A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on May 18, 2014 (Fifth Sunday of Easter/Celebrate 171st anniversary of Lyonsville Church)
1 Peter 2:1-10
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In 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? 3And 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. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “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’? 10Do 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. 11Believe 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. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
– John 14:1-14
I was originally thinking I would have a sermon today based on 1 Peter 2:1-10 (“Living Stones”), but as often happens, things change. This past week I did some traveling back to Boulder to help honor my graduate research advisor in Chemistry who is retiring from the University of Colorado this summer, and I also read several books (or parts of them) during my travels.
When I went to seminary, I was expecting it to be similar to my education in science and mathematics. I thought I would learn the currently accepted “best answers” for all the questions about God and life and the Bible. Instead, I learned that no one really has any definitive answers for those questions. There are many different perspectives and approaches. That is one of the reasons there are so many different kinds of church, and even other religions – most of which think they have the real “right answers” to the great questions of life. And in these uncertain times, when much in the world and in the church is changing, people are challenging even some of the answers that we thought were settled, and raising new questions instead.
When I became a pastor, I think I assumed my job was, in part, to provide people with “good answers” to the questions that life throws at us: Why are we here? Why is life so hard? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens when people die? What must I do to find happiness in this life, and in the life to come? Why is there never enough money to balance the budget? Why does stuff in the church building always move around and disappear?
One of the books I have been reading this past week is “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith,” by Brian D. McLaren, a former church pastor who is now writing and teaching about the Christian faith. I think it is significant that he isn’t saying he has ten new answers that are transforming the faith – he has ten questions.
Our gospel text for this morning (John 14:1-14) is one that many people have raised questions about, even though there have been countless Christian teachers and preachers who were certain the text gave us an unambiguous answer.
Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
For centuries, the basic Christian theology has been that although God originally created the world and all its creatures – including humans – good, when Adam was tempted by Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree (remember I talked about some interesting details in that story last week), then all of humanity “fell” from their original goodness. Ever since, all of us are born into a state of sin – we are separated from God and rebellious against God’s will. Unless we are saved from this condition, all human beings are doomed to an eternal torturous punishment once they die. And the only thing that can save us is Jesus Christ – through belief, or faith, or baptism and being a part of the church (there are several slightly different variations on exactly what one must do to be saved). And Jesus, here in the gospel of John, seems to be pretty clear about this. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Brian McLaren, in his book, questions that whole story – that whole scheme. He claims that the simple “Creation – Fall – Salvation or Damnation” scheme is not really biblical, but rather the invention of later church theologians and scholars who read the scriptures in the light of Greek philosophy and other sources that would have been foreign to ancient Jews and to Jesus and his early followers.
In fact, McLaren raises questions about a God who would condemn people whom God had created and loved to an eternal hell, and about the idea that the Bible is a coherent document about exactly what one must do to be “saved.”
He isn’t the only one. I know many people who have been uncomfortable with the idea that only faithful Christians will find eternal life in heaven, and non-believers or people of other religions will burn forever, no matter how they lived their lives. I count myself among them. I have never been able to imagine a God whose greatest incentive to love God and others is the threat of eternal punishment if you don’t. Real love can’t be coerced by threat.
And these days, more and more younger folks are deciding that they see no reason to love or believe in a God like that, or to be a part of a church that teaches and worships that God.
But what did Jesus mean (or what did the author of the Gospel of John mean when he wrote the gospel with Jesus speaking the words) when he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” if it doesn’t mean that no one gets into heaven after they die unless they believe in me?
To begin with, it helps to read the entire gospel of John carefully before trying to answer that question, rather than just taking this one little verse out and using it to summarize the entire Bible. One thing that I learned in reading McLaren’s book that I hadn’t known before is that the gospel of John doesn’t use the word “hell”, or anything like it. I did know that the word or concept of “hell” doesn’t appear at all in the Old Testament. It was an idea probably picked up during the 2-4 centuries between the time the Old Testament was completed and the time that Jesus lived – most likely borrowed from Persian religions like Zoroastrianism.
And it is important to remember that when the gospel of John was first written, Christianity was not a major world religion, but rather a small, still poorly defined religious movement.
According to the gospel of John, the goal of religious faith is not to get into heaven when we die, but rather to be with God. But in John, to be “with” is not a spatial, geographic term; it is a relationship.
Of all the possible gods and conceptions about God that one might worship, the one that the early Christian community for whom this gospel was written worshiped was the one who was revealed in the “incarnation” (God taking on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth). This isn’t the unchanging god of Greek philosophy; this isn’t the disinterested watchmaker of Deism. This is a God of intimate, loving relationships; this is a God of life. This is the God that Jesus calls “the Father.”
The only way to come to “the Father” is through Jesus Christ. Because, as Jesus explains to Philip in this passage, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” It’s like the old popular song says, “You can’t have one without the other.”
Biblical scholar Gail R. O’Day, in the “New Interpreter’s Bible” commentary on this passage, writes:
“Jesus did not say, ‘No one comes to God except through me,’ but ‘No one comes to the Father except through me,’ and the specificity of that theological nomenclature needs to be taken seriously. John 14:6 is the very concrete and specific affirmation of a faith community about the God who is known to them because of the incarnation.” (NIB, Volume IX, p. 744)
Later, she writes:
“The claim of John 14:6-7 becomes problematic when it is used to speak to questions that were never in the Fourth Gospel’s purview. To use these verses in a battle over the relative merits of the world’s religions is to distort their theological heart. It is a dangerous and destructive anachronism to cite John 14:6-7 as the final arbiter in a discussion of the relative merits of different religions’ experiences and understanding of God. The Fourth Gospel (John) is not concerned with the fate, for example, of Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity as they are configured in the modern world.” (NIB, Volume IX, p. 744-5)
In other words, the God that we worship as Christians is the God that is made known to us in Jesus. As the New Testament book of Colossians puts it, “In him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Col 1:19)
Of course, if this answers some questions about the meaning of our gospel text, it also raises some other questions. Like what is the difference between this God called “the Father,” and the God that Jews or Muslims worship? Are they different, or the same? Those are good questions! Maybe I will wrestle with those questions in another sermon some day.
And what about this place called heaven where we hope to find new life after we die? That is a good question. I’m wrestling with that myself, but let me at least suggest where I am these days. I don’t think of heaven so much as a place “up there.” I am inclined to think it is as the gospel of John suggests – heaven is to be with the God of Jesus, in close, intimate, loving relationship. That is life – abundant life and eternal life. It is ours through faith in Christ.
And what about all those people of other religions, or no religion? What will happen to them after they die? That is also a good question. I don’t claim to know. And the truth is, not every other religion worries about that question. I remember about ten years ago we had during the season of Lent a series of talks about different religions given by folks from those traditions. Someone asked the Jewish man who talked about Judaism what he believed would happen after he died. His response I think surprised many people. He said he thought he would be dead – he would rest. And that was OK.
And one more question (I seem to have more questions than answers!): Why be a Christian, if it isn’t to get into heaven and save ourselves from eternal torment? Again, that is a good question which hopefully will be the subject of many sermons and discussions to come. Perhaps the words of 1 Peter 2 will provide at least a hint at an answer for today:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:9-10)
Perhaps the greatest mercy that we receive in Christ is that we don’t need to know all the answers to be God’s own beloved people. We don’t even have to know all the questions! Thank God for that.
Robert J. von Trebra