Christianity’s Unique Claim
Richard R. Crocker
First Congregational Church, Lebanon, NH
May 22, 2011
Acts7:55-60 and John 14:1-14
We have before us today two familiar but still puzzling texts that are important for us, as Christians, to understand. The first is the account, in the books of Acts, of the stoning of Stephen, whom we all know, probably as the first Christian martyr. He was stoned by people who were offended by his preaching. This should be a warning to any preacher that it can be a dangerous occupation. Truly. Now why should this be? Why should proclaiming the love of God be dangerous? Could it be that the love of God is really an unpopular, dangerous idea? – and that many of us prefer to hear about God’s wrath?
Now, people are killed, more often than we like to notice, for having unpopular beliefs. And unpopular beliefs are more likely to be beliefs that call for change in the way we think and act. Resistance to those who call for change is the default position of the human race, and this is understandable, because not all change is good. It is often seen as safer to stay with the tried and true. But if we had stayed with the tried and true, we would still be driving horse and buggies, as the Amish do.
It is important for us Christians to understand that many people, in his own day, saw Jesus as an innovator, a progressive, one improperly respectful of tradition, custom, and law. Indeed, his crucifixion occurred because he challenged the status quo. Stephen was stoned because he also challenged the status quo. We must remember that Christianity was basically a challenge to the status quo, until it itself became the status quo. It is probably fair to say that today many people identify the Christian church as a conservative cultural force rather than a progressive one. Even protestant Christians rarely protest (stand for) anything; they seem to be against more things than they are for.
With that background, I’d like to move to the gospel lesson, which is at once a passage of great comfort to many Christians, and a passage that is very challenging, even upsetting, to others. I refer, of course, to these wonderful verses from the gospel of John, where Jesus assures his disciples of the reality of eternal life with him. That is the comforting part. But those comforting words are followed by other often quoted words “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” - a verse that has been used to reinforce a view of Christian exclusiveness that many people, in our pluralistic world, find a stumbling block. I’d like to explore this tension in a little more depth to see if we can understand these words more meaningfully.
But first, we will have to begin with a little bible study that many of you will find very elementary, but others will find very helpful. Since the custom or habit of Bible reading has largely evaporated in our culture, I am assuming for this exercise that many of you know really nothing about the Bible. Others may know much more. Please forgive me if I have misjudged where you are.
Perhaps it would help if you all took out the pew bibles and turn to the front, to page ___, to the table of contents. You will notice that the Bible is divided into two parts – the Old Testament, which is the literature of ancient Israel, and the New Testament, which are the documents of early Christianity. These parts together constitute the Christian Bible, which many of us describe as the word of God. By this most of us mean that it is where we find out about God. It does not mean, for most of us, that every single word in this book is equally holy. Taken as a whole, the Bible has, for many generations, taught people about the most important relationship: the relationship between human beings and their creator.
Now, look at the New Testament. The first four books are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the four gospels – gospel being a word that means good news. These four books are narratives, or stories, about the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. Each of them tells that story in a different way. They were written by different people, in different places, at different times, and for different churches, and for different purposes. But when we study these four gospels, we notice that the first three – Matthew Mark, and Luke – are very much alike. Despite differences, they seem to tell the story in pretty much the same order. Mark has no stories about the birth of Jesus, Luke has an extensive story. So there are differences, but these gospels actually use many of the same words. Stories about Jesus that appear in one are likely to appear in at least one of the others. We call these the synoptic gospels – synoptic meaning “read together”. They cover much of the same grounds in much of the same way. With the gospel of John, however, things are quite different. Not only does it tell the story in a very different way, but it arranges events in a different order. And, most importantly, while the synoptic gospels often tell short stories, with short sayings of Jesus, John’s gospel contains long discourses. Thus, the passage we read today form John is part of a very long discourse that Jesus gives on the night of his betrayal. We have the impression that the way Jesus talks in John is just very different from the way he talks in the synoptic gospels. In John’s gospel, Jesus often seems to talk more like a Greek philosopher than a Hebrew prophet.
Now these similarities and differences have been the subject of study for generations. It is not important today that we do much more than acknowledge those differences. It’s important to note that this gospel passage is not in the other gospels. It is part of a way of speaking that Jesus employs only in John. It is beautiful, but also difficult.
So, these are beautiful words of comfort: “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” I am sure that many of you know these words by heart. You have heard them many times – most often at funerals.
These words are followed by a question from Thomas, always, in John’s gospel, the one who asks questions, the one who doubts: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This is when Jesus utters the words that have become the hallmark for evangelical Christians: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Now, these words of Jesus have been used by many people as a way of exclusion. If you do not “believe in Jesus”, if you have not had a certain kind of religious experience, if you have not “accepted Jesus as your personal savior” in a prescribed way, then there is no hope for you. So the saying gets turned inside out. The words that Jesus intended, I believe, as words of inclusion become words of exclusion.
How can they be words of inclusion? Well, listen to Philip’s puzzled response to them. Phillip said: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” This leads Jesus to tell Peter that if he hasn’t seen the father in Jesus, then he has been missing the boat, because “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” In other words, to see Jesus, to live with him, to hear his words, is to know God, the Father. Jesus is God’s revelation in human form. This is the unique claim that stands at the heart of the Christian gospel. We believe that we know God because we know Jesus.
Now these are universal words, but they are not exclusive words. Here is how I think we should understand them. We as human beings cannot know what God is like. We are incapable of it, unless God somehow shows us. All of us yearn for God, but we do not know God except through revelation. Revelation has come to us through the law, which is a gift of God that allows us to live together in peace and respect. But the law itself does not fully show us who God is. Only God incarnate in a human being – and not just any human being, but a human being who dramatically exemplifies sacrificial love, shows us what God is like. And the only way to God is through God’s own sacrificial love, shown to us in Jesus. Does that mean that every person, to know God, must “believe in Jesus”? In some way, yes. Unless we know that we all were created in and for love, we have no sense of eternal life. To know God is to know that God’s love is unconditional, accepting, and sacrificial. But it does not mean that everyone must recite a certain formula, or agree about every issue, or perform certain rituals.
When I think about this, I think about Gandhi, the great Hindu of our time, who was very interested in the teachings of Jesus. He is reputed to have said the words printed at the top of your bulletin. “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians.”
Too often the Christian witness has not been one that draws people to Christ, but drives people away from Christ. That is a challenge to us, isn’t it?
I saw a very disturbing and sobering statistic a two years ago, during the debate about torture. According to the research I read, the best predictor of whether or not a person favored the use of torture was whether or not the person attended church. The more they attended church, especially “evangelical churches”, the more likely they favored torture. (articles.cnn.com/2009-04-30/US/religion.torture)
If this statistic is true, it makes us ask: do we really believe that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life? Do we understand the love of God? Or do we really prefer the wrath of God, directed, we trust, mainly toward other people? How would we really live if we believed the gospel?
Well, we are all here today. Aren’t we? The end of the world didn’t come yesterday, with the favored few being saved and the many being destroyed. Apparently God’s continuing mercy is a disappointment to many Christians.
Many people today argue that all religions are basically the same. Christians – especially conservative Christians – take offense at this and insist that Christianity has a unique claim – that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life, and that it is our job to make people believe that. They are partly correct. Christianity does have a unique claim. But it isn’t a claim that God’s love is conditional upon our adopting or repeating a certain creedal formula. Rather, its unique claim is that, in Jesus, God has shown us the way of unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, and hope. Not just some of us, but all of us. And what is required of us? After all, Jesus said: “repent and believe the gospel.” What must we believe? Simply that God loves us all. Of what must we repent? Believing that God doesn’t love us all. It’s that simple. Why is that so hard for us to believe?