The Real Meaning of John 14:6
By Eric Stetson — November 6, 2009
(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at the Christian Universalist Association “Celebration 2009” conference in Nashville, Tennessee.)
In the Gospel According to John, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is reported to have said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” [Jn. 14:6]
Traditionally, this powerful and controversial verse of scripture has been interpreted to mean that no human being may find God without professing the Christian religion. But is this really what Jesus meant by this statement?
The answer to this question determines our whole view of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Is the Gospel the message that there is a specific religion — one and only religion — by which we may come to God? Or is the Gospel the message that there was a man who showed people how to live their lives so that all may come to know that God, the Creator of the Universe, is not a remote and uncaring deity but rather is the loving Parent of all?
I believe the second interpretation is the true Gospel. The Good News is the news that a man who really lived in flesh and blood has succeeded in manifesting the way to God’s presence, the truth of who God is, and the life that leads to overcoming of sin and suffering, and entering — restoring — our harmonious relationship with the One in whose image we are made. This historical man, born of a woman as all are, has attained the new birth of the Spirit, lived a life of extraordinary self-sacrifice, taught ultimate forgiveness and mercy, and made evident the path by which all people may walk, as he did, into the loving arms of a God who is truly our Father.
The Good News is not the arrogant, terrifying idea that everyone must convert to the religion of Christianity or else face eternal rejection by God. Many Christians have taken one verse attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and turned it into an excuse for denigrating the spiritual paths of all who do not “bow down to Jesus Christ as Lord” — in other words, anyone who holds theological or metaphysical beliefs that are different from what came to be seen as “orthodoxy” of the Christian Church.
What is so ironic is that the very word orthodoxy actually means the “straight way.” It is supposed to mean a way of life — living according to the example of Christ — not a set of intellectual beliefs about Christ. Did Jesus ever say that people must believe in the Trinity, or that his mother was a virgin, or that the only way to win forgiveness for your sins is to give mental assent to the idea that his spilled blood on the cross was legally necessary to appease God’s wrath? NO! Nor did Jesus say that you have to be heterosexual, believe every verse in the Bible, eat a communion wafer on Sunday, or go down for an altar call to have a right relationship with God.
It’s time for Christians to recognize that a Hindu like Mahatma Gandhi was a far, far greater follower of the Way, the Truth, and the Life, than a fundamentalist preacher like Fred Phelps who may affirm all the supposedly “orthodox” Christian theology but who claims that “God hates fags” and that nonbelievers will burn in hell. It’s time for Christians to reach out to people of other religions and fellowship with them rather than seeking to convert them, recognizing their essential identity as children of God just as we are, and respecting that their own spiritual traditions contain much wisdom — and much that is in harmony with the basic principles taught by Jesus.
Jesus said that the entire Torah can be reduced to two commandments: Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. [Mat. 22:37-40]. And Jesus gave a new commandment: As I have loved you, you must love each other [Jn. 13:34]; that the world may know that God is in me and I am in you [14:20]. It’s not the people who say “Lord, Lord” — emphasizing beliefs about Jesus or glorifying Jesus — that are in harmony with Jesus; in fact he even says to those people, “I never knew you.” [Mat. 7:21-23]. It’s the people who strive to live like Jesus — a life full of love made manifest in our relationships with others — who will find the keys to the Kingdom.
As Christians who call ourselves “Universalist” and claim to believe in “universal reconciliation,” we have a special responsibility to overcome the typical Christian feeling of superiority, that we’ve found the “correct” religion which is the “only way” to heaven. We have learned already that heaven’s gates are flung open to all people because of God’s overwhelming grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. Now we must learn to put this idea into practice by relating to people of other faiths — the Jew, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Pagan — as if they are equal to ourselves. For they ARE! So what if some of their religious beliefs might be wrong! How can anyone know for sure anyway? The question is, are they living a life that Jesus would be proud of? If yes, then in God’s sight they are light years ahead of the so-called “Christian” who hates his brother who thinks differently than him.
So let us return to Jesus’s famous statement: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Surely we can realize that this is not a statement about religious doctrine, but an expression about the importance of following the example of one’s teacher. Jesus was reminding his disciples and anyone who might follow him that to truly know God, we must walk in the footsteps of one who knew God so deeply that he was willing to die to reveal His love to a suffering humanity.
That’s not the teaching of a religious fundamentalist who condemned all religions but the one that was to be created centuries later by people who would form elaborate theories and worldly structures in his name. It’s the teaching of someone who has transcended religion — the teaching of someone who knows no barrier between himself and the Heavenly Father. And that’s exactly what Jesus wants for us. For all of us, whatever our religion or no religion at all, until the whole world is transformed.