It’s one of the most moving and poignant moments in the gospels. Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples to go to his death, and so for a few chapters we hear him tell them good-bye. The disciples are anxious and even sound like little children wanting to know where mommy and daddy are going. How long they will be gone? When are they coming back?
And so Jesus responds, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?… And you know the place I am going.”
“No, Lord, we don’t know,” Thomas says. “What is the way?”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus answers. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
It’s a warm, moving, assuring conversation. And Jesus gives his disciples some of the most beloved words we have for talking about death.
In most of the funerals I have been a part of this has been the passage we read. The words seem so right for good-byes. “Do not let your hearts be troubled: In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.” One earlier translation says, there are many “rooms.” And the grand old language of the King James Version puts it, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
What moving words—that we all have a home somewhere in God’s house, a resting place, a place with our name on it, no matter who we are and no matter our background. And what a wonderful picture of life in God—one great mansion with an unimaginable number of rooms, each one different, each one somehow right as a dwelling place. Or you could even say one vast cathedral with many corners and rooms. It’s a big, grand house that God lives in.
But this beautiful text all of a sudden gets complicated. Show us the way to the house, Thomas says. “I am the way, the truth, the life,” Jesus says. But then he says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” And all of a sudden this warm, inviting passage about the expanse of God’s love seems so narrow as to squeeze out two-thirds of the people on earth and the countless billions down through the centuries who have not been Christian.
All three of the great Abrahamic religions have a strong strain of exclusivity. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall have no other gods before me.” That’s the first of the 10 commandments in the faith of Israel. “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” the faith of Islam steadily asserts. When these great assertions are used to challenge the idolatries people fall into when they are seduced by the gods of their culture such as wealth and success, they are powerful claims. But when they are turned into a denial of other faiths they become troubling.
If we say that the dangers of our time come from Americans worshiping at the altar of the stock market, or the owning of larger and larger homes, or going into debt to have more things, then we Christians need to hear Jesus say, no, those aren’t the way to eternal life, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” But if we use that same affirmation to declare that only Christians will enter God’s many-roomed mansion, we have lost its real meaning.
And so it’s the strangest of things that this passage of such beauty and assurance, this picture of God’s dwelling place as an unimaginably grand mansion with room enough for everyone, has also produced one of the harshest lines in our tradition when it seems to declare that non-Christians must somehow not be part of God’s eternal love. As big as this picture is of life with God, is it big enough?
America, you know, has become the most religiously diverse nation in the world. There are more Muslim Americans than there are Episcopalians by far, more Muslims than Jews. Los Angeles, according to Harvard scholar Diana Eck, is the most complex Buddhist city in the world. You can now spot Hindu temples and Muslim mosques dotting the metropolitan D.C. landscape.
And so one of the big questions we face as Americans and Christians is, How do we live with religious differences, especially in a time when many religions are growing around the world and are often intensely tribal and divisive?
One of the chief impacts of the 9/11 attacks was the fresh realization of how dangerous religious faith can be. The attackers were radical Muslim zealots who believed they were carrying out their destruction as an act of religious devotion. We know, of course, that Christians have been capable of the same thing, in the Crusades, for example, and in the pogroms in which Christians over the centuries have gone on rampages killing Jews. And, of course, there have been countless Muslim-Christian wars, Hindu-Muslim clashes, Hindu-Sikh and Arab-Israeli conflicts, and much more.
“Dear God, save us from the people who believe in you,” someone scribbled on a wall here in Washington after 9/11. Religions are powerful—and dangerous. It’s enough to make you ask, In a world that seems to get more interconnected and yet more tribal by the day, is it possible for religious people, and especially Christians, to be forces of healing and hope in this dangerous twenty-first century?
When I’m teaching a course on our faith someone will often ask, Can people who aren’t Christians be saved? Sometimes the question emerges out of concern for friends or relatives who are nonbelievers or believers in other faiths. There are many Christians who believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior you are going to hell, just as other Christian traditions have insisted that only the baptized faithful can ever get to heaven. Given the billions of people across the face of the earth and down through the centuries who are not Christians, the ranks of hell would have to be filling up fast.
“No one comes to the Father but by me.” It sounds arrogant and intolerant, but is it? But Jesus didn’t say, “Believing in me is the way, or having the right ideas about my teachings is the way.” He said, “I am the way.” And who is this Jesus who says he’s the way? He is the friend of every sinner, every outsider, every non-Jew he meets. Jesus surrounded himself with the people who had been excluded and had been rejected by the proper religious establishment. He was the one who believed that caring for the broken and suffering is more important than keeping the laws and thinking the right thing. That’s his way, his truth, his life.
It was Jesus who said, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep,” and when he talked about keeping his disciples safe with him in the sheepfold, he then said this: “And I have other sheep who are not of this fold and I am going to bring them in also.” This doesn’t sound like a One Way man.
If you dig into that little troubling phrase, “No one comes to the Father but by me,” there are hints of a much bigger vision than you think. “No one comes to the Father.” It doesn’t say no one comes to God, but that Jesus is the one who can take them into an intimate relationship with God as “Father.”
Who is saved and who isn’t, who’s in and who’s out? I remember puzzling over that as I made my way back into the Christian faith as a graduate student. Christians believe that in Christ God was reconciling the whole world. My closest friend, and one of the finest human beings I knew, had grown up in a hellfire and brimstone church in a small town in the South, and he literally would break into a sweat any time he walked into any church. Because of his early life, faith for him was impossible, and yet his life was in so many ways a model for mine.
The finest teacher I had in graduate school was a secular Jew, who loved Shakespeare and St. Paul. As I heard him talk about King Lear or Measure for Measure, I found my own faith growing deeper and clearer. I heard Christ through him.
And later as a professor I knew well a Muslim colleague who was one of the gentlest, wisest people I had ever encountered. None of these was Christian; all of them were luminous, even holy, human beings.
At the same time I remember thinking back over my own church experience growing up. There were, of course, many good souls, but there were also many who seemed hypocritical, insincere, angry, or self-righteous too. This was the South of the 1960s, and many of them were strong segregationists. How could it be that these people were somehow in and my un-churched friends were somehow out?
Only later did I encounter St. Augustine’s sobering words: “God has many whom the church does not have, and the church has many whom God does not have.” What became clear to me then was that God is bigger than our formulas, more mysterious than all our ways of drawing the line.
What kind of God could it be, when you think of it, who would consign to everlasting damnation any who do not believe by a certain formula, or who belonged to different faith traditions, or even who don’t believe in God at all? What parent would ever choose under any circumstances the eternal suffering of his or her child?
Do all religions say the same thing? No. Even though they often have many things in common, there are profound differences. Do all religions basically believe in the same God? Not if you probe very deeply. There’s no blending of these different faiths into one. Are all religions equal? No. Some religions or brands or religions are toxic.
What makes us Christians is that we believe that this God of the entire universe, who has reached out to the human race in every time and place and through countless religious traditions, actually came among us in one human life. In Christ we Christians see that God has taken on our flesh, lived, suffered, and died for us, and promises never to leave us. No other religion makes that immense claim.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have important things to learn from the Muslim sense of awe before God, from the Jewish passion for living God’s Torah, from the Buddhist sense of compassion and surrender of the self, from the Hindu sense of the sacredness of every part of the world.
If you glimpse the full expanse of God’s love, you realize that the question is not who’s in and who’s out, but who knows this love and who doesn’t. The whole human race is in the fold of God’s love. And yet the role of the church remains indispensable. Church is where we come to reconnect with love we see in Christ, to be fed by it, to learn its ways, to find the compassion to live it. What saves us is love—God’s love for us, and our learning to live in this love. “God is love,” it says in the First Letter of John, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
The test of any person’s faith or any faith tradition is this: Does it make your world bigger, more generous, more embracing of God’s world, or does it make your world smaller, tighter, more like you?
Could it be that Jesus is bigger than Christianity? Could it be that the Father-Mother love that Jesus shows us has been working in every corner of this creation and in every life from the beginning of time, and that there is a resting place in God’s life for everyone?
“In my Father‘s house are many dwelling places,” Jesus said. “I go to prepare a place for you.” “How do we get there?” Thomas asks. “By following my way,” Jesus answers. “What way is that?” Thomas asks.
“Love,” Jesus says. “Just love.”