“Finding The Way ”

Preached by Paul Raushenbush in the
Princeton University Chapel on April 24, 2005

Text: John 14:6

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.

I love these words. They were written by George Herbert and they quote and expound upon the words of Jesus in our text today. They were put to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams and performed beautifully by our University Chapel Choir in Carnegie Hall on Friday night. I want to thank the choir for your wonderful concert. Being a complete classical music cretin, I had not heard most of the music that you performed, and I loved it all. However, it was the five mystical songs that blew me away and particularly the poem called The Call that we have just sung together. Listening to the choir sing then, and all of us sing this morning, I felt the essence of the scripture come across in music and in voice.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” These words from the prologue to the Gospel of John set the stage for today’s reading. The purpose of the Gospel of John was, and is, to help readers realize the divine connection between Jesus and God, and the invitation to each of us extended by Jesus to know God better through him. Our entire reading weaves an ever closer bond between Jesus and God until it is clear that they are really of the same cloth, the same substance. This is the foundational claim of Christians – that we know God through Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the revelation of God and it is through Jesus that we are admitted into the workings of the Trinity and to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It is Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life - who gives us access to God. It is through Jesus that we are invited into that wonderful union.

The most famous verse in our reading today is John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

To fully understand this text we should recognize the context in which the writer was living and recording his gospel. The book was written amidst a bitter dispute among Jews, some of whom were followers of Jesus who were being persecuted for their beliefs, and others who were part of the dominant rabbinic group. Both of these groups were Jews and both were making strongly exclusionary claims over the other. Of course, today we are reading the version of the followers of Jesus who are our spiritual ancestors. While I want to primarily focus on the first part of this statement - that Jesus is the way, the truth and the Life - I don’t want to nimbly skip over the second half which states that no one comes to God but through Jesus. In the context of religious pluralism in America, those of us who know God through Jesus Christ must decide what we believe about those who make different belief claims.

This week’s election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the position of Pope as Benedict the Sixteenth has brought public attention to this question as people brought up a document he was responsible for called "Declaration Dominus Iesus" which reads "If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation." I believe that this claim finds its root in our John text and so I decided to ask three religious scholars how they responded to the text “No one comes to the Father except through me”

Dr. Jeffrey Stout from the religion department at Princeton wrote: John 14:6 does not say that everyone who comes to the Father through Jesus understands that this is what is going on. Nor does it say that we are in a position to know the identities of those who are in fact coming to the Father and those who are not.

Dr. Max Stackhouse, Christian Ethics professor at Princeton Theological Seminary wrote: The classical way that Christians of an ecumenical bent have of dealing with this is to recognize that Christ is the second person of the Triune God, living and acting from the beginning of Creation, and that while the Triune God becomes most visible in the incarnate Jesus Christ, as Christians particularly believe; God has not left others in the world without witnesses to that same God’s reality, will, justice, and love, nor without the possibilities of redemption through this Christ.

Dr. Joseph Hough, President of Union Theological Seminary, took a bit more strident approach when he said: It is a weak faith that does not trust God in freedom to be working everywhere for the redemption of the world and its people. It can also appear to be an arrogant faith because the human being who claims an exclusionary faith necessarily limits God's freedom. What is essential for Christian faith is that we know we have seen the face of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is not necessary for us to deny that another has seen God in another face at another place or time.

With these statements in mind, and admittedly without resolution, let us turn again to the beginning part of John 14:6 which reads: “I am the way, the truth and the life” “The Way” is the most compelling name for understanding who Jesus is and what Jesus means for our lives. Jesus is both the destination and also is the road by which we travel to the destination. Jesus as The Way is both the means and the goal, realization and the promise.

Proclaiming Jesus as the Way forces us to be both aware of the quality of our relationship with God forged by Jesus, as well as our continued openness to Jesus in the world and how we must travel the way of Jesus today. This can be frustrating. It would be easier if once we had been called by Jesus, then we could sit back and coast, assured of our own redemption and connection with God. But Jesus as the Way does not allow that – it affirms that being called to Jesus is a continuously dynamic process that makes us more aware of Christ’s presence in the world, rather than narrowing our vision.

One of the great pitfalls in Christianity is to presume that once we have had our personal experience of Jesus that we no longer have to be on the look out for Jesus as the Way. While songs with lines like “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” and personal claims of “My Jesus” give comfort, they can also breed complacently, privatization and self pride. We must be on guard against any person, place, or organization that claims to “own” Jesus.

Jesus is the word made flesh. Jesus is the logos – the ground of all being, pervading the universe, giving life. Jesus belongs to no one, yet is available to everyone. As Christians it is our privilege to both carry Christ within our hearts, but also to know that Christ is not limited to our own thoughts or our own culture. Let us remember when we hear the words “I am the Way, the truth, and the Life” that they are coming from Jesus, not from any group that claims these words for their own. A group from Kansas called “God Hates Fags” has these same words written on placards, which they waved with demonic glee as they attended Matthew Shepard’s funeral. Matthew Shepard, as you may remember was the college student in Wyoming who was beaten for being gay, tied to a post and left to die. The group God Hates Fags waved posters about Jesus being the way as they celebrated at his funeral, proclaiming Matthew was going to burn in hell. We must be careful about who claims to be speaking for Jesus.

This has special urgency at this time in America when some Christians are presuming to speak for all Christians, if not for Jesus himself. Today, some of our fellow Americans, led by Senator Bill Frist, Princeton Class of ’74, are broadcasting to over 1,000 churches an event called Justice Sunday. The organizers of this event are claiming that Democrats who are opposing Bush’s judicial nominees are doing so because the Democrats are defacto anti -Christian.

We should all be worried about what Senator Frist, and his gang are doing today. Not because he is religious, and not because he is allowing his politics to be informed by religion – both of these are part of our tradition in America. We should be concerned because Senator Frist is purposefully ignoring the fact that many of the people, who he is calling anti-faith, are in fact Christians. He is speaking as if he, and the group he represents, is the only one that knows Jesus and who follows in the Way, the truth and the life. Rev. Jim Wallis, who will be speaking at Princeton on Tuesday along with Dr. Cornel West, wrote in this week’s Sojourners magazine: Quote “Behind these activities lies a fundamental assumption by Republican operatives and their conservative religious allies that they own religion in America. They demand that religious people vote only their way. They claim that "values voters" in America belong to them, and they disrespect the faith of those who disagree with their agenda. There are better words for this than just "politically divisive" or "morally irresponsible." For these are not merely political offenses, they are religious ones. And for offenses such as these, theological terms are better - terms such as idolatry and blasphemy.” End quote

The reason that the unilateral claiming of Jesus strikes me as so wrong, is that it points to the dangerous fact that Christians are using Jesus, instead of being used by Jesus. We are taking Jesus on the road, instead of realizing that Jesus is the road. We imagine that the poor and the stranger around the world are waiting for us to bring them Jesus when in fact – it is in the poor and the stranger where we are most likely to see Jesus face to face, incarnate in the world. We are getting in the way of Jesus, instead of letting Jesus be our way.

As a Christian, I say unapologetically, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The word has been made flesh and revealed on earth in order to transform our lives through the power of love. The truth of this statement gives me such joy and a burning desire to know Jesus as best I can in community with all of you, and with those beyond these walls. We do this by celebrating communion together with the cup of salvation and the bread of life – even with people we disagree with. We do this by praying the Lord’s Prayer together – even with people we disagree with - We do this be all of us being miraculously admitted into the mystical union of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit. We do this by sharing each others pain and joy, and sharing Jesus’ love along The Way. As Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker wrote: “We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. All this can be proved, if proof is needed, by the doctrines of the Church. We can prove it by Christ's Mystical Body, about the vine and the branches, about the Communion of Saints. But Christ himself has proved it for us, and no one has to go further than that. For he said that a glass of water given to a beggar was given to Him. He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.”

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, Lord Jesus.