Given by Rev. April Blaine So, I’m not sure how many of you heard the big news this week, but apparently, yesterday at 6pm – May 21, 2011 – the Rapture was scheduled to occur.
There is a small but well-funded group of people who have been spreading the word across the country and so I thought to myself– if we are all still here on Sunday morning – then I think that’s pretty fair evidence that the Rapture didn’t happen – but to be even more certain
– I decided that if Chuck Lindabury showed up to Church on Sunday morning, I knew we were all safe. And so Chuck can you give us a wave? Let me tell you, if the rapture had come, Chuck would be gone – so I think we can rest easy that we’ve got a little more time.
Now I use this as an extreme example of what can happen when we misinterpret Scripture.
The Scripture we read today has also been interpreted in a variety of ways over the years. In particular, verse 6 – I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
This verse has been used by many Christian groups over the years to condemn people to hell, to exclude people from God’s love, and to denounce and disrespect the traditions and teachings of other world religions.
And so if you have been taught any of those things about this passage, I am truly sorry. So, this morning – we are going to reclaim John 14:6 as a charitable and life-giving verse in the Christian community.
On Tuesday, during our Bible Study, Bret Brunner one of our astute and thoughtful attendees asked a really great question that I think begins to help us better understand how to think about this Scripture. He said, “Do you think the authors of these Gospels had ANY idea that we would be sitting in a room, nearly 2000 years later dissecting and discussing what they had written?”
It’s a great question –
To put this in context, the Christian community at the time represented about .01% of the entire Roman Empire.
For them to imagine that 1/3 of the world’s population at some point in the future would be Christians and would be reading their writings, was beyond the scope of their imagination.
They were NOT writing this to us today. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn something, but we need to remember
The words of the Gospel were written to a specific community at a specific time, and If we want to be faithful readers of Scripture and to not miss the point -
we want to try to understand how this Scripture would have been understood in the context of its writing and then connect it to our experience today.
So, verse 6 says – “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
No one comes to the Father.
No one comes before God.
The community to which the Gospel of John was written to was most likely a Jewish community. They had been raised in a Jewish context with all the rules and rituals that were a part of the community. Central to the Jewish communities was the temple. At the innermost part of the temple was the Most Holy Place, the place where God was believed to dwell. This held the ark of the covenant and the Ten Commandments inside. No one was allowed to enter this space except the High Priest and even then, only once a year to make a sacrifice on behalf of all the people. To enter into the Most Holy Place, to enter the presence of God outside of such ritual was believed to face certain death. Just to cover themselves, the other priests would tie a rope around the leg of the High Priest when he went in every year to make atonement for the people, just in case something happened and he didn’t make it out – that way they could drag his body out without risking death themselves.
Coming before God was serious business in the Jewish community. Jewish communities believed that God was indeed present with them in powerful ways – but to come into the presence of God - It was not something to be taken lightly.
In the year 70 A.D (or C.E.), the Jewish temple was destroyed. The center of Jewish life was demolished in response to the continued uprising of communities against the Empire. It was a devastating blow to the people. The center of Jewish culture was gone and the people struggled to reconstruct a new way of being in community. Synagogues, which were Jewish places of worship, gathering places for prayer and teaching – became even more important. They became the places where the traditional rituals could take place, not exactly in the same way as they had in the temple, but in ways that maintained the significant connection to their roots.
Now, even after becoming followers of Christ, Christian communities continued to participate in Jewish rituals and were still connected to the temple and the synagogues. They were essential places where they would come before God together as a community and gather for prayer and worship.
Around the year 85, conflicts within the Jewish community were escalating. The group that rose to a position of power was a group of known as the Pharisees. There is good evidence that this faction within the Jewish community started banning people from the synagogue who did not ascribe to their teachings. At the time, there were lots of other small communities with Jewish roots who disagreed with the teachings of the Pharisees and so along with those groups, Christians found themselves banned from the Jewish synagogues at this time. They were not allowed to come into this holy and sacred place anymore on account of their belief in Jesus and rejection of the teachings of the Pharisees.
The Gospel of John is most likely written to a Jewish community between the years 85 and 95, a community of people who had lost the temple and now they had lost their access to the synagogue. Their connections to their Jewish roots had been obliterated first by the Empire and then by their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. Their belief in Christ had isolated them even further from what they knew –
So, how – how, exactly could they in the midst of this situation – how could they come before God? How could they be in the presence of God in worship and in prayer without the temple, without the synagogue?
THAT is what the Gospel of John is addressing.
This passage is not about identifying who is excluded from the Father. In light of all that they had lost from their Jewish heritage, the author’s primary concern was to clarify and celebrate what it means to believe in Jesus. He wants them to see what is distinct about their Christian identity and in this passage in particular, how they have not lost the ability to come before God – because they have Jesus Christ.
And John doesn’t waste anytime with clarifying things in his Gospel. In chapter 1, he makes some audacious claims. In verse 18, he says – “No one has ever seen God; God’s only son, he who is nearest to the Father’s Heart, has made him known.”
No one has ever seen God – this would have been a commonly understood concept of God. God was holy, God was other, you could not enter the presence of God yourself.
No one has every seen God… UNTIL now.
Now I think we need to be clear how incredibly radical and audacious this claim is in the context of when it was being made.
No one has ever seen God.
But God’s son – Jesus Christ – has made him known to us.
The Gospel of John is all about the incarnation. The incarnation is a fancy word for saying that God put on Human Skin and came to Earth. The central point of John’s message is that God is an incarnational God. We hadn’t seen God before, but now we have. In Jesus, God has been made known to us in a much fuller way. Jesus provides us unique and unprecedented access to God
And if this is true – if they could know who God was by looking at Jesus, then they did not need a temple to come into the presence of God. And they did not need a synagogue to enter into the presence of God. They just needed Jesus.
And the reason that Jesus is able to do this – is because Jesus is nearest to God’s heart.
1:18 – tells us the location of Jesus – Jesus is nearest to the Father’s heart.
And so in Chapter 14 – when Jesus starts talking about “dwelling places” with his Father he is not talking about a physical location or geography. He’s talking about a relationship. Jesus’ dwelling place is in close relationship with the Father.
And then he starts talking about “the way” – once again, it’s not literally a pathway – this is not about geography.
Jesus says that HE is the way.
To know “the way” is to “know Jesus”
Again, its about relationship.
To know the way, to know Jesus is to have a dwelling place also with God – a relationship with God the Father.
If you know Jesus, if you have relationship with Jesus, then you also know God. Knowing Jesus, allows them to come before the Father in a way they were never able to do before.
This community was celebrating the fact that God had done a new thing in Jesus. From now on, the God that had been hidden behind the curtain of the Most Holy Place - what was hidden about God was no longer hidden, what was distant and unclear was made clear. Knowing Jesus, meant knowing God. Relationship with Jesus meant relationship with God – From NOW On, you have seen God
No temple was needed. No synagogue was needed. The way to come to the Father was through Jesus.
These claims to the Jewish community about the particularity of Jesus have volumes to speak to us today.
People ask me all the time, what is it that makes Christianity unique? How is Christianity different than other religions?
There are lots of answers you could give to that question – but for me, I think this passage reveals one of the best ones.
What makes Christianity unique – is that we believe that in Jesus, we see God – We believe that in Jesus, we see a picture of what God looks like, how God interacts with us, we see a tangible physical example of the love and compassion and grace and teaching of God. In Jesus, we not only see God, but we are able to relate to God in a new way.
Jesus – is – in fact, the way to the Father for us as Christians. Jesus is the primary way that we understand the nature of God and so he is indeed for us the way and the truth and the life. We do not understand fully the way to the father without understanding him.
So, I hope I’ve made it clear that there is a big difference between being exclusive and being particular. This passage is not interested in excluding others from God, but it is interested in talking about the unique and particular aspects of the Christian faith.
So, where do we need to re-claim the particularity of who Jesus is?
As Christians, we worship an incarnational God. A God who is not distant, a God who put on human flesh and dwelled among us, showing us how to live. And then sending his Spirit to continue to live in and among us – always.
This is the very nature of god – a God who is dwelling among us. And you know, this kind of God? This is the kind of God that can actually make a difference in our lives every day. This is the kind of God that can actually speak to our physical experiences here and now on this Earth.
The passage today started with these words – Do not let your hearts be troubled. Where is God inviting you to put your trust and your faith in Jesus? In an incarnational God who is present and interested in relating to us, just as Jesus relates to the Father?