Today was the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time—the 29th Sunday when life and faith just move along in an ordinary fashion. Easter is a distant memory, and Advent is still several weeks away.
Out of town for a quick long weekend, I spent the morning walking on the beach instead of sitting in church as I would have back home. But when I checked in on social media, I had a reminder from a childhood friend of the message many people who share my faith hear nearly every Sunday morning. Accompanied by a picture of a crown of thorns, the post proclaimed:
I’m not trying to be intolerant of other people’s beliefs. I’m really not. But Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And I believe Him.
It’s a message I’ve heard many, many, many times. And I just don’t get it. I don’t mean Jesus’ message. I’ve long since made peace with the fact that I just don’t understand some things that Jesus said. The message I don’t get is the one in this post—that some Christians are so certain they get everything Christ said that they feel compelled to defend that single way of looking at a complex life.
Words aren’t spoken in a vacuum. And yet for over 2000 years this verse has been repeated out of context and used to insist that Christians are the only chosen ones of God—and even to wage war in the name of the Prince of Peace. I have come to believe that we are all God’s chosen ones and that God comes to us in as many ways as there are people who search for Him.
Even the people who were in Jesus’ living presence couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus said these words in response to Thomas on the evening of Jesus’ last meal with his friends and followers. Thomas has just expressed confusion about everything Jesus has said leading up to this verse, and he alone among the disciples has the courage to give voice to his bewilderment.
Thomas is a man after my own heart. Many times the Gospel writers tell us that the disciples only understood a lot of what Jesus had to say after his death. I would like to think that had I been in Thomas’ sandals, I would have had the courage to tell Jesus in that moment that he was making absolutely no sense to me. Because Thomas does, Jesus addresses the question in a way he might not have had Thomas not spoken up. Jesus follows up by saying, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7, NRSV).
When Thomas has the courage to question, Philip also speaks up, opening the door to a conversation. Not for the first time, Jesus speaks of himself as one with God: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11a, NRSV). In fact, in the next breath, he says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, NRSV).
I think about that verse a lot. I can’t find it in me to believe that I can do even greater works than Jesus did. In fact, I can’t imagine I can even come close. And I suspect that if we ever heard anyone proclaim that he or she could do even greater works than Christ, we would crucify that person for blasphemy.
So what if, instead of hearing Jesus as saying he is the only way to God, I hear these words as an assurance that I am in the Spirit and the Spirit is in me? Is that so hard to believe? I think most Christians believe this is true. And if we hear him in that context, then we have no need to defend our faith—no need to insist that we’re really not being intolerant.
For me, the life of Christ has been and is my salvation when I can put aside the cacophony of voices that insist they, alone, comprehend a God who is bigger than human understanding. When I consider Jesus’ life, I have hope. When I consider Jesus’ life, I have a sense of my own responsibility to be the face of God in a world much in need of grace and compassion. When I consider Jesus’ life, I know that if those disciples, who saw him perform countless miracles, were often perplexed, then I cannot expect to be any less perplexed about some of the contradictions in such an extraordinary and miraculous life.
The mysteries of God are unfathomable. But I do know that I—and others—have cried out prayers that have been answered with what appear to be miracles. And what I can fathom is that the God who was one with Jesus can be one with me. And then it isn’t such a stretch to imagine that the Spirit can also be one with a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu or even an agnostic or an atheist. The Spirit is too complex for me to stuff into a box of my own understanding.
And I feel no need to apologize for that belief. I really don’t.