Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to follow in the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘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. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” John 14:5-7.
Much to the consternation of my Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, I became very much involved with a Roman Catholic youth organization in my teenage years. The program was run by a young, charismatic and deeply caring youth director who was able to connect with me in a way that no one in my congregation could. Consequently, I frequently found myself in that church’s parish hall consisting mainly of a large assembly room where most of the youth activities took place. That room was accessed by a hallway lined with offices for the church’s staff. Each office had a plaque with the favorite Bible verse of its inhabitant. Conspicuously absent from the lineup was the office of the priest, Father McMurphy. There was no direct access to his office. To reach him, you had to go through the office of the chief parish administrator, a severe, no nonsense gatekeeper whose door plaque bore the following line from the above cited verses: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I share that recollection because it is precisely the interpretation too often given this verse. Rather than the door through which the sheep are free to enter, Jesus is portrayed as the gate keeper restricting access to the door. Consequently, all who do not know, fail to recognize, refuse to acknowledge or lack trust in Jesus have no access to God. That, of course, led to endless consternation among young people in my circle. “What about babies that die before they can be baptized?” “What about people who never hear the gospel of Jesus Christ?” “What about people whose only exposure to Christianity has been mistreatment and exploitation?” “What about people who are warm, caring, compassionate and active in doing good but, for whatever reason, don’t believe in God?”
All of this goes to show how dangerous it is to take a single passage of scripture out of its context and treat it as an absolute proposition in itself. We should have known better. After all, John the Evangelist told us at the very beginning that Jesus is the light sent to “enlighten everyone.” John 1:9. God so loved “the world”-not just Christians-that God sent the Son, not to condemn the world but to save it. John 3:16-17. Jesus himself informs us that he has “other sheep” that have yet to be brought into the fold and that he himself will see to that. John 10:16. The whole point of Jesus’ abiding among his disciples is that, through their life and mission, “the world may believe” God’s love manifested to Jesus’ disciples in the sending of God’s Son. John 17:20-21. As we heard in last week’s gospel, Jesus is the “gate for the sheep,” not the gatekeeper. John 10:7. It is not God’s intent to rescue a few souls from the deck of a sinking ship. God means to save the ship. God is at least as faithful as the US Army Rangers whose motto is “no one left behind.”
That said, there is a scandalous particularity about the good news preached by the church. John’s gospel begins with the assertion, “no one has ever seen God.” John 1:18. Once again, context is essential. These words are not directed to outsiders. It is not as though we are saying to Muslims, Buddhists and persons of other faiths that they know nothing of God. Rather, John is reminding his audience of believers that they know nothing of God apart from what God has revealed to them through Jesus Christ. In short, this passage and the one cited above are designed to form and direct the disciples’ thinking and speaking about God. Disciples are not to begin with their notions, beliefs and metaphysical understandings of God to figure out where Jesus fits in. Rather, they begin with Jesus and, in communion with him, learn of the Father.
In verses 8-11, Jesus responds to Philip’s frustrated demand: “show us the Father.” Jesus then makes the startling assertion that he is all the God there is to be seen. In so doing, Jesus turns everything we thought we knew about God on its head. He delivers the news Friedrich Nietzsche was to bring us nineteen centuries later: God is dead. To a large extent, Nietzsche was right. The God who sits at the apex of the universe pulling the switches that make things happen does not exist. The God who manipulates everything from pandemics to the weather in order to reward good and punish evil does not exist. The God who is driving history toward the rapture, the great tribulation and a final violent divine conquest of our planet does not exist. The only God who does exist pours out God’s very life blood to reconcile the world to God’s self. God saves the world by loving the hell out of it-at great cost to God’s self and to the community of disciples formed by that love. That is all.
Such an image of God is not particularly comforting to those of us who are looking for a divine protector who will take our part and make everything turn out right. Our preference is for a “strong God,” just as it seems the world is becoming increasingly attracted to “strong men” as national leaders. We cannot rid ourselves of the primitive belief so aptly expressed by the NRA: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” By that measure, God is the one with the biggest and most powerful gun.
St. Paul has a different view of power that I think is more in line with what our gospel is talking about. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” says Paul. I Corinthians 1:18. What kind of power is revealed in the cross? To folks like the NRA, the cross is indeed foolishness. Indeed, it proves the truth of their motto. The cross is what happens to people foolhardy enough to “put away their swords.” It’s proof positive that “nice guys finish last.” Not so, argues the apostle. This so called “weakness” of our God who refuses to defend himself and responds to violence with a healing touch is actually God’s greatest exercise of power. God is too powerful to be sucked into the vortex of retributive violence in which families, tribes, nations and peoples are helplessly trapped. God’s heart is too mighty to be tempted with the use of coercive force to accomplish God’s purposes. God is too strong to be baited into retaliating against us-even when we crucify the only beloved Son-the best God had to give us. As it turns out, Jesus is God being God in the most graphic, concrete and powerful way. This God who is love is God. There is no other.
Our temptation always is to settle for a lesser god, a god who is merely a projection of ourselves on a divine scale, a god who deals with us and our world as we would deal with it if we were God. We are constantly tempted to look beyond Jesus to a god more amenable to justifying the means we think are necessary to achieve the ends we believe are good. We are enticed by the image of a god whose purposes are perfectly aligned with our patriotic instincts, our clan loyalties and our economic self interest. We seek a God who is “on our side,” rather than the God who is on the side of the stranger, the poor and, worst of all, on the side of our enemies. We look for a god with power to do what we believe must be done, but in Jesus we find a God whose loving power would transform us into the people we must become in order to show the world how deeply it is loved. This God may well appear weak and ineffectual to a world in thrall to “strong men,” military parades and firearms. The God revealed in Jesus might not appeal to a church accustomed to having the societal respect, financial support and political clout to press its agendas. But this God’s non-coercive, patient and determined love is the only force powerful enough to save us.
Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that lays bare the poverty of our metaphysical assumptions about divinity and, whether the poet intended or not, makes room for us to imagine the God who is life and love.
I am God—
Without one friend,
Alone in my purity
World without end.
Below me young lovers
Tread the sweet ground—
But I am God—
I cannot come down.
Life is love!
Love is life only!
Better to be human
Than God—and lonely.
Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, (c. 1994 by the Estate of Langston Huges; pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.) Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).