Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Un-Troubler of Hearts

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 5th Sunday of Easter: John 14:1-14

If you spend any time in our Chapel, one of the things you will notice is that in that relatively small space that are many depictions of Jesus: nine altogether. One is of Jesus as a baby, so there are eight adult Jesus’. They are vastly different. Two are very European looking. Two look more Mediterranean. One is clearly African and another African-American and maybe even feminine. The two in the stained glass windows in the doorways are harder to pin down.

Jesus eludes our depiction because of the time he lived. There is no photograph, no painting, nor any physical description of him even. This reality has allowed cultures all over the world to depict him as one of them. And that’s probably fine, it may even be good, because it reinforces that Jesus doesn’t belong to any culture, as long as we don’t forget that he was, in history, a first century Palestinian Jew.

Back during Lent I talked about Jesus a lot and kept asking the question, “What does it mean to be in relationship with Jesus?” “How do you have a relationship with Jesus?” “Who is Jesus for you?”

So far this Eastertide I have been wrestling with questions posed by Brian McLaren in his book A New Kind of Christianity in which he asks ten questions that he thinks are being asked in new ways and thus transforming what Christianity means and how it is practiced.[1] The questions so far have been:

  • What is the overarching story of the Bible
  • How should the Bible be understood?
  • Is God violent?

Now two more questions:

  • Who is Jesus and why is he important?
  • What is the Gospel?

And to help us answer these questions, we have Jesus this morning talking about himself. And among what he says are some very challenging words for progressive Christians:

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

This sounds like Christianity as its exclusive worst. It seems to say that only Christians have a direct path to God. Jesus is the only way to salvation.

But is that really Jesus? Is Jesus really a “come to me or go to hell” kind of guy? Does that fit his character?

It turns out if you search the Internet Brian McLaren has a lot of detractors. Many evangelicals consider him a treasonous heretic. “Hate” is not too strong a word for how they feel about him. One of his detractors has this to say

[Brian McLaren and his friends want to] recast Jesus as a limp-wristed hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes.

Notice his description is almost entirely driven by homophobia. He goes on to say who the “real” Jesus is.

In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.

Wow. Jesus as the violent God who in the end will beat up, if not kill, those who have not followed his way. The blogger completely forgets that he did, in fact, beat Jesus up. We all did. And Jesus didn’t fight back. And that is what saved us.

But is that who Jesus is? Is there anything redeemable in this morning’s passage, or do we need to just be perpetually embarrassed by it?

The only thing we can do is what we need to do with every verse of the Bible—let its context tell us the story.

Brian McLaren does a good job dealing with this whole passage as the context for those difficult couple of verses. He proposes that the harsh, exclusive interpretation of, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” just does not fit what else Jesus says here. If it did, he says, than John 14 would read something like this:

You should be very troubled, because if you believe in God, but not me, you will be shut out of my Father’s house in heaven, where there are a few small rooms for the few who get it right…Then Thomas said to him, “Lord, what about people who have never even heard of you? Will they go to heaven after they die?” Jesus said to him, “I am the only way to heaven, and the truth about me is the only truth that will get you to life after death. Not one person will go to heaven unless they personally understand and believe a clearly-defined message about me and personally and consciously ask me to come into their heart.”[2]

Is that the Gospel? It is pretty much what I heard from a preacher at a funeral this week, along with a vivid description of eternity in hell. But, of course, that is not what Jesus said at all.[3]

As this passage happens, Jesus has just had his last supper with the disciples and he has dramatically taken the role of a servant and washed their feet (13:1-11). It scandalized them, left them confused. He was their Master. Now is he their servant?

Judas then gets identified as the traitor and leaves. Jesus says that this is his moment of glory. It could not possibly have felt that way to the disciples. Then he tells them the devastating news that he is about to leave them, and that they cannot come where he is going (13:31-33).

But, he says, here is what you must do. Here is the only thing that is truly important. He says,

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (13:34-35).

Peter, however, is shook up by what is going on, and it’s clear that he doesn’t even hear this last bit Jesus has said. He insists on knowing where Jesus is going. “You cannot come with me,” Jesus says, “but one day you will follow me.” Like a petulant child, Peter says, “No, now, I want to go now even if I die doing it.” And Jesus tells him what he doesn’t want to hear. “Peter, you’re not going to follow me. In fact, before morning you will deny you even know me three times” (13:36-38).

Now we come to this morning’s passage and we can see why Jesus speaks words of reassurance. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…keep faith in me and in God…I am not abandoning you. I am going to our home and you will have a place there with me. There is much room there.”

So we’re back to Thomas’ question, “We do not have any idea where you are going. How can we know the way there?” Now Thomas is not asking about anybody here but himself and his friends. He’s not asking for Jesus’ opinion about who is going to heaven and who isn’t. Thomas is anxious and frustrated, as we would all be in his situation.

So Jesus says this, “It’s going to be OK, Thomas. Please relax and trust me. Everything you know about me is the way, because you know it is the truth and it has already been your very life. I am all these things for you: the way, the truth, the life.”

OK, but then the hard words. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Who is the “no one” here? Was Jesus really intending to make a universal statement about going to heaven? Or is he talking with his disciples, reassuring them that they are going to be all right? I think he is simply saying, “Trust me. I will get you to where you need to go.”

Brian McLaren says,

“If you want to know what God is like,” Jesus says, “look at me, my life, my way, my deeds, my character.” And what has that character been? One of exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism, and condemnation? Of course not! Jesus’ way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end. Now our conventional interpretation of verse 6 seems to say, “Forget all that. Forget everything you’ve seen in me…the way I’ve lived and treated people, the way I’ve accepted prostitutes and tax collectors, they way I’ve welcomed a Roman centurion and a Samaritan woman. Forget all that. Believe instead that God will reject everyone except people who share your doctrinal viewpoints about me, because I won’t let anyone get to the Father unless they get by me first.” It makes me want to scream.[4]

I hope that frees up this passage to be the rich fuel it is for relationship with Jesus, our way, our truth, our life.

Who is Jesus and why is he important? Jesus is the one who showed us the character of God, the one who is our home, the one who wants to do nothing but untrouble our hearts. The one whose only commandment is that we untrouble one another’s hearts, love one another as he loved us, a love so deeply compassionate it scandalized the world and still does today.

We still want him to be the one who can beat up the bad guys, because he is tougher than all of them. But he is still the one who let the bad guys beat him up so that we could see what God was really like, a lover beyond any lover we have ever known.

I will follow this one in this way because I trust that it is the way to the truth that will set all of us free and the life beyond all death. Let us be on this journey together.

[1] The questions are introduced on p. 19, Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2010).

[2] Brian McLaren, A Reading of John 14:6, article on his website,

[3] The paragraphs that follow parallel the thinking of McLaren in A Reading of John 14:6, p. 5ff.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.

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