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During Lent about a dozen of us from Willen and St James took part in an interfaith learning experience. We visited four places of worship of other religions, met the folks at each place and learnt a little about their faiths. In so doing I hoped we would keep to the spirit of Lent and actually begin to understand our own Christian faith a little clearer in the light of these other faiths. Such encounters do indeed make you think harder about your own beliefs. They also make you wrestle with the questions that arise from the presence of other world religions in our own society. Many of you will also know of my particular theological interest in interreligious relations and my research into mixed-religion marriages. So what do we make of a verse like John 14:6: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.? Does this declaration trump all other faiths? It seems that Jesus’ uniqueness is clearly proclaimed here. Does that mean all other religions are false ways? What do we make of it? I hope to offer some brief thoughts that might give you a different way of looking at the whole question. So this is more of teaching sermon to get you thinking rather than a motivational one. You may profoundly disagree with me, and that’s fine. I know you are an intelligent lot who like to learn and think for yourselves!

To start with we need to outline how we approach the Christian scriptures. The first thing, when we are looking to understand and interpret a Bible verse is to enquire about the background of the book which the verse is in. John is known as the 4th Gospel, and so we have to understand something of the Gospels, the rest of the NT and the early Church out of which the whole NT emerged. I need to stop right there, though, because I have made a statement which needs clarifying. It revolves around the question: did the Church create the NT or did the NT create the Church? Which came first? I don’t think it’s quite a chicken and egg question but it is very like it! I believe that the proclamation of the word, the Gospel and the witness of the first apostles started to draw believers together so that they began to form the Church. For some, this witness was in martyrdom as St Stephen in today’s first reading. So, in one sense, the word of God was the initial spark rather like the word of God which started creation. But then as the church formed and sought to be faithful to that word which called them into being, they made a written record of their understanding of the witness and word. This word is inspired by the Holy Spirit and is the truth, but it is also the witness of the first Christians. As such that witness is of its time and reflects the ways in which the first Christians viewed the world and their ways of thinking and believing. Unlike, say the Qur’an, many Christians don’t believe the Bible to be the literal and direct actual words of God. It contains the word of God and is reliable and authoritative, but that is different from it being literally God’s words.

Having made some general remarks about the Bible we can now look a little more closely at the NT. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the books of the NT are placed in the order they were written. That is not necessarily so! The epistles are thought by experts to be written earlier than the gospels. They were letters written to Christian communities who were facing certain problems or issues. The epistles therefore, respond to questions and often the teaching is very practical and specific. They are not to be taken as a systematic laying down of Christian doctrine although there is a consistency to their overall approach. The gospels were written later, according to scholars, with Mark about AD60, Matthew ten years later (AD 70) and Luke perhaps about AD80. John’s gospel is the last, generally reckoned to be put together around AD90. You may have heard the first three gospels described as the synoptic because they “see together” – they have a lot of similarities. They are different in nature from the 4th gospel. The Synoptics are more direct and tell the story of Jesus in a simpler fashion, though no less powerfully for that. They answer the question about who Jesus is by putting answers into the mouths of characters in the Gospel (such as the Centurion at the foot of the cross or the confession of St Peter ). John is more poetic and reflective. He still asks about the nature and identity of Jesus but the answer is more in the mind of the writer and the way he describes Jesus (for example the Prologue . So we have to be sensitive to where the different gospels are coming from. They are not necessarily to be taken literally. There is no such thing as “the words mean what they say” because meaning and what is said is not as straightforward as all that. Describing John’s gospel Clement of Alexandria who was born about 60 years after John was written said: it is evidently not a simple account of the Lord’s miracles and popular teaching, but a deeply meditated representation of His Person and doctrine by a contemplative conscious of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit

As well as understanding more about the background to the books of the NT and the gospels we also have to take the context of any passage into account. When we come to John 14 it can sometimes be pulled clear of the rest of the story that surrounds it. This is a passage I often use at funerals because of the “many mansions” imagery and the words of comfort. But it is actually part of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples after the Last Supper and before his arrest in Gethsemane. I cannot imagine that was a time for deeply and carefully thought out doctrinal points, let alone about other religions! John is putting into what went on layers of later reflection and meditation, drawing out some spiritual meanings. Jesus tells his disciples two important things whilst he is still with them: first, “love one another” and second, “where I’m going you cannot come”. They have been faithfully following him. He’s about to be taken from them and they are disturbed, filled with foreboding. There are immediate questions, reactions, and answers to them. But John also builds later, deeper reflections onto the meanings of that conversation. That is not to say he made things up, because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and it is about Jesus’ relationship with his disciples as he faced opposition and death. Anything that is said is to be seen in that light. Jesus is reassuring his followers and urging them how to keep faith with him after he’s gone. Remember, at his stage, they had no idea that he would come back in the way he did, as a resurrected Lord.

What about other religions?
So, having taken some trouble to try and understand how the scriptures work, what do we say about this verse? How do we interpret it especially in the light of the question of other world religions? Well, the first port of call for me is Jesus himself and his example. How did he respond to people who were not of his own religion? Throughout the gospels we see examples of his encounter with non-Jews. On each occasion he is compassionate, human and respectful – indeed more respectful than his fellow Jews might have been. Jesus even saw the possibility of more faith in Gentiles than in some of his own folk. Take the Syro-Phoenician woman , for example, or the centurion with the sick servant . Jesus didn’t always demand that they “convert” but he did want them to recognise the source of healing which was his heavenly Father, and look for a response in faith. So how are we to follow Jesus’ example and command to go with the gospel? We are to go in mission, bearing witness faithfully to the work of Christ in our lives, even prepared, like Stephen, to witness with our lives. But we present our witness in the spirit of dialogue. We listen and speak; we respect both the integrity of the other’s faith, genuinely held, and the integrity of our own faith, learning to speak clearly about where we’re coming from. In a small way we began to do that in our visits with people in other places of worship.

Here is a description of someone that may fit with John 14:6. Listen carefully: he is the most excellent, the most exalted, the highest of all, the peerless one, without an equal, the matchless one, who hath neither counterpart nor rival. You may have already sensed that it may not necessarily be about Jesus. In fact, they are the words of a Buddhist monk, Nagasena, speaking about the Buddha with King Milinda and recorded about 100 years before Jesus walked this earth. They are words which the theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel describes as the uniqueness of exaltation. To praise someone in such a way indicates how much they mean to the believer. That is not exactly the same thing as saying that they are the exclusive channel of salvation. Now if claims for uniqueness are made of both the Buddha and of Jesus Christ, what do we do with them when there is no referee whose authority all sides would accept? We have to come to a position of humility. After all, let’s remember that 2,000 years of mission has not converted the whole world! Even if Christianity is the largest religion in the world followed by perhaps a third of the planet’s people , Jesus is clearly not the only way, truth and life for all people in all times and places. The world’s religions have to come to a position where they accept something like the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th C. The 30 Years’ War between Catholics and Lutherans resulted in the sides realising that they were going to have to settle down and accept the legitimate existence of the other. Each side had just as much right to follow their religion as the other. Neither could conquer and dominate the other. That’s not quite the same as saying, in a rather liberal way, “we’re all one really”, or “we all believe the same things at heart”. But it is to say that each distinct faith may live at peace with the other, enjoying its right to exist and pursuing its traditions and convictions, even possibly sharing with each other in a spirit of openness and humility for the enrichment and blessing of all the world.

So I hope to have demonstrated, albeit it in a rather roundabout way, that there are problems with interpreting John 14:6 in a literal way to mean that all other religions are false ways and only Jesus is the unique mediator of salvation or achieving heaven. What we are called to do is witness faithfully to our experience of Jesus and share that in an open and honest way with others, allowing their faith to help us be clearer about ours in a spirit of humility and dialogue.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.