Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 I tell you the truth, whoever believes in me will do what I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
Some of us were born into a culture that was assumed to be organized according to “Christian principles.” Of course, not everybody agreed on what those principles were. There was prayer in the public schools, but black people weren’t allowed to vote in a lot of the South, and had to drink out of separate water fountains. But community worship services and nativity scenes sponsored by local governments didn’t get a second thought.
Back in that time, most people probably read this passage without seeing anything controversial about it. But today, it has become one of the most controversial passages in all of the Bible. The part that draws objections is the first verse of the reading, in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I think you could make a good argument that there’s no element of Christian theology that more people in American culture object to than this exclusive claim by Jesus. It’s probably even true that some people who think of themselves as Christians either just plain reject what Jesus said, or they’re at least mildly embarrassed about it.
The prevailing view in Western culture today is that everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs, and all religions are equally valid. So when the Christian faith teaches that we have the way to eternal life and no other religion does, that’s regarded as arrogant or intolerant or bigoted on our part.
So what are we supposed to make of this passage?
There is one strain of Christian theology that says that the death of Jesus on the cross saved everyone, including those who are not his followers as well as those who are. This is called ‘Christian Universalism,’ and it points to verses like I Timothy 2:4, which says that it’s God’s desire that all be saved. If that’s really what God wants, Christian Universalists say, it’s obviously going to happen.
One of my seminary professors, who was a conservative Scottish Presbyterian theologian, used to say that he sincerely hopes that is the case – he hopes that everyone has been saved through the death of Jesus on the cross. But, he would add, the New Testament as a whole doesn’t really support that view. The New Testament seems to consistently express the idea that believing in Jesus – accepting him as Lord of your life – is the one and only way to claim a place in the heavenly kingdom. In other words, the rest of the New Testament seems to support what Jesus says in this passage.
So for us as followers of Jesus, this passage confronts us with a big question: If Jesus says that no one comes to Father except through him, do we believe him or not? Do we believe he knows what he’s talking about?
I guess that personally, in answering that question I start with my belief that Jesus really was raised from the dead. The New Testament makes it pretty clear the first followers of Jesus knew the claim they were making was wildly improbable, but they made it anyway. And they demonstrated their belief in this improbable claim by allowing themselves to be put to death for their faith. That’s pretty powerful testimony. You don’t allow yourself to be killed like your master unless you really believe you’ll be raised like he was, too. And thousands of the followers of Jesus went calmly to their deaths – so calmly, in fact, that the Romans who carried out their executions said it was “unnerving.”
Now, if Jesus said he would rise from the dead and then he did, I’d say that establishes a pretty high level of credibility for him. So if he also said he’s the only way to the Father, I tend to believe it. That could conceivably mean that he’ll be the way for believers and unbelievers alike, but I think that’s a pretty tough case to make if you really read his teachings. Jesus pretty clearly expected that salvation was linked to accepting his lordship and doing what he said to do.
For those of us who claim to be his followers, that means committing ourselves his teachings in a way that directs and changes our lives. And it also adds some urgency to the task of helping others to become disciples as well. Those of us who are followers of Jesus from the Reformed tradition believe that bringing a person to a state of discipleship is actually something God does, not something we do. But since Jesus commanded us in the Great Commission to “go and make disciples,” we’re apparently meant to be working at it diligently – as though it depended on us.
How to effectively lead others to discipleship is obviously a subject that we don’t have the time or space to deal with in depth here. But there are ways to share our faith without being pushy or judgmental. Probably the easiest way is to offer to pray for people who have trouble, and to let them know you’re really serious about it. That at least lets them know you’re a person of faith who cares about them. Another way to share your faith is to devote yourself to service to the needy and the suffering, and to make no secret of the fact that you’re doing it because you’re a follower of Jesus.
But to get back to the matter we started with, which is Jesus’ claim to be the exclusive way to God, we can never be certain of what God intends for others outside the faith. But for us, the truth seems clear: The way to the Father is through embracing the teachings of Jesus and the new life he offers us as his followers.
Let’s Pray. Lord, we pray that by his death on the cross, Jesus might have brought new life to everyone as a gift of your grace. By your Spirit, help us to trust in you for our salvation, but to do the work of making disciples with great urgency anyway, as though the fate of others might depend on our efforts. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 20 and 97; Exodus 3:1-5; and Hebrews 11:23-31.)