Monday, May 19, 2014

John 14:6: Honoring Jesus While Respecting Others

There is a growing number of Christians today who are interpreting texts like John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”) inclusively, rather than exclusively.

Some interpreters apply this to the risen, cosmic Christ who they see working anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. The Gospels, they point out, were written from a post-Easter point of view. What others call by a different name they believe is actually the living Christ.

Others interpret Jesus’ statement “except through me” to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated. In other words, anyone who embraces the values and virtues of Jesus can know God regardless of their particular beliefs. Acts 10:34 supports this reading: “In every nation anyone who fears (reverences) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”

Still others, like me, emphasize that John was writing to his particular community. When John wrote “no one” he meant “none of you.”

Gail O’Day, in the New Interpreter’s Bible calls this particularism. That is, the claims made in John 14:6 express the particularities of the Johannine community’s knowledge and experience of God.

In other words, this is not true for everyone, but it is true for Christians. From this point of view, John 14:6 says nothing about how those outside of Christianity can know God. This is how Christians know God, namely, by following the way of Jesus into the truth and life of God. For Christians, Jesus is the definitive revelation of God.

This means, on one hand, that Christians are free to treat with acceptance and respect adherents and participants of non-Christian religious (and secular) traditions without feeling obligated to impose Christian beliefs on them.

On the other hand, this means that Christians must take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously as “the way” to live, not just a doctrine to be confessed.

It’s ironic that some Christians who demand all people adhere to their Christian beliefs in order to know God do not, in practice, take the life and teachings of Jesus that seriously.

Shane Claiborne, a founding member of the “The Simple Way,” recently wrote an article titled: “If It Weren’t for Jesus, I Might Be Pro-Death Too: A Response to Al Mohler.”

He points out that Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a 1200 word argument for why Christians should support the death penalty and did not mention Jesus a single time. He also noted that the official pro capital punishment policy of the SBC does not contain a single reference to Jesus or the Gospels in support of their position.  

How is that possible? How can a President of a Theological School and the largest Protestant denomination in the country take a definitive moral position without any mention of Jesus who is our definitive revelation of God?

Of course, I can’t point my finger at others without pointing it at myself. How can I (or any Christian) harbor anger instead of nurturing forgiveness, or seek money, honor, position, and power over the kingdom of God, or pursue my own interests above the interests of others, if indeed Jesus is my guide and standard?

If Jesus is our definitive revelation of God, then not only must all Scripture be evaluated and assessed through the lens of the story of Jesus, but the totality of our Christian lives must be made to conform to the grace and truth he “fleshed out” among us.

Ann Howard of “The Beatitude Society” shares how John 14:6 bothered her as a child. When she was 10 years old a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of America. Her family hosted a Russian, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday.

She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled her. She asked her mother about it.

“Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus or even believe in God. I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”

Ann’s mother wisely responded: “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

If Jesus is our Lord, then every moral, ethical, and social position, as well as all daily priorities and decisions should be evaluated and determined on the basis of “the way” of Jesus. Jesus is our authority on how to live.

It’s much easier to believe a doctrine about Jesus and demand that others conform to it, than it is to actually embody “the way” of Jesus and love and accept others where they are.


7 comments:

  1. What about Acts 4:12, where the apostle speaks of Jesus in an exclusive vain to those outside of the Christian community, namely the Jewish people that were addressed?

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    1. In that context Peter is addressing the Jewish leaders whom Peter charges with crucifying Jesus (4:10). He is speaking in particular to these who bear responsibility for Jesus death. They must recognize that the man they crucifed was the very one God appointed Messiah and Lord. For them their salvation must go through Jesus, the one they killed. Once again, as in John 14:6, this is Christian particularism, not exceptionalism. The '"we" refers to the Jewish leaders. For a perspective on how God may deal with those who have not heard of Jesus see Acts 10:34.

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  2. I don't know who said it, but it goes something like the" the first test of intelligence is whether someone agrees with you." The more serious the subject, the deeper the feelings run and the more likely we are you apply this test. With respect to faith, I would expand it a little - "the first test for selecting passages of scripture is whether they support my own beliefs or not"

    Can anyone honestly say that the revelation we have of Jesus the Christ does have many contradictions, a fair amount of mystery and a shortage of "certainty." Now before someone feels the needs to defend a "universal theory" of true Christianity which they believe resolves any and all questions, I'd like to suggest that this is not a criticism - it was God's intention. God clearly had the resources to spell things out in incontrovertible, crystal-clear language. but he didn't. He didn't send us a theology professor whose lectures were captured on film to ensure all generations understood without doubts. God sent a poor baby into the world, who grew into a poor carpenter from a backwater town who had a short but incredibly meaningful ministry which was written down between 25 and 70 years after he died. And despite the lack of overwhelming first hand evidence, the backwater preacher changed the world.

    The entire history of God's people has been a crooked path of expanding our consciousness, growing in our attempt to better understand God's will, God's love. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us, but that guidance doesn't come in step by step Ikea-style directions. Something we hear it, sometimes we clearly miss it So we move forwards and backwards often at the same time.

    So I would encourage all who want to zero in on John 14:6 as the definitive revelation that the form of Christianity that "we (fill in a specific faith tradition or congregation) hold to be true" is the ONE AND ONLY way to "go through Jesus to the Father", to consider this:
    John 14:6 may indeed be the literal words from the mouth of our Lord
    But our ability to know what "except through me" means, leaves us far short of "certain." We are making progress. We don't burn unbelievers at the stake any more (Yeah Holy Spirit! Keep it up. We will get it if you are patient with us). But part of my own journey is to realize that the more I think I know, the more I realize that I don't know. But that is ok. One of the best names' for God is Mystery.

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    1. I'm right with you, John. All our beliefs are like fingers pointing to the moon. God is so much more. Knowing God is about a spiritual relationship; not about having correct information. It is journey into the great Mystery who is able to absorb it all into God's self.

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  3. Are you now dismissing the theology of the incarnation? I am new to your blog, so your understanding about Christ is still vague to me.
    I do agree with your thoughts that God did not reveal everything in a neat package. That allows for faith; but also a lot of disagreement

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    1. Not dismissing, rather expanding. I believe God manifests God's self in numerous ways and means. For Christians, Jesus is our definitive revelation of God; but God is not limited to Jesus. God can reveal God's self through other mediators. Hopefully, God reveals God's self through our lives. The church is called to incarnate the life of Christ as the body of Christ in the world. I regard Jesus as the quintessential or archetypal revelation of God, but God is incarnating God's self in multitudes of ways.

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  4. Wow. Just. Wow. You are leading so many people to hell. Sad.

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