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Sunday, May 14, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 31:1–5, 14–16
Source of our life,
bring us to that place where we are willing
to place our lives in your keeping,
to submit to your life-changing love,
and to move with you into
your large open spaces of salvation.
Christine Jerrett, “A Prayer Based
on John 14”
Today marks the third anniversary of my preaching ministry with you. Three years ago I stood in this pulpit for the first time and preached on this very text from John. I was terrified and excited, both at the same time. Some of you expressed similar feelings—in particular, those who were on the Pastor Nominating Committee that brought me here. Perhaps it was because this particular text from John 14—one that carries some theological baggage for a few of us—was the very first text I preached here in the pulpit of Fourth Church that I remember some of you becoming a tad nervous about what I might believe.
Even though Dr. Buchanan, my predecessor, and I have similar theological perspectives, my different preaching style, along with the fact that I say “Jesus” with a Southern accent, raised a few eyebrows. I say that with a smile, but I am not trying to make light of it or be disrespectful. Particularly for people who had intentionally left more rigidly doctrinal or orthodox traditions in order to come into the more open Reformed tradition of Presbyterianism expressed here at Fourth Church, my preaching triggered some old alarms. Shortly after that first sermon, I started to hear murmurings that I might be too much about Jesus. I might be, as some said with honest reservation, too Christian—as Christian is usually defined in our larger culture.
Though I must admit that reaction initially caught me off guard, I came to understand and respect what was behind it. Many of us in this sanctuary have important, meaningful relationships with people of other faith traditions or of no faith tradition. Quite a few families here at Fourth Church are anchored by healthy interfaith marriages. We regularly have Jewish spouses in our midst. As a congregation, we have a strong partnership with the Jewish Chicago Sinai Congregation around the corner, as well as a Presbytery of Chicago covenantal relationship with the Downtown Islamic Center. Add to those relationships the reality that, as I alluded to earlier in our larger political and religious arena, the voices of exclusion and intolerance tend to be the ones who claim to represent all Christianity. Stir into that mix a new preacher from the South who talks a lot about Jesus and I understand some of that original pushback.
As a friend of mine said, there are many reasons not to be “too Christian,” when that is defined as too exclusive, too puritanical, too intolerant, too closed-minded, which is exactly how that is usually defined. Some of you might remember a Pew research study I quoted a while ago that stated that those descriptors are what most young adults think of when they hear the word Christian. Well, those phrases plus “anti-gay.” So since we did not yet know each other three years ago, I honestly understand why some were wary.
Frankly, this lectionary text from Jesus did not and still might not ease that wariness. First, there is the language that Jesus uses in this section. He refers to “the Father” thirteen times. Even if today were not Mother’s Day, that specific masculine imagery for God can be alienating for those of us who do not believe that God is male and who are genuinely concerned that all of our masculine God-talk has made maleness and patriarchy into idols. Someday I am going to preach on that. But even when we bracket the language, we are still left with this: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Those of us in this sanctuary who are more theologically conservative or orthodox might claim that those of us who are more theologically progressive never take this text seriously enough. That is certainly what I heard from the larger religious environment growing up in Waco, Texas. The little girl down the street first tried to save me when I was around ten years old. If you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, she said, you are going to hell. It did not really matter to her that I had been baptized and was always at church, since my father was a Presbyterian minister. She was genuinely concerned about the state of my soul—as concerned as one can be when one is ten—for she had grown up with her own preacher father making sure she took this text not just seriously but also literally. There is no salvation, no being made whole, no abundant life now or ever outside of Christ, she learned. And though those childhood conversations were scary and unsettling to me at the time, after all these years I have come to realize it wasn’t that my neighbor friend or her father were purposefully trying to be hurtful. They really did believe they were helping me, and, through me, my family. They were not trying to be intolerant, but they were doing their best to be true to their understanding of their faith. She was being sincere.
Yet that theology, even when expressed with a whole lot of sincerity, can also be dangerous—just read The Poisonwood Bible—which is why many of us in this sanctuary hear this text in a different way. First of all, Jesus was not talking about other religions. He had been asked the question by one of his disciples. Thomas wanted to know how the disciples would know the way. This was not a comparative religion exam. It was inside-the-family kind of talk. Second, many of us read this and claim, convincingly I think, that we cannot define exactly what Jesus meant when he said I am the way, the truth, and the life. Again, Jesus did not say, “Christianity is the way, the truth, and the life,” even though that was the way my childhood neighbor interpreted his words.
As Presbyterian preacher and writer Fred Buechner once put it, “Jesus didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could ‘come to the Father.’ He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking).
That perspective might help us see that the problem we face in this text is actually not with Jesus or even with what he said to those beloved disciples he was about to leave. A Jewish woman is the one who pointed that out to me via an experience a dear friend had with her. Years ago this preacher friend of mine named Andrew went to an interfaith gathering at a synagogue in Memphis. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, the professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School and an orthodox Jew (a scholar you have heard me quote before), said to that gathered group of somewhat apologetic Christians in this Jewish-Christian audience, “There is nothing worse than a wishy-washy Christian. . . . You want to claim that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” she asked. “By all means, do so. You’re Christians. . . . And then,” she said, “let’s talk about what the way of Jesus is. Let’s talk about what the truth of Jesus is. Let’s talk about what the life of Jesus is.”
Indeed, let’s. And what is the way of Jesus? As we have seen throughout Lent and Easter in this Gospel of John, the way of Jesus is the way of healing the sick, eating with sinners, resisting violence, welcoming into his community those without mothers and brothers and sisters and calling them family, washing the feet of those about to betray him, deny him, flee from him at the moment of his death. That is the way of Jesus.
And what is the truth of Jesus? It is following the Torah: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. ”Whoever has fed the hungry, given the thirsty something to drink, clothed the naked, housed the homeless, visited the prisoner, loved the unlovable has done so to me,” Jesus said. That is the truth of Jesus.
And what is the life of Jesus? As he claimed himself in his very first sermon in Luke 4—a sermon that was quite political and pointed—his entire life was about being anointed to bring good news to the poor; being sent to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; being called to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor—the year of Jubilee in which all monetary debts are erased and even creation gets to rest and recover for a whole year without planting. That is the life of Jesus.
After that gathering with A-J Levine, my friend Andrew later speculated that perhaps if we spent more time sharing with our Christian siblings who hold a different theological perspective—or with other people of faith or with people who do not profess any faith—just what it is that we know about the Jesus we proclaim, the Jesus we try to follow, the Jesus who, we believe, is the very heart of God in flesh and in blood, we might not ever need to apologize for being too Christian. Rather we might need to apologize for not being Christian enough.
For not giving our lives for the sake of the suffering world.
For choosing not to see those who are oppressed and shouting out for justice.
For not participating more fully in healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
For not giving our money or our time or our energy for the sake of the least of these.
For getting so caught up in the power struggles and partisan fights of these days that we lose sight of those whose voices are never heard or we dismiss family and friends with whom we disagree because we can no longer even tolerate that difference.
For putting self and country above God’s call to work for God’s beloved community.
Perhaps our biggest struggle is that we are often not being Christian enough.
Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is not a statement about the superior privilege of Christians. It is not even a statement about the Christian religion. As I have said before and will keep preaching, God is not a Christian. We are. Instead, this statement is about Jesus. About the one who healed by welcoming sinners to the table. The one who led by washing the feet of the disciples. The one who saved by turning from violent retribution to the way of self-giving love.
My orthodox Jewish colleague A-J Levine was right. If more Christians were to live as though Jesus really were the way, the truth, and the life, it would be good for people of all faiths and for no faiths, for creation itself. If more Christians were to glorify Jesus Christ instead of our own institutions, instead of the Christian religion, it would be good for the church and the good news of the gospel. If more Christians were to really hear the truth that Jesus speaks, instead of the truth we’ve developed into our neat theological systems to keep everything and everyone in its place, it would be good news for the world, liberating and healing. Imagine if we were to live, to embody in both word and deed, the way of Jesus, the truth of Jesus, the life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels. Imagine the amount of compassion and reconciliation that could be unleashed in this world that God so loves, for Jesus embodied what love means, what forgiveness brings, what peace looks like and feels like.
As progressive evangelical Brian McLaren has recently written, Imagine “what it [could] mean for Christians to rediscover [our] faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but [rather] as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all” (Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration).“
Indeed, imagine. For that sure sounds a whole lot like Jesus’ way, truth, and life. Wouldn’t it be something if those of us who follow God in the way of Jesus discovered the courage to actually become too Christian in the fullest, most generous sense? Perhaps, by God’s grace, we will. I’m awfully glad to be your pastor and to know we are in this way together. Amen.
I am thankful for the late Shirley Guthrie, whose teaching, conversations, and book Always Being Reformed helped shape my understanding of how to live the Christian faith in a pluralistic world.