If you’ve ever been to a Christian funeral, chances are good that you heard the first few verses of the 14th chapter of John mentioned at some point in the service:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” –John 14:1-7 NRSV
Often it’s good to read a scripture passage in more than one translation:
“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road? Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one goes to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve seen him.” –The Message
What jumps out at me first in reading through these two versions of John 14 is the use of the words “believe” and “trust.” It’s pretty much the same issue that arises in Paul’s letters, too, and it’s certainly possible to translate the Greek word pistis in these (as well as other) ways. But are those two terms interchangeable? Basically, I think that comes down to what we think it means to “believe” in God and in Christ.
For a great many people to believe means to accept certain doctrines about God and Christ. In that sense it is an intellectual exercise, an interior assent to positions developed by Christian churches. Christianity thus becomes a religion about Christ and his teachings–and then aligning ourselves with the belief system we understand most closely resembles that. Of course, this whole issue is complicated, not only because there are a lot of doctrinal statements, but it should also be obvious that there’s a great many different ways to interpret them. It’s getting harder and harder to even count the number of Christian denominations in North America, much less the world, largely because of the ongoing and centuries-long fracturing of religious groups. And just how do you count megachurches that are unaffiliated with a particular denomination–perhaps as a separate, unique denomination, especially when their membership runs into the tens of thousands? But that’s not the road I want to go down right now anyway.
Read back through those two versions of John 14. Notice in particular where Jesus quite specifically says he is “the way” or “the Road” as well as the light and the truth. He doesn’t say, “I have given you a list of systematic doctrinal positions and if you follow them you’ll get to where I’m going.” He just says, “I am the way.” “I am the Road.”
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood as saying that doctrines, beliefs, and even enduring principles aren’t important. They are. Yet I can’t help but wonder if at least some of those who in the past have identified themselves as Christians but have more recently started down different religious/spiritual paths have done so because of confusion over which set of beliefs, which doctrinal interpretations, are the “one true way.” That, in turn, makes it entirely possible to read John 14 as either exclusionary or inclusive. Is Jesus trying to point out who’s on the outside or who’s on the inside? Who gets to decide anyway?
One of the reasons I’ve long been fascinated with funerals is because they can offer clear insight into this very issue. And I’ve witnessed ministers head down completely different roads–everything from a Baptist preacher working the assembled congregation up for an altar call to a Unitarian-Universalist minister invoking the welcoming spirit of Mother Nature (at least I think that’s where he was going with his soothing, gentle words).
As I write these words the latest nut-job preacher is proclaiming that Saturday, May 21, is Judgment Day–the moment of Rapture when God will rescue the righteous from this sinful, awful world. Well, apparently this Rapture is scheduled to happen at 6 p.m. in each time zone, so it looks like we’ll get fair warning here in North America by keeping an eye on Australia. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. [See update below!]
Be that as it may, I fully expect to worship in my home congregation this Sunday, where the scheduled worship theme will be “Dwell in Christ.” You know, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea that Jesus is “the Road.” Anybody up for a road trip?
UPDATE Saturday evening: “Rapture deadline passes, world still here” screamed a headline in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.