Every night I say a prayer in the hope that there’s a heaven
And every day I’m more confused as the saints turn into sinners
All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay
And I feel this empty place inside so afraid that I’ve lost my faith
Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Show me the way
This song by the rock band Styx talks about how the person singing it is asking for guidance, and how he wants someone to show him the way, to wash away his illusions and his confusion so he can see clearly the way that he is supposed to go. It’s an age-old longing: we human beings have ached for a sign, a sure sign that we should turn to the left and not to the right, and then for assurance that we have made the right decision. We are always confused, groping and stumbling about in what seems like the darkness. We find out that the people we follow, the ones we thought had it all together, are just as confused as we are. And so, we say with Thomas in today’s gospel, “How can we know the way?” Into this confusion and perplexity, where our illusions are stripped away and our fears seem larger than life, Jesus speaks a clear word of promise, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Unfortunately, many people don’t see this as a promise, but rather as a threat. Coupled with Jesus’ next words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” these verses have been used to say that unless one believes in Jesus—and believes in Jesus in the exact right way by attending the right church, behaving oneself, and doing good to others—that person will not go to heaven to be with Jesus when he or she dies. These beautiful words of promise have instead become a stumbling block for many, and cause people to say that if that’s the way things are, they don’t want anything more to do with the church. These words have been used as an excuse for infighting among Christians as to who has the right way to Jesus, as well as an excuse for well-meaning Christians to convert others forcibly to Christianity. Those Christians who want to improve interfaith relations have done well until they are confronted by these words, and then they either find ways around them or they ignore them completely. And finally, these words have caused people to wonder about the fate of their loved ones, alive and dead, who either don’t believe in Jesus or who do, but not in what the person considers the right way. In short, these words spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel have caused much pain for many people over the centuries. Can the words be redeemed and given new meaning? And if so, how?
Like so many verses and passages of the Bible that have been taken out of context, I believe this one has been, too, and so it is helpful to explore that original context. In this passage, we encounter Jesus with his disciples on the night of the Last Supper. He has just washed his disciples’ feet. Judas has gone into the night to make arrangements to betray him. Jesus has given the disciples the commandment to love one another. Jesus has predicted that Peter will deny him three times. And after all of this, Jesus begins speaking about the things he wants to tell the disciples before he goes to the cross to die. Of course, after all of the charged events of the evening, Jesus starts by telling the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Because of course the disciples are troubled, and so Jesus wants to comfort them. He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them. Thomas asks Jesus where he is going and how they are supposed to get there, and Jesus replies that he is the way.
In this context, it is hard to see how Jesus would even think that his words would one day be interpreted in a manner that would create fear, mistrust, and alienation. He was not saying that in order to follow him to his Father’s house, one would have to believe in the right way, behave correctly, and do the right things. Where was Jesus going and how was he getting there? He was going the way of the cross, and by being crucified and resurrected, he was himself becoming the Way. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals God the Father to the world. And God loves the world, the whole world, as Jesus himself says earlier in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
So our troubles then, I think, come with the English word “believe”. In order to believe, in our culture, we must believe in certain teachings and doctrines. But the Greek word which Jesus uses here can not only be translated into English as “believe” but also as “trust”. So, how would that change things around if we were to have Jesus saying, “Trust in God, trust also in me”? Then we’re not so limited when we look at these verses. It makes it easier for us to say, “Hey, even though the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, etc., don’t believe in all the same things we do, they still trust in God and trust in Jesus, so I bet I’ll see them in the life to come.”
The last remaining question, then, is what about those of other faiths, of no faith, or who are still searching? When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” where does that leave Jewish people, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and so many others? In the book Love Wins, by Rob Bell, the author wrestles with the idea of heaven and hell, and towards the end of the book, he tackles today’s passage from John. Bell states that yes, Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him. However, Bell says, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.” Or, in simpler words, Bell says, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.” The letter to the Colossians says essentially the same thing in chapter 1: “and through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” Jesus goes the way of the cross and in so doing, becomes the Way himself through which the earth and everyone and everything in it will be saved.
So, right now, we’re going to engage in a prayer exercise. I would like you to call to mind a person or people whom you have loved and lost to death, especially someone who you may have wondered if they went to heaven or not. Perhaps at the time of their death, someone shook their head and said sadly that they weren’t in heaven because they didn’t believe in the right way, or they didn’t believe at all, or their behavior here on earth wasn’t the best. You can also think of those people in your life who are still alive and who do not identify as Christian. Take a few moments to think about these people, and then I will begin the prayer. *pause* Lord Jesus, we remember before you our loved ones who have gone ahead of us. Lord, we trust in you and in your love, that you are indeed the way, the truth, and the life. We pray forgiveness for those times when we have used your words of comfort and promise as words of separation, division, and exclusion. We commend our loved ones into the comfort of your arms, and we trust that you are, indeed, in a mysterious way, reconciling the entire world and everyone in it to God. During those times that we feel the pain of missing our loved ones, and in those times of doubt when we wonder about the fate of those who do not believe or trust in you, we pray that you would comfort us with those words that in your Father’s house are many dwelling places, and that we will one day see all of our loved ones once more. Into your hands, O Lord, we entrust the care of all whom we love, both living and dead, and we trust in your mercy upon them. In your holy name we pray, Amen.
“Show me the way,” the singer pleads. God has indeed shown us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and Jesus has revealed the love of his Father for the whole world. May we never take those words as a threat to keep us in line, but instead as the beautiful promise of comfort that Jesus meant them to be. Amen.