is the good shepherd, and he has sheep in many folds, and he came that all may have abundant life. In chapter 13, at the last supper, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, then over dinner told them he was going away to a place they could not come. And now here, in chapter 14, after dinner, they are anxious and afraid. So Jesus tells them not to fear, for God’s house contains many mansions. The kingdom of God is more than an apartment block, it’s bigger and has more room than we can imagine. But still Thomas and the other disciples are worried. Jesus called them to follow him, but now he’s saying that he’s going somewhere without them. What are they supposed to do? How will they know what to do and where to go?
And so Jesus reiterates to Thomas: do not worry. You know the way, because I am the way.
So these are words for the disciples—who became known as “Followers of The Way.” They are words for Christians worried about how to follow when they do not think they understand enough, words for Followers of the Way whose lives are being turned upside down because they are walking this path. They are words meant to reassure that those whom God has called do not need to panic about being alone or lost. We know the way. Do not worry: there is room in the kingdom of God, where God is sovereign and grace abounds.
Jesus speaks these words to a community of his followers, not to tell them who is in and who is out, but to tell them their particular path. To follow Jesus is a particular way. The Jesus Way involves indifference to everything but God’s will. It involves a different understanding of economy and community. It involves aligning ourselves with the outcast and the sinner, the broken and the hopeless. It involves breaking ourselves open for the life of the world. It involves welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry, and also working for a system where no one is hungry or outcast or alone. It is a different way from the world’s way. That is not to say that God is not at work in other ways, because we believe that God is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, and that God can work through all things. It is to say that the Jesus way is a particular way—one that, as we heard last week, God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
What if Jesus’ statement that no one comes to the Father except through him is directed straight to those people who already follow him, and are worried that they don’t know the next step? Those disciples who got it wrong so often, and weren’t sure what to do? What if these words are spoken to tell followers of Christ how to experience God and obey our calling right now, here on earth? Remember that John’s community was seeking oneness with the divine through their relationship with Christ. Imagine all those nights spent praying for God to reveal the path, and hearing Jesus say “you have seen it—because I am the way. All things came into being through me, and you find the with-God life through me.” Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased it, “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”
This particular way will go against most things we have been taught by the world. We have been taught to look down on those who are different, secure our borders, and to grasp for power. We have been taught to defend ourselves, to climb the ladder, and to put our best foot forward. We have been taught that the ends justify the means, that some people are worth more than others, and that violence is the way to create peace. Yet Jesus said “turn the other cheek” and “you give them something to eat,” and “blessed are the meek.” He walked across borders and welcomed foreigners and praised the faith of those the community labeled sinners. Jesus touched people with all kinds of illnesses, ate dinner with people who broke the law, and undercut the economic system at every turn. He insisted that we see his image in every face, and that we love our neighbors and our enemies the same way we love ourselves. Jesus insisted that we put down our swords, and he called the little children to come to him, and he told stories of equal pay for unequal work. He taught that we cannot separate the weeds from the wheat, because that is God’s job. Jesus willingly submitted to the worst torture and shame people could think of, and forgave them with his last breath. This is The Way.
And he said that people would know we were his followers by how we love.
So when it comes to the survey question: I, as a pastor in the Reformed Christian tradition, am not willing to say what God can and cannot do with our eternal salvation. That kind of human meddling in God’s power has gotten people in trouble ever since the garden of Eden. But I am willing to say that when it comes to knowing God, experiencing God, and living in God’s kingdom right here in this life, there is one particular way, and it is the Jesus way. If you want to be in relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then walking the way of Christ is how to get there. But it won’t be easy—because while grace is free it is also costly. So costly that we can never do it on our own—it is only by the Spirit’s power that we receive courage to trust and obey, to seek God’s will and to be transformed, in order that the kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so.