Sermon preached by Jorge Sanchez
New Testament: Acts 7:55-60
Psalm: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Epistle: 1 Peter 2:2-10
Gospel: John 14:1-14
"I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me": one of the most memorable, most poetic, and most often quoted verses in the Gospels, maybe in all the Christian Scriptures. And I find it terrifying.
When I first got the invitation to preach, I was told that I could choose from among a few Sundays, but that this Sunday, today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, was the Pastoral Team's first choice of when I was to preach.
I looked up the lectionary readings, saw this Gospel, and immediately thought, "Well, that Sunday's out."
Yet as I read the other lessons for other Sundays, this Sunday and particularly this Gospel kept harassing me. After some thought, I decided to accept the challenge and the call God was issuing me through the Pastoral Team's preference.
The Pastoral Team's preference was just that —a preference— but I think God took it over to make it a call to wrestle with the Scriptures.
As I am sure is the case with many, if not most of you, I find this verse greatly troubling. It is a seemingly exclusivist statement; therein lies the great stumbling block for me. No Jesus equals no God equals no heaven, as the rest of the chapter explains or at least implies with its mentions of the many dwelling places in the Father's house.
Exclusivity, in general, does not sit well with me. So much so that for a few years in college and a few after I was a practicing Baha'i, and shortly after Hank was born, when I was beginning to sense a call to ministry and a deeper connection with God, I though of answering that sense of call within the Unitarian Universalist tradition. While I feel certain of what the Truth is, I am not comfortable with that Truth becoming a barrier; indeed, I do not think the Truth is a barrier, the way so many mis-use this verse to make it a litmus test as to who is and who is not, who may and who may not call themselves children of God.
So there I was, thinking about preaching for the first time, and I could choose to look at this verse —this scary verse that made me very suspicious and defensive— or I could choose another. So, as I
am a fool, I chose to preach tonight.
And before I begin reflecting on tonight's lessons, I hope that, if nothing else, you realize the necessity of grappling with passages of Scripture that are troubling, confusing, seemingly uncharitable and exclusive. While in our own personal study we may be able to say, as Marilynne Robinson says, "One wishes it were not so," we cannot in our witness to the church and the world. Too often those who identify as progressive/liberal/pick-your-label Christians simply pass over these passages about sex, or vengeance, or patriarchy, or exclusivity with a dismissive "Oh, the Spirit says something different now," or "Well, it's clear that's just wrong." That's not enough.
So, once I tried to figure out what this Gospel meant I looked at this passage in context, both of John's Gospel and the lectionary.
Something I had never noticed is that Jesus says this after the washing of feet. Jesus says this right before he dies. Judas has ducked out of the party early, and the Apostles know something is up. Thomas asks, "Where are you going?" Phillip pleads, "Show us the Father." They all look at him and, with their eyes, they say, "Throw us a freakin' bone here, Jesus. Things are getting weird. Things are getting scary."
And Jesus gives this perplexing, baffling, challenging, non-answer: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Jesus is saying here the Incarnation is sufficient for knowing God: "Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do." If you want to know God, Philip, do the works that I do, because I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." To know God do the works I do.
And here is a new challenge this presents: the one who does the works of God knows God, whether we agree with that one or not. That includes Christians we disagree with as well as non-Christians who are doing the work of God. With a seemingly exclusive statement, Jesus includes all those who do the work of God and thereby know God. Jesus healed and consoled and guided, but he also prayed quietly in the Temple and included and, yes, rebuked people, pushing them closer to the truth of their lives to hopefully push them closer to the Truth of the Gospels.
We the many members of the Body may not always understand each other, may not always agree with each other, but the multi-faceted even idiosyncratic witness we give is the very Incarnation itself: it is the Way, the Truth, the Life. No one comes to the Father except by finding and accepting one's unique vocation, right here, right now, both short-term and long-term: it might be changing baby diapers or adult diapers or dealing with the crap we get from a person who's hurting or scared or lost or drunk with power or willfully oblivious to the needs of others.
Take Stephen. Poor Stephen! A man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, a deacon, chosen and set aside to serve —to do the works of discipleship, to take care of the most marginalized of the marginal, the widows and the poor— he walks the Way, the Truth, the Life, and less than sixty verses later it gets him stoned! That stinks! Discipleship sucks! The Way is hard! Thank God for those dwelling places, otherwise Stephen is S.O.L. So associated has Stephen been with his martyrdom that he is often depicted in artwork with those fateful stones floating around him or even resting on his tonsured head.
What does this mean for us? The stewardship we expect to be our vocation might not be what we are remembered for; our witness might be associated with some rather unpleasant rocks. I say this because our vocation goes beyond social justice. It is easy to think of serving those who are economically or politically disenfranchised, but this is a diverse neighborhood in many ways. Part of this church's ministry might be to minister to the spiritually lost and poor, a ministry I find somewhat distasteful. I grew up Roman Catholic, so the focus on solidarity and service to the poor runs deep, but I wonder if sometimes we are also called to minister to those who are poor in hidden ways.
But take note, even in that hard, hard moment of martyrdom, putting his money where his mouth was, taking his last stumbling Steps, Stephen prays for those who stone him. Not condescendingly, not self-righteously, not smugly, but in love, in the love of the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.
And yet First Peter consoles us, as if the two poles of the Way are martyrdom and consolation: long for the spiritual milk of fellowship, of love, of the good in the world. "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." We are to live as a body of priests to serve God and God through God's people. You —like Peter, Thomas, Philip, Mary Magdalene, Thecla, Junia— are not perfect, often fearful, sometimes sinful, but good enough because we are children of God through the Incarnation.
"I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life." The Way is hard but it is do-able, scary, but be not afraid because we are up to the task.
Andrew Marr of Saint Gregory's Abbey quotes another monk, Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, as saying "Fear keeps the show going the way we know it and prefer it."
Marr explains that the "show" referred to is "the tendency to keep our society going by making a point of excluding some people s o that we can define ourselves by what we are not rather than we are. In the risen life, [in the life of an Easter people] we define ourselves by who we are —children of God.
Christ is risen. Let us walk the Way, proclaim the Truth, and embrace the Life as children of God, gathering around the Table and inviting everyone —everyone— in.