Be Not Ashamed of Your Faith

Today's Gospel reading was from the famous (or, depending on how you interpret it, infamous) fourteenth chapter of John, verses 1 through 14:
Jesus’ Parting Words to His Disciples

14:1 “Do not let your hearts be distressed. You believe in God; believe also in me. 14:2 There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house. Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going away to make ready a place for you. 14:3 And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too. 14:4 And you know the way where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 14:6 Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 14:7 If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” 14:9 Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 14:10 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 initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. 14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves.14:12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. 14:13And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14:14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

Why is this passage famous (or infamous)? Consider this interchange between a reporter for Time magazine and the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA):
Q Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?

A We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.
(And this was not an isolated instance. She elaborated on her answer later with an NPR interviewer -- and in doing so hastened the departure of certain parishes in Virginia from the Church.)

Do you see the mistake here? Simply put, Bishop Schori's answer separates the Father from the Son -- it ignores the Holy Trinity. Jesus and God act independently of each other; Jesus, far from being One with the triune God, is a mere "vehicle" with which to approach God's presence.

It is evident from the context of his words (re-read the whole passage!) that what Jesus was saying (to paraphrase it clumsily) was this: "The Father and I are one -- I am in Him, and He is in me. You cannot approach the Father without approaching me." (Paraphrases -- that is, departures from what the Greek is saying, in an attempt to explain it better to English speakers, are dangerous. That is why translations such as The Contemporary English Version, God's Word and The Good News Translation must always be checked against a literal translation, such as the Net Bible I have quoted here. For example, the former three all translate the Greek phrase erkhetai pros in this passage as "goes to" rather than "comes to": "No one goes to the Father except through me." That unfortunate choice adds to the sense of separation from the speaker, who is Jesus, while "comes" strengthens the context that the speaker and the destination -- God -- are one and the same.)

Those, like the Presiding Bishop, who treat his words as saying: "Unless you believe in me, you cannot get into heaven" are perpetuating the false dichotomy of exclusivity versus inclusivity that has so broken up the Episcopal Church -- and the Anglican Communion, for that matter. Jesus is neither exclusive nor inclusive. Those are the wrong words to describe what he offers us, because they imply that he does all the choosing. (Those who believe in predestination, I realize, will not have any problem with that implication.) The choice is the believer's, to believe or not to believe, to go on sinning, or to strive to sin no more -- and Jesus is simply stating a truism: if you believe in the Father, you believe in him, and vice versa, because he and the Father are one.

Jesus emphasizes again and again in the passage quoted above that he and the Father are one and indivisible. As human beings alive on earth, the only form in which Jesus' disciples could encounter God was in the person of Jesus himself -- that is why he throws Philip's question back at him: "Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip?". To know "me" -- i.e., Jesus -- was to know the Father, whom Philip foolishly asked Jesus to show to them.

All of us, however, who were born after Jesus died on the cross, can no longer encounter God in the flesh here on earth -- at least not until the Second Coming (as of this writing, alas, not yet under way). Our encounters with God, or the risen Jesus, are spiritual ones. But make no mistake: they two, along with the Holy Spirit, are one and the same God. Jesus himself told us so.

To encounter God spiritually is to encounter Jesus, whether one recognizes the latter as such or not. If what Jesus told us was true (and we can be certain that it was), then there is no God without Jesus, and no Jesus without God. God without Jesus is an intellectual abstraction, a god without love, and of no practical consequence to humans, while Jesus without God is a pointless sacrifice of a good and holy man.

Have no concern, therefore, for the ultimate fate of those who claim to find their paths to God other than through Jesus -- it's not up to you. While men may separate Jesus from God in their own minds, rejecting the former while claiming to accept the latter, if it is truly God whom they encounter, then they are also encountering Jesus at one and the same time. Whether they are aware of that truth or not does not make it any less the truth. We who have been given the gospel message are thus doubly blessed, because we have been given also the key to understanding the true meaning of such encounters: since God and Jesus are one (with the Holy Spirit), we reach the one through the other, and at the same time. For that same reason, we do not have to worry about being called "exclusive" or "inclusive" -- one who truly believes in God the Holy Trinity cannot be described by those words, because other people's choices are not up to the believer.

It is ironic, therefore, in light of Jesus' clear message to his disciples, that today's lectionary also included this passage from 1 Peter 2:4-10:
A Living Stone, a Chosen People

2:4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 2:5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 2:6 For it says in scripture, “Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.2:7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 2:8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over.They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 2:10 You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

As Peter carefully explains (and who should know this better than Peter?), Jesus is at one and the same time "a chosen and priceless cornerstone", but also "a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over." Those who stumble on the rock of Jesus are precisely those who would claim that making belief in Him the criterion for admission to heaven is "to put God in an awfully small box." So to speak, I say, is to separate that which cannot be separated, and also to commit the Arian heresy of thinking that Jesus is "smaller" than God.

But it is not just the Presiding Bishop who stumbles over the correct interpretation of Jesus' words in John 14:6. Those who came to the defense of her reading included many of her ilk (including Episcopal Cafe and the usual blogs), as well as even some atheists. And in the attractiveness of such a misreading to so many lies the truth of Peter's description of Jesus as a "stumbling-stone."

Only those, you see, who feel defensive about their faith are the ones who can be made susceptible to guilty feelings about its so-called "exclusivity." The apologia run in this vein: "Well, I know I have my faith in Jesus to get me into heaven, but that doesn't mean you have to think as I do to get there is well. God is very big, and wonderful are His ways -- I am sure He can find other paths for you to get to Him, as well. Now, isn't that inclusive of me?" And if you are defensive about Jesus, then he is a stumbling-stone for you.

The answer, therefore, which I wish our Presiding Bishop had given to Time's interviewer would run something like this:
“‘Belief in Jesus’ is the same as belief in God. So your question really asks if belief in God is the only way to get to heaven. Now, maybe you could think that there is a heaven without God, but that's not very likely. If you don't believe in God, you won't believe in heaven. So the answer to your question is ‘Yes’ -- belief in God is the only way ‘to get to heaven,’ as you put it.”
That is being neither defensive, nor offensive -- it is simply stating a truism. And that the reporter's question could have been answered so simply shows why the question itself is a loaded one: it tries to put Christians on the defensive. "Be not ashamed of your faith."

Christ is the cornerstone -- he does not have to be a stumbling-block, unless you let it happen. Again, "be not ashamed of your faith."

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