Easter 5A Sermon (2008)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 14:1-14;
Acts 7:55-60; 1 Pet 2:2-10

JESUS AS ‘THE WAY’

In looking through my sermon file for this Sunday, I was rather surprised to discover that I haven’t preached on these texts for 15 years — except at funerals, of course, since the first six verses of John 14 are still one of the most common Gospels to read at funerals. I have preached many times the encouraging words about God making a home for us, most often talking about the person who died as someone for whom home was important.

But there is something also troubling about this passage which I obviously don’t bring up at funerals, that I can talk about today. In our politically-correct culture, few opinions generate more hostility than ones like the words of Jesus from this week’s readings: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” These words fly in the face of what is generally referred to today as religious pluralism — the belief that no one religion can or should claim to be normative for all people and superior to all others. Pluralism insists on a radically egalitarian perspective that grants parity and equal validity to all religions. For example, a traditional Japanese saying suggests that despite their outward differences, all religions connect with the same divine reality — “Although the paths to the summit may differ, from the top one sees the same moon.” Or in the Bhagava-Gita of Hinduism Lord Krishna proclaims, “Whatever path men travel is My path; no matter where they walk it leads to me.” First and foremost, religious pluralism recognizes that fighting over religion has led to a lot of human suffering. Christian scholar John Hick speaks for many people when he writes of traditional Christian views that “only diehards who are blinded by dogmatic spectacles can persist in such a sublime bigotry.”

So who’s right? What do we as Christians make of Jesus’ words, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? Do we deny them, and go along with religious pluralism that asks the rhetorical question, “Don’t all religions really teach the same thing?” The answer, “No, all religions do not teach the same thing.” In fact, the truth of Jesus’ way to the Father is the only compromised by the precisely what Christians have so often done: namely, done violence in the name of that truth. What Jesus way to the Father is all about, you see, is the way of unconditional love and forgiveness, a love that even reaches out to enemies. So to take the so-called truth of Jesus and use it as an excuse to do violence against our enemies — something which Christians through the ages have done all too often — is an exact betrayal of the truth Jesus died for. We can’t use force or the threat of force to get another person to accept the truth of Jesus because that truth is all about not using force at all! The way and the truth and the life which Jesus came to live in our midst is the way of suffering, nonviolent love which alone can bring us into our Father’s house.

Where did we go wrong?
The main answer involves our anthropology: it became part of our human nature, our way of doing things, that to keep the peace we have to use force or the threat of force. Jesus came with a way from God that relies on love and forgiveness instead of force. We betray that way when we use force to get people to ‘believe’ in the way — which is no longer the way because we have used force to make people believe it. Love never uses force.

This human way has been backed by another mistake: the ideas of heaven and hell as our eternal destinations after we die. Many Christians have come to believe that Jesus meant in John 14 that believing in Jesus is the way to heaven instead of hell. But notice that our passage never uses the words “heaven” or “hell”! It talks about “my Father’s house” and “dwelling places.” We need to drop our over-developed notions of heaven and hell and see what Jesus meant by “my Father’s house” and “dwelling places.”

The only other place that Jesus uses the term “my Father’s house” is in John 2:16, 19b-21 as he is ‘cleansing the Temple’:

Jesus told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace! … Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Judeans then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

“My Father’s house” is the Temple — the place where heaven and earth meet, where God is present in this world — which Jesus is replacing with his own body.

“Dwelling” places — the older translation is “abiding” places, which is Jesus special word in John for a figurative abiding in each other. Example: in John 15:4, where Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Or check out today’s Gospel, John 14:10: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who abides in me does his works.” All this imagery about abiding is not about living in heaven some day when we die. It’s about God abiding in Jesus instead of the Temple, and then even about Jesus abiding in you and me. We are to be the Temple, the place where God’s presence abides in this world!

Check out our Second Lesson today. All the stuff about being living stones — the stones of the Temple! We are to be the living place where God abides in this world! We are a people who formerly had no mercy. We were all about wrath. But now in Jesus Christ — the new cornerstone of the Temple, the stone which the builders rejected — we are a people of mercy.

In order to get the full flavor of that, let’s think back for a moments to what the Temple meant. Ancient temples were places where God’s of wrath were appeased by ritual blood sacrifice — a violence supposedly commanded by God — so that God doesn’t punish us. We want that God of wrath on our side so that we can get vengeance on our enemies. We want our enemies to be God’s enemies. The sacred, God-commanded violence of ritual sacrifice was seen as aligning ourselves with God.

Jesus came and exploded that whole way of thinking by submitting to such sacred violence on the cross as the Lamb of God. In raising Jesus on Easter, God is proclaiming that there is a different way to be alive in this world that is completely different from that whole world represented by the Temple. In Jesus we meet a God of mercy, love, and grace, and not a God of wrath. In Jesus we follow a way of mercy not sacrifice, forgiveness not vengeance. In going to the cross, Jesus prepares us as the new Temples. We are to be the many new abiding places of his Father’s house. We are to be the abiding place in this world of mercy and love, instead of vengeance and wrath. That is what it means to follow Jesus as the way and the truth and the life. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 20, 2008

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