I was that kid in school at test time that no one could stand to be around. I wasn’t a pencil tapper or a leg bouncer. I wasn’t a noisy nail biter or a lip smacker. No I was way worse. I loved tests. No nerves. No worries. Just pure excitement on test day. I know. The kids I grew up with couldn’t stand me either. Only one thing could bring me down on test day – looking down and seeing a test paper full of true/false questions.
Do they even do true/false questions anymore? I hope not. True/false questions are the worst! I could look at any question on a true/false test and justify how a statement could true or false just depending on the circumstances. For example, imagine this true/false question were on a geography test: To travel from Minnesota to Wisconsin, one would travel east. Seem simple. “True” I would want to mark quickly, but theeeeeeeen, not so fast. You could get to Wisconsin from Minnesota going the VERY long way around by going west. Or maybe you need to go to Canada first, so you go north, then east, then, south across Lake Superior and the UP, before finally touch Wisconsin. Or with less imagination, what if you were in Winona, MN crossing to WI? The bridge there goes as much north as it does east, at the very least it goes northeast. What’s an over-thinking to do on “simple” true/false test? These are the things that drove me crazy.
For a few years I have been participating in Presbyterian Panel surveys. “A representative sample of nearly 4,000 Presbyterians (members, ruling elders, pastors, and specialized clergy) serve on the Presbyterian Panel for a three-year period and respond to mailed questionnaires four times a year. The Panel provides a way to listen to and collect information about the practices, beliefs, and opinions from” across a wide spectrum of Presbyterians. And of course, taking a survey is about as fun as taking a test.
One particularPresbyterian Panel survey from 2008, before I was answering the questions, stirred up some attention in the last year or so. The results on this one question on this one survey have been used as a reason among others that some churches are leaving our denomination. Participants were asked to mark whether they Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree with the following statement: Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved. On first read it seems like a pretty basic Christian question. It has some of our favorite words in it, right? “Followers, Jesus, saved.” We like being followers. We love Jesus. And saved is a good thing. Certainly we can all agree to those things, right?
Well in the survey results 39% of Presbyterian church members agreed or strongly agreed, 45% of elders agreed or strongly agreed, 35% of pastors, and 22% of specialized clergy (people who hold positions like hospital chaplains, professors, or other non-congregational ministries). In no category of survey responders did even half of the people agree or strongly agree. Some arms of our denomination were shocked and appalled.
I was not. There were some pretty important little words in that initial statement that can’t be overlooked – some pretty important words especially in light of our Reformed understanding of God’s ultimate sovereignty, God’s reign over all of creation and all of salvation. Those pretty important words “only” and “can” must not be overlooked in this statement, and this discussion between Thomas, Philip, and Jesus in John 14 can help us see how important those words are.
As you might remember from the spring, although this teaching is just over half way through the gospel of John, it takes place in the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The first half of the book covers about 2 ½ years, and the last half covers about 7 days. In fact this whole exchange takes place on about after the disciples’ dinner with Jesus in which he washes their feet and Judas’s departure to begin his betrayal. In the last week Jesus has raised his friend Lazarus from death, been ushered into Jerusalem as if he is a king, predicted his own death, humbled himself to the position of servant, and announced the betrayal of two different disciples. It’s been a whiplash sort of week, so I have to imagine, it is in sensing high anxiety that Jesus begins to offer these words of comfort.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” Another way to think of the word believe here is with the word “trust.” Belief in the Greek language has less of the heady feeling that it has in English, and more of an active feeling. Belief is about putting all your eggs in one basket and acting as if something is true, not just a mental assent as we sometimes think of it in our language. So, “Trust in God; trust also in me” might convey the feeling of this discourse more accurately. “Trust in me,” Jesus tells his disciples. Live as if you know what I say is true, that I am going before you, I am preparing a way and place for you, I will even carry you with me, so you don’t have to worry about finding your way.
Now that sounds all well and good and really it’s practically Pulitzer-worthy poetry, but Thomas - - well, Thomas always seems to say what the rest of us are thinking, but are too shy to actually say out loud. Thomas says, “No really, Jesus. Where are you going? Like, how do we get there? Do you have directions?” Thomas, I really love Thomas, Thomas is so anxious about what’s coming next. He’s so eager to know the truth, to believe, to be right. He wants so desperately to get all the answers right on the true/false test, even the tricky ones. He needs Jesus to be a little more explicit. And Jesus just answers “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
What? How does that help? No one? Through you? Seen God? Does this say what we tend to think it says?
This passage is often used to justify the understanding that people are only considered “saved” if they have made a particular kind of profession of faith. For example, some will say you won’t be saved unless you have had a particular conversion experience, growing and maturing in faith without one just isn’t “real” enough. Some say you won’t be saved until you have prayed what is sometimes called “The Sinner’s Prayer.” One version of it is this:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.
Others say you won’t be saved until your profession of faith is accompanied by a believers’ baptism by full immersion, the sprinkling of water on the head of a baby isn’t enough. Some people read these words in verse 6 “no one comes to the Father except through me” and hear “no one comes to the Father except by their own profession of faith in me,” but I think that that really misses the point.
Let’s go back to the Presbyterian Panel survey and that question about the statement “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”
Those little words “only” and “can” put an extremely strong emphasis on the follower in that sentence. “Only followers” means that no one else, not someone who has never heard of Jesus, not someone who has heard but was raised in another faith tradition, not someone who believed then was hurt then spent life questioning the church, not someone who has always been ambivalent, but has lived a good life, not someone who purposely rejected the love of God, no one, but some set of defined “believers” has a chance to receive God’s grace. Likewise “can” sets the whole thing in stone. “Can” not only says that salvation is certain for followers of Jesus, but it says that the followers are the only ones who have a shot, like it or not. Even whether God likes it or not.
And that’s my problem with this whole question on the survey. It flies in the face of what we Reformed Christians say about the sovereignty of God over all of creation and all of salvation. We say that God gets the final say. We say that God gets to do whatever God wants in terms of saving and welcoming people into the kingdom. We say that there are no limitations we can place on the mind and will of God as human beings, it’s not our job to decide or even worry about deciding who is saved or who isn’t. In fact, we say it’s just plain dangerous to go down that road of thinking, because it is very easy to go from speculation about others’ salvation in the next life to judgement about others’ worth in this life.
That’s my problem with this whole question on the survey, and as well as flying in the face of Reformed theology, I think it flies in the face of what Jesus said right here in John’s gospel. The subject of almost every one of Jesus’s sentence in the first half of this passage is Jesus himself. Jesus is the one doing EVERYTHING. I am going to prepare a place for you. I will come back. I will take you to be with me. I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. It’s all about Jesus and what he does. The ones who come to the Father? They come because I am the one who brings them, not because they believed enough, not because they did enough, not because they were perfect enough, but because I made a way for them. I make a way for you.
It doesn’t say that it’s dependent on any specific words we say. It doesn’t say that it’s dependent on our knowledge of our salvation. It doesn’t say we have to answer a quiz or a survey correctly. It just says that because of Jesus, because of who he was, how he lived, why he died, that he was resurrected, in his love, by his grace, through his doing and being we are able to come to God. It says salvation is not our work. It says salvation is not our job. It says it’s not our ability or our reward or our worth that makes salvation possible. It is only Jesus, and his freely given grace that makes a Way for us to God.
"But... but... Stephanie?," you might be saying! Then what is all this for? If we don't have to do anything, then why are we here? Why do we try so hard? Why do we have mission trips and projects, Sunday School and Bible studies, fellowship and worship? The answer is not "for my job security." I promise.
The answer goes back to that call to believe, that call to trust, that call to live as if what Jesus says is true even if it is hard to see right now, even if it is hard to believe in this world, this world where violence leads in every news report, this world in which racial discrimination kills, this world where poverty strikes without discrimination. The answer to why we do all this, why we worship, why we pray, why we study, why we serve, is that this is the Way of Jesus. We come to the Father, we come closer to God by doing the things we have seen Jesus do, by following his call, not because doing these things earns us God’s acceptance, or love, or grace, or salvation. But because doing Christ-like things aligns us more closely with God’s will and God’s purpose. By getting closer to God’s desires we get closer to the essence of who God is.
This is the call of Christ. This is the promise of God. This is the invitation of the Spirit. That we might trust in Jesus and also do the works that he does, walking in his way and his truth and his life now and forever.