Sermon: “Our Exclusivist Jesus Is an Idol of Our Own Creation”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14
John 13-17 is Jesus’ farewell discourse delivered during the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples gathered in the upper room. During dinner, Jesus got up, put a towel around his waist, and washed the disciples’ feet. They were taken aback. After finishing, Jesus asked if they knew what he had done. He then reminded them they called him Teacher and Lord, and said, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13.13-15; NRSV).
Having returned to table, Jesus foretold his betrayal. Judas departed. Jesus then told his disciples, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him … Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’” (John 13.31-33; NRSV). Jesus then gave the disciples the new commandment, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13.34; NRSV).
Jesus’ words “I am with you only a little longer … where I am going you cannot come” must have troubled the disciples. We see this in Peter’s question, “Lord, where are you going?” Note Jesus’ response: “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward,” and Peter’s reply: “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (John 13.36-37; NRSV). Although Peter’s intent was good, Jesus knew his weakness and asked, “Will you lay down your life for me? [Will you really, Peter?] Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13.38; NRSV).
This sets the context of today’s gospel reading. Perhaps you are wondering, how does this relate to Easter? This narrative precedes the crucifixion and resurrection. We find the answer to this question in Jesus’ comforting words, “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” (John 14.1-4; NRSV). Jesus assured his disciples they would also partake in the resurrection to life.
Thomas was not satisfied with Jesus’ words of comfort – what about this “way”? Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (John 14.5; NRSV)? Thomas understood Jesus to be speaking literally. In today’s terms, he would be thinking, “Jesus, can you give me a road map? And while you are at, mark the route. Better yet, program your address into my GPS unit!”
Jesus responds with an “I am” statement—one of seven found in John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14.6-7; NRSV). Unfortunately, these verses are all too frequently used to justify Christian exclusivism – to condemn all religions except Christianity, for after all, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” There are several problems with this interpretation.
First, it interprets this “I am” statement literally as opposed to figuratively. Is this consistent with the other “I am” statements found in John? Let us briefly examine them:
“I am the bread of life” (John 6.35, 41, 48, 51). This statement follows Jesus’ feeding of the 5000; Jesus said, “’For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6.33-35; NRSV). As bread sustains our physical life, Jesus sustains our spiritual life. Even if we know and love Jesus, we may still experience intense physical hunger. Literal or figurative interpretation? Physical or spiritual?
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8.12; NRSV). Our world is one of great spiritual darkness; Christ came bringing light to the world. Literal or figurative interpretation? Physical or spiritual?
“I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10.7, 9; NRSV). Jesus watches over, cares for, and protects his followers just as shepherds protect their sheep. Literal or figurative interpretation? Physical or spiritual?
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11,14; NRSV). Was Jesus a shepherd? We know he worked with his father, Joseph, the carpenter. Literal or figurative interpretation? Physical or spiritual?
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11.25-26; NRSV). Jesus spoke these words to Martha shortly before resuscitating Lazarus. Physical death is not the end for those who believe in Christ, but even in this event, the resuscitation was to reveal that God, the author of life, has power over death: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God” (John 11.40; NRSV). Literal or figurative interpretation? Physical or spiritual? One may raise questions here, but the glory ultimately rests with God.
“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower” (John 15, 1,5; NRSV). Literal or figurative interpretation? Physical or spiritual?
I think our analysis shows the “I am” statements are to be understood in a figurative and spiritual sense as opposed to a literal and physical sense.
Second, as Jesus repeatedly points out, God stands behind – the power is not Jesus’ power alone, for it comes from God and is meant to glorify God.
Third, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is he referring to his person or to his mode of living? Jesus’ actions were grounded in love; the intent, as we have seen, was to glorify God, the Father. This point becomes clearer if we continue our analysis of this passage. Having said he is the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus further stated, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14.6-7; NRSV).
Having heard these words, Philip asks for more: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14.9; NRSV). Note Jesus’ response,
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 (John 14.9-11; NRSV).
Jesus is saying, “These words, these actions do not come from me; they come from the Father who dwells in me; they come from the indwelling presence of God and God’s love.”
But Jesus does not stop here. He goes on to tell Philip one who believes in him will go on to do the works that he has done and even greater works, for Jesus is going to his Father that the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, might come. When the Spirit of God lives in us, our lives will imitate or reflect the life of Jesus, for we will live and act in God’s love just as Jesus did.
The last point that I would raise is this: When we use Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” in an exclusivist sense it strikes me that we mistakenly play God. In doing so, we make an idol of our self. Even if we are to understand Jesus’ words literally, who are we to place limits on the interaction of God’s Spirit with people of other faiths? Rather than use the life of Jesus as a means of exclusion, let us share the love we have experienced through knowing Jesus. Let us humbly and mutually join people of other faiths in the search for understanding and a closer relationship with God.