Why: Is Jesus the Only Way?
Today we’re coming to the end of our series on Why: Asking Tough Questions of Faith. We wrap up with a question that isn’t really a “why” question, but it is one that I’ve heard often enough in ministry that I thought it deserved a place in our series nonetheless. Maybe you’ve heard it too. “Is Jesus the Only Way?” The fuller version of this question, including the unexpressed parts of it is something more like, “Is believing in Jesus the only way to get into heaven? Is being a Christian the only way to be right with God?” And related to it are the questions that naturally follow: “What about people who are part of other religious traditions? Are they ok? Can they get to heaven? Are they just wrong? Are there consequences for choosing a path other than believing in Jesus and being part of the church?”
For contemporary Christians, this question – is Jesus the Only Way – has only become more important, more pressing to us. Many earlier generations of American Christians might have spent most of their lives with their only meaningful exposure to people of other faith traditions being interaction between Protestants and Catholics, or Episcopalians and Baptists; we have different traditions and ways of doing things, but all part of the Body of Christ. But our world has changed. Not only is the United States increasingly a place of diverse cultures, faiths, and practices, but we also have much more exposure to people outside of the United States. Chances are, through work, through school, through social media, through your interests and tastes, through your hobbies, you have connections with people from outside of the US too. Probably, you have friendships with or at least are acquaintances with people who are not Christian, but instead are Jewish, or Hindu, or Sikh, or Muslim. And in light of these relationships, our question for today becomes all the more urgent. We want to know: what about our friends who practice a different faith, who don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who aren’t Christian? What happens to them? Where do they fit in our understanding of our faith?
Not only has our level of knowledge and interaction with people of other faiths changed, but our culture has also changed when it comes to talking about right and wrong, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood. We’ve become wary of people who speak in absolutes, who claim that their way is the right way and no variation is acceptable. We put a great deal of weight on personal experience, which is subjective. In a time where we hear a constant refrain of “Fake News,” truth seems fluid. People from other faith traditions seem as passionately sure of their faith as we are of ours. Who are we to tell them they are wrong and we are right?
We have other questions, too, when it comes to wondering about Jesus and whether or not his way is the only way. There are people who have literally never heard the gospel. It’s hard to imagine, but there are still cultures that are untouched by the outside world. How can folks who have never heard of Jesus be held accountable to believing in an “only way” of which they’ve never heard? Or how do we handle the fact that sometimes messengers of the gospel do a bad job in sharing the good news? If the gospel is shared in ways that are harmful and hurtful, how can we blame people for not accepting Jesus, when it is hard to separate message from messenger? And what about folks who aren’t Christian, but they seem to be walking in the path of Jesus more deeply than those of us who claim the title “Christian”? Our question is “Is Jesus the Only Way?” But it is really a question containing many questions. Who is in and who is out? How are we “saved”? What about my friends who aren’t Christian? What does it take for us to claim Jesus’ offered gift of life eternal? I’m not sure we can “answer” all of those questions, but today we’ll try to begin to answer.
When people talk about Jesus being “the only way,” they are drawing on words from scripture, and in particular looking at the passage that we shared today from the gospel of John. Today’s text comes from the setting of what we call the Last Supper, even though we don’t see that in the passage we read. Just before the section we read today, Jesus has shared a meal with the disciples, washed their feet, sent Judas off to do the work of betrayal, and shared with the disciples a new commandment, that they would love one another just as Jesus has loved them. But laced through Jesus’ words are references to the fact that Jesus will be leaving the disciples soon. Near the end of chapter thirteen he says, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterword.” Jesus’ ambiguous, symbolic languages confuses the disciples. Peter asks “Lord, where are you going? Why can I not follow you now?” This is what leads us into our text for today.
If today’s passage sounds familiar to you, it is likely because we often share in this text at funerals. These are words of comfort we speak to each other in the painful times of grief and loss, when we’re looking for reassurance of our place in God’s heart. Jesus says to the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He tells them that in God’s house there are “many dwelling places,” lots of room, and that Jesus is preparing a place for them there. Jesus promises that he will take them to God’s house, so that where Jesus is, we might be too. And, Jesus insists, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”
At this, Thomas speaks up. He and the others are hearing Jesus in a very literal way, and all they can conclude is that they don’t know where Jesus is going or the way to get there. They don’t have a map. They don’t have directions. They’re feeling lost, afraid, and confused about all this talk of Jesus leaving them. “How can we know the way?” Thomas asks. Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. You get to God by way of me! If you know me, you know God! If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen him.” Jesus is trying to tell the disciples that they don’t have to worry that they won’t be able to find a way to God – Jesus is the way to God, and they already know Jesus. He’s speaking to comfort their anxiety, to quell their fears.
Jesus continues saying that he is in God the father, the parent, and God is in Jesus. You can’t have one without the other. And so if you know Jesus, you know God. If you know the way of Jesus, you know the way to God. And what is the way of Jesus, the path of Jesus? People who are following the way of Jesus are those who do the works that Jesus does. Just after the passage for today ends, Jesus says that loving him means keeping his commandments. Understanding Jesus as the way means living as Jesus calls us to live. As I said, Jesus speaks these words to comfort the disciples and to remind them that they do in fact know where he’s going because they know him. They already know God because they know him. And they know how to claim this way of Jesus because he’s been teaching them just what that means all along.
What does it mean to live in the way of Jesus? Does it mean to claim a certain set of beliefs? Does it mean to live our lives a certain way? I’m reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicle of Narnia. In the last book in the series, The Last Battle some corrupt leaders have been teaching that Aslan, the great Lion, the Christ-figure in the books is the same as Tash, an angry, frightening god worshiped by the people of Calormen, a neighboring nation. People are confused and afraid. The culmination of the conflict takes place outside an animal stable. The villains claim that anyone who enters the stable will be able to meet “Tashlan,” the name they’ve given to this so-called combined Tash and Aslan god-figure. But instead, they’ve placed soldiers inside, ready to kill whoever comes through the door. Unexpectedly, a young man named Emeth volunteers to go in, to the dismay of the scheming villains who like Emeth, and are trying to catch others in their trap, not him. But Emeth has been a devoted follower of Tash his whole life, and he insists on going in to see Tash for himself.
It is a long time in the story before we learn what happens to him. The stable door turns out to be an entry way into heaven, and eventually some other characters find Emeth sitting under a tree, who tells them that he met Aslan, the lion, face-to-face. He recounts, “I fell at [Aslan’s] feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him … But the [Aslan] bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me … Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
I’ve always found this metaphor compelling. I believe that God knows our hearts, and knows when we are seeking to draw close to God. I believe that in Jesus we have been shown the way, the truth, and the life. And I believe that sometimes people are following the way of Jesus even when they don’t claim the title of Christian, and that sometimes people who claim the title Christian aren’t walking in Jesus’ way. Thankfully, I also believe that it isn’t my job to sort out who is on the path, the way, and who isn’t. God never asks us to take on that role. Instead, Jesus just reminds us that we know what the way is and invites us to follow it, speaking to us words of peace and love all the while.
So what, then, do we take from our wrestling with this difficult question? First, if we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, if we believe that in Jesus was can draw closer to God than we’ve ever imagined, if we believe that in Jesus we can experience the joy of God’s reign on earth, and if we believe that there is something unique about the way folks can get to know God through a relationship with Jesus, then we have a responsibility to share the message of Jesus with others. I don’t mean that you have to go door to door, and I don’t mean that you should beat people over the head with a Bible, pressure them, twist their arm, or belittle them for choosing a different path than yours. Remember, the news of Jesus, grace, and God’s reign is good news! But, if we believe life with Jesus is life-changing, life-saving, then we have to share the message. We share it through building relationships, through loving one another deeply, and through demonstrating with our own lives how transformative a relationship with Jesus can be. Our own changed lives are the most compelling message we can share.
That’s our second task, in fact. If we believe that Jesus is the way, the path, then we need to seek, day by day, to live on that path, to live in the way of Jesus. I sometimes worry that we lost the power of the question “What would Jesus do?” when the phrase turned into a marketing phenomenon. But it is a good question. We are called to be imitators of Jesus, to shape our hearts and minds and lives to resemble Jesus as much as possible. Jesus looked with love and compassion on people. He sought to include the excluded. He sought to challenge those who wielded power over others in hurtful ways. He longed to help people draw closer to God, and he was willing to give endlessly of himself for that purpose. We have a responsibility to live in the way of Jesus if we call him the way.
I think part of the way of Jesus includes nurturing our relationships with all kinds of people, including people from all kinds of faith traditions. Jesus was a boundary-crosser. He didn’t let any differences keep him from forming relationships with others. God our creator made each of us in God’s very image. Each and every one. Each and every one of us has sacred worth. I think, in fact, that we can be better followers of the way of Jesus when we take time to learn from others about how they draw close to God, even as we share how transformative Jesus is to us.
Today, we’re celebrating the sacrament of baptism. Bryn may be young, but she’s already ready to choose the path of faith she wants to walk. She’s choosing the way, truth, and life of Jesus. As she chooses this path, as her parents promise to nurture her along the way, we, too, are called to support Bryn, by walking with her in the way of Jesus. Together, let’s go in Jesus’ way, and claim the abundant life he offers. Amen.