Facing the Only Way

John 14:1-14

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

I want to begin today with a couple of stories.

The first one comes from the Easter season of 1999, if my memory serves. We were living in Pennsylvania. I was teaching second grade—gaining some life experience, really, while waiting upon God to open the doors into what I truly wanted to do: ordained ministry. Holly was a stay-at-home mom with three pre-school aged kids: Christiana, our oldest, was four; Tori was about to turn three; and Hannah was a newborn. On top of all this we were just getting settled into a new home—at the end of a rural street with all the beauty and field mice you could imagine.

On my birthday that year, during the Easter season, I received a card from my Uncle Don. He’s a psychologist in Portland, Oregon. It was a nice card, for sure. But with it came a hand-written note that shook me up a bit.

“Happy birthday, Tim,” it said, “and happy Easter! You must certainly love this time of the year, with all its significance for you as a Christian. As for me, I see God all around me, in everything—other people, animals, the trees, the flowers. Nature is God for me. Whatever works for a person is fine, as long as they believe in something. Don’t you agree? There are many ways that lead to God.”

Well, that got under my thirty-one year-old Jesus-freak skin!

By this time in modern history email was really catching on, meaning that even my uncle Don was using it. So, without letting the heat of the moment cool—I don’t recommend you do this, by the way—I composed a long and (what I thought) well-reasoned reply.

“Uncle Donald,” I wrote, “I received your card and letter. Thank you, by the way. But I must take issue with your belief about God. There aren’t many roads that lead to God. Not at all! In John 14:6, Jesus declares himself to be the way; and that no one can get to God but through him. Sounds to me like he’s pretty much the only way then! If you believe otherwise—as you clearly do—then it’s as much as to say you think Jesus is a liar. Well, he’s not the deceived one here!”

Oh, I said more, I’m sure. But, curiously, I didn’t hear from my Uncle Don for several years after that.

My second story is more recent. It took place within the past couple of years, while I was in seminary. And it has to do with a certain New Testament professor. Let’s call him Dr. Relativist, or Dr. R for short.

After spending nearly a year under his tutelage, listening to audacious claims about the New Testament, even suggesting a time or two that Jesus might not actually be God incarnate, my friend Joe and I had had enough. So one afternoon the two of us went to Dr. R’s office and confronted him.

“What is faith for you, Dr. R?” we asked.

He replied by saying world religions are like fraternity houses. Yeah! Crazy, eh? But here was his metaphor. A freshman comes to college and decides he’d like to join a fraternity. So he starts looking around, curiously, wondering ultimately what each frat house has to offer him. And, ultimately, he chooses to rush the one that suits him most closely, the one with which he feels the closest alignment.

“So I’m the college freshman,” Dr. R said. “I’ve come to realize that religions—fraternity houses—are important for the world. And I looked around trying to decide which one best suited me. Ultimately, I’ve decided upon Christianity because I’m most comfortable with its traditions and message. But my buddy chose Judaism because it was more comfortable for him. But what does it really matter in the end, for they all accomplish the same thing.”

That was Dr. R’s take, a New Testament professor training people to become priests in the church. Wow!

So, Joe asked Dr. R a question—very much like my challenge to my uncle Don: “What do you make of John 14:6, where Jesus says, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and—’”

But Joe never finished his question. For Dr. R interrupted him and said, “I don’t believe the real Jesus ever said those words.”

Well, what can you do with that? I don’t know. The guy’s a professor of the New Testament; and he doesn’t believe its testimony!

But backing up a little now, what do we do with this larger question? Jesus in fact says he’s the only way—“no one comes to the Father except through me.” But isn’t such a statement the apex of arrogance, as both my uncle and Dr. R seem to think?

How dare Jesus say these exclusive words! Or, to take on Dr. R’s point of view, how dare St. John or the Church or any other group of people put these words in Jesus’s mouth! Don’t we know by now that this attitude has produced untold and incalculable damage to peoples around the world over the past two millennia?

Yes, people have messed things up badly, again and again, claiming the name of Christ. Yes, there have been wars and crimes committed against persons and peoples, demanding that they renounce their religion for the sake of Christ or face dire consequences. Yes, we have used this verse wrongly.

But we can’t get around the fact that it’s here in the canonized writings of the New Testament.

So, what do we do with it?

The answer, like so many other things, is two-sided.

On the one hand we must acknowledge this statement’s truth. When we try to say that Jesus is not the only way, as my uncle and Dr. R do, what we’re really saying is that all religions are getting at the truth; but none of them actually possesses the truth. Or, another way to look at it: all religions are actually saying the same thing: we can try, but we can’t really know God.

But here’s the problem: Christianity says that you can know God. Jesus says it right here in today’s passage. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (v. 7). In fact, this idea that we cannot know God runs counter to the entire New Testament: a testimony of God the Holy Spirit inhabiting everyone who believes. God is not unknowable, as so many want us to think today. But we can only come to know him through Jesus Christ.

So we acknowledge the truth of this statement. But, on the other hand, we must guard against arrogance.

We are self-serving any time we say we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Jesus never did this, did he? No, he admonished the religious leaders who said they knew the truth, that they had it right when everyone else had it wrong. But what else did he do? He served others. He washed others’ feet. He dined with tax collectors and sinners. There’s no arrogance in that! No selfishness, self-righteousness, or self-service! Neither should we as the Church put ourselves first in some self-righteous way!

Here’s the thing. The Bible teaches us many truths about God. Sometimes these truths are hard, like the truth from today’s passage. But it’s not about how right we believers are and how wrong everyone else is. This attitude misses the point. The issue, rather, is how we can love God better now that we know this truth. How can we be the way, and the truth, and the life to others? It’s not about what we say with our words, how we can prove that Jesus is the only way; it’s about what we do.

Serve others; wash others’ feet; and dine with people unlike you.

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2 Responses to “Facing the Only Way”

  1. You know Tim I can get caught up in this debate and have a slightly different slant on it. (Ask Mike Mash I think way too much). What if Jesus is referring not to himself the person but to what he teaches and models? What he teaches and models is “the way”.

    And I have a great deal of trouble with the word “love” as used in “I love Jesus.” I am not really sure exactly what love means. Mike asked me on one of my visits if I could commit to Jesus. I said yes to this without hesitation. I am totally committed to Jesus no questions asked, but I can’t honestly say “I love Jesus.” So does this throw me in the same boat with the Seminary Professors?

    In one of Mike’s recent posting about “Thinking Too Much About God” the gentleman he is describing at the start of the article is me. I think way too much and over analyze way too much. It is just me.

    Have a good one, john+

    • John, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I have always been accused of over-analyzing too, my whole life. I feel your pain.

      Another issue I just couldn’t address in this ~10-minute sermon is C. S. Lewis’s approach in The Great Divorce. Are you familiar with it? Here souls have the opportunity to come to the Father through Jesus in the afterlife. I can find nothing in this idea contrary to the scriptures. Still, I couldn’t follow this rabbit trail (as much as I wanted to) in a short address.

      Peace!

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