This morning, Eddie Rivera, the pastor at SPUMC, preached what I thought was a fantastic sermon on John 14:6, the rather infamous text in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Eddie pointed out that he has struggled mightily with this text over time. He said that, within the United Methodist community, you will find people who claim that this text is speaking only of the way people “come to” the Father within the Christian community, and others who claim it is the only way for all humans to “come to” the Father. Without invalidating either perspective, Eddie pointed out that the text challenges us as a Christian community to live in the way of Jesus – that this is the means by which the world around us is going to find life. Any interpretation of this text that does the opposite – sets us apart from and against the world around us – is contrary to the very nature of being “life” to the world.
I thought that this was a fantastic point, and, during the last couple of hours, I’ve been finding my self coloring in some of the ideas he sketched during his sermon with my own experiences.
It seems to me that the thing about John 14 that has always made me uncomfortable is the fact that it sets out a metanarrative (an overarching “story” that claims to encompass and control all other stories). In the postmodern era, people are deeply suspicious of metanarratives. In last century, metanarratives have put people in gas chambers and caused others to fly airplanes into buildings. They have justified torture and created a seemingly impossible political divide within our country.
Similarly, because those of us who live in the first world are becoming increasingly in contact with and aware of other nations and cultures, we are also acutely aware that not everyone shares our metanarratives. The Islamic metanarrative is different from the Buddhist one, and both of those are different from the metanarrative of the humanist/atheist. If we are all going to co-exist, then we are going to have to find a way to deal with the fact that we all have different cosmic “stories” rolling around in our minds.
So…many people, and most especially young people, are deeply suspicious of metanarratives.
Yet it strikes me that this text is, unavoidably, an expression of the Christian metanarrative. True, its not designed to answer the question of “will people who live in the future, and who follow other religions go to heaven after they die?” – which is what many of us suppose. That is, in any case, a bad question – and I will have to leave my reasons for that observation for another time. In the meantime, my central point is that – if you read John as a whole – it is clear that Jesus has been given to the world, and that Greeks – who, in Jesus’ time, practice other religions – are clearly among those whom he is going to draw to the Father. There is no escaping it. This is a metanarrative from an early Christian community, not simply an isolated statement about how that community comes to know God.
But is it a harmful one? I have no doubt that it can be and is often perverted into mean-spirited claims that are designed to exclude and de-humanize non-Christians. But does the text itself, if given a full and fair reading, result in a metanarrative that is destructive to the world around it?
I don’t think so. At its heart, the text is telling us that we can know our Creator by looking at the person of Jesus. If we look at his life and listen to his words, we are also looking upon God as well. To live out our lives as Jesus lived his (v. 12) is the “way” to the Father, the means by which we discover “truth” and the avenue to “life.” Jesus was not a source of pain and exclusion to those around him. He was a source of hope and love and healing. If we do the same, there is no way that this metanarrative can harm others. This was Eddie’s point this morning.
Now I want to wander a little beyond what Eddie had to say, so be warned: what follows was not part of Eddie’s sermon (though it agrees with what he has said).
First, it seems to me that some people who do not call themselves Christian understand the “way of Jesus” better than many who do. They live out lives of non-violent resistance to injustice as Jesus did. They care about the marginalized around them. Like Gandhi, they refuse to give into the seductive lure of cultural and national exceptionalism and greed. They are, consciously or not, coming to know the Father through the way of Jesus. This possibility is not unheard of in scripture (see Paul’s comments in Romans 2:14-16). Is it the title “Christian” that puts us on the way of Jesus, or is it the way we imitate him (even when we don’t know that is what we are doing)?
Second, it seems to me that John 14 has nothing to say about the extent to which humanity will ultimately “come to the Father” through Jesus, a point that many seem eager to make with this text. It claims that Jesus will make it possible for humans to come to God, but says nothing about how much of humanity (few? many? most? all?) will do so.
The metanarrative of scripture seems to me to be moving to a much different, and more hopeful place. Humanity takes a very difficult and winding path through the Bible, no doubt. There are times of judgment, stories of hells, and tales of narrow paths that only a few find. But – as I’ve said before – this narrative ultimately seems to speak in universal terms. In John “all people” are drawn to Jesus. In Paul, every knee bows and every tongue confesses. In Revelation, the gates of God’s garden-city are open and the nations stream in to be healed by the medicinal herbs of its trees. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, even in the Old Testament, we are told that God will one day “raise up” Sodom, possibly the most notoriously wicked city in all of scripture.
To say that mankind comes into relationship with its Creator through Jesus is not to say that those who are a part of our small group of believers in the here and now are the only ones who finally make it into God’s new world. This enables us to live along side others who cling to different metanarratives in peace and hope. After all, the universe is a big, beautiful, and mysterious place. Surely, it has not yet yielded all of its secrets to humanity. Surely, even if our own story holds true, others can appreciate deep truths about the world that we do not. And, if we hold to our own meta-narrative in the way Jesus tells it and lives it out, we can be sure that God is very, very patient and full of infinite love.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us at the start of John 14, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
In a world full of different metanarratives that is trying to coexist, surely this makes for a much better rallying cry than verse 6.
It is in God’s nature to make lots of space for everyone.
We should do the same.