Copyright © 2008 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on John 14.1-14
ONE PERENNIAL QUESTION, TWO TROUBLING ANSWERS: Some sermons challenge the heart to feel something new, whether new compassion for people, or new passion for God. Other sermons challenge the imagination to see ourselves and our Reality in a new way. Still other sermons challenge our will to act, to stand boldly for Christ, or to reach out to those in need.
But this sermon is here to challenge your mind, your way of thinking, your understanding of the Reality we live in.
And the mental challenge is the question that Jesus ANSWERS in this passage. Yet, this question isn't ASKED for another four chapters, by a very practical Roman governor named Pilate.
In asking this question, Pilate was in fact, the first "American" we find in the Gospels. Like many of us Americans, Pilate was a very busy, very active, very important person. Pilate had to get deals done, and make people happy.
Like many of us, Pilate had no time for the abstract pie-in-the-sky questioning that the nerdy Greek philosophers liked so much. Nor did he have a taste for the endless religious disputes of the legalistic Jewish scribes.
Like many Americans, Pilate only had time for one thing: Doing what works. Doing what accomplished what he needed when he needed it. Doing what benefited himself most directly.
So, like many Americans today, he summed up his pragmatic disdain for philosophy and religion in one, handy, three-word, sneering question: "What IS Truth?" [John 18.38]
This is, of course, the question that Jesus answered for his disciples in our Gospel for today: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father if not through me."
Now, unless we suffer the same fate of pragmatic Pilate, and crucify Jesus in our minds by misunderstanding what he said, we need to listen afresh to this saying of Jesus.
This text is at the top of the list for being misunderstood. And there seems to be two basic ways this text is misunderstood in our culture today. And, in fact, it is not two ways, but rather mirror images of the same misunderstanding.
On one side of the mirror is this common-sense reading: "Of course, Jesus is setting himself up as THE litmus test to get into heaven. Jesus is quite clear about it. He does not say I am A way, and A truth, and A lie. He says I am THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life. NO ONE gets to God if not THROUGH me."
And, of course, the subtext of this view is: If you do not know Jesus as MY sect knows him, approve OUR doctrines about him, and follow him on OUR path, then you are going to Hell. Period.
And we know what happens all too often to people and churches who hold this view: They start with compassion on all the poor ignorant people who do not know Jesus as they know Him. They patronizingly try to go out and save the heathen.
THEN they begin to look with disdain on others who do not know their jesus. They begin to use their jesus as a huge religious club to beat people into submission, and exclude them from their club. Finally, Jesus becomes the mascot for their view of "the good society", and they raise him up only to validate their political party.
They raise him up just like a man being crucified all over again.
The other unhealthy view of this passage is merely the inverted mirror image of the exclusionary Jesus I just spoke of. This view understands the text in almost the same way, and does the complete opposite with Jesus.
They RIGHTLY assume that the Love of God could not be as narrow as the exclusionary jesus preached by modern day Pharisees. BUT they WRONGLY assume that the ONLY way to view Jesus' exclusivity is to see him as exclusionary. So, they feel they must abandon the text altogether.
Soon, you have people finding ways to cut out the parts of the Bible they consider exclusionary, and only listening to parts of the Bible they consider inclusive. This eventually leads to ignoring whole chunks of Church tradition and Christian history to construct a Jesus we can agree with.
Soon people abandon Jesus and Scripture altogether, just like his own disciples abandoned him when he was crucified, because they were ALSO ashamed of his exclusivity.
THEORIES OF TRUTH: But does Jesus' exclusivity HAVE TO MEAN that Jesus is exclusionary? Does the fact that Jesus is the Truth Incarnate, mean that everyone is going to hell, who does not agree with MY version of Jesus?
I think the reason why many of us assume this is because we often hold unhealthy views of what Truth is. Now, this is kind of wading in deep water. And if what I am about to say confuses you, I want you to chunk it. Get rid of it.
Because the MAIN POINT I want you to get today is that God IS present in Jesus in an exclusive way, beyond how God has ever been present in any other person. Yet, we do not have to be exclusionary, because God is exclusively present in Jesus. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Because God emptied Himself, and entered into human history exclusively in Jesus, we have a reason to INCLUDE every person in God's Love. God included ALL of humanity in His Love, when He included Himself in humanity as Jesus. It is only on the basis of Jesus' exclusivity that we have a concrete, real, definite reason to say that God Loves everyone.
Now comes the DEEP water of WHY this is so. Ready to dive in?
There are several versions of Truth popular today, which are implicit in the way people think, and which cause many of our misunderstandings of what Jesus says in Scripture.
The first vision of the Truth is what is called "SET-BOUNDED" Truth. In this vision, Truth consists in a SET of factual statements about Reality, such as: Nate is almost 6 feet tall. Nate shaves his head. Nate is married to Kim.
Now, in this vision of reality, to know ALL of the Truth, one must collect the complete SET of factual statements about someone. If you could collect all of the right facts about Nate, you would know the full truth about Nate... Yeah, right.
When an entire church accepts this theory of Truth, they begin to have a very curious relationship with Jesus. Knowing Jesus becomes merely collecting, and proving, all of the right facts about Jesus. These facts are then expressed in precise doctrinal statements.
Once an absolutely air tight set of doctrinal statements are defined, then they are erected into a kind of fence around the community. Like any fence, this set of truth statements is used to define who is IN and who is OUT, who is INCLUDED and who is EXCLUDED.
Jesus ceases to be a living Lord, and becomes reduced to a dead definition. People must memorize and assent this definition, or else they are out of the club.
But, Jesus Himself does not seem to believe in this theory of Truth at all. In fact, when He speaks of Truth, he speaks of Truth being a PERSON not a set of PROPOSITIONS. He does not say "This doctrinal statement is the Truth", or even "This Book of Scripture is the Truth".
He says "I am the Truth". "I", the person speaking. "I", who am the Great "I AM" in human form. "I", the Lord who you have a relationship with. "I am the Truth".
So, it seems to miss the boat to codify this living PERSON into a set of dead PROPOSITIONS, and then to make those propositions the litmus test of true Christianity. And this is precisely what those who create an exclusionary Jesus do.
But, those who run screaming from the exclusionary Jesus also suffer from their own peculiar delusion of Truth as well:
They rightly refuse the set-bounded, fenced-off version of Truth as exclusionary, so they often embrace what I call a SELF BOUNDED version of Truth instead.
Self-bounded Truth is very hip, very cool, and very postmodern. Self-bounded Truth takes the insight that Truth is ultimately personal, and runs with it.
In Self-Bounded Truth, the boundary for what is True and what is false is your SELF. Those persons, situations, and ideas that you experience as true are the Truth. Those persons, situations, and ideas that you experience as hypocritical or deficient or distasteful are simply not Truth.
Self-Bounded Truth is exactly how the internet works. It is relational. It is web-like. Think about the web of interconnections generated on your facebook profile.
You are connected to some folks and organizations on facebook. I am connected to other folks and organizations on facebook. And when we connect together, you have access to all I have, and I have access to all you have.
Self-Bounded Truth creates a web of knowledge much like that.
Some see this as a major improvement from all of the bickering over doctrines and boundaries that have characterized Christian history. We replace "fences" of propositions with "webs" of people.
But, at least two problems arise from this view. First, where is Jesus? Is He just another friend on your facebook page? Is Jesus just another string in our web of knowledge?
If I say God is cheese, and you say God is Jesus, and another person says there is no God, is there any arbitration available?
Or is it all just relative? It seems like Self-Bounded Truth can ultimately be nothing more than believing what feels good to me. The Lordship of Jesus is left out entirely.
The other problem is that, despite all the talk of "webs" and "inclusivity", this view is ultimately just as exclusive as the Set-Bounded view.
It is exclusive for the same reason that a high school lunch room is exclusive: People only sit with the people hey feel good sitting with. They only listen to the ideas that make them feel included. They ultimately despise those who are outside of their little web of inclusivity.
And this is perhaps why so many of those who run screaming from the exclusionary Jesus often become so intolerant and exclusionary themselves.
A NEW-OLD VISION OF TRUTH: So, if Jesus is not speaking in Set-Bounded or Self-Bounded terms when He says "I am THE Truth", how is He talking? What does He mean?
I think the vision of Truth that best gets at what Jesus means is a "CENTER-BOUNDED" theory of Truth. Center-Bounded Truth tries to maintain the objectivity and realism of Set-Bounded Truth, WHILE ALSO maintaining the subjectivity and creativity of Self-Bounded Truth.
It does this by seeing Truth as a Person, not merely a set of propositions. It also does this by seeing this Person as the Core, the Center, the Purpose, and the Meaning of what it means to be a Person. In fact, to learn how to really be a person means to participate in, and revolve around, this Person who is at the Center of Reality.
When speaking to the Colossians, St. Paul spoke of this Person by saying: "[Christ] is the image of the invisible God... In him all things in heaven and on earth were created... All things have been created through him and for him... He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." [Col 1:15-17]
In Center-Bounded Truth, Truth does not have an outer boundary, but an inner Core. Knowing Truth is not found memorizing propositions, but in remembering a Person. Encountering Truth is found in building a relationship, not building a "fence" or a "web".
In fact, Center-Bounded Truth is a lot like planets orbiting the Sun. Our lives are set in orbit around the Son of God. He is our Center of Gravity. The closer we orbit around Him, the more we are filled with His Light, and His Power, and His Divine Energy, just like a planet in close orbit to the Sun.
In fact, one analogy of the Holy Trinity is to see God like the Sun. Now every analogy falls apart somewhere, and so does this one, so only pay attention to it where it is helpful:
But God the Father is the inner Core, the inner Reality of a star. He is the fuel, the Divine Life, that gives the star the energy to shine.
Jesus is the outer surface of the Star. Jesus is God's inner reality made visible. Through Jesus we DIRECTLY feel the Light, the Heat, and the Love of the Divine Life.
He, in fact, is the only surface through which we can truly see, feel, know, and experience God. If anyone shines with God's Love and Light, it is only because they are reflecting Jesus (even if they are not aware that it is Jesus they are reflecting!).
And the Holy Spirit is the pull of gravity that draws all planets- all people, all created things- toward the Love of God that is visible in Jesus Christ. In fact, the Love of Christ's Spirit IS the spiritual gravity of the Universe. Think about that for a while...
And just as ONE star never exists without the THREE aspects of its inner reality, its outer surface, and its radiating gravity, light, and heat: So also God never exists without being ONE Reality existing forever in THREE persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.
FREESTYLE OBJECT LESSON:
- The Purpose of Life is to be in as tight an orbit/relationship as possible with the Source of Life: Christ
- Doctrines are helpful as signs that point to Truth. They are NOT the Truth they point to.
- Relational webs are important as tools to draw us into Truth, but they are NOT the Truth either.
- Some are way out of orbit, in the frozen deep-space of sin: We need to bring them closer.
- Some are in close orbit in knowing Christ, but far away in living as Christ: We need to bring them closer.
- Some are in close orbit in living as Christ, bat far away in knowing Christ: We need to bring them closer.
- We can be in the same close orbit with Christ, but separate trajectories on X, Y, Z, axis (Sacramental, Evangelical, Mystical)
- CHALLENGE: We can learn from each other's trajectory, and help each other grow closer and closer to Christ.