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Sunday, April 20, 2008

I am The Way, The Truth and the Life

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” John 14:1-14
V Easter – April 20, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

There is a deep pastoral irony in this passage of scripture. Whenever I sit with a bereaved family who has just lost a loved one, nine times out of ten, this is the passage they will select to be read at the funeral mass. There is something deeply comforting about the image of “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

However, nine times out of ten, that same family will ask, “Um . . .but . . . could we end it at “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life? Could we not use that one line: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

We live in a pluralistic culture which knows pluraform truth. Many of us have either intermarried or have very dear friends whose ethnicity as well as religious belief and spiritual expression are vastly different than our own. And, we believe, deeply and with all our hearts, that we will all be together in Paradise.

The old joke is told that a man dies and goes to heaven and is given the grand tour by St. Peter. At one point, they approach one room of the many roomed mansion of heaven, and St. Peter cautions the man to be very quiet and, in fact, walk on tip toes. After they pass the room, the man turns to St. Peter and asks, “Why did we have to do that?”

“Oh,” says St. Peter, “that’s the room for the Roman Catholics. They think they’re the only ones here.” Well, the same can be said for some Evangelicals. Indeed, some of them are Anglican.

But, there’s another part of that story. At one point, St. Peter beckons the man to look down to a particular place in hell. “My goodness!” exclaims the man, “What did those poor souls do to deserve such punishment?”

“Oh, them?” says St. Peter. “Those are the Episcopalians and Anglicans who couldn’t tell the dessert fork from the salad fork.” The man gasps, “Oh, but look! There’s a special place in hell for those who can not tell their bread plate from their neighbors.”

Just so you don’t all end up in hell, I’ll give you a little hint that I was taught in seminary: put your fingers together to form a lower case “b”. The hand that looks like a “b” is the side your bread plate belongs. The hand that looks like a “d” is the side your drink belongs. There, now you are all assured of getting to heaven!

It’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? Except, some folk take this stuff very, very seriously. Dead seriously. So do I. So let me say this clearly: I believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I don’t believe He is “a” way. I don’t believe he is “a truth”. I don’t believe he is “a life.” Indeed, he has become the centerpiece of my life and vocation.

I can scarcely sing the words of George Herbert’s poem put to that magnificent hymn “Come my Way, My Truth, My Life,” without becoming all girly-blurby, as the English say. In a few moments, we’ll be singing that great hymn, which I will sing from the deepest place of truth in my heart and my soul.

And . . .and, . . and . . . I believe what Ellie Weisel is quoted as having said: I believe there are many paths, but one way to God. My path is, I believe, also my way. It may not be the way of others but that does not mean that they are not on their way to God.

I believe that Mahatma Gandhi is in heaven. So is Anne Frank. Oscar Schindler is there with her. So is every living person who has ever made the ultimate sacrifice and laid down his/her life for a friend, as well as those who have done other amazing, albeit anonymous deeds of courage and faith.

Indeed, I believe that there are special places in heaven that even Calvinist Evangelicals won’t get to see which will be inhabited by Muslims and Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, Shintos and Buddhists.

Someone is crying “Blasphemy!” Well, okay. You are absolutely entitled to your belief. And, my friend, so am I. Why do I believe this? Well, let me tell you this story before I answer your question.

While traveling separately through the countryside late one afternoon, a Hindu a Rabbi and a Critic were caught in the same area by a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse. “That storm will be raging for hours,” the farmer told them. “You’d better stay here for the night. The problem is, there’s only room enough for two of you. One of you’ll have to sleep in the barn.”

“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu. “A little hardship is nothing for me. He went out to the barn. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry,” he told the others, “but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must never intrude into their space.”

“Don’t worry,” said the Rabbi. “Make yourself comfortable here. I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother, “ he said, “but there is a pig in the barn. In my religion, pigs are considered unclean. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my sleeping quarters with a pig.”

“Oh, all right,” said the Critic. “I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn.

A few moments later there was a knock on the door. It was the cow and the pig.

The point is, of course, that while we may be tolerant of religious diversity, what most of us can not tolerate is arrogance and the pretense of superiority and illusion of perfection. Let me fill you in on a little secret, if you haven’t already figured it out: no one, no thing, is perfect on this side of Eden. The only way you get to perfection is to enter the Gates of Death.

Which is how I want to answer your question: Why do you believe that heaven is also for those who are not Christian? My answer comes from the very lips of Jesus who said, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. “ It’s just that some of us will think we’re the only ones there. That’s not true, of course. It’s just that we’ll each have our own room in which to ‘dwell.’

What does this have to do with the church? Well, one last story. It may be apocryphal, but I understand that it is true. It happened in France, during WWII, in the last days of the war. Four US soldiers had been through the war together. They had shared their dreams and laughter, their fears and longings. Each felt the other was a brother.

One of the men was shot and mortally wounded. His three friends deeply grieved his loss and wanted him buried before they left the country. So, they went to see the local priest at the church in the center of town which had a very large graveyard, and asked if their friend could be buried there. The priest asked, “Well, was he baptized?”

The three men looked at each other and were completely dumbfounded. “You know, Father,” said one, “I know that he was a man of prayer. I know he loved God. But, I don’t think he ever mentioned being baptized.”

The men were sorely disappointed when the priest told them that only the baptized could be buried in that cemetery. Finally, the priest took pity on them and agreed to bury the man’s body in a plot of land just outside the fence which enclosed the graveyard.

Five years later the three men got together for a reunion and returned to that little town in France to visit the grave of their buddy. But, when they got there, they were startled not to find his grave. They searched high and low but could not find it. Finally, they found the priest and, deeply upset, asked him what had happened.

“Oh,” said the priest, “I remember you. Well, I thought and prayed about it, and, well, I decided to move the fence.”

Given the realities of our world, understanding the great diversity and plurality of our culture, I think the church is going to need to consider moving a few well-constructed church fences around some of the graveyards where our most cherished ideas are buried.

I believe there is room enough in heaven for everyone who loves God and does the will of God, because no matter what particular path they follow, there is one way to God. That won’t make everyone happy with me. Thank goodness that’s not in my job description.

Oh well, at least I can tell my bread plate and my water glass! Now, you so do, too! See you all in heaven! And I believe we’re ALL going to heaven. Amen.


Fran said...

Extraordinary - one day I must come to hear you preach.

Thank you.

Steve said...

A very thoughtful post--just what I would expect from someone who likes Frederick Buechner and the Red Sox.

susankay said...

In college (a gazillion years ago) we were "doing" Dante and our section leader (smaller discussion groups associated with a huge lecture class) brought a Catholic nun to talk Dante with us (she was also writing her PhD thesis on Dante as well as looking medieval -- this was before Vatican II). Accosted by agnostic or something undergraduates who demanded how she could believe in a God who would have come up with the Circles of Hell, she explained that The Church taught that there was hell. And then she said -- but I don't have to believe that there is anyone there. That shut us up.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth+,

I liked the sermon and I agree with your assertions. I'm the only convert in my family. They're still happily Jewish and I know that they're not (along with my centuries of ancestors) in hell.

At the same time, you don't reconcile your positions. You can say that Jesus is not merely a way, a truth, and a life but, functionally, if all spiritual paths lived with integrity lead to God, Jesus IS merely a way, a truth, and a life.

Given that I agree with you, how do you actually account for the paradox of your position theologically? For example, in the Creed we confess the belief in ONE baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

I felt like your sermon fudged the question of the necessity of Jesus by using amusing or touching stories. But I would be enriched by learning the substance of how you sustain your conclusion. Although I know my deceased Father is with God, how do I demonstrate that to a fellow Christian without appealing to sentiment or multiculturalism?


Stu Siegel

Wormwood's Doxy said...


Beautiful sermon, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Stu, I didn't so much fudge as to raise a an issue for more conversation. There is only so much one can do in a sermon or a blog. That's not fudge so much as knowing the limits of one's vehicle of communication.

Wanna talk? Email me and we'll set up a time for a phone conversation. EMKaetonataodotcom.

Kate Morningstar said...

That's beautiful, Elizabeth; thank you.

Hiram said...

What do you make of these words of Jesus, in Matthew 25:41-46?

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' 45Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Not that I am standing up and cheering that some will, according to what Jesus teaches, experience only the eternal regret of hell -- but what Jesus taught and what the Apostles proclaimed is that those who come to God in and through Jesus Christ find eternal mercy, and those who neglect or reject Christ find a loss of God.

Or, as C. S. Lewis said, "There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, 'All right, then, have it your way.'" In The Great Divorce Lewis portrays people choosing hell because they will not submit to total trust in God.

The idea that all will, in the end, reach heaven is attractive. I simply do not see the evidence for such a belief in Scripture. And it seems to me that those who do proclaim universal salvation do not understand the nature of sin nor what is required to be able to enjoy heaven (which is not, as popular ideas seem to run, a perpetual "Disney World" or something of the sort).

Sin is not simply an infraction of a list of rules (possibly arbitrary), but rather a distrust of God and a desire to displace him as the ruler of the universe -- going to God perhaps for his power, but not for his guidance.

How much would someone in rebellion against God enjoy spending an eternity in the presence of the one whom he seeks to displace but cannot?

Something would have to transform that person's heart, and replace that rebellion with trust. How does that transformation happen, and when, according to Scripture? Hebrews 9:28 says, "It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment."

Universal salvation is a hopeful idea, but I have never seen any arguments that show it to be the teaching of Jesus and his Apostles, only warm and fuzzy hopes, and an appeal to the mercy of God that neglects his holiness.

RFSJ said...


You swooped in where I chose not to tread! I thought long and hard about what I was going to preach on this past Sunday, and I chose to do something on 1 Peter (see rather than the John passage, even though Thomas our patron gets naother of his lines and even though my own views coincide pretty much with yours. I wimped out, and you didn't. Kudos!


Anonymous said...

Hi! I was just wondering, where did you get the picture for this post? I came across it the other day and wanted to buy it for my home but I unfortunately x'd out of the site before saving it and I cannot seem to find it again anywhere. >_<

If you remember, could you please post the link?

I will check back regularly for your response. Thanks!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Here you go:

Next time, please leave your name

Meri said...

Thanks so much :)