Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
I don’t travel by plane very often, but when I do I generally find myself in conversation with my fellow travelers, and a question that inevitably comes up is the “occupation” question: “What do you do for a living?” When I’ve told people that I’m a pastor (or, when I was in seminary, when I told them I was training to become a pastor), I’ve gotten many different responses, but in the vast majority of cases I’ve found that I generally receive one of the following two. The first is an awkward silence that indicates that this may have been the worst possible answer and that no further conversation will be happening. The second is an astonished look and something along the lines of “Wow! I don’t know how you do that. I would never be able to preach a sermon every week!” Having done just that for almost three years now, I’d like to share what I’ve found to be true about the challenge of preaching every Sunday: Most weeks the problem isn’t putting together a sermon to preach, but choosing the right one. You see, the Bible is fascinating! I’ll often sit down with these readings and find that I could go in twenty different directions if I had the time. My greatest fear when I’m trying to decide what to preach is that I’ll become enamored with a question that none of you is asking, and some weeks I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to warn you in advance if I think I’m in danger of doing just that.
This week happens to be one of those weeks. There is so much great stuff in this reading from John 14, but to be honest with you I keep getting held up by verse 6: Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” My problem with this verse is not that Jesus said it, of course, because I believe that he is absolutely right. The issue, at least in my mind, is how this verse has come to be used by Christians – not only in the present, but throughout history – who also read into it its opposite: That is, they believe that if it’s true that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, then it is equally true that people who don’t acknowledge Jesus will never come to know God the Father. If you hold to that interpretation of this passage, you’re in good company, and there are many other passages of Scripture that you can marshal to support that claim. But I mentioned before that Scripture is fascinating, and one of the things that makes it so fascinating is that it contains such a wide range of opinions on really important and consequential questions like these: How does one come into relationship with God? Can people who don’t claim to be Christian nevertheless have real and true experiences of God? Is salvation limited to people who make public confession of Jesus? Is it possible to be a Christian and reject the idea that everyone who isn’t Christian is destined for hell? I think you should know me well enough by now to know that I don’t ask these questions out of a simple or naïve desire to accommodate culture or be perceived as nice. On the one hand, I ask them because of genuine concern for people I know and love who fully embrace other religious traditions (or none at all) and who live their lives with compassion and grace and integrity. On the other hand, I ask them because the way we answer them reveals a great deal about how we understand God’s purpose for us and for the whole creation. Put another way, these questions cut to the heart of what it means to be people who trust in the saving power of the cross and the life-giving power of the empty tomb. Is salvation primarily about us or about the God revealed in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? As a way of tackling all of these questions, let’s look again at this passage, this time with an eye to the context in which it was written. Then, we’ll zoom out and take a broader view of Jesus, faith, and salvation.
Jesus uttered these famous words on the night that he shared his last meal with his disciples. Over the course of his extended body of teaching, which stretches across five full chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus had much to say to his followers about his death and what it would mean for them and the world. In a really important sense this was a discourse addressed to “insiders”, people who already knew that God was up to something in Jesus (though they didn’t fully understand what it was until later). Was this statement meant to establish a firm boundary between the followers of Jesus and those who didn’t believe in him, or was it intended to soothe the doubts and fears of those first disciples as they grappled with the fact that their teacher was making preparations to leave them? Later, John’s gospel circulated among people who had been forcibly removed from the community of faith in which they had be raised: the gatherings of the people of Israel in local synagogues. Was this statement meant to attack the people who threw them out, or to assure those who had experienced rejection that their faith in Jesus was not in vain? People might reasonably differ in their interpretations of this passage, but it seems to be in context that it was meant to be a word of comfort to people who were in danger of being overcome by their fear and loss. How (if at all) does that change how we read this passage today in a world in which we live and labor alongside people of many different faiths, and how does our interpretation fit in with the way we look at Jesus, faith, and salvation more broadly?
If we look at this passage as a word to people who already have faith, it seems misguided to use it as a bludgeon against people who don’t believe in Jesus. His concern in this passage was that his followers would know that their faith was not misplaced, that his relationship with God was so strong that it could extend beyond Jesus to those who trusted in him. That’s good news, to be sure! But when it comes to these bigger questions, John seems to hint at something bigger. Back in chapter twelve, Jesus is approached by his disciples, who bring a request from a group of travelers visiting Jerusalem. The strangers want to see Jesus, and in the course of his response to his disciples, he tells them that his impending death will lead to two world-changing things: Satan will be judged and found lacking, and all of humanity will be drawn to him! Later in the same chapter, he claims that his purpose for the world is liberation, not judgment. Those statements represent a vision of the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that is incredibly expansive.
Now, because I take Scripture seriously, I also recognize that there are passages that speak of the vital importance of human response to God. In fact, whenever I’ve heard anyone talk about the idea that the cross brings salvation to all, and that even people who don’t believe in Jesus might be saved, the objection that arises almost immediately is, “Well, what’s the point of faith, then? Why go to church or read Scripture or try to live a godly life if it doesn’t matter in the end anyway?” I certainly don’t mean to minimize that concern. One possible answer to that objection lies in today’s reading as well, and it also leads us to think big about salvation. If – and this is a big if – salvation is just about what happens to me when I die, and God’s going to save everyone, then it really doesn’t matter. But if salvation is also about now – if God calls us to lives of faith, hope, and love right now – then all of this is essential! The Christian life isn’t just a life-long struggle to secure fire insurance. We don’t respond to the call of God in Christ simply because it carries the promise of “eternal life” somewhere down the road. In Jesus, God invites us to experience eternal life now, to find in him the embodiment of God’s gracious presence that is continually offered for the life of the world. In the waters of baptism we are cleansed and freed for abundant life now. In Holy Communion we receive a foretaste of the feast to come and strength for the journey now. In gathering and hearing the word and being sent out again, we are given the opportunity to be Christ for others, to speak the good news of God’s love for all people, to reveal that love through the way we give ourselves in service. If that’s not a reason to take our faith seriously, I don’t know what is, and if the call to live that kind of life isn’t good news, then I don’t know what good news is, either. As people God’s people, who confess wholeheartedly that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, let’s be bold in sharing the message of salvation in Christ, not by scaring people with the threat of hell, but by inviting them into the world-changing reality of life with God that is present even now – in the midst of brokenness and pain and disbelief – and that will continue into the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.