The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2023
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I’m beginning today with honesty. This line can make me nervous. Well, the first part is fine. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. That’s what I’m dedicated to as a Christian. But, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” can make us nervous. You know, this lesson is often read at funerals, and I wonder how it is heard by people at those funerals who are not Christians. On the one hand, we say, “Welcome to Trinity Church.” On the other hand, it seems that Jesus says that, if you don’t believe in him, well, you’re not going to the Father. This is a small sample of a larger issue, one that has especially come up after World War Two, after the Holocaust. Say, do we really believe that people who are Jewish, the people from whom Jesus comes, are not going to the Father? And what does this say about people who have never heard of Christianity, who were born in parts of the world where there is no Church? No access to the gospel? What is Jesus saying about them?
Of course, there are ways around this. You could flat out disagree with Jesus, but then why be a Christian? Or, maybe the Bible got it wrong; but if the Bible is up for grabs, well, then what’s the point? I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had like this with parishioners over the years. Over coffee, lunch, and in my office, this is the framework of those conversations. The scenario is always different, but the question is always the same. My husband isn’t a Christian, my daughter is marrying someone of a different religion, my best friend is Jewish…are they going to heaven or hell? The conversation eventually lands at the rock and a hard place. You can give up the Christian tradition for the sake of coexistence, or you can surrender congeniality for doctrinal purity. So consider this sermon the summation of thirteen years of my pastoral ministry.
First things first; we have to call into the question the whole notion about heaven and hell here. Notice that when Jesus says that no one goes to the Father except through him, he never mentions heaven, hell, or salvation. Beyond that, in the entire Gospel of John, where this passage comes from, Jesus never once talks about going to heaven after you die. And never once does Jesus even mention the word, “hell.” That whole notion, of heaven and hell, that is something that we talk about. Don’t put that on Jesus.
This is a larger point. I do not think the point of following Jesus, of being a Christian, is to get into heaven when you die. This life is not a checklist for salvation. No, Jesus is talking about how to live on earth; how to live an abundant, holy life here and now. We have to be clear about that. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a heaven and that there isn’t a hell. I just think that we talk about way too much. Because if we are just focused on what’s next, we miss what’s now. Jesus talked about living so that the heavenly life, that life with God could be ours both in the hereafter and in the right now. That’s why we follow his way, his truth, his life. That is heaven.
Hell, then, is separation from God. And we all know people who choose to live hellish lives on earth, separating and isolating themselves. Heaven and hell are not so much reward or punishment; no, I think heaven and hell are the lives we choose to live. Either in the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus, or not.
Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” So even if it’s not about heaven and hell per se, it can still make us nervous. But I’ve noticed that it’s when people say this, that we get nervous. It’s when pastors, priests, and Churches claim to know everything; it’s when people presume to know the only way, the only truth, the only life, that we should get nervous. When someone claims to know everything, and that if only you follow their teaching, and go to their Church, then you’ll be following Jesus, then you’ll go to heaven; well, that’s not Christianity. That’s a cult. In fact, that’s something called gnosticism. Gnosticism is the belief that only a special few have the true, secret access to God and everyone else is out of luck. Well, the Church has been saying gnosticism is weird for the last eighteen centuries. Because no one has secret knowledge.
The way, the truth, the life. When church leaders say they have that, it makes us nervous, because it’s not a long way off from outright manipulation. It should also make us nervous when secular or political leaders say that they have the one right way, the only truth. That’s what we call totalitarianism. When someone claims to have all the solutions to fix every problem, the way, the truth, and the life, we ought to be very nervous. So it’s not Jesus who should make us nervous, it’s the people who are using Jesus to make political gains for themselves that ought to make us nervous.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I’ve said what Jesus isn’t talking about. So what is he talking about? Well, if Jesus says that he is the way, what way is that but the way of love, and service, and humility, and compassion? Just before Jesus says this, just one chapter before, Jesus has taken off his robe, wrapped it around his waist, and washed the feet of his disciples. That is the way. In the Gospel of John, Jesus provides food in the desert for thousands of people; Jesus heals a man’s son of a crippling fever; Jesus shares a family from embarrassment by providing enough wine at a wedding. Then, Jesus offers himself to the cross, the perfect sign of perfect love to the world. The truth and the life and the way of Jesus is love. That shouldn’t make us nervous, that’s something we ought to celebrate.
So yes, I will be so bold as to say that the only way to the Father is love, and that love is shown perfectly and most clearly through the life and teachings of Jesus. And if someone chooses to intentionally live a life without love, well, then, I’m not so sure that they would want anything to do with the Father anyway. They have judged themselves. It’s not so much that judgment is from God, sitting on a celestial bench, handing down punishments and rewards. God is not up there, waiting to catch us doing something wrong so that we can be punished for it. We judge ourselves, bring judgment by the love we either accept or reject.
This is good news. First, we can stop the angst and the manufactured debates about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell after we die. How about, instead, we love each other before we die. That way, we’ll bring heaven to earth. Every day we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Don’t just pray it, live it.
It’s also good news that we can quit the coercion. For too long, we have been bamboozled by people who say that they have the way, the truth, and the life. We’ve been giving our money, our time, our attention to people and powers that dangle the carrot in front of us. It’s a lie. They’re just trying to sell you something. They don’t have anything in mind except their own self-aggrandizement. We, we follow Jesus as Lord in his ways of service, humility, and mercy. That is the test. If the way looks like Jesus, then it’s heavenly. If the way looks like ego, it’s something else. This goes for me, too. My job is not to get you to follow me, to follow my ways, to listen to my truth, to live my life. No, my job is to show you Jesus and to follow, as best I can, the way, the truth, and the life of the cross and empty tomb in my own life.
Yes, even in this twenty-first century, despite having lived through so much societal trauma, despite the hate and bigotry that has masqueraded as Christianity, despite the Church and world leaders committing atrocities in the name of God, even when the truth is up for grabs; we can make the claim that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Not because we are excluding anybody. No, rather, God is including anybody and everybody who is for the kind of love that Jesus manifests. God is including anybody who is willing to get down on their knees with Jesus and wash the feet of their neighbors, anybody who will go out of their way to heal the sick in the name of love, anybody who stretches out their arms of love with Jesus to serve the world. I am unabashedly Christian, no one comes to the Father except through Jesus; but this is not about checking the box so you get to heaven, this is about a life of love, here and now. God is not pushing any one out, God is drawing everyone in; everyone who follows the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.
One thought on “Way, Truth, Life”
This sermon really hit me as a view into a complete thought. I took notes, I watched it again on YouTube, and now I am reading and writing about it. It is a bigger thought than can easily fit into a 20-minute sermon. It could have used the 3-hour time limit on sermons that some of the Puritan Divines (shout out to Cotton Mather) used, because it feels like the top of an ice berg or the beginnings of a book.
Here is how I would outline what I see as the book Jimmy is hinting at:
Title: I am the Way: What does that Mean?
1. The Unsettling Message in Red Letters
a. Use of the quote
b. Why that makes us nervous
2. How to Dismiss the Instruction altogether
b. Purposeful misinterpretation of the inherited meaning
3. How to Dismiss the Instruction by taking it Literally
a. The surrender of congeniality for doctrinal purity
4. Avoiding the hubris of comfortable interpretation
5. Unpacking the words
a. Jesus and Heaven (in John)
b. Jesus and Hell (in John)
c. Christians and living
6. Facing into the words
a. What is the way
b. How do we do that
7. Living the words
a. The good news for the 21st century in the words from the 1st
I am sure there is much more in Jimmy’s fine mind to flesh out the outline. How fortunate to be present in church.