It’s likely that many of you recognize a portion of today’s gospel as one of the lessons frequently read at funeral services in our church. The 14th chapter of John’s gospel is read more often than any other of the suggested gospel lessons at memorial services. “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” and this verse concludes, “I am the way, the truth and the life—no one comes to the Father, but by me.”
Each time I read this familiar passage, I am acutely aware that sitting out there among the mourners at the memorial service are persons who may be Jewish, or persons who are unchurched, or persons who are of some religious persuasion other than Christian. So I am often tempted to lower my voice or mumble that last phrase. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one ,mumble,mumble,mumble.”
This verse implies to me that if you don’t come to know God through Jesus of Nazareth, you aren’t going to know God at all. And, of course, this phrase has become the proof text for many fundamentalist Christians—“no one comes to the Father but by Jesus.” As one bumper sticker says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!”
What is true, of course, is that the Bible does say it—but for me it doesn’t always mean I believe it in the same way that some people believe it. And then, as far as I am concerned, that is hardly the end of it.
A solid and noted theologian of our church, John Macquarrie, makes some observations about John’s gospel which may be helpful to us. Macquarrie says that the words of Jesus, as recorded in John’s Gospel, are not simply the words of Jesus of Nazareth, but Macquarrie says they are the words of the Logos—“the Word.” You’ll remember that John begins his gospel by saying these words: “In the beginning was the Word (Logos in Greek) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
If we wish to understand what St. John means when he says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” then we might loosely exchange or translate the word Word and Logos with the English word-- “Meaning”.
“In the beginning was Meaning. And the Meaning was with God. And the Meaning was God” –even though I recognize that this translating of Logos and Word has a lot of weaknesses within it.
Those of us who are Christians believe that we have heard the Word of God in our lives through Jesus of Nazareth, whom we have come to call the Christ and many of us feel that we don’t have to look further to understand the fullness of God.
But I, along with many other Christians, believe that the Word also may find expression in other traditions, religions and in every nook and cranny of the whole creation of God.
In our modern world we are becoming more aware of other important cultures and ancient religions. More and more we are coming to know men and women who profess faiths other than ours and they may be persons who clearly express a deep spirituality. We have begun to read the scriptures and writings of non-Christian faiths and are often struck by the truths of their teachings—often very similar or exactly the same as our teachings. In this day and age it is very difficult not to be much more affirming toward and affirmative about Non-Christian expressions of religious faith. This kind of openness is deeply rooted in the earliest history of our own Christian theological experiences.
The earliest Fathers of the Christian Church took a surprisingly generous attitude toward the non-Christian philosophical and religious views of their time. Justin Martyr, Clement, Origen of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyon, to name a few, maintained that God was so large—so inclusive—that God could not be contained by the Christian community alone. They believed that God was at work in the long history of the Jewish people…a history upon which our Christian faith was founded. These ancient Fathers had enough respect for Greek and Roman thought to use that thinking to understand parts of the Christian Faith. In reality, many of the claims that Christianity is the exclusive pathway to God are the product of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. It is important in our time to know that we are moving away from that 16th century Continental Reformations rigid point of view. Fortunately and appropriately, we are now setting the Christian gospel in the context of God’s whole and universal revelation of God.
To maintain a more generous position toward other religions is not to “sell out” our own Christian faith. To be open to, and interested in, other religions is not to automatically become relativists. We can maintain our posture, keeping our whole and absolute faith in the person of Jesus Christ, because we understand the nature of the word Logos, and we firmly believe in the fullest meaning of God. We believe that God is most completely known in the historic person, Jesus Christ. But God’s revelation of himself is not just limited to Jesus, alone. As Norman Pittenger, another great Episcopal thinker was fond of saying, “God is defined by, but not confined to, Jesus Christ.”
It was St. Ambrose who said, in the 4th century, “Every truth, wherever spoken, is spoken by the Holy Spirit. There is but one Word, one Logos, and one revelation of God. It is all one piece but revealed throughout all ages, in the lives of all men and women, in the whole of creation, in all places.”
This revelation of God was given a decisive focus in Jesus—for you and for me. But, again, Norman Pittinger writes: “this cannot deny the fact that wherever persons learn truth, create beauty, manifest goodness, seek righteousness, live honestly and bravely and decently with family and friends, and know what it means to love others and accept the love of others for themselves-- that same Word has been and still is at work.”
Let me add an important point: what I have been trying to say does not mean that we can simply believe anything we wish—or that nothing that we do believe has meaning. Quite the contrary, what is essential for us is that within the belief system of the community of Christians, and where that Christian community places specific beliefs around Jesus, you and I have a responsibility to wrestle with, support, enable and participate in the way that our faith comes revealed to each of us. We have a descriptive system of belief. We have a baptismal covenant that calls us to specific understandings of God. We have a structure of organization and a commitment of belief. And our life pilgrimage is to be committed to that belief, to that community and to honor our understandings of Jesus in the largest meaning of that commitment.
I hope, with this kind of understanding, we can read the whole of this 14th chapter of John’s gospel boldly and without embarrassment: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes unto the Father but by me.”
We can read this passage with a genuine respect for religions not our own. Knowing and believing that God “is defined by, but not confined to, Jesus Christ” allows a generosity of the human spirit which is nothing short of truth and compassion. God’s “Word”, “Logos”, “Meaning” permeates all of God’s creation—at all times, in all places, by all persons, and…for those of us who call ourselves Christian, we discover that “Word” especially through the one whom we call “The Christ—Jesus of Nazareth.”