APRIL 16, 2023

May 7, 2023

Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is…

John 14:1-14

Rev. David Germer

This week we are continuing our Easter season series on Building Blocks of the Christian Faith – foundational texts and truths for living life as disciples of Jesus. We’ve explored things like the animating presence of God’s Spirit with us as we are sent out to embody the good news (Shannon, a few weeks ago); recognizing the presence of Christ in us and in others (David, two weeks ago); and the legacy of community – like planting seeds in a garden that will bear fruit after we’re gone; the witness of the  Gospel expressed most clearly and compellingly by a community of people who believe and live it (Patrick, last Sunday).

This morning’s text is John 14:1-14, and for context, you should know that chapters 13 through 17 – nearly one quarter of John’s  Gospel, is Jesus speaking to his friends. A few questions from the disciples but mostly a monologue from Jesus. Some view this section of the Gospel as a series of sermons on discipleship, Jesus, followed by his long prayer for his disciples. This all happens in the hours leading up to his arrest, the night before his crucifixion. It’s a bit of an odd turn, that the lectionary and this particular series brings us back to that night in the Easter season… but I do think, and hope to explore with you, the ways that this text does indeed provide an essential building block of our faith, as we live as Easter people, resurrection people.

Listen for the Word of God:

“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.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, but if you do not, then believe because of the works themselves. 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

What happens when good news is taken out of context, and turned into a weapon? There are many paths we could go down with this text, so I want to let you know up front that so many of those paths you might be imagining, from that text, I’m not even going to touch. Because the question I want to explore with you this morning is: what happens when good news is taken out of context, and turned into a weapon?

I love a good title, and I make no claims to be especially adept at them, but a good sermon title that piques your curiosity and maybe tells you a little about what to look and listen for in the sermon is something I really appreciate. Maybe even more revealing than the title, are the rejected titles, a list of scratched through draft titles that didn’t make the cut. I don’t know about Patrick or Shannon, but I usually go through six or seven that I feel great about, briefly, before realizing they aren’t quite right. Here were some of my draft titles, this week:

Weaponized Comfort.

A Teddy Bear with Spikes. (That was actually in the draft bulletin, for a couple days… and I thought better of it.)

The Comfort of Exclusivity? (with a question mark)

(And I hope your mind is now racing)

There’s a verse – a particular collection of phrases, within that passage, that I would argue form one of the richest, most beautiful, and comforting passages in Scripture… that’s also among the most misused, because of the way those phrases are taken out of context and used for a purpose for which they were never intended.

I want to give you scene to imagine. Picture Hong Kong actor and martial artist Jackie Chan, famous for movies like Rush Hour and Police Story, and unique in his ability to turn anything around him into a weapon: a ladder, a clothing rack, even a foldable paper fan… when he finds himself surrounded or attacked by ‘bad guys.’ Imagine Jackie realizes he’s about to be in a fight, he looks around, and the only thing available to him is… [pull out Teddy Bear] is a Teddy Bear. And so… he uses it, as only Jackie can, to dispatch of this gang (and he wouldn’t even need the bear to have spikes – he’s that good). Maybe he’d use the legs like nun chuck handles.

Now if you saw that and somehow had never seen or experienced a teddy bear used in any other way, Jackie’s proficiency with it, as a weapon, would make it hard for you to believe that it could also be, and was actually intended to be used as a snuggly, soothing, soft and cute comforter.

I think that’s exactly what often happens to John 14:6, where Jesus says: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and No one comes to the Father except through me.

In my experience, what most people think that verse is telling us, based on the way it is used as a proof-text and taken entirely out of context is something like this:

“Christians go to heaven. People of other faiths, or no faith at all… they do not. If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except by him… what else can that mean, but that there is no other path, into the presence of God?”

C.S. Lewis, as a philosopher/apologist/author, wrestled with this idea in fairly sophisticated, nuanced ways, in a number of his books, including in his epic children’s series, the Chronicles of Narnia. (Are you familiar with this series?)

In one of the middle books of the series, the Silver Chair, two kids, Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb, escape some school classmates who are tormenting them, by seeking refuge in the magical realm of Narnia. There they meet the marsh-wiggle Puddleglum and find themselves in an adventure to find and rescue a missing prince.

But first, soon after entering Narnia for the first time, Eustace fall off of a cliff, and Jill thinks that she’s accidentally caused him to fall, and doesn’t see what happens to him (he sort of disappears over the side), and then she is suddenly sort of transported to a forest. There she a) finds that she’s thirstier than she’s ever been in her life (which is bad); b) finds herself in front of a flowing stream (which is good); and c) finds that standing next to the stream is a huge, majestic lion (which seems to be… bad). Of course, the lion is Aslan, who’s a sort of Christ figure in Narnia, but Jill doesn’t know that yet. What she knows is that she can’t outrun the lion, and she is petrified in her fear. The thirst becomes so extreme that she almost feels she wouldn’t mind being eaten by the lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water, first. This exchange takes place:

“If you are thirsty, come and drink,” said the Lion.

            “May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

            The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. Jill realized that she might as well  have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

            “Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

            “I make no promise,” said the Lion.

            After some back and forth, with Jill’s attempt at negotiation not getting her anywhere, she acknowledges: “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

            “There is no other stream.” said the Lion.

Only one life-giving stream from which to drink – which, according to most interpreters of Lewis, was his clear statement about the exclusivity of Christianity, among the religions.

(I know the suspense is killing you. Jill does eventually risk everything, to drink… and everything works out for her in the end.)

Later in the final book of the series, the Last Battle, Lewis added a layer of nuance to this idea by having a character who meets Aslan, in Narnia’s version of the afterlife, and is surprised to find that he’s welcome, after spending his life, he thought, in service of Tash, who is this other self-proclaimed deity, a ruler who was a proud enemy of Aslan. Recounting the story of his fearful meeting with Aslan, he says “the Glorious one bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, though art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.” He answered, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” (And you can hear Matthew 25 – what you did for the least of these, you did for me – in that). The man asks, “Oh, are you and all other gods then truly the same?” The Lion growls and the earth shakes, and he says “No. But the service you did for him that was good was really a service to me. I am the one you truly desired. You just didn’t know it.”

Big questions, raised by these stories: Are there other paths? What about people of other faiths, who don’t know Jesus?

Those are fair questions, that I’ll come back to…. but mostly, what I want us to see together, is that this is definitively NOT the question with which Jesus, in this moment with his disciples, is concerned.

Nor is it the concern of this passage – the most cited and quoted by so many Christians, in responding specifically to those questions!

Remember our context. Jesus had just washed his disciples’ feet, and then told them that he wouldn’t be with them much longer. And they are anxious, and frightened about what’s going to happen to them, next week, if something terrible happens to Jesus.

Can you imagine them asking, or even wondering, in that moment: “But Jesus, be real… who’s in and who’s out? What’s the formula? What will be the eternal location of people thousands of years from now who have never heard of you… that’s what we really want to know, tonight.” Do you think that was what was on their minds, at all, that night?

No! They wanted the comforting assurance of his presence, of his love, and of their own ability to understand – with finality, after three years with Jesus – who God is… and that is exactly what he’s giving them:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” ‘Things are about to change, but I am not leaving you behind. You know the way to where I’m going.’

Brave, honest Thomas, says: ‘Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?’ That’s when Jesus gives this I Am statement:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

We’ve been trained to hear this as an oppositional statement by centuries of religious wars, by claims about exclusivity, and even, God bless him, by C.S. Lewis in his attempts at a gracious expanding of the circle of God’s love.

We hear: “I am the way – the path, the right door. Go through the wrong one, and you’ll end up in the wrong place. Walk down the right path – like the fourth Proverb lays out – or you’ll be done for.”

We hear: “I am the truth – nobody or nothing else beyond the boundaries we set up as Christianity based on our culturally informed understanding of the Bible, the Church, the person of Jesus… has anything to offer us. Truth begins and ends, here.”

We hear: “I am the life – there is no other stream that quenches thirst, saves, gives life.

There’s another way to hear this, that I think is more faithful to the context of this conversation Jesus is having with his friends. I hear, in this conversation, Jesus saying something more like this:

  • “I am the way”… not to get to God, but exemplifying God’s way. You might hear the Mandolorian saying, “This is the Way.” “This is how it’s done.” Jesus says, “My life, being, and existence is how God operates in the world. Take heart and be comforted, friends – you know the way.”
  • “I am the truth”… not in that there is no wisdom or truth outside what humans have constructed to be the religion of Christianity, but the truth in that there is nothing false in or about him. He fully encapsulates what is real and right. ‘Take heart and be comforted, friends – you know the truth.’
  • “I am the life”… not in that he guards the only source of life fiercely and protectively, so that all must make a choice in order to separate those who boldly accept this from those who don’t, but in that he himself is the source of all streams that nourish, heal, and save, and those waters spring up everywhere, and branch off and extend lavishly to the point of seeming haphazard and unwisely messy. “Take heart and be comforted, friends – the life is yours.”

Those well-known phrases can be read and grasped and used as a line drawn in the sand, a declaration of battle… or as a party invitation in the form of the most deeply comforting and reassuring hug, which to adequately experience and sink into requires that we lay down our anxieties – about our future to be sure, but also the weight of wondering (or claiming certainty) about the future for anyone else.

How we hear and proclaim these words, makes all the difference.

And the hymn we’re about to sing illustrates this, similarly.

“Blessed Assurance, Jesus is…” [congregation complete] “… Mine.” Yes! And if we sing that with all the relief and joy and gratitude of a people who have drunk deeply from the living water – that cool refreshing stream of the lion Aslan’s and Christ’s … then we sing it emphasizing the wonder that God gave godself to us, fully, in Jesus. This is a blessed assurance. The emphasis is on Jesus.

We could also sing it in a way that is oppositional: blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Not yours. Because you don’t know him. Your religion, or church, or belief system, isn’t right. This is MY Story, MY song… praising MY savior all the day long – not yours. But the good news that Jesus is sharing with his friends is that he is Lord of all, and Savior for all.

Now that’s a scandalous message, not just because it takes away the need to draw lines in the sand between those who believe it and those who don’t… but also because it’s so unapologetically specific. It would be really strange to say, and yet this is what so many say, in effect: “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life… but that’s just like, my opinion, man.” No. He either is, or he isn’t. It is a bold claim that we confess.

How Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, for people who don’t know who he is… is a speculative conversation, that, if you’re into that sort of thing, is worthy of a good cup of tea on a cozy couch.

But it’s beyond the scope of this sermon, because it’s beyond the scope of this passage, and frankly, beyond the scope of what Jesus offers any clarity on, anywhere in Scripture.

The foundational building block that our passage gives us, though, is this: Jesus’ words about himself are clear, and in a sense extreme…. And there have never been more inviting, inclusive, comforting words uttered. We have confidence and comfort in Jesus, who assures us that we know God, because we know Him. May we make Him known, by non-anxiously resting in his love, by putting down our weapons, by covering over those lines in the sand, and by singing with joy about God’s blessed assurance to us: ‘I, in Jesus, am yours.’

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