Scripture: John 14:1-14
Maybe you’ve heard this story before: a fugitive from the law escapes to the wilderness to start a new life. He settles down in a desert community; marries; has a family; puts his past and identity behind him. One day he is just going about his daily business, tending the family sheep on the side of a nearby mountain, when all of a sudden he sees it: fire. A bush is engulfed in flames, but it’s not burning up.
He stops for a closer look.
And that’s when God speaks. “Moses!” God says. “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Moses hides his face.
“I’ve seen my people suffering in Egypt,” God says, “and I have plans to liberate them. And my plans include you.”
Moses objects. “What am I going to say to them?” he asks. “If I just go and say ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they’ll say, ‘Oh really? What’s this God’s name?’ And then what am I supposed to say?”
God says, “I AM WHO I AM. Tell them I AM sent you.”
Thousands of years later, that same God took on flesh and bones and walked on earth, and when people asked who this man was, he once again said to them, “I AM.”
Sometimes he left it at that, but sometimes he added something to the end: an image, to help people understand. “I am the bread of life,” he said, or “I am the good shepherd,” or “I am the light of the world.” With these images Jesus revealed something of himself to us, always in little glimpses at a time, never allowing us to define him too precisely, just as the God of the burning bush refused to do. This year in this season between Epiphany and Lent, we’re focusing on these “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, asking what they tell us about who Jesus is and what that means for us.
So far some of our sayings have been comforting (Jesus is the bread who satisfies our hunger); some have been confusing (Jesus is both the Good Shepherd AND the gate for the sheep?); and today we come to one that may be difficult in a different way – not so much the image itself, but what to make of it in our contemporary world.
The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples, reclining around a table. It’s their last night together in Jerusalem. They’ve eaten together, and Jesus has washed their feet and instructed them to do the same for each other. Jesus has predicted Judas’s betrayal, he’s told the others he is going away and that they can’t follow him, at least not right now, and he’s given them a new commandment to be lived out in his absence: Love one another. This is the beginning of what we call Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John.
It’s from there that Jesus launches into this next part of his speech.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, which takes on new meaning as we realize just how troubling this whole situation must actually have been. “Believe in God. Believe also in me.” Trust me, Jesus tells them, even now. “In my Father’s house,” he says, “are many rooms. I’m going to prepare a place for you there, and I’ll be back to take you with me, so that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas isn’t just going to let that one slide. There’s nothing more annoying than being told you know something that you don’t actually know, especially when you might already be panicking a little about what’s about to happen. “Lord,” he says, “we don’t even know where you’re going; how are we supposed to know the way?”
Jesus responds, “I am the way – and the truth, and the life.” You know the way, he implies, because you know me. The journey is the destination.
In the words of pastor and writer Rob Fuquay, “If the Gospel stopped at those words, it would be one thing, but it continues: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ That’s where the trouble begins.”
For some, Fuquay writes, these words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” have become a weapon against people of other religions, used to condemn them to hell for not believing in Jesus. On the other side of the spectrum, this verse has driven away from Christianity people who reject its seemingly exclusivist claim. It is hard to know what to make of this verse in our contemporary time and place. After all, we live in a diverse, multicultural world, full of people from all different places who believe all different things – and these are not just people we know of. They’re our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, even our family members, and we know that they are good people, and we respect them. And maybe partially because of this, we live in a culture that tends to reject the idea that truth is just one defined thing, and so to claim that there is just one way to God ends up sounding pretty fundamentalist, at least in some circles.
It’s not just lukewarm, marginal Christians who would prefer to avoid this verse altogether. Today’s passage from John 14 is the suggested Gospel reading for a funeral in our United Methodist Book of Worship. Just for fun, this week, I looked back to see how much was included. Turns out it skips straight from the house with many rooms and Jesus telling the disciples they know they way all the way to verse 18: “I will not leave you orphaned.” Whoever selected those verses must know that funerals are for being comforted, and that part in the middle there gets a little uncomfortable.
I have to admit I see their point. I grew up going to school with people who were Jewish and Muslim and Hindu. They were my friends, and I didn’t see anything unnatural about the fact that we had different customs and celebrated different holidays. My sophomore year in high school I took a Comparative Religion class, where I learned more about some of the things those other religions taught, and I discovered I really liked some of them. Same for the classes I took college, in the Religious Studies department at William & Mary – for example, did you know that the concept of jihad really means not holy war, but a Muslim’s religious duty to struggle for justice? I learned that in a class I took on Islam, and it resonated with me. In my first appointment as a pastor, I used to walk down the street on Thursday mornings to participate in Torah study at the nearby synagogue, led by Rabbi David, where I learned to love the Jewish way of challenging and arguing with God. And when I got here to Arlington Temple I met Mehmet and Angela, a local imam and his wife, who invited us to iftar dinners during Ramadan at their mosque and took up collections for our Fellowship Hall food basket. And I made friends here in DC who aren’t interested in church at all but who engage politically for causes they think are good and just and generally try to make the world a better place.
I don’t believe, as some would say, that all of our religions or belief systems are ultimately the same. I think we believe some different things and that those differences matter. But I do believe that every one of these faiths I’ve encountered has something beautiful to offer in seeking a relationship with God. And that makes it hard for me to believe that all these people in my life from all these different traditions don’t have some access, some knowledge of God – or that even my nonreligious friends haven’t tapped into something bigger than themselves – much less that any of them would spend eternity in hell simply for not believing the same things I do.
There are ways, over the years, that people have tried to soften this verse up a little bit, this part about “no one coming to the Father except through me,” to make it friendlier. Maybe, some people have proposed, people of other religions or no religion can follow Jesus, in a sense, without even calling it that, or knowing that’s what they’re doing. Maybe when these people show love and generosity and forgiveness and justice in their lives, Jesus is in fact in some way there. The 20th-century theologian Karl Rahner called people like this “anonymous Christians.” They’re Christians who don’t even know it.
To some of you this might sound like cheating, but to me there’s something attractive about this idea that the love of Jesus is wider than anything we name it. The problem that I don’t think I’d want to be called an anonymous Muslim or an anonymous Hindu. I’m not those things. I respect them, but I’m not them. It could be considered patronizing to try to define someone else for them.
But even with that in mind, when I go back to John 14 and read it again, doing my best to set aside my assumptions and defenses and cultural baggage, I do read it a little differently than I did at first.
When I go back to it, this isn’t really a passage about who goes to heaven or hell. For one thing, Jesus never says anything about hell. He does say that his Father’s house has many rooms and that he is going to prepare a way for his disciples, which we may take as an image of heaven. But the focus of this passage, as New Testament scholar Gail O’Day points out, isn’t really on going to a place. It’s about relationship. When I read the passage again it strikes me how much of it is focused on knowing. Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas objects, “How can we know the way?” and Jesus says, “I am the way.” Then, after saying that no one comes to the Father except through him, he continues: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” And even when Philip pushes him – “Lord, show us the Father” – Jesus responds, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”
In these verses, Jesus isn’t talking to his disciples about who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. This is his last night with them and he is leaving them with words of comfort and assurance for when he is gone.
Jesus isn’t talking to his disciples about Hindus or Muslims or spiritual-but-not-religious types. He’s talking to them, giving them a reason to trust that even now, everything will be OK. He’s telling them they know the way forward, even when they think they don’t. He’s telling them that even if they don’t know where he’s going or what’s about to happen, they know God because they know God through him.
Jesus, for the disciples then and for disciples now, is the one through whom we know God and have access to God – the same God who showed up at the burning bush that day, the God who led God’s people out of slavery, the God who spoke through prophets and stuck with God’s people through exile and worked in history to bring them home again, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and now of us. This God, I AM, may defy both description and definition, but in Jesus, we get the full picture of who God is.
As I learned more about other religions in high school and college, there were times when I asked myself why I was Christian when some of the teachings of other faiths rang so true to me. In the end, there’s a reason I stayed, and it’s not just out of habit. I stayed because I still believe that Jesus embodies the love and mercy and radical welcome of God in a way that no one else ever has. I believe he opens the door into eternal, abundant life for me in a way that no one else ever could. And I believe, then, that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we have something unique to share with the world.
This is my story, and in the end, for me, no other story will do. I hope other people will keep telling me theirs, because I really do think their stories are beautiful, and that I can learn something from them. And I’ll trust their stories to God and let God sort them all out – the God I know in Jesus.
And if you ever feel lost, like your hearts are troubled and you don’t know the way, remember this: you might not know what lies ahead, but if you know Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, you’re a lot less lost than you think.
 Rob Fuquay, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Sayings of Jesus, p. 87
 Cf. Fuquay, p. 93-94; Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, p. 154-155
 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 740.