Easter 5, Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 1:1-14
Note: No sermon was posted for last week. I had one written, but on Sunday morning it didn't feel right, so I preached a different sermon, mostly extemporaneously, from a few handwritten scribbles. Sorry.
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." This statement is cited so frequently, and just as frequently misused. This statement is not about who gets saved, or who goes to heaven. It’s not about the exclusivity of Christianity. This statement is about a new development in the experience of God, a new development that Jesus was introducing to humanity, and introducing first to his disciples.
It wasn’t a new God he was showing them, but a new kind of intimacy with this very same God that they had always known, but now they would be so much closer, and they would now begin to experience the God of Israel as God as Father. That’s what this statement of Jesus is about, that in order to experience the One God as Father, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. That if you take Jesus for God, you also get the Father.
This experience of God is distinctive to Christianity and characteristic of Christianity. When Christians pray to God in the way that Jesus taught us to, we say, "Our Father." Do you understand how much of an innovation that was, that Jesus was introducing them to? So when you hear Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me," the point you should take is not the exclusivity of Christianity, but the opportunity.
Let’s remember this in these days of interfaith dialogue and interfaith conflict. When we read in Acts 7 that they picked up stones to throw at Stephen, we can make the connection to modern Jerusalem, where Palestinians pick up those same stones to throw at Israeli soldiers and police.
We can think of the great stones in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the last remains of the temple, recovered by Israeli soldiers in the Six-Day War, so precious to the Jews, when we read that prophecy from Isaiah which is quoted in 1 Peter 2, "See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious." The stones in that wall are stones of contention and violence between the Jews and the Muslims, and Christians too.
Muslims do not allow Jews and Christians even to look at the Black Stone of Mecca, the Kaaba, to which they make their pilgrimage. We know the way, but we cannot go there.
The New Testament teaches that the temple of Jesus is the congregation, a temple not made with hands, constructed of the souls of our fellow believers. Our holy city is the New Jerusalem in heaven with God. And yet we Christians acted otherwise with the Crusades, and the sign of the cross became a symbol of holy war instead of reconciliation. We forced the Muslims out, and we excluded Jews from living in Jerusalem. It took the Muslims later on to let the Jews come back.
Our story from Acts 7 reports the beginning of the animosity between Jews and Christians. At first, as we saw last week, the early Christians had the good will of all the people of Jerusalem. How quickly that kind of thing can change. After the stoning of Stephen began the persecution, and the Christians were driven out of Jerusalem. Of course it needs be said that this very short period of Jews persecuting Christians is nothing compared to centuries of Christians persecuting Jews to levels beyond our comprehension.
And so it was a wonderful thing that happened this past Thursday, in Greenwood Cemetery, in the Old First section of Greenwood Cemetery. We laid to rest the remains the beloved uncle and guardian of Mark Wingerson, Bryan Sterling. He was a Jew (a refugee from the Holocaust), and so his internment was conducted by Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, and he did a wonderful job. When Rabbi Bachman speaks of God I know him as a brother, it’s the same God that we love.
This Tuesday I will be at Columbia University in the company of the chief imam of Turkey (the Muslim equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury). I will be the guest of Dr. Gazi Erdem, the imam who stood right here last September and prayed with us. We were praying to the same God. I know Dr. Erdem as a brother, and it’s the same God that we love.
But what about Jesus saying that no one comes to the Father except through him? I am not fundamentalist, but I am orthodox, and I want to know what Jesus means.
Three years ago, at the Mosque of the Crimean Turks, the imam invited me to join them in the evening prayer. I was with my Muslim son-in-law. He took his place with the other men, kneeling on the line, and I knelt down on the side. As they prayed, I prayed along. And it gave me great comfort and joy to see upon the face and body of my son-in-law the worship of the one true God.
But then it hit me. Not once in their prayers do they address Allah as Father. Of the 99 beautiful names of God, the Father is not one of them. I asked about this, and it was confirmed to me, that Muslims do not experience God as Father. Just about the same is true for Jews. A very few times the metaphor of father is applied to God, but hardly so often as the metaphor of a rock, as in our Psalm. And that will have been true for Jesus’ disciples as well.
So here is Jesus, who keeps talking about God as his Father, and that he is going to be with him, and so his disciples ask him, show us how to get there too, show us the Father. That’s what this gospel passage is about. It’s not about only Christians going to heaven or only Christians getting saved. It’s about how this One God of Abraham is revealed by Jesus to be his Father in a special way, and that this special relationship that Jesus has with God is made available to us as well, that is, when it's in Jesus that we come to God.
Now there will be some Jews, like in Acts 7, who find them’s fightin’ words, and there will be some Muslims who are just as offended. But we also know from our experiences that we can find ways to love this One God together side by side, and leave the sorting out of things to the only who has is competent to judge between us, and that isn’t anyone of us, but God.
Jesus is the way. He is the path of your lifelong pilgrimage. He is the exodus out of your sin and the approach toward your mecca. He is the entrance into the household of your Father.
Jesus is the truth. He is the pledge of your Father’s faithfulness and constancy, he is the guarantee of the love of God which is as straight and true as a fatther’s love should be and as deep and unchanging as a mother’s love should be.
Jesus is the life. Because God is the source of life, and in the circle of God’s holy Trinity is the original energy of life, and through Jesus you may share the life that starts and ends with God.
These words of Jesus are meant to be a welcome in, not a closing out, and so when you enter in to drink and eat and receive from this source of life, you can come back out with overflowing joy and you are ready to receive the generous hospitality of all the others who worship this One God.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.