The Gospel of Thomas 70
1 Peter 2:2-10
He was screaming at me like some kind of lunatic. Clearly, he was furious with me. His face was beet red. He kept jabbing the air in front of my face with his index finger. The veins in his neck were raised and throbbing. He kept going on and on and on and on about how wrong I was. I tried to calm him down, but he could no longer hear anything I was saying. He was so inflamed by my original statement that nothing I could say or do short of falling to my knees and begging his forgiveness for having been so wicked would suffice. So, I just stood there, hoping that eventually he would wear himself out and quiet down long enough for us to agree to disagree. But his enthusiasm for his cause was stronger than I’d anticipated. He knew that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and that NO ONE, NO ONE, NO matter who they are, or how good they may be, NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THORUGH JESUS CHIRST, WHO IS THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AN DTHE LIFE! The sooner I confessed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and quit trying to figure out ways to get people into heaven through the back door the better off I would be. Furthermore, unless I was willing to confess the error of my ways, then I had no business calling myself a Christian, because I was clearly damned to hell.
I can still see the anger and hatred in my old friend’s face. Anger that seemed so out of place. We were on retreat in the mountains of British Columbia. We had just listened to a sermon about the Many Mansions that God has prepared for the people of the world. Not surprisingly my friend took exception to the preacher’s emphasis on God’s different ways of including the different people of the world into God’s Reign. Over lunch we argued about just what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. NO one comes to the Father except through me.” My friend it seems had all the answers. Those who did not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior will never be acceptable in the sight of God, they will never be included in the Kingdom of God, for indeed they are damned to hell!
I could not accept that a loving and gracious God could be so cruel. So, I walked away from my friend and his theology. I ignored Jesus’ words about how to get to the Father and focused on God’s many mansions. After all, the Bible is full of contradictions and to some problems you just must admit that there are no answers.
That method worked for me for quite awhile. Then one day, while I was studying for an under-graduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I was confronted once again by Jesus’ words. Words I believed to be incompatible with the gospel of grace and mercy. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I was studying the history of inter-faith dialogue. Our class was made up of Hindu’s, Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Sikhs, and one lonely Buddhist. Together, we discussed the problems that have happened down through the centuries when people of different faiths encounter one another. One day we were given a particular assignment. We were teamed up with a member of another faith tradition and asked to bring to the table a piece of sacred scripture from our partner’s faith tradition that we found intriguing. Of course, that meant that we had to read the sacred scriptures of another tradition.
My partner was a young Hindu named of all things Nigel. Nigel had been born in India to parents who dreamed of having their son educated in England. So, they gave him an English name and they were delighted when their son decided to seek an education in Canada. Nigel was a devout Hindu. He was familiar with the New Testament and he was intrigued with, as Nigel would say, “this fellow Jesus.” In the course of my studies, I had read the Bhagavad Gita, and was familiar with its representations of the spiritual struggle of the human soul. I hadn’t yet read the Upanishads and so under Nigel’s tutoring I worked my way through, what he lovingly called, the Himalayas of the Soul, while Nigel renewed his acquaintance with the Gospel of John. After several weeks of study Nigel and I selected the texts we would study together. I must admit that I do not remember exactly where the text I chose came from. I can’t remember if it came from the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita. I only remember the text itself. “All paths lead to the heart God.” Short and sweet and yet beginning with this text Nigel and I explored the Hindu understanding that all gods are but pale representations of the One True God and that all pathways will eventually lead to God. I was quite pleased with myself for selecting a text that allowed our inter-faith dialogue to progress so nicely and I was already anticipating the excellent grade I imagined we would get for our efforts. That is until it was Nigel’s turn to select a text from my tradition. I couldn’t believe it, Nigel had the gall to put our grade at risk by choosing to discuss John 14:6- Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me.”
Before the words were even out of Nigel’s mouth I was preparing to counter his selection with a selection of my own. “In my Fathers’ house there are many mansions.” But I didn’t get the chance. Nigel launched forth with an exegesis of the text that put this particular Christian to shame. According to Nigel: “This verse is absolutely true—Jesus is the only way. And that way—of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being—is known in all of the religions of the world. The way of Jesus is a universal way, known even to millions who have never heard of Jesus.”
I must have looked confused, because Nigel went over it again: “If we look at the gospel of John as a whole, we see that from the beginning, Jesus’ way leads to his death. This death is also, for John, Jesus’ glorification. The way is the path of death and resurrection. If we look at a single verse, we read, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
“In short, for John, the way or path of Jesus is the path of death and resurrection understood as a metaphor for the religious life. The way- the path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being—is the only way to God. Every one must travel the path that Jesus trod. Jesus’ path is the only way to God.”
The paper that Nigel and I wrote together earned us an A+, but more than that it moved us both beyond the tolerance of one another’s faith toward a desire to embrace pluralism. Pluralism calls forth more than just a live and let live attitude toward the other as it moves us toward a deep and abiding respect for other ways of being, other ways of finding meaning, other ways of relating to the divine and of loving one’s neighbour. Nigel’s faith gave him the wisdom and the courage to wander down the path of a stranger in order to seek truth. His ability to embrace the way of another faith to see what truths might be revealed required a kind of openness that I believe was made possible by Nigel’s desire to be love in the world. Nigel’s understanding of metaphor and his ability to wander the contours of a pathway foreign to him has encouraged me to travel down pathways that have revealed the unexpected contours of a reality beyond my wildest dreams. More than 25 years have passed since Nigel and I first worked together and I’d love the opportunity to work with him again on these words that have been attributed to Jesus. Back then, I had no way of knowing what I know now about the anonymous gospel-story-teller we call “John” who placed words into the mouth of Jesus. Thanks to the work of so many New Testament scholars, I now know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus ever said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“The Gospel According to John” was written some seventy years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus by an author whose identity has long since been lost to us. The anonymous gospel-story-teller we call John was writing to assure his own persecuted community that Jesus and not Caesar was the Way. The gospel-story-teller John wanted to encourage his community to follow Jesus. For this particular teller of the story, Jesus was the only Way to the “Father;” following Jesus was the Way to embrace relationship with the ONE they knew as the CREATOR, the ONE they credited with having rescued them out of bondage, nurtured them in the wilderness, brought them safely into the promised land, the ONE they looked to, to save them from the oppression of the Romans. But we do not live in first century Palestine. Our knowledge of the cosmos, our understanding of Creation and the realities of our existence have been enriched by nearly 2,000 years of seeking answers to questions that the people to whom the anonymous gospel-story-teller we call John wrote his interpretation of the life of Jesus could never even begin to imagine. The knowledge that these words were written long after Jesus tried to open his own people up to a new Way of being in the world, frees us from the need to wrestle with the idea that Jesus is the only way.
These words of the anonymous gospel-story-teller John have always seemed so very incompatible with the teachings of Jesus that we know from the other anonymous gospel-story-tellers we know as Mark, Mathew and Luke, who painted a picture of a revolutionary thinker who lived and died to open the hearts and minds of his people to a vision of God who is LOVE and who insisted that religion could not save them from themselves only LOVE could save them; love of God and love of their neighbours as they love themselves. Surely, the LOVE which Jesus lived and died for includes respect for the various ways in which others find their way to the LOVE which is the source of all love.
If I had the opportunity to sit with my old angry friend from my youth-group days, or the chance to met and explore the journey which Nigel has been making these past 25 years, I hope I would be able to share with them the freedom I have found in the knowledge that Jesus is not the only Way. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, and as a Jewish rabbi, I know that he did say that the entire Law of the Jewish people, developed over the centuries could be summed up in this way: “Love God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul and love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Love of neighbour as the pathway to peace is an eternal truth that exists in all the great religions of the world. LOVE and not exclusion is the way.
It’s long past time for Christianity to let go of the words attributed to Jesus in order that Christians can more fully embody the WORD. For if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, then the Word is LOVE and that LOVE is more than we can even begin to imagine or express, many mansions, doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s time for us to let go of the words and embrace the WORD and the WORE is LOVE.
As we learn more and more about the amazing cosmos in which we live, the MYSTERY which lies at the heart of REALITY, the MYSTERY who IS the LOVE we call “God” is revealed as so much more than any one religion can begin to capture in words, rituals, doctrines, dogmas or theologies. The MYSTERY that lies at the heart of REALITY is BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that also.
So, let the words about the ONE who is LOVE fall away, so that we can begin to more fully embrace this LOVE.
The anonymous gospel-story-teller we call John issued an invitation to see Jesus as the Way to God. John’s invitation was issued as a threat, but came to us in the same breath as, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” We must distrust every claim of truth where we do not see truth united with LOVE. God is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. All paths do lead to the heart of God. Jesus is a way, a way to truth, a way to life and a way to LOVE. The MYSTERY which lies at the heart of REALITY is LOVE; LOVE beyond our ability to imagine or express. Let us open ourselves to this LOVE in one another, in our neighbours and in the very cosmos itself. The way- the path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being—is the only way to God.
Benediction: Let us distrust every claim of truth
where we do not see truth united with love.
God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also.
All paths do lead to the heart of God.
Jesus is a way, a way to truth, a way to life
a way to LOVE.
The MYSTERY which lies at the heart of REALITY is LOVE;
LOVE beyond our ability to imagine or express.
Let us open ourselves to that LOVE in one another,
in our neighbours and in the very cosmos itself.
The way- the path of dying to an old way of being
and being born into a new way of being
—is the only way to God.