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“Do not let your hearts be troubled” vs. “My dad can beat up your dad: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 10, 2020:
Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

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

That’s one of the better-known quotes from the Bible, isn’t it? We tend to hear it in two very different contexts:

a) In a funeral, where we want to acknowledge the faith of the deceased, and experience words of comfort and assurance.

b) On the schoolyard (or adult equivalents, like tweets and comments on the internet), where it’s used as a threat or a weapon. “My dad could beat up your dad.”

Same verse, very different situations, intentions, and effects.

Our own view on how religions relate to one another can often turn into impassioned conversations, or even arguments. They can become personal (if, for instance, your daughter-in-law is condemned to hell by someone in your knitting club). This, for many people, is a touchy subject, not unlike one’s perspective on sexuality, church-state relations, and the divinity of Christ. In situations like these I find it helpful to take a step back from my emotions, and look at things somewhat dispassionately. So I’ll give a (very) short overview of different models of what are called ‘theologies of religion.’ (I’m indebted to Roman Catholic theologian Paul Knitter for this.)

The first model is called the Replacement model (and there’s a variation, the Partial Replacement model). Theologians like (the young) Karl Barth will emphasize that we aren’t saved by religion. In fact, religion often gets in the way. But, they’ll follow up with how our Christian religion is helpful insofar as it points us to Christ, through whom we’re saved. This model favours the exclusivity claims in scripture, and also makes use of human reason by claiming that, basically, if there’s one God, it would make sense for there to be one way, one path to God.

The Partial Replacement model brings a bit more charity to the above, and looks to scriptures that speak to the possibility of God having been revealed to all peoples. (For instance, all of creation was shot through with the Logos of God; religions might well have ‘kernels’ of truth in them; Jesus, out of the constraints of time, descended to the dead and preached to those imprisoned in Hades, etc.)

The second model is one of Fulfillment. This model begins from the starting point of God as loving and merciful, thus, God, who created people as social creatures, must have created social ways (i.e. religions) in which people could experience grace, and Jesus is the ultimate expression of grace. The theologian Karl Rahner introduced the idea of “anonymous Christians;” peoples who may not have been explicitly Christian (think, for instance, of an isolated village in the jungle that never heard the gospel, or people of other faiths that exhibit compassion and goodwill). This model is very open to non-Christian religions, but at the end of the day, holds Christianity as “the way, truth, and life,” but in a generous sort of way. (It’s charitable if you’re Christian, but pandering and paternalistic if you’re not.)

The next model is Pluralist. This model views religions as culturally-coloured human responses to God. It will note that all around the world during the time of the Hebrew prophets various religions developed that shared many values, especially justice, compassion, and a sense of the sacred. Because most, if not all religions, have exclusivist truth claims, and because we can’t exactly evaluate them with certainty (and the ethical failings of most religions throughout history undermine our truth claims), we choose to adopt a position of humble non-judgement. We set aside the question of whose dad could beat up who, and work instead on constructive dialogue. The downside of this model is that it can easily devolve into “I’m good, you’re good, we’re all good,” even if that isn’t the case. We’re all so ‘nice.’

The last model takes some of the goodwill of the last two models, but also brings this full circle a little closer to the first model. The Acceptance model views each religion as comprehensive: they’re self-contained universes of meaning, and the language, symbols, and rituals of one will not fit neatly into another. All the exclusivist truth claims exist within their own cultural-religious frameworks, and can only be understood on their own terms, rather than used to bash others. Where some of the previous models tended to try to mash everything together (e.g. redefining Buddhist enlightenment as Christian salvation), this model says that we need to let the Buddhist tradition define itself, because, again, its languages, symbols, and so on, don’t fit nicely in our frameworks. So, at the end of the day, we have a model that affirms the ‘rightness’ of one’s own faith, but it does so without treading on the possible rightness of other ones. “Good fences make good neighbours” is an apt description.

Maybe that little detour was helpful. Maybe you found your own view somewhere in one of those models. Or maybe it was an academic distraction for you… But after reflecting on the gospel reading, and surveying these models, I think a couple of things are important. First of all, Jesus’s speech is given for the purpose of reassurance: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Reassurance we need to hear, when gathered (or, when we could gather…) at a funeral, or reassurance for someone like Stephen, persecuted and executed because of his faith. In the gospel story both Thomas and Philip raise questions that reflect their uncertainty, but Jesus responds with the insistence that he won’t leave his flock abandoned. “I am the way…. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” To put it another way, using images from last week, we have a shepherd, we have a sheepfold. We don’t need to worry about learning other voices and following other shepherds. Our food is plentiful in our pen; we don’t have to wander off elsewhere.

Another important thing to note is that JESUS is the one who says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s not YOU or I who have the right to claim this, nor some self-proclaimed prophet or charismatic megachurch pastor, nor one or other church bodies, no matter how impressive and historic their legacy might be. These are the words of Jesus, specifically the Jesus we meet in John’s Gospel, who frequently speaks with “I am” statements. Like the young Karl Barth proclaimed in that first model I summarized, it’s not our religion that saves us; it’s Jesus. (That doesn’t make our lived religion bad or futile, because healthy Christian faith will provide us with well-worn yet living traditions that help us on our faith journeys. The planks of wood that make up our sheepfold are there for us, to offer us protection and guidance; not to constrict the movement of the shepherd. At the end of the day, give thanks for the life offered by the shepherd; don’t worry about speculating too much about his activity (or lack of activity) elsewhere in the fields among the other flocks.

In the past I know that I’ve quoted the Bob Dylan song: “you gotta serve somebody.” Somebody, something claims our attention, our investment, our concern. All people, all over the globe, have a faith. It might be a religious faith, or it might be a secular faith. Myself, I’m not preoccupied with judging the ancient religious faiths of the world, because, like the Nostra Aetate statement of the Second Vatican Council expresses, it seems to me that many of the enduring religious traditions of the world reflect rays of enlightening truth that have their origin in the Truth, the Reason, the Logic, the Logos through which the world was created. Using the language of Nostra Aetate, I “reject nothing true and holy” in those expressions of faith. I find liberation in this, which allows me to more fully experience the guiding presence of the Jesus I have come to know, and come to know daily, in my own Christian faith. (The Jesus who told the story about the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant tax collector; the Jesus who held up the Samaritan — the enemy — as the model of compassion.)

Nevertheless, neighbours, even good neighbours with strong fences, aren’t called to ignore others in the neighbourhood. We’re still in community with those we see from over our fences and hedges. Our dialogue, where we speak and live from our respective faith, calls us to be honest and open, rather than just say “I’m good, you’re good, we’re all good,” while some street tough spray paints graffiti all over the vinyl siding of all the houses on the street.

At this moment I’m most attuned to the dangers implicit in some of the non-traditional faiths of the world that claim the loyalty of so many. I’m thinking of things like shallow materialism, extreme secularism, narcissistic individualism, unrestrained capitalism, addictive technopolism, and religious extremism. As good neighbours in a world of “isms,” we can hold up the image of the reassuring and yet challenging Jesus who offers an alternative to our all-too-human isms, and instead says “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” We will find life in following Jesus. I firmly believe that.

We will find a whole lifetime’s journey in the comprehensive ‘world’ of the Christian faith. And along with that, we will find ourselves in communion with others sharing in the journey. As the First Letter of Peter expresses: “Come to [Christ], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

And that reading ends with a note of reassurance for those of us journeying on the way. The road is exciting, but it can sometimes be rocky: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

If we ever compare our Lord to the other isms we meet in the schoolyard or in the world, may we boast first of all and most of all in the mercy of Christ.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter