[Originally a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Easter, year A]
In the church of my childhood I was taught that, if you want God to welcome you, you have to know about Jesus, you have to believe that he’s your only hope, and you have to ask him to move in and take over your life. If you never heard of him, if you aren’t sure what you believe about him, and if you never quite specifically ask him to take over your life, you’re doomed. You’re on the way to hell, along with most of the people who have ever lived. All of this follows, they said, from the Gospel lesson we heard today: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For them that settled it: Jesus is the only way, and if you’re not sure about that, you’re in big trouble.
That’s the same mindset that Rob Bell wrote about in his New York Times bestseller, Love Wins (New York: HarperOne, 2011). There was an incident at his church that prompted him to write the book. They hosted an exhibit about working for reconciliation, and one of the most appreciated pieces was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. But somebody came along and attached a piece of paper to the quote. It read, “Reality check: He’s in hell” (p. 1). Why? Because Gandhi’s beliefs about Jesus weren’t quite the same as what you find in the Nicene Creed. He admired Jesus, but he didn’t believe the right things about him. He didn’t specifically ask Jesus to move in and take over his life. That puts him in hell, at least for some Christians.
The word “gospel” means “good news.” We Christians claim that the story of Jesus is good news, in fact, the best news anybody can imagine. And yet the way some of us have often preached it makes it sound like really, really bad news: “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond in the right way. Then God will torture you forever in hell.” To that Rob Bell responds, “Huh?” (from the back cover). And so should we. If that’s the news, it most definitely is not good.
That’s why, when we hear this Gospel lesson, we need to get it into our heads and hearts that this “bad news” version of the Gospel has nothing to do with John’s Gospel, or with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Look at what prompted Jesus to say, “I am the way.” He was trying to reassure his followers: “You know where I’m going.” Thomas says, “No we don’t,” and Jesus answers, “Yes you do—you know me, and that’s more than enough.” That’s good news. Thomas says that we don’t know the way to God, and Jesus tells him that he’s been on that way all along, even if he didn’t know it. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
When Jesus says those words, we need to keep in mind everything that Jesus has said about himself up to now, and everything that John’s Gospel says about Jesus. In John’s Gospel, every time Jesus starts a sentence with “I am,” he winds up saying, “I’m not at all what you think I am.” “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (6:51); “I am the light of the world” (8:12); “I am the door” (10:9); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). This isn’t just anybody talking to Thomas. Thomas still thinks he’s only talking with his favorite teacher over dinner. Jesus tells him he’s in the very presence of God.
In fact, what if we expanded Jesus’ answer with a few more things John tells us about him? It might go like this: “Thomas, you’re not just talking to your teacher here, you’re dealing with the Word who is with God, who actually is God in communion with you; nothing in the world ever happened without me, the life and light of everybody; you can’t deal with me without dealing with God, and anybody who deals with God deals with me; if you know me, you will know my Father also, because I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
Pretty mind-boggling stuff, isn’t it? Of course we can’t deal with God without dealing with Jesus, but that’s because they’re inseparable. Anybody who’s ever dealt with God has dealt with the Word who became flesh in Jesus. There’s apparently no getting around him.
So Thomas already knows the way to God. He just doesn’t know that he already knows it. Philip has a similar problem. He wants to see God. Jesus says, “Don’t you realize you’ve already seen God? You’ve seen me, and that’s more than enough.”
I want you to notice something about Thomas and Philip here. They don’t believe the right things about Jesus—not yet anyway. They’re totally clueless. And Jesus does not say, “Well you’d better get all this figured out, or I’m sending you to hell.” I mean, sure, he’s exasperated that they haven’t figured this much out yet, but he’s also trying to tell them that they already know more, and see more, than they think they do. He’s trying to encourage them, not scare them.
Jesus is trying to teach these guys what John’s whole Gospel is trying to teach us: Yes, there’s only one way to God, and that, friends, is God’s way to us. We can come to God only because God has already come to us on our own flesh and blood terms. That’s the only way. But it’s a most generous way, because, after all, the Word who became flesh in Jesus turns out to be “the true light which enlightens everyone” (1:9). There’s only one way, but all of us are already on it. The whole creation is already on it, because it’s sustained by that same Word that becomes flesh for us. We may not have figured out exactly where Jesus fits into this picture, but there’s still a light that enlightens everyone, and when we start to live by that light we’re on the way. As Justin Martyr, one of our earliest Church Fathers, said, whoever lives by this light is a Christian, even if they sound like atheists (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 46).
So it sounds like we don’t need to worry that much about where Gandhi is. Maybe we don’t need to worry even about Richard Dawkins and other outspoken atheists. When they speak up for truth and life, they’re on the way already even if they don’t know it. They might also have noticed things about the way that we haven’t noticed yet. We all need to respond to the light that enlightens everyone when it comes to us on our own flesh and blood terms. The only way to God is God’s way to us, and instead of trying to figure out where everybody else is going to wind up, we need to be listening for how the way to God comes to us today in our own flesh and blood terms.
That way comes to us today as we keep discerning how we can be Christ’s body here among our neighbors, as we seek and serve Christ in all persons. Jesus promised his followers, and he promises us today, that we will do even greater works than he has done. He didn’t mean that we will be able to turn more water into wine. He meant that we can keep extending his reconciling work to more and more people. He meant that we’ll keep rediscovering his presence among us as we try to be his gathered and shared body. He meant that we’ll keep discovering him at work in the lives of our neighbors, even the ones who don’t believe what we believe. He meant that we’ll be taking our own turns at being God’s way to a world that’s still in need of healing.
The only way to God is God’s way to us. We know that because we’ve heard the story of how God came to us in Jesus, the way the truth and the life, and because we taste and see how it’s happening again as we share bread and wine in Christ’s name. Here is the way, the truth and the life, right here and now, wherever you are. Let’s celebrate that.