There Is No Way to God, But Through God
A sermon based on John 14:1-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 10, 2020*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I am pretty sure I have mentioned before that a skill I learned as a lawyer worked really well at seminary. It was to take and flip opposing arguments or evidence and make them work for my point. In the law we called it “judo flipping” another lawyer’s argument into your own. It is quite effective, and works well in theological debates. So since seminary I look at difficult verses that are used to oppose love and justice and peace and – if in good faith I can– I try to demonstrate how they actually support love and justice and peace. I use those touchstones (love, justice and peace) since God and Jesus are both about love and justice and peace. As a consequence of that truth, scripture very often supports it too. And when it doesn’t other scriptures can be used to swamp lack-love, unjust or violent verses.
Today’s Lectionary reading that Laura read so nicely is, in my experience, one of most difficult verses not just in the reading, but in all of the New Testament. It is often misused to exclude or bully others with the Bible. When I was a teen Christians often pointed to heaven and said “One Way,” asserting Christianity is the one way to God. And the verse most used to prove it is the one in our reading which reads “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s a go-to verse to cherry pick out of the Bible for those who want to claim that Christianity is the exclusive way to God and heaven.
And you know, if you lift that text out of context, it can seem pretty effective evidence for those who want to disavow the legitimacy of other ways to God. Those who seem to need to have God’s love excluded for others, not like them. The verses standing alone seem to have Jesus as a man proclaiming that he is “the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him].” Which seems to mean only one thing, that Christians alone through Jesus get to God. But you know what? It can be heard to actually mean quite the opposite, so much so an argument using this text to say Jesus claimed Christians have the exclusive way to God can be judo flipped to say otherwise.
That the saying by Jesus was meant to be loving and just and peace oriented – AND non-exclusive– is hinted at when Jesus says in the second verse of the reading before it “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Meaning there are many ways to God not just ours, church is not the only house of God. It is important to judo flip misuse of the later verse, that “No one comes to the Father except through me” because the Jesus Movement headed by Jesus (“The Way” Jesus left us) was not – and is not– about Christianity being the only way to God. It was not – and is not– about elitism. Jesus’ Way actually respects and honors other paths to God.
Now, it is true, that instead of judo flipping the text non-Literalist Christians (there are many!) can assert if it was meant to be exclusive it is invalid since it contradicts Jesus’ teachings– for example it is literally trumped by Jesus’ greatest commandment to love our neighbors, as we love our self. We could also dismiss the difficult verse out-of-hand as a man-made erroneous text, that contradicts Jesus and God. But, why do that when there are ways to hear the text that flip it against the misreading? Perhaps the simplest flip is common sense. Jesus’ Way while he was alive was literally a Jewish Way. There was NO Christianity when Jesus would have spoken the phrase, so no Christian can claim they are on the Way literally referred to by Jesus in the text. Before Easter Jesus is on a Jewish Way. He was a Rabbi, a teacher of that faith. Jesus is not even crucified for another five chapters. The cross and Easter did not yet happen. If we want to read it literally and claim it is exclusive, then it cannot mean Christianity which was not in existence in the time frame of the story.
Another judo flip I’ve already hinted at. Jesus’ Way in the Gospels honors, respects and loves all Jews and all Gentiles (which is to say everyone!). In fact, according to Jesus any of his followers who put themselves above others have it backwards. To quote Jesus in Mark (9:35) “those who want to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” You cannot very well be last of all when you claim to be first of all. In Matthew 25 Jesus fleshes this out, noting that those who tend to the least among us, to the poor, the sick, the stranger and imprisoned, those doers of compassion for the least, those are who get to the Father. Jesus’ Way is about getting to the Father by doing for others, not believing for salvation of self for an exclusive reward .
A similar way is set out in Luke when Jesus says that those who “love [their] enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return . . . [their] reward will be great, and [they] will be children of the Most High . . .” So a reading of our lesson that excludes others and elevates Christianity above all is defeated by the fact that Jesus’ Way is the opposite of excluding and exalting self over others. Ironically those who argue John 14:6 proves they have an elite Way to God, are not coming to God through Jesus’ Way since they unloving claim an exclusive path to god, which is nowhere close to the Way of Jesus literally set out in the Gospels.
Another judo flip is about a word in the text. The word is “Jesus.” The verse in our lesson reports that Jesus claimed to be the way. He is the “I “ and the “me” in the verse. So we have to know what or who “Jesus” refers to in the Gospel of John. In John “Jesus” is literally “The Word.” The gospel of John starts by claiming:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Joh 1:1-5, 14 NRS).
“Jesus” in John means “The Word” that was with God at the beginning. The Word that was, and is, God.
In Genesis, at the beginning of creation we God speaks to create the world. The Word of God literally authored life. In the poetry of John that very same Word of God is experienced in human flesh. God is incarnate in humanity, most especially in Jesus. Throughout the Gospel of John Jesus is nothing less that The Word of God. So for John knowing God incarnate in The Word, means you know God. John 14: 7 from our reading makes this clear when Jesus says “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” It’s common sense.
After Jesus is crucified in John “The Word,” Christ, continues to be experienced, but, not in forms recognized as the human being Jesus. Christ in a gardener, strangers and a man on the beach. In John, Christ is an experience of God incarnate on earth. “The Word” of God is Jesus . . . That’s its name, always.
The God in Genesis who transcends our physical world, chose in the beginning to soak creation. We can experience that God, but the transcendent-out-there-God cannot be got to without first getting to the immanent-down-here-God. Actually if we think about it this is a no brainer. We cannot know the Great I AM of the universe, unless we first know God incarnate on this planet– called “The Word.”
What all this means is that we can hear today’s text claiming the obvious, that there is no way to God but through God. Since Jesus in John is “The Word” part of God, then as Jesus puts it in the lesson “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” So in that sense there is no way to the God except through Christ, but it is Christ in the big sense of God on earth, the one who authors all life. For Christians we have come to know the author of life, The Word, as a combination of the incarnation of God on earth in the human person of Jesus before Easter, and the person of Christ after Easter. For us the Way and the truth and the life of Jesus is how we get to the Father, Jesus is our unique name for God.
Biblically, God’s incarnation on earth through “The Word” has never been limited to one man or to even to humans or those on Jesus’ Way. The Word is everywhere soaking creation – and noticing it, noticing how God is soaking creation is the only Way to get to the Creator. It’s as simple that. Read in its context “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” means that The Word that is God incarnate on the planet earth is the only way to get to the cosmic God.
So, as far as judo flipping the exclusivity argument goes, the word “Jesus” in John 14 means God incarnate in the world. Which means the way to God is to experience that incarnation anywhere and everywhere, not just in Christianity. “The Word of God” by any other name is still the Word of God, and so ultimately God on earth is necessarily how others also find their Way to experience the God. Christians have long called their experiences of God “The Father” and find it by particular experiences known through Jesus the Christ. It is an awesome Way too, but not the only Way to experience God. If anyone knows The Word that soaks the world and is the author of life then they have the Way to know God. Knowing God on earth is the only Way to get to the God of the cosmos. We can do that as Christians, others can do it on their way. So we can say as good Christians: May everyone be blessed with finding The Word and the way to God, by whatever name they are comfortable with.
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011
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