January 29, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
I want to begin by thanking the many, many people who sent me emails and cards and various expressions of sympathy regarding the death of my father a little over a week ago. That means so much to me. Your expressions have given me a feeling of great love and I can’t tell you how much that means to me.
I just got back from spending the better part of the weeks with my mom and siblings sorting out business affairs. I drove right after church last Sunday and when I turned into the driveway of my parents’ house the strangest feeling came over me. I had all those hours driving to prepare, but suddenly I had a feeling I wasn’t prepared for.
You see, I was there just three weeks before. I went down right after Christmas to see my folks and while there my dad fell. I was able to help him into my car to go to the emergency room, and last Sunday night it hit me driving in their driveway, that was the last time he was at his home.
He had broken four ribs, but the real issue became his mental condition. My sister is a nurse and said they call it “hospital psychosis.” It’s a state of deep disorientation especially if someone is dealing with dementia. My dad got terribly confused and anxious. And, of course, the medications didn’t help that nor the fact that he was moved four times in three weeks. He stopped eating and drinking.
The day he died my mom and sister were with him and mom held his hand and talked to him, and its like that gave him the peace he needed to go be home with God. We are all headed home eventually. Home, though, is not about a place. Its about a feeling. Its about security and comfort and the people we love and trust the most. Wherever we have that, that is home.
I know this is a very heavy way to begin the sermon today, and I’m sure for many of you it takes you to similar places and experiences that surface difficult memories. but this story also connects to what Jesus talks about in the scripture today, and what this whole series on faith and doubt has been leading up to. In these verses Jesus talks about home, and grief, and what we really believe in.
Jesus prepares the disciples for his own death and departure. That’s what’s going on in John 14. And he talks about this in terms of home. He says, “In my Father’s House there are many dwelling places,” or rooms. He talks about his relationship with God as being like a home, and it is something he invites the disciples into. He told them, “I go to prepare a place for you so that where I am you may be also, and you know the way to the place where I am going.” Think about what Jesus is saying here. “You are never forgotten. Someone is always looking for you.”
And this next the part of the story I referenced last week. Thomas, who liked certainty, didn’t understand. He was thinking of a physical place. He said to Jesus, “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responded, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
It is this second sentence that has caused more controversy than any other Jesus spoke. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” It sounds as if Jesus is saying, “If you don’t acknowledge me; if you aren’t Christian, you will never enter heaven.”
New Testament professor Gail O’Day says that many Christians traditions have “turned these words into a weapon with which to bludgeon one’s opponents into theological submission. They are taken by some as the rallying cry of Christian triumphalism, proof positive that Christians have the corner on God and that people of any and all other faiths are condemned.” (NIDB, vol.IX, p743)
You don’t even have to bring other religions into it. Christians do this to each other.
A comedian named Emo Phillips used to do this routine in which he told the audience about seeing a guy about to jump from a bridge. He said, “Don’t do it!” The man said, “Nobody loves me.” He said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
The man said yes. He said, “Are you a Christian?” The man said, “Yes.” He said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” “Protestant,” the man replied. “Me too! What denomination?” “Baptist,” said the man. “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” “Northern Baptist,” said the man. “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” “Northern Conservative Baptist” came the reply. Me too!”
Well this keeps going until he says, “Are you Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or 1912?”
And when the man says, “1912,” he responds, “You heretic! You might as jump!”
Put people together talking about religion and eventually someone will say, “Go jump!”
Maybe its because we need to be right. Maybe that’s what religion does to us. I don’t know, but I understand it. I’ve done it myself.
Decades ago I spent a week in Washington State learning mountain climbing skills, the end of which I spent two more days doing rock climbing skills with the guide. He was in his twenties. During breaks we sometimes got into faith conversations. He shared how despite being baptized a Christian he struggled with Christianity. So he studied other faith traditions and currently found that Buddhism worked best for him.
I tried to say is as gently as I could, but mine was not a gentle response. I said, “But that sounds like a religion of convenience. Just believing in what works for you. Surely a religion should challenge you to more.”
Is it any wonder he didn’t respond to my emails in the weeks following? Now why did I do that? What kept me from just celebrating his spiritual interests and establishing a relationship with him? Was it my own triumphalism? Was it my belief that if I could just get him to turn his spiritual interest back to Christianity that would be a victory for me? Maybe it was. I do know it is a conversation I wish I could have back.
Is my being Christian somehow supposed to make me right and others wrong? What if I had been born in Korea and brought up Buddhist? Would I be disqualified from going to heaven? What if I had been raised in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal to become a Christian? Does that mean God wouldn’t accept me?
What did Jesus mean when he said, “No one comes to the Father except though me”?
Let’s understand two important things about this statement. First, it is spoken in a particular context to a specific group. Jesus isn’t speaking to a multi-religious gathering. He’s talking to his disciples, people with whom he shared a deep relationship of trust and who had committed their lives to learning from Him.
Then second, this is not a stand-alone statement. We can’t interpret Jesus’ words without the prior sentence. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus isn’t talking about a religion. He’s not even talking about those who acknowledge him. In fact, he said simply acknowledging Him as Lord is not enough. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
You see, Jesus isn’t talking about words. He’s talking about Way. He says, “I am the Way.” “You know the way to the place I am going.” Jesus is the way. His life is the way. He isn’t calling us to a belief system. He is calling us to Him! To His way of life. To his values.
Some people who have nothing to do with Christianity live closer to Jesus’ way than many Christians. I remember listening to a debate some years ago between a renowned atheist and Christian apologist. An apologist explains the faith. The debate was hosted by a leading evangelical church. I was interested in what sound answers the Christian would give to the hard questions of faith an atheist would ask.
Boy, was I disappointed. The debate was more like a verbal boxing match, with the Christian throwing all the punches! He was bombastic, rude, loud, judgmental of the atheist’s position, saying things to get the “home” crowd clapping and responding. The atheist on the other hand was respectful, cordial, polite. The only thing clear to me after the debate is the atheist acted a lot more Christ-like than the Christian.
Too many times we have so emphasized believing in Jesus, that we took our eye off living Jesus’ way.
And just what is Jesus’ way? It is someone who cares about the poor and the disadvantaged. Someone who challenged the systems of his day that favored the already privileged and disregarded the rights of others. Someone who not only addressed personal sin, but corporate sin. Someone who euphemistically was willing to take a bullet for people, so that we might ask why people are taking bullets?
As Fred Craddock said, “Knowing God carries the assignment of living out the character of God.” (The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock, p187)
I guess it comes down to which way we lean, belief or faith? We often use these words interchangeably and for good reason. They both have to do with trust. But they are different in this regard, only one of the words can be plural.
I realize we sometimes say faiths, but that changes the meaning of the word to mean religion. There are many faiths, religions. But faith as trust in God is not plural. Belief on the other hand can be. We talk about beliefs, which means tenets and doctrines. They are important. They help us understand what we are putting our faith in. What we are trusting in.
The trouble comes when we trust in our beliefs more than we do God. That’s when belief and faith part company. Because trust in God stands above everything else.
Friedrich Schleiermacher was known as the Father of Modern Theology. He referred to God as Absolute, the Infinite who is beyond human understanding. For most of us, that’s not controversial. We hear that and say, “Well, duh!” But Schleiermacher points out that when we put our faith into words or symbols or practices we have immediately limited God. Now, of course, we have to do this. We have no other way of expressing faith except through our limited human abilities, but the trouble with religion is we tend to turn our expressions of God into the reality of God and forget that God is always greater. God is more than our religions and doctrines and rituals.
True faith requires tremendous humility. We must admit that God is beyond our experience and understanding of God. We can and should speak of what we know to be true, but confess at the same time, there is still more to know!
And this is why doubt is not just helpful to faith it is absolutely essential. We need doubt to keep us humble and searching and understanding what is the goal of believing. It’s not to have the right intellectual knowledge of God, it is to live out the character of God. The goal of believing is for the will and ways of God for this world to find their way into our living. It is not about getting from this world into heaven. Its about getting heaven into this world.
This is what Brain McLaren refers to as Stage 4 faith, or what he calls Harmony, the blending of intellectual Christian beliefs with a life that looks like Jesus, where faith is free to live in the way of Jesus. Where what is most important is not religious faithfulness, not upholding a political party or creed, but allowing everything we hold dear, every belief, every value, to be measured against love. What furthers love in this world. That’s the aim of it all.
He points to a sentence of Paul’s as the key example. Paul wrote, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6) The only thing that counts! Think about that. Paul whose life had been steeped in religious instruction; Whose magnum opus, the Letter to the Romans, is one grand theological exposition; Who could argue and debate beliefs with academic precision. This same Paul says that when its all said and done there will have been only one thing that mattered, only one when it comes to faith. Did it make you more loving?
And don’t water that down to just being nice. Its about justice too. As someone said justice is what love looks like in public.
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love. So what do you believe? And what do you doubt? We need both questions.
In the end we are all like those disciples listening to Jesus talk about his death. We all want to know if there is a God who cares about us and comes looking for us.
Let me close by going back to that mountain climbing experience in Washington years ago. As much as I felt like I blew it with my guide, that same trip also gave me an experience of getting something right.
The first part of the experience was a week on a glacier learning mountaineering skills. There was just three of us: a couple from New York about my age and me, then our guide made four. Before the trip our emails were shared with each other. My church at the time didn’t have its own website, so I used a Christian pastors’ network for my email. It was firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once we all got picked up at 6am on a Sunday, we met for the first time. I would learn that the guy in the couple was Jewish but had never really practiced his faith. His girlfriend had never had a faith influence in her life. But they had strong opinions about those who do.
Standing in line at a coffee shop before heading into the mountains, the guy, who was rather big, turned to me and said, “What’s up with the pastors.com? Are you a pastor?” I weakly said yeah. He said, “Great! The last thing I want to do is be stuck with some pastor on a glacier all week who is going to preach at me.”
I said, “Well, its your lucky week. I’m on vacation and the last thing I feel like doing is preaching.” He said, “Good.” Then tossed down two espressos and grabbed a venti coffee and got back in the van.
During that week, we took lunch breaks and sat on rocks and just chatted. Now what do you think we talked about? Faith topics! It came up everyday, “Do we believe there is a God who created all this? Preacher, what do you think?” Why is there so much violence in the world. Why can’t the world be more like where we were, peaceful and beautiful. Preacher, what do you think?” I didn’t tell them what to think. Mainly because I was afraid of the big Jewish guy. But I shared my thoughts, asked what they thought. Got to know their stories.
So the graduation at the end of the week was a climb to the summit of the mountain rising above the glacier. It was a technical climb where we would use our newly learned skills. Because we would be roped together, it would be slow, so we had to get up at 2am. It took an hour to get breakfast and fully geared up. I was the anchor, so after the guide checked all our ropes and knots I waited for everyone to begin walking. We were standing in pitch darkness under a brilliant sky of stars. Stars never shine so brightly as when you are away from all artificial light.
The guide said, “Let’s go.” And the Jewish guy said, “Wait. We gotta have a prayer. The Rev’s gotta says a prayer…”