“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” -John 14:6
The words that directly follow this statement have haunted me for years. This line of scripture goes on to say: “no one comes to the father except through me”. For centuries, this line has been used as a weapon, it have been used as an exclusionary text, clearly demarcating the line between who is in –heaven bound– and who is out — hell bound. It is the theological foundation for things like the crusades or the spanish inquisition. More recently it has lead to the sort of thinking that says: If you want to go to heaven, you had better join our church. It has lead to the sort of thinking that shuts out muslims and buddhists and jewish people, discrediting their voice until they profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior.
Yet I just can’t buy into this thinking. I can’t worship a God that would deny someone access based on whether or not they profess Jesus is the Son of God. My understanding of the gospels leads me to believe in a God that is radically inclusive, not exclusive.
So, suffice it to say, I have trouble with the apparent absolutism that has been placed on this text over the years, and has lead me to constantly struggle with it.
During this struggle, I have tried to ignore this text, i have tried to discount it as an addition by the author of the John’s Gospel, I have even done theological contortions trying and make it conform to what i think it should mean. Doing this though has led me to sound apologetic for Christianity and in the process weakening the power of the Word.
This has led me back to this text, recognizing that it is the most difficult passages we really have to spend time with, it is the passages that give us the most trouble that we have to pay the most attention to. I should not and can not ignore this verse, or gloss over it, or twist it to mean what I would like it to mean.
So lets look at this text, and place it in its context in the Gospel of John. This verse comes within the larger context of the last supper. This verse follows the washing of the disciples feet, Christ’s giving of a new commandment to love one another as he has loved them.
After he tells them that one of them will betray him and one will deny him, chapter 14 starts with him telling the disciples about the rooms that will be prepared for them, telling them not to worry, in essence, not to fear tomorrow when he will be put on the cross. These are intended to be words of reassurance. But Thomas takes it literally, misunderstanding the message (can we blame him, it is awfully abstract). Yet Thomas goes on to proclaim that they do not know where these dwelling places are, that they don’t know the way, basically asking for directions to some location they assume he is speaking about.
Christ’s response is an attempt to be clear: I am the way, you get to where you are going by following me, you will know the father by knowing me, I and the father are one, you want to know the father get to know me, and guess what, you already know me!
Christ is highlighting the relationship the disciples have developed with Christ, he is highlighting the fact that they already have their answer, they already know the father, they already know the way; be like him, love one another, strive to live up to the example he set.
They probably still don’t get it, but it would have probably started to become pretty clear in the days and weeks that followed.
We have to understand that the disciples had been told, for their entire lives, that the way to the father was through the temple and through the priests and through following the laws as described by the scribes. Jesus spends much of the gospels explaining how following the laws but ignoring your neighbor is not the way to God. Jesus lives out this maximum throughout he gospels, reaching out to and spending time with the very people the priests and the scribes and the pharisees would have ignored and declared unworthy.
To put it another way, Christ, in essence, is telling them that their access to God comes through their relationship with Christ and that a relationship with Christ is a relationship with God.
In this text (as with much of the gospels), Jesus Christ is challengingly the exclusionary practice of the jewish authorities. Do those exclusionary practices sound at all familiar?
The major mistake of interpretation that has occurred in the nearly 2000 years since this text was written out is that we have fallen into the same habits of the very people Jesus was trying to call out. At some point we thought that “coming to the father through me” meant “you only go to heaven if you join the Christian Church”. At some point we replaced the relationship with Christ with membership into the Christian Church.
In the opening scene of the movie Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee explains to a student that when someone points to the Moon, the fool looks only at the finger completely missing the Moon.
The Church points to Christ, it leads us into relationship with Christ, but the Church, by itself, is not the end. We have become the fool, focusing on the finger instead of the Moon. You do not get to the Father simply by professing your faith and getting your name recorded in a register. You get to the Father by having a relationship with Christ, by following the path of Christ, by loving the way Christ loved, by becoming the hands and feet of Christ. When we follow Christ, we live into the wholeness God intended for us at creation.
I have come to appreciate that my struggle with this text was never with the text itself, rather it was the way the text has been interpreted over the years. This text was never meant to be one of exclusion, but rather of instruction and hope. It was intended to break down walls, not to build them. It was meant to tell us that even if you are excluded, even if the priests in the temple tell you you don’t belong because you failed one of their check marks of membership, you still have access to God. Can you believe it! Jesus was actually trying to combat exclusionary practices with this statement! Only our humanness could turn something so profound and inviting into the very thing it was intended to overcome!
You may be thinking, aren’t you splitting hairs here? Isn’t saying access to God happens through a relationship with Christ as exclusionary as saying that you won’t get into heaven unless you join the church? When we confidently proclaim that access to God occurs through relationship, and not through professions of faith and induction ceremonies, it enters, to a certain degree, into the realm of mystery. The same mystery that overwhelms me each time I baptize a child, the same mystery that feeds me and sustains me with the Lord’s Supper. We are led to acknowledge that it is not us that has the power to say who is in and who is out. If anything it forces us to say that maybe some of the very people we want to be out are actually very in.
And following Christ, Christ the outcast, Christ the carpenter’s son from the hinterlands of the roman empire, means that we find God when we go and spend time with outcasts, with the disenfranchised with those on the fringes of society. We don’t have exclusive access to God, we don’t control God’s ability to be in relationship with others. We acknowledge that God is something we must always seek after, that God is out in the world, not trapped in our sanctuaries. Acknowledging this leads us to understand that God is so much greater than anything we can imagine.
I can confidently say that my access to God comes through Jesus Christ, and at the same time believe in a God who does not bar access, or hand out damnation or salvation based on whether someone professes Jesus as the Son of God. I am aware that this is a bit of a paradox, but with faith comes paradox.