October 9, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In his book, Letters from the Earth, Mark Twain said that he once spent an hour teaching a cat and a dog to be friends after which he put them in a cage together. They got along quite well so he taught them to be friends with a rabbit which he then also added to the cage with good results. Over the course of the next two days, he continued to introduce new animals to the cage until he had a cat, dog, rabbit, fox, goose, squirrel, some doves, and a monkey all living together in affectionate peace.
Twain said that he then took another cage and confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen, a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares, and a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping.
“After two days,” Twain writes, “there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh — not a specimen left alive.” 1
Though Twain was writing a hundred years ago, his words make us smile because little has changed. In fact, with globalization, increased mobility, and social media, religious people are even more apt today to be knocking elbows with people of different faiths than they were in Twain’s time. A hundred years ago, when Twain was writing, few people in America actually knew any real live Muslims or Buddhists, let alone Wiccans or neo-Pagans and so arguments about the salvation of those of other religions were primarily theoretical in most Christians’ minds. Today however, those questions have become more unsettling for us because it is no longer an abstract Hindu whose salvation is under debate but it is the salvation of the Hindu next door to us, the man who asks about our kids, who keeps an eye on our house when we are out of town, and who kindly snow blows our driveway when the snow lies too deep for us to shovel. It is hard for us to believe that a man of such generosity of spirit could truly be condemned by God simply because he is not a professing Christian.
Moreover, when we go back and read the gospel accounts, Jesus himself describes our neighbors as those who show compassion for the helpless regardless of their ethnic or religious differences from us. Maybe there are no appearances of Hindus in the gospel accounts, but Jesus regularly encounters Samaritans and Samaritans were the religious opponents of first century Jews. It is telling then that Jesus deliberately chooses a Samaritan as the hero of his most famous parable, telling his disciples to reject the examples of the Jewish Levite and the Jewish priest in his story and follow instead the example of the despised Samaritan. The Samaritan’s kindness, not his religious beliefs, are what make him acceptable in God’s eyes. In Matthew 7:20, when the confused disciples ask Jesus how they can tell the false prophet from the true, Jesus doesn’t pull out a list of approved doctrines that will allow us to distinguish the right sort of religious person from the wrong sort; he simply says, “You will know them by their fruits.”
The Quaker Marjorie Sykes lived in India in the early 1900s, and joined her Hindu neighbors working for Indian independence. She developed an appreciation for the faith of her Hindu friends saying, “Every tree is to be known by its fruits: not by its dead wood or thorns or parasites, but by the fruit of its own inner life and nature. The flowers of unselfish living may be found growing in other people’s gardens, and… rich fruits of the Spirit may be tasted from other people’s trees.” 2
The gospels appear then to provide us with a wealth of teaching that would allow us not only to welcome people of other faiths but also to develop an appreciation for their spiritual insight and understanding of God and yet the history of Christianity is not one of open interfaith relationships. It is instead one of exclusion, triumphalism, and rejection of all other faiths as the church has claimed that the way of Christ is the only way to salvation. Where did that exclusiveness of Christianity come from? It is based primarily on a few verses in the gospel of John in which Jesus declares that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one will come to the Father but through him. Many Christians have read these words as Jesus’ insistence that salvation can come only through a profession in him as the Savior and that ultimately people of all other faiths, including Jesus’ own fellow Jews, will be rejected and condemned by God.
Given the rest of the gospel testimony, however, in which Jesus warns against the arrogance of the religiously righteous, in which Jesus welcomes outsiders, in which Jesus emphasizes right behavior over right belief, how can we understand these words in John that claim the Jesus alone is the way?
Most progressive Christians who want to get along with their Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim neighbors generally resolve the dilemma by simply ignoring John 14:6. I admit that I was one of those people. If someone brought up John 14:6 to me, I would just shrug my shoulders and flip the Bible back to that passage in Matthew. The problem with this, however, is that it leaves us progressive Christians with little answer to our more conservative Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to just throw John 14:6 out of the Bible. Moreover, having in the past years actually taken the time to study this passage, I have come to believe that rather than damaging our ability to interact in a healthy way with people of other faiths, John 14:6 and the verses that follow it actually give us some needed tools that enable us to develop stronger interfaith understanding.
Let’s then take a closer look at this passage in John 14.
John 14:6 is part of what Biblical scholars refer to as “Jesus’ farewell discourse.” Over and over again in these last chapters of the gospel of John, Jesus prepares the disciples for his crucifixion, telling them that he is about to leave, but that they will be staying in order to continue his work with the help of the Holy Spirit. The disciples, however, don’t want to hear that.
“Take us with you,” they argue. “Or at least tell us where you are going so that we can follow right after you. Show us the way before you go.”
In this passage, the disciples remind me of my dog, Zack. Those of you who were here last week for Blessing of the Animals Sunday met my older dog Zack, and older is not simply a relative term. Zack is 16 which in human years for his breed is about 97 years old. He is amazingly sprite for a 97 year old, and though he is stone deaf and his eyesight has dimmed, he still loves to take walks every day, following the paths on our property and poking his nose into the underbrush to get the latest neighborhood news. Because of his poor eyesight, however, he has to stop frequently during his explorations to make sure that I am still nearby: he knows he is in no condition to face the world alone. And if I forget to pay attention and get too far ahead of him, he immediately puts his nose to the ground and tries to follow my scent to catch up with me again. Unfortunately, sometimes he tracks me in the wrong direction and ends up back at the house where we started but there he will wait patiently for my return because he is not about to go into the world on his own.
Like Zack, the disciples are afraid that they don’t have the skills that they need to navigate the world without Jesus and who can blame them? They haven’t been the best students in the world and like Zack, they are painfully aware of their disabilities.
“Don’t leave us behind,” they implore Jesus. “Give us a map, or some gps coordinates, or throw down some bread crumbs so that we can track you and follow right behind. You know we are blind; you know we are deaf; we can’t make it if you are not leading the way, so just show us the way.”
And Jesus says to them, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
“You want me to show you the way?” Jesus says. “I am the way. In order to go to where I am going, a person just needs to know me,” and then he looks at them with a compassionate smile and says, “And you know what? By golly, you’re in luck because you do know me. You’ve been with me all this time. You’ve listened to me, you’ve worked alongside of me, I am your dearest friend and you are mine. You don’t need a map or a gps because to know me is to know the way, so you’re going to be OK. I promise.”
These words of Jesus are words of comfort to his anxious disciples. They are worried that they will be lost without him physically by their side but he assures them that they don’t need his physical presence with them. They will not be lost because they have already been saved. They have been saved by the trusting bond that has formed between Jesus and his disciples, a bond that will continue beyond the cross. The disciples are thinking that salvation is a location that one goes to after death but in the gospel of John, Jesus is very deliberate about equating salvation with something that is happening right here and now in our lifetimes. Salvation is not some pie in the sky by and by but it the fullness of life that you receive now because Jesus is dwelling in you and you are alive in Jesus.
In John 14:6, we learn first of all then that salvation is not a location; it is a relationship. Salvation is not about where you go after you die but it who you make your spiritual home with while you are alive. Those who make their spiritual home with Jesus, who allow his spirit to dwell in them and who dwell every moment in his spirit, are already experiencing salvation. “The Way” that Jesus is describing isn’t a religious doctrine — it isn’t even a Christian religious doctrine — but it is the indwelling of Jesus’ spirit. Certainly such a spirit is not restricted to those who practice the dictates of Christian worship but can be seen as well in the compassion and generosity of many people who follow the precepts of Hinduism or Judaism or Islam. Jesus pointed out that it was the heart of the Samaritan that saved him, not his religious practices, and so too Jesus’ spirit can dwell in the hearts of many who profess God by different names.
These verses in John 14 help us then to understand salvation as the indwelling of the spirit which gives us the fullness of a God imbued life in the here and now, and that understanding of salvation opens the door for us to accept that people of other religious faiths may also have a spirit within them that we can recognize as Christ-like in its generous and compassionate nature. Whether they follow the practices of Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion, if their relationships are grounded in love for others and forgiveness, then we can recognize that their way is our way, the way of Christ who lives within us.
If these words in John 14 provide us with a mutual experience that we can share with people of other faith, they also give us a sense of what makes our Christian experience unique. Jesus says that, “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know the Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
If salvation is not a location but a relationship, these words of Jesus’ are descriptive of the kind of unique relationship that Christians have to God, and to be clear, by “unique” I don’t mean “better.” Every religion has a unique perspective on a God who is clothed in the mystery of an ultimate holiness beyond human comprehension, and what makes Christianity unique is our experience of God as Father – or to bring the language of the Bible into the 21st century without I think doing it an injustice — our experience of God as Father/Mother. The one who demonstrates what that parental love looks like is Jesus. In Christ, the mystery that has shrouded God from our view is pulled back to reveal a Father who cares for us with an intimate tenderness, whose discipline is compassionate, whose forgiveness is complete. Jesus gathered around the table with sinners welcoming the lost home in his loving embrace. This face of God as a loving parent can be seen only through the face of Christ who embodied it in his life: the only way to the father is through the Son.
The Daoist experiences God as the life force which flows through all creation; the Jew experiences God in the covenantal relationship of Torah; and we as Christians experience God as a loving parent because that is the God who is revealed to us through the Son, Jesus.
Though Christ, we dwell in a spiritual home where God is our Father, our Mother, the parent who cares for us, nurtures us, gently corrects us, always forgives us, and guides us to the fullest of lives. And when we dwell in that home, when we trust in the Son to show us the way to that experience of God, our hearts will be open to all of our neighbors whatever their faith. We will dwell in the spirit of compassion, generosity, forgiveness, and kindness that gives us life.
1. Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings, 1909
2. Marjorie Sykes, Sharing our Quaker Faith