In Jesus's Name
Fifth Sunday of Easter
The passage from the gospel of John we are looking at today contains a a verse that forms what you might call a “continental divide” among Christians—on this continent, at least. This scriptural ridge, if you will, separates progressive or liberal Christians from our more conservative or fundamentalist counterparts in the same way that the Rocky Mountains divide North America. All the theological rain that falls on one side of this ridge eventually flows into one ocean; all that falls on the other side goes to the other.
The verse I’m talking about, of course, is John 14:6, in which Jesus says to Thomas and the other disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
That’s a pretty bold statement, and for churches like the Southern Baptist congregation in which I grew up in southern Illinois, it’s an uncompromising statement as well. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus. No one. If you’re not a Christian, in other words, you’re out of luck. No matter how religious or conscientious you are, no matter if you adhere to the highest ethical standards, no matter what wonderful contributions you have made to the world, if you die without having confessed Jesus as your “personal Lord and Savior,” you’ll be boarding the bus whose final and only destination is hell. I may not like it; it may not seem fair to me; but Jesus said it and that settles it. Come to God through Jesus or don’t bother trying to come at all.
For many of us living in a pluralistic world, knowing, as we do, many kind, good, and ethical persons from other faith traditions, and taking seriously Jesus’s disclosure of God as redeeming love, such hard-core exclusivism just doesn’t work any more. How does one square the revealed nature of God as love with such a narrow criterion for salvation? How does one worship a God who would condemn to perdition billions upon billions of good-hearted people throughout history simply because they failed to jump through the same hoops as we did?
Fortunately, a growing number of theologians and scholars assure us that we can safely leave behind that old exclusive understanding of salvation without compromising our identity as Christians. Marcus Borg, for instance, says that the language of John 14:6 is the language of devotion and is not to be construed as a blanket prescription for all people everywhere. A lover who tells his beloved, “As far as I’m concerned, you are the only woman in the world,” doesn’t believe she is literally the only woman on earth. He simply means to express his devotion to and passion for her as his beloved. In the same way, the writer of John’s Gospel was declaring Jesus to be the definitive revelation of God for him and his community. “For us,” he was saying, “you’re the only Savior in the world.”
Marjorie Suchocki uses the metaphor of light to talk about this verse in the context of religious pluralism. Just as light manifests itself as both wave and particle, God is known in many forms and can be approached by many different paths. Jesus reveals God as Abba, the loving parental God who in our tradition has most often been called “Father.” Suchocki considers it absolutely true to say that no one comes to the Father—Abba—except through Jesus. By the same token, however, those who come to the divine as Vishnu or Yahweh or Allah only come by paths mediated by Hinduism, Judaism, or Islam. That doesn’t make our coming to God through Jesus any less true, nor does our coming to God through Jesus invalidate their paths.
If, then, we can declare our steadfast commitment to Jesus as our way to God without declaring every other path false or illegitimate, we can begin to have mature and meaningful relationships with those who follow those other paths. When you don’t feel compelled to turn all our interactions with other persons into manipulative attempts to “save” them, we become free to see them as equals, to treat them with respect and dignity, and even to learn from them.
In the midst of all this happy pluralism and mutual respect, however, lies a danger to which many people of a liberal persuasion are vulnerable. We face the danger of losing the thread. For all its liabilities, the conservative or fundamentalist religious worldview has at least the virtue of clarity. Jesus is the one and only way to God. Believing this, and believing that anyone who does not accept Jesus is unequivocally bound for hell not only put the objects of our evangelism in stark relief, but also adds a sense of urgency to the evangelistic task. We must intervene now, or they will be lost eternally.
If, on the other hand, there are many possible paths to God besides the Christian one, that zealous urgency tends to dissipate, and we may even find ourselves wondering, “What’s the big deal?” If everybody gets to the same destination in the long run, why bother choosing a particular path—declaring a major, if you will—at all? What’s wrong with remaining unaligned—a free agent who can dabble in a variety of traditions like a diner at a seafood buffet? Scallops? Yes. Shrimp? Sure. Oysters? I’ll try anything once. Zoroastrianism? Wicca? Bring ‘em on.
But this syncretistic approach fails to recognize a central element of this passage from John 14. Jesus tells the disciples that they know the way to where he is going. When Thomas objects that they don’t even know where he is going, so how could they possibly know the way, Jesus clarifies (sort of) by saying, “I am the way.” Notice that he doesn’t answer Thomas’s question about the destination—at least not directly. What he does say is, “No one comes to Abba except through me.” The destination is God, but the path is just as important as the goal. Jesus says, “If you know me, you will know my Abba also” (v. 7). Later, he adds, “Whoever has seen me has seen Abba” (v. 9). Jesus is the decisive revelation of God for those who call themselves disciples.
That’s why a generic approach to some non-specific God doesn’t cut it. We must declare our allegiance. We have to plant our flag somewhere. One of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” There may indeed be other gods out there, or other ways to approach the one God, but they are not for us. Our path is clear: if we know Jesus, we will know God.
Later in the conversation, Jesus expounds on this idea, and talks about his name. “The one who believes in me,” he says in v. 12, “will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these. . . . I will do whatever you ask in my name. . . . If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Wait a minute. Did he just say that all we have to do is to pray in Jesus’s name and we get anything we want? Sweet! I want a pony.
But no, that’s not the way it works, fortunately. I say “fortunately” because—well, can you imagine the kind of trouble we would get into if we had a magic prayer wand like this? I doubt that I would stop at a pony. Would you?
So what does this business about asking for things in Jesus’s name mean? For an answer, let us go, back in time . . . about 15 minutes. This morning, as we do every Sunday in worship, we prayed together the Lord’s Prayer. How does that Prayer begin? “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The language is antiquated and the meaning is ambiguous, but in praying those last four words we are asking that God’s name be hallowed. Or declaring that God’s name is already hallowed. Or volunteering our own efforts to see that God’s name is hallowed. Something along those lines.
The next question, then, is, “What the heck is hallowed?” It’s not a word we use much these days, but it basically means holy. This petition of the Lord’s Prayer has something to do with the holiness of God’s name.
Now travel with me even farther back in time—this time about 4,000 years—to a mountain called Horeb, or Sinai, where a shepherd named Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flocks. You know the story. Moses sees a bush that burns but is not consumed, and when he turns aside to investigate, God speaks to him from the bush. God assigns Moses the daunting task of going before Pharaoh and demanding that he free the enslaved Israelite people.
Moses is taken aback, to say the least, and starts throwing out excuses and objections right and left. They won’t listen to me! Pharaoh will kill me! I st-stutter when I get n-n-nervous! When those excuses don’t work, he tries a different tack. “Just who are you to send me on this mission, anyway?” he says. “What is your name?”
Here we come to the crux of the matter. Names were held to have a mysterious power in the ancient world. If you knew someone’s name, you could use it in a magical incantation to bend that person to your will. The idea was that one’s name represented the essence of one’s personality or character. The name was part of who one was at the core.
No wonder God is a bit evasive in answering Moses’s question. “I am who I am,” God says cryptically. That answer, with its connotations of non-contingent being—is-ness, if you will—becomes, with a slight rearrangement of letters, the name Yahweh. In most English translations of the Bible, “Yahweh” is replaced by “the Lord,” with Lord in small capitals to distinguish it from “Adonai,” which also means “the Lord.” As you read through the Old Testament, watch for how many times you see the formula, “Thus says the Lord,” or “I am the Lord.” Then look at the context, and notice how often it has to do with liberation, justice, and equity for all of God’s children. In the burning bush story where this special name of God is introduced, the context is God’s intention to liberate the Israelites from their bondage. If name denotes character, then the character of God whose name is Yahweh is that of liberator, protector, and guarantor of justice. Elsewhere in the Torah and the Prophets, we learn that Yahweh has a special concern for the poor and marginalized, such as orphans, widows, and those who have been dispossessed by the powerful.
Rocket ahead now with Mr. Peabody and me to where we started: the night before Jesus’s death, and consider again what Jesus says about his name. Those who pray in his name, he says, will receive whatever they ask. They will do the things Jesus himself did, and will in fact do even greater things ... in his name.
Taking what we learned from Moses’s experience, we know now that to pray or to act in Jesus’s name is to do so in accordance with his character and mission. What is Jesus’s mission? The reign of God, which of course means the advance of justice, peace, and freedom in this world. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And what is Jesus’s character? He says it best here in John 14: “Whoever has seen me has seen Abba. . . . I am in Abba and Abba is in me” (vv. 9, 11). The character of Jesus is the same as the character of God: delivering, redeeming love that dissolves barriers, restores wholeness, forgives sins, and creates the sort of community that can stand in opposition to the violence and evil that characterize most of the world.
So if we want to follow Jesus; if we really want to pray and act in Jesus’s name, we will take on ourselves—as individuals, but more importantly as a community of faith—the mission and character of Jesus. We will do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We will stand up and speak out against tyranny, evil, and injustice wherever we find it. And we will foster a community here at University Baptist Church and beyond that welcomes and affirms all persons, that subverts the norms and expectations of the world, and that makes the principalities and powers of the world just as nervous as Jesus and his community of disciples did.
Jesus is our way to God. He is our model for what God is like and what God wants to accomplish in our lives and our world. And through the Spirit of God, we are invited and empowered to put into practice God’s will so that we, like the church in Acts, will be accused of turning the world upside-down.
That’s way better than a pony.