Sermon; Easter 5A; John 14:1-14
The first half of today's gospel also serves as one of the appointed choices for the burial service. And it certainly makes sense what with Jesus offering words of comfort (“Do not let your hearts be troubled”) and assurance (“In my father's house are many dwelling places . . . I go to prepare a place for you”). But I have to admit that this is my least favorite funeral gospel and one I try to convince people not to choose when planning a funeral service for family members and/or loved ones.
Why is that, you may ask. The short answer is because it pulls a small section out of context from the larger picture of what Jesus was saying. By pulling this passage out of context, by isolating it, you end up with a passage that is extremely exclusionary and one in which Christians have used to condemn non-Christians to the eternal fires of hell. Much like reading, “Wives be subject to your husbands,” while ignoring the responsibilities of husbands has been used to control women, this passage has done damage to any number of people, as well as to Christians in general.
“No one comes to the Father except through me” is not the be all and end all here. We need context. We need the before and after to understand what Jesus is saying. Ending with that verse is no different than ending with, “Wives be subject to your husbands.” What comes before and what comes after are vitally important. Which is why I'm not a fan of using the first part of today's gospel at funerals. Not only because of the lack of context, but also because there are bound to be people in attendance who will hear only that they are being excluded, at best, and damned, at worst.
Enough of my rant about why we shouldn't be using the first part of today's gospel at funerals. Let's look at the context of this whole passage.
Today's passage is part of the Farewell Discourse, that long, long conversation/monologue Jesus has with the remaining eleven disciples after Judas leaves to betray him. Early in this discourse Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus makes clear here that the binding force between the disciples, and ultimately between them and the world, is love.
This idea of love permeates John's gospel. The first time he uses that word is in the famous 3:16 passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But love is also present in the very beginning of the gospel when John writes of the creation, of the union of Word and God, and of light shining in darkness.
As we move through John's gospel we see many places where Jesus and God are spoken of as being one. Obviously we see that in the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We see it when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” and when he says, “The Father and I are one.” And we see it in today's passage when Jesus says, “If you know me you know my Father . . . Whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
What we have, then, is a theme that God is not only based in love, but is love itself in action. We also have an image of the unity of being in God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ. So the Father is the Son is the Father. God the Father is love, therefore God the Son is love incarnate. Everything Jesus does is done from a position of love. So, to answer Tina Turner when she asked, “What's love got to do with it?” . . . Everything.
Love is not self-focused, it is other-focused. In the next chapter Jesus will make this crystal clear when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” That is the ultimate other-focused act of love. Because, really, love is sacrificial.
In the heat of early love, we will sacrifice our desires for the one we love. Parents sacrifice in many ways for their children. Right now, instead of screaming and protesting and terrorizing people because we can't get our hair cut, we should be willing to make a few sacrifices for the well-being of our neighbors. As Paul said, “Love does not insist on its own way; it does not rejoice in wrong doing; it bears all things, endures all things.”
As a commentator on John wrote, “The mutual love of Christians and their acceptance of the love of which Jesus gave proof by laying down his life is the great public symbol of faith. Where it is lacking there is no Christianity, only a parched husk of forms and formulas.”
That same author wrote, “In the long span of church life the basic crime tends to be hatred of the other.” As I look out on society in general, hatred of the other seems to have become our national pastime. Armed men storm capital buildings because they only care about themselves. A security guard is shot for trying to enforce a mandatory mask order. A clerk has an angry, maskless customer blow his nose on her. Politicians work to divide rather than unify. These are not loving acts, let alone Christian behaviors.
So, to tie all this together, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” is not an exclusionary statement as most might understand it. It doesn't mean only the right kind of Christians will be saved. It doesn't mean only those who have “accepted Jesus as their personal savior” at some altar call are saved.
What it means is that if we want to come to the Father we we must travel the path Jesus trod. We must strive to love others, not conveniently, but honestly and sacrificially. It's a love that abides and endures. It's a love that sends us into darkness, conflict, suffering, and death so that we may walk with others in those places. It's a love that may take us where we do not want to go. It's a love that challenges us to give of ourselves so that others may be blessed.
“No one comes to the Father except through me” isn't an end statement, as it appears in the funeral reading. It is, rather, the starting line. As we continue to move forward and work to re-imagine how we do everything from collect pledges to minister to those in need, let us never forget that the way to the Father is through love.