This is the piece I’ve been afraid to post … the one that’ll probably get me excommunicated … or at least bounced out of our local Christian Bingo club (that’s ok, I hate Bingo). It could easily get me fired from most churches. (Thankfully, I work for a different kind of church). Worst of all, it could (and probably will) get me “unfriended” by some of my beloved Facebook peeps. (And to think I was so proud of all those 611 friends I’d acquired. For the first time in my life, I actually felt like I got to sit at the cool kids’ table). Why is it that my sometimes-too-fertile mind gravitates so naturally towards the controversial and divisive themes? Why can’t I just write about, oh I don’t know, sports? I LOVE sports. I could probably make a few bucks in sports writing, but do I set my aim on that? No. Instead, my brain latches onto these nagging polarizing ideas about things like just who Jesus really is, and what did he really mean when he suggested that it might be a good idea to simply love one another regardless of race, age, gender, physical appearance, social status, sexual orientation, political leaning, etc. Well, I’m not going there today either (though that’s never a bad idea). Instead, I’m going after the Holy Grail … the big kahuna … the … aw, never mind … enough metaphors for now. I’m going after John 14:6 … perhaps the most divisive and controversial verse in the entire Bible. This is the one that sends (some) Christians into vein-popping rants of dogmatic religious exclusivity. It renders many atheists and agnostics virtually apoplectic with angry charges of narrow-mindedness, unbending rigidity, and self-righteous intolerance. It sends members of other religions into fits of rage over how pompous we Christians can be to think that we’re the only ones who’ve found the path of true life and enlightenment. That covers just a few who wrangle endlessly over this controversial quote of Jesus. Here it is: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.” Disclaimer: before I go a single step further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I believe that every word of that statement is absolutely true and correct.
This verse has been used as a proof text of the theory that only Christians who have subscribed to a very specific formula of spiritual / religious conversion (the same one to which I myself have subscribed), will be “saved” or united with, or “in” with God. This fact inevitably raises the (very legitimate) question of what about the others (those not quite orthodox enough for those of us on the inside, or those who’ve never even heard of Jesus, making a specific submission to discipleship of him obviously impossible). But many (including me) believe that he may have hinted that there are others in his fold of whom we’re not aware. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16). Who are these “other sheep” to whom Jesus referred?
This raises some hard questions for us … is Jesus God, or is he merely our God? If he truly is God, then that means some things … and not just for those (non-Christians) whom many of us (Christians) believe to be on the outs. It means some things for us on the inside, too. It means we can’t control him, contain him, predict him with 100% accuracy, lead him, box him in, oversee him, out-think him, fully comprehend his nature, or accurately estimate his size, his power, his intellect … or even his love. And that’s a darn good thing for all of us. The best we can really hope to do is to attempt with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength to simply trust him. If Jesus truly is God, then he is by definition … GOD … I AM THAT I AM … yes, that God. And there’s little doubt that that’s exactly who he thought he was. He said so right there in John 14:6 … “I AM the way …” and again in John 8:58 … “before Abraham was, I AM,” as well as in many other instances throughout the Gospels. If Jesus then is God, (and I do believe he is), we might do well to step out of the way with our theological / religious certainties and predispositions and simply let him be so, because he’s certainly going to be much bigger (and probably much less predictable) than our presuppositions about him.
And if he, being God, wishes to bring others (from a different faith tradition, different geographical location, etc.) into the fold, under the umbrella of his grace, does that mean then that following him specifically as a Christian (in our commonly known tradition) is of any less value? Of course not. If a faith is not worth keeping, then it was not worth having in the first place. Why would we wish to forfeit the gifts of grace, freedom from guilt and shame, hope for something that transcends this day-to-day world, etc. simply because Jesus might be bigger than we currently understand (or even demand) him to be within the confines of our own specific pattern of faith?
Let’s be honest here. Do we really believe that the love that voluntarily … intentionally died for us (we who did not earn nor deserve it) would be withheld from literally billions of others simply because they were born in the “wrong” geographical location to physically hear the story of God’s amazing love manifested through the greatest man who ever walked the very same earth that they walk? And while I’m at it … if this Jesus would (unfairly) restrict access to his grace to only a select few (relative to the whole of humanity), is that really the kind of savior you’d wish to follow … one who would arbitrarily, knowingly … intentionally leave billions of souls to fend for themselves when he possessed the wherewithal to reach and save them too? If you were Jesus, would you wish to diminish the power and scope of your own brutal butchering of a death by restricting its effects to only a select few who just happened to be born in the “right” country or into the “right” family? Certainly if we finite humans are able to deduce that there’s an inherent unfairness and incongruity to all of that, don’t you think an infinite and all-knowing God is smart enough to figure out the same? Isn’t he the source of our own power of intellect and reasoning to begin with? And before you conclude that, yes indeed, Randy’s gone off the deep end; please know that I’m well aware that among others, the Bible does say that “there is no other name given under heaven whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). But does that fact mean that someone who just happens to have been born in, oh I don’t know … a jungle in Borneo, or a remote island in the south Pacific and never heard of Jesus is thereby disqualified from his infinite grace … the grace that reaches from the east to the west and as high as the heavens (Ps. 103: 11-12)? Does Jesus really not know that they’re there … and that they need him just as badly as we do … really? Did he just wake up one day and blurt out, “D’oh!” … ala Homer Simpson because he forgot all about those others out there in the hinterlands? Is our God really that disconnected from his own creation … is he really that unaware? And if those good folks are, for whatever reason, not worth his effort, then how long is it until he decides that we’re not worth it either? Thank God, I just don’t think that’s who he is. And if I’m wrong, what have I lost? The idea that Jesus actually loves all of us is not going to make me abandon him. On the contrary, it only makes me love him more, and identify more closely with him; as I believe that he made all men in his own image, and in the process imbued them all with infinite worth. Now that is a God I can believe in … and trust. And does any of this make Jesus any less God than I already believed him to be … by no means! It only makes him more of who he actually told us he was … GOD. If God is not God of all of us, then is he really God of any of us?
And if he did indeed die for the entire world (as he himself claims in Jn. 3:16) … even for those who may never in this life understand it as directly as we think we might, doesn’t that make him even greater in our eyes? Wouldn’t that fact be an even grander and more moving testimony to the power of his love … the depth and breadth of his grace? Or do we simply wish to hoard the riches of such an immeasurable gift to ourselves … those of us who are in the know … in the club? I know, I know … some of you want to stone me right now. I can’t believe some of the stuff that comes out of this brain myself. Sometimes I’m tempted to kick myself out of the club! But I have to admit that it does inspire me to think that my God, Jesus, is just that big … that his grace is just that big … that his love for all of us is just that big and just that far-reaching! What a savior!
And yes, I can already hear the blowback. But Randy, doesn’t this water down the faith and make it all just a little too easy? Well, I suppose it does … if you believe that following in the footsteps of the most radically courageous, loving and controversial man who ever walked the planet is easy. Or that “taking up your cross” (an instrument of brutal humiliation and death) and following him on the path to Calvary is easy. I’ve been trying to do this discipleship thing for over 40 years now, and I’m still holding out hope that I might someday begin to get it right. Easy? Not so much.
But Randy, isn’t this idea just a little “too simple?” Actually, yes. It’s as simple as Jesus (i.e. God in 100% human flesh) being betrayed by a trusted friend, subjected to a mockery of a “trial” by men whom he himself made, whipped unrecognizable with a cat-of-nine-tails, crowned with 2 inch thorns, spat upon by angry strangers, carrying an 80+ pound cross beam for 1.5 miles on shoulders ripped raw to the bone by said beating, being stripped naked … publicly for even greater humiliation, hung on that same cross beam with the entire weight of his body suspended in air by only 3 nails … 1 through each wrist and 1 through both feet, and further mocked and spat upon until finally … mercifully dead. Our hope was purchased and our redemption was achieved 100% by who he is and by what he voluntarily did. And while there was nothing easy about any of that, it actually is that simple.
But Randy, doesn’t that brutal voluntary sacrifice you just described account only to those of us who verbally make a proclamation of faith in him, repent, become baptized, and accept him as our personal Lord and Savior? Well … and here’s the part that’ll probably get me stoned and unfriended … I don’t actually know. Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught all my life. But to borrow the words of C.S. Lewis, “… God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (Mere Christianity). In other words, just how big is this God whom we call Jesus?
Well Randy, if he’s really that big, and his grace is really that far-reaching, then do I really need to follow him … do I really need to love him? Well, of course you don’t have to if you wish not to do so. He’ll respectfully give you the freedom to make that choice. But knowing all you do about him, how could you not love a God who loved this much, gave this much, who’s this big … this gracious … this courageous?
But Randy, Jesus said to “enter by the narrow gate” because the path is narrow that leads to life, and the path is wide that leads to death (Matt. 7:13). Yes, he certainly did. And yes, his path certainly is narrow. But what he did not say here is that the narrow gate is exactly as we have defined it and come to understand it in our own religious tradition. Though he did say at another point that “I AM (there are those 2 words again) the gate …” (Jn. 10:9). And was it not this same Jesus who said in the parable of the unbalanced workers wages, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money (or my own grace)? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:15). Interestingly, it was shortly after this teaching that Jesus foretold his disciples of his impending death on the cross and resurrection (the very means by which he paid the “wages” for our sin).
But Randy, aren’t you really just trying to be provocative here for the sake of attention and self-promotion? Well, not so much. What I really want is to know who he really is, and to share my explorative journey with anyone else (regardless of faith tradition … or lack thereof) who wishes to honestly examine these (often difficult) questions with me. Jesus said to “ask, seek, and knock” (Matt. 7:7). I can only assume that he was not afraid of what we might find, should we choose to take him up on his challenge. As for divisive provocation, I find that kind of pompous self-aggrandizement utterly disdainful and repugnant.
But Randy, you must not really love him, because you’re going against what the Bible teaches here. Am I? Really? I’m not 100% sure that that’s true. And to be fair, I’m not 100% sure that it’s not. But one thing I am sure of … Jesus had a very large and worldwide agenda. It was he who said “… when I am lifted up (on the cross), I will draw all men to myself” (Jn. 12:32) … his words not mine. Yes, I do love him. In fact, I love him more right now than I did a few hours ago before I wrote this piece. If you take a long hard honest look at him, chances are you will too. Just don’t tell your Bingo club.