Do I Have To Believe That? “Jesus is the Only Way”
February 5, 2023
John 14: 1-14
One spring Saturday afternoon during my fifth grade year – the phone rang. My Mom answered and then held the phone to me: “some girl wants to speak with you.”
I understood her tone immediately. This was…really unusual.
Like, seriously, it had never happened before.
But – as a side note – if there was ever a year in which I was approaching the category of “cool,” 5th grade was the one. It was 1988 and I was riding high on a pretty mean Axel Rose impersonation… there wasn’t an eleven-year-old in sight who could do it like me. But I digress…I pull the cord on the phone as far as it will stretch into the pantry, close the door behind me and say “hello?”
The voice on the other end belongs to Casey.
She sweeps right past the pleasantries and cuts to the chase. You see, Casey was asked by Jamie to ask me if I wanted to ask Jamie to go with me.
That’s what it was called back then – “going with…”
“Do you want to ‘go’ with Jamie?” she asked.
I said ‘sure.’
She said ‘great’
I got off the phone as quickly as possible and like any fifth grade boy promptly forgot all about it.
But then – on Monday morning – something terrible happened.
I got to school – and I was “going with? Jamie. This was horrible!
She was always trying to be around me. She kept asking what I was going to do that Friday night.
I pretty much spent that week avoiding Jamie at all costs. I was terrified that she might want to…you know…hold hands And maybe in the world of hand holding she would not be a pancake – which is the right way – but instead she’s be a…Waffler – Yuck! Stop the train. I want to get off.
Well, this may come as a shock, but we broke up about 4 days later…or at least I think we did.
I don’t really remember having a conversation about it. So, it’s hard to say?
The point is: sometimes we make a decision – we get ourselves into something – and then we’re shocked and deeply uncomfortable with what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
I wonder if following Jesus might feel like that sometimes.
I’m a Christian – wait, what do you mean we’re the only ones who are saved?
I’m a Christian – and every person of every other faith – is not going to heaven? I’m not so sure about this?
I’m a Christian – and now I have to hold hands with people who believe that? Stop the train. I want…to Get…OFF!
Today we conclude our sermon series “Do I Have To Believe That,” this time asking “Is Jesus Christ the only way?”
Our scripture reading is the go-to text for that assumption – John, chapter 14. First, let us pray:
Christ in our eyes that we might see correctly.
Christ in our mind that we might understand shrouded mysteries.
Christ in our heart that we might be filled with the most expansive love of all. Amen.
‘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.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’
Jesus 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?” Do 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.
Believe 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.
Very 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.
I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Zero Sum Game. Are you familiar with this mathematical concept?
If you win it is necessarily at the expense of another.
The resources in play are static and no amount of teamwork or negotiation will enlarge the share so that all may benefit.
Zero Sum Games are, by nature, games of conflict.
Winners and Losers. Victory and Defeat.
It seems to me that Religion is too often presented as a Zero Sum Game, except that instead of points, eternal Salvation is at stake. There is only so much to go around and if you do not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior then you will lose.
I imagine that line of thinking might feel “off” to many of you?
Like there is something inherently NOT-Christ-like about that.
If so let me first say that I am glad you’re still here, because of all the questions we’ve wrestled with in this series, this is the one that repels people from Church the most. I cannot say how many times I’ve heard somebody say: “I just cannot get on board with that exclusive claim to salvation. The thought of Jesus being ‘the only way’ when I encounter so many wonderful people of all different faiths – or no faith at all. I just can’t do it.”
And so they do their best impression of a 5th grade break up.
They quietly disengage; they avoid the Church at all costs, because they want nothing to do with that kind of smug certainty.
Often-times those same people – and perhaps many of you in this room – will invoke a more generous metaphor to describe the different faith tradition – the Mountain with many paths to the top.
God is the Mountain peak;
all those who hunger to encounter God must climb;
but there are numerous paths up the same mountain and no one path is better than any other.
They all get you to the same place.
I know that at the heart of this metaphor is respect for all people and all faiths and that is a very good thing, but it can just as easily become an excuse to pick no path in particular.
Assuming all the paths will get you to the same mountain-top, you do still have to choose one. Standing at the base of the mountain honoring all paths will not help you – or your family – get any closer to encountering God. I say “your family” because most often I experience this hesitancy with claiming a particular faith comes out in parenting: “I don’t want to make my son or my daughter go to Church because I want them to choose their own path.”
Sofia Cavalletti is a religious author who has studied the faith-formation of children. When it comes to children, she argues that specificity makes all the difference. You cannot teach a child a vague religiosity. They need a very specific faith. Cavalletti writes: “Wishing to keep religion on a vague level without any specific content is the same as wanting a child to talk without using any particular language.” It will not work.
If, in the spirit of honoring all faiths, we fail to offer them a specific faith, we actually deny that child the opportunity to become spiritually literate.
Today we are honoring Kim McNeill for the fifteen years she has served the youth of this church. She has been a consistent companion for our young people along their journey of faith. But Kim has most certainly formed our young people in the Christian faith.
She has been unafraid to talk about Jesus. She has minced no words when saying that Christ demands your highest allegiance. Just last week as Kim led worship, she recounted one of the many late night conversations she had with a young person who was wrestling with the deeper questions of what it means to believe we are forgiven.
Throughout her long and faithful tenure here at UPC, Kim has given our young people a specific language and encouraged them to follow a specific path up the mountain.
She has consistently pointed them to Jesus.
But here’s the thing – Kim has done all of this without turning our young people onto some exclusivist, “Zero-Sum-Game-Salvation-is-only-for-Christians” mindset.
She has given them Jesus AND she has given them kindness and respect for all God’s people.
Friends, these two are not mutually exclusive.
Some – some might say you can’t hold those two together at the same time.
“Preacher, Jesus himself says ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. You can’t get around that one. Seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is the only way to be saved.”
To which I would say “Yeah, you’re right. Jesus does say ‘I am the way’…but let the man finish his sentence.”
“I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Why must we assume Jesus is talking about salvation here?
Why must we impose upon this text our obsession with Zero Sum Games – about who goes to heaven and who does not?
What if Jesus is talking about something else altogether?
What if Jesus is getting specific about the Christian path?
A number of years ago I had the privilege of participating in this wonderful Christian-Muslim small group. Bilal was the Imam at a local Mosque and he would cook breakfast every other Monday and invite a handful of pastors. Over eggs and olives, crusty bread and baba ghanoush, we became good friends while talking about our holy scriptures.
We must have been discussing this text from John because I distinctly remember asking: “Bilal, In Islam is there any sense that God is like a Father?”
He smiled before replying, “In Islam – Allah is God most high…God is completely set apart from all humans. So no, we do not think of God as a Father, but I know that it is different in Christianity…that divinity and humanity get mingled together in Jesus and that he called God Abba – Father – and so you do as well.”
Bilal always understood Christianity far better than I understood Islam.
He wasn’t wrong.
This is all over the Gospel of John from the very beginning.
On Christmas Eve, we read these words from the prologue of John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”
A few verses later it reads:
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
From the very beginning, John offers this as a statement of purpose – Jesus is here to make us all children of God. That is the End Game – not going to heaven or salvation – it’s about the family of God becoming whole.
Bilal and I are friends. The way the Muslim faith animates who he is as a human being is beautiful. And it is very different from my path. I can have immense respect for Bilal and for Islam – And I can celebrate what makes Christianity distinct and different and equally beautiful.
So back to the question at hand: “Do I have to believe that Jesus is the only way?”
No – Christianity is not the only way to experience the divine.
Other faith traditions are worthy of our respect.
No – We need not make assumptions about the eternal souls of those who
find their way within those other faith traditions.
But also Yes – Jesus is the way to the Father.
Yes – Jesus invites us to truth the truth that we are forgiven and freed from a lifetime of regret.
Yes – Jesus invites us into the only life that matters, a life of service and sacrifice.
Yes – Jesus invites us to know God as a loving parent who would never be content to wait for you at the top of some mountain peak until you can get there on your own.
Yes – Jesus invites us to imagine God as the one who mingles divinity with humanity, a parent who rushes down to meet you at the head of the trail and promises to be your companion along every twist and turn of the path…Sometimes leading, sometimes following, sometime carrying us, but always by our side.
And Yes Jesus is the one who shows us that God’s love is more expansive than we could ever hope or imagine.
All of this is what makes the Christian path distinct and different and beautiful.
It may not be the path for everybody.
It does not have to be the path for everybody.
But it is the path for me.
What about you?