Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father
except through me.”
--John 14:6 NRSV
I was raised to believe Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” were simple and clear. The only way to get to heaven was by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which meant saying “the Sinner’s Prayer” and being “saved.” Yet, even in Southern Baptist Sunday school classes questions cropped up, such as “If I was raised in Saudi Arabia to be Muslim and never met a Christian to lead me to Christ, would God send me to Hell?” The official answer was “yes,” because Southern Baptists were all about evangelizing the entire world, yet even a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid like me had trouble with that logic. Really? God would send somebody to eternal torment in the fiery pits of Hell—forever—because through no fault of their own they never had the chance to become a Christian? If so, then God doesn’t sound particularly loving or even fair.
Also, from an early age, it was apparent that many people who prayed the right prayer and had their ticket to heaven could be just plain lousy human beings. If one was honest, often the people inside the church condemning people outside the church acted worse than the so-called “heathens.” Early on I began to feel a cognitive dissonance which led me to note the clear lines of who is in and who is out I was presented with at church could become awful blurry. As my world expanded and I began to know Christians of other denominations (many of whom I had been taught were not “true” Christians) and people of other religions, my clarity over who were truly God’s people and who were not further eroded.
Frederick Buechner writes this about what it means to be a Christian:
Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). He didn't say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn't say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could "come to the Father." He said that it was only by him — by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way. Thus it is possible to be on Christ's way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don't even believe in God.
Buechner’s words line up with my experience in churches all my life. I’ve heard more sermons and attended more Bible studies than I can count purporting to reveal what a person must believe to be a Christian. Yet many of the people who heard those things along with me swore they believed but were at the same time, by anyone’s measure, pretty terrible at loving their neighbor. At the same time, I’ve met self-identifying atheists who demonstrated love in ways I could only call Christ-like.
To be fair, I should also state that I’ve known churches and the members who make them up who prided themselves on their diversity of belief. They focused so much on accepting all beliefs that it was hard to see why they gathered at all. Their “progressive” form of Christianity didn’t lead to them sacrificing anything for anyone. The Jesus Christ who called his followers to “take up their cross” was abandoned for an esoteric and utterly bland Jesus who asked nothing of them. Being open-minded was a code word for white middle class liberal detachment from the suffering in the world.
The originators of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ desired to eschew denominations and simply be “Christian.” They repeated slogans like “No Creed But Christ” and declared the Bible was the only rule of faith. Yet, such slogans are much harder to live out in practice than in theory. Some estimates put the number of Christian denominations at over 39,000. Many of those denominations claim the Bible as their only determination of what it means to be Christian, yet the number of different denominations proves how difficult it can be to agree on how the Bible determines who is a Christian. The differences among Disciples of Christ churches reveals the difficulty of “simply” looking to the Bible for answers.
I continue to call myself a Christian and believe the label matters, so if pressed, I would have to say there has to be something between rigid dogmatism that excludes most of humanity and a relativism that makes all distinctions meaningless. Getting more specific than that is tricky. As Philip Gulley says about Christianity, “attempting to construct a definition suitable to all, is both undesirable and impossible.” Even though a concise definition of what it means to be Christian is “impossible,” I still like what Gulley has to say on the matter, “If the church claims Jesus as its founder, it should at least share his values.” I suspect Diana Bass also has it right when she says, “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.”
In today’s American culture, the fastest growing religious group are those who claim “none of the above” when forced to declare their religion. This doesn’t mean they are atheists but rather that the old classifications no longer work for them. Yet, these same people when asked often declare they are attracted to the teachings and ethics of Jesus, if not the dogma declared about Jesus. Likewise they value friendship, community, and relationships based on love and service, but they are finding these things in settings other than traditional religion.
The good news for those of us who still hang on to Jesus’ words about being “the way, and the truth, and the life,” is that what Jesus meant is apparently much broader and more expansive than religious people in his day or our day were willing to accept. All those “nones” out there may still be “Christian” even if they reject the label.
Does that mean the church as we know it and our church in particular are no longer relevant? Maybe. But as Philip Gulley writes, “if history has taught us anything, it is that renewal blossoms in the most unlikely places, perhaps even in the church.”
Grace and Peace,
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