Let me begin by letting you know that much of this material comes from David Lose on a website called Working Preacher.org
When is a promise a promise and when is it a veiled threat? Think back to the various covenants of the Old Testament. When God says, “I will make your descendants more numerous than the stars,” that is a promise. But what if he says, “If you obey my commandments, I will be your God.”
This is a conditional promise and it carries an implied threat, does it not? What happens if you don’t obey God’s commandments? The implied threat is that God will no longer be your God or that God’s wrath will somehow ‘get’ you.
The part of today’s Gospel that I want so badly to ignore, but am not, is this: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I want to ignore it because it has been used by many preachers to condemn other faiths, to claim that only Christians have access to God, that only folks who accept their interpretations can be saved, etc. etc.
I can’t ignore it because I would never want any of you to use this text as such a weapon against others. So let’s see if we can understand it in a different way.
This lesson is taken from what is called in John’s Gospel the Farewell Discourse, the words John shows Jesus sharing with his disciples after he has washed their feet and before he goes to Gethsemane. He begins with another form of fear not: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Jesus has told the disciples that he will be leaving them and so makes this promise: “Though I go away, it is to prepare a place for you in the presence of my Father. I will come back for you, and we will be united again in time.”
Notice two things about this statement. One is that we will be united again in time – not in eternity. The implication is that Jesus will be with us in the here and now. Second, this is clearly a promise with no conditions.
Of course, the disciples don’t quite get it. Thomas, thinking that Jesus’s reference to the many dwelling places in his father’s house is some actual place, asks for directions. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way.” He seems to want coordinates to plug into his GPS. And I can sympathize with him! Stop all this metaphorical stuff and tell me where to go!
Instead Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” That sounds like pure promise. Then “No one comes to the father except through me.” That sounds conditional and therefore seems to carry a threat. And that is how it has been used.
Here is a great example of how important context is, and how passages of scripture taken out of context can be misused. Because Jesus goes on to say, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” The Greek tense of these statements is not conditional, but rather states an already existing reality. Lose say the sense of this is promisory: “If you know me, and you do know me, you will know the Father.
Jesus’s words are not therefore meant to keep people out, but to assure his followers that they are really IN. Thus, “And from now on you actually do know him and already have seen him.” Another promise statement.
Then Philip questions Jesus, playing the same role as Thomas had earlier. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Here John is replaying the theme introduced in the first verses of his Gospel, that Jesus is divine and has existed since before the world was created, so that if you have seen him you have seen God.
Now the debate over the nature of Jesus was a major issue in the early church and it’s no surprise if you read the Gospels carefully. In Mark, Jesus appears to be wholly human – no stories of strange happenings at his birth, no post-resurrection appearances or stories. By the time John wrote his Gospel Jesus identifies himself as the same as God.
Whether you agree that Jesus was fully human or fully divine, or whether you instead agree with the Nicene Creed that Jesus was both, fully human and fully divine, you are welcome here. This is no longer a debate that holds any interest for me. What I do consider significant is that Jesus came to show us the truth about God. This is a truth that people had mostly been getting wrong for a very long time and that we have pretty much continued to ignore down through the centuries.
If we want to know what God is like, all we have to do is look carefully at what Jesus is like and what he taught his followers. The image of God that emerges from this is an image of love for everyone, unconditional love, without threats and without violence. Yes, God may get angry, God may be disappointed with our behavior, but God will do all in God’s power to bring the sinner back, to redeem the unrepentant, to gather all of the flock into God’s fold.
Knowing Jesus should convince us that we have nothing to fear, even when we have doubts about our faith, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus, or if you prefer, the risen Christ, is with us now, walks with us through time, in trouble and sorrow as well as joy and happiness.
Remember that God is God, I am what I am. As Christians we come to know God through Jesus. Other faiths have other access points to God. All faiths have sometimes misunderstood or misused the name of God. But this is the God of creation and all of us belong to God. I always think of the book written by Matthew Fox called “One River, Many Wells.” That’s a metaphor that so aptly captures what I’m trying to convey. One God, many ways of accessing God.
We gather round the Christian well or the Episcopal well, if you prefer, but there are man other wells that also connect people to the Great Spirit. What we know of Jesus should help us accept our place as beloved and to recognize that everyone else is beloved too. Do not let your hearts be troubled. God loves you. AMEN