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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/14/2017

“I am the way, and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  There you have it; the choir sang it. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Everything I said last week about Luther’s hiddenness of God and hope for outsiders seems to go out the window with the apparent exclusivity of that statement.  This verse is a Bible bullet that is used by those who want to imagine heaven as the exclusive domain of Christians, in some cases the exclusive domain of certain kinds of Christians.  It’s a tough verse, seeming, as it does, to close the door on a lot of people, turning God into a harsh gatekeeper. I looked, and three years ago I ducked this verse by making this Sunday Holy Humor Sunday.  Perhaps I should have done that this year too. (Holy Humor is coming, don’t worry).

I was accused once by one of my former colleagues of not taking the Bible seriously because I didn’t see this verse as condemning all those outside the church.  If you want to make me mad, tell me I don’t take the Bible seriously.  My response to this person wasn’t very nice. For me, to take the Bible seriously means you don’t read it like that; you don’t use the Bible as a weapon to satisfy your own narrow minded theology but instead you struggle with it, especially with the verses that raise questions.  You look at the broader context and the overarching message of the gospel as you try to determine what the author is trying to say.  As Lutherans, that overarching message always has to do with grace. 

In the biblical struggle, John’s gospel poses special challenges and one of the things worth paying attention to in seeking greater insight is to look at the way he sequences things.  It was true last week when the sheep/shepherd imagery followed the man born blind story thus providing commentary on that story.  It’s true again this week as these verses can also be seen as interpretation, following as they do John’s Maundy Thursday account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, the supper that included foot washing and the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved them.

The tone of that account is one of reassurance and today’s gospel starts with the phrase, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” which is more reassurance, reassurance that sets the tone for what follows.  In this whole narrative, Jesus was preparing his disciples for the fact that he wouldn’t be physically present with them in the same way anymore but he was offering reassurance that it would be OK.   

The intent of “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” is not to make an exclusive religious claim but to say to his disciples, “If it were not for me and the forgiveness I represent, your hearts should be troubled because your relationship with God would remain broken; there would be no reason for hope.  What I have made possible though for you and for all people is for you to remain in relationship with the Father.”  The verses that follow this and make up next week’s gospel continue this reassurance theme with the promise of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. 

That’s further evidence that this isn’t about doctrine and who believes the right things; that would be taking it completely out of this context of reassurance and turning it into a scare tactic.  In writing his gospel John’s intention is to create faith.  Fear doesn’t create faith; it may bring about obedience, but it doesn’t create faith. 

The language of Jesus is consistently about defusing fear.  How often does he say, “Do not fear” or “Be not afraid?”  He begins his parables with “The kingdom of heaven is like…a mustard seed, a pearl, a treasure hidden in a field.”  In John you get all of the “I am” statements, last week I am the gate but also, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the vine, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, things like that.  None of it is threatening.  It’s hope and reassurance.  It’s all poetic invitation that encourages us to use our imagination as we consider the God revealed in Jesus.  It’s thought provoking and faith provoking invitation.

What this really comes down to is the question of how we think about God, of how we think about Jesus.  In our humanity, it’s hard not to place limits on God or to place limits on how far Jesus’ redeeming love can reach maybe because we know we have those limits.  There is something in our humanity that wants definitive answers so that we can draw lines that clearly identify winners and losers and, of course, because we’re drawing the lines, we’re always on the winning side.  But the certainty of that kind of thinking fosters an arrogance that precludes any real conversation with those we see as being on the other side of the line and when carried to extremes winds up with people hating and killing each other in the name of God.  Does that sound like God’s will?  Does that exemplify the humility and grace that Jesus modeled?

You know that one of the things I talk about a lot is that even within what we as Christians accept as Holy Scripture, God is portrayed and experienced and imagined in a wide variety of ways.  Walter Brueggemann talks about the Bible as testimony which I find to be a very helpful approach.  Broadly speaking, he likens the voices of the Bible to a courtroom where witnesses are called, sometimes providing conflicting testimony about what they witnessed or experienced.  It is then up to the jury to decide which testimony is most reflective of the truth. 

In the case of biblical interpretation, we are the jury and the truth is the gospel message of a loving, forgiving God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  In Lutheran jargon we call that grace.  That doesn’t mean we can be totally dismissive of voices that say something else, portraying God in harsher terms; but while those voices do create tension, what we say is that those aren’t God’s defining characteristics. 

The Bible simply doesn’t provide us with the absolutes we sometimes think we want unless you do take a verse like “No one comes to Father except through me” out of context and use it as an absolute.  What is quite consistent in the Bible though, is God understood as being in relationship and in dialogue rather than being a God who dictates absolutes.  

Jesus, of course, was the master of less than absolute statements, the master of responses that avoided straight answers and instead encouraged his listeners to push further.  It was frustrating for them.  That comes out in today’s text too when Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going,” and Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going!”  It was frustrating for them and it is frustrating for us.  In some fashion we have to find a way to live in and not be overwhelmed by this divine tension and the questions that persist.  With a verse like today’s, it’s tension that is further complicated as we encounter good people of other faiths.  We know that Christians aren’t the only good people in the world.

For many of us, the way that we manage the tension is to settle on the invitation of Jesus.  We hear the invitation of texts like today’s and find comfort in its words without feeling the need to use Jesus’ words as a hammer that nails others who may have different beliefs.  We are assured by the promise of relationship centered on the steadfast love of God that we find revealed in Jesus, steadfast love that is forever.  We then act out of that steadfast love.  We proclaim with confidence what we know to be the truth about Jesus and in whatever ways we can, we model the love and the sacrifice that he lived.

Even trusting in that grace and steadfast love, is there still an element of fear about judgment that is part of our relationship with God?  Maybe.  Probably.  That’s part of the tension.  On this Mother’s Day though, we can liken it to the relationship between a parent and child.  It’s a relationship grounded in love, but that’s not to say that there’s never any tension and fear of consequences involved. 

When it comes to the God revealed in Jesus, the dominant testimony concerning him is not about fear.  It’s all about the relationship and that’s what we come back to.  With “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me,” in the knowledge of that relationship, there is no fear or threat, only promise, promise and invitation.  Isn’t that the message we want to share with others?  Fear doesn’t create faith and it doesn’t create disciples; promise and invitation do and Jesus does show us the way.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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