Those who peruse my columns on a regular basis know how I seem to find ways to connect seemingly unconnected events.
Today, I’m faced with what I find to be one of the most difficult sayings of Jesus in light of today’s dramatically diverse world.
In John 14, Jesus is preparing his disciples to live and do ministry after he dies. In his eagerness to comfort and challenge them at the same time, he responds to Thomas’ skeptical, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus’ reply is straightforward: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:5-6, NRSV)
I believe this passage is often misused to separate Christians from non-Christians. To interpret Jesus’ words in this way is inconsistent with the genuinely inclusive welcome he offered to people of varied backgrounds throughout his ministry.
In their context, Jesus’ words were meant to offer comfort and support to a specific group of friends who were suddenly fearful about losing their spiritual guide. I must consider the possibility that we misuse his words and their context when we quote Jesus to justify our religious superiority over another group of spiritual seekers who don’t happen to be Christian, or “totally” Christian.
I’m thinking of the Subud World Congress that recently concluded its two-week meeting in Spokane. Two weeks ago, I read three letters to the editor in this paper, all quoting John 14:6 as a justification to dismiss this unusual gathering of 3,000 people who seek God in traditional and non-traditional religious ways.
I also saw a brief TV interview with a Spokane pastor of an independent church. He, too, was determined to judge Subud strictly by “Christian” standards.
I have to wonder if these men were frightened of some sinister plot I missed. Subud was not here to evangelize Spokane. It seems Subud’s greatest sin might be that it invites people to travel a variety of spiritual paths in search of God. A sin? Really? I think not!
I offer a brief story as an anecdote to the division represented above. It’s not about friction or harmony between Christians and non-Christians. Rather, I share it in thankfulness that within the very diverse Christian family, I found our wide doctrinal and style differences don’t mean a thing when they are transformed by what really matters in God’s scheme of life.
About a month ago, I met Sam at our local hospital. He was a very sick man, and I visited him in anticipation that he would soon move to the nursing home where my ministry is.
While in the hospital, Sam had a cardiac crisis and ended up in intensive care. In that moment, he had a wonderful friend with him, Lavonne, but no family members.
The day after Sam’s crisis, his grandson Keith arrived from North Carolina. Keith is a Southern Baptist preacher.
Willard, Keith’s father and Sam’s son, was on his way to Sandpoint from West Africa, where he is a Pentecostal Holiness missionary.
You get the picture? Sam is in critical condition and two pastors - his son and grandson - are coming to be with him. In the time it took for Willard to reach Sandpoint, I had developed enough of a relationship with Keith that he introduced me to his Pentecostal father as his “temporary pastor.”
I was very pleased, but surprised as well. On the stereotypical level, Southern Baptists and Pentecostal pastors don’t usually trust United Methodist pastors because we are too “liberal,” or not enough of something else. Yet I was considered a pastor worth trusting by this young Southern Baptist pastor. What a day for shredding stereotypes!
Additionally, my friendship and pastoral relationship with Willard has developed these past weeks. Well enough that nearly two weeks ago, I helped officiate at Sam’s funeral. The other pastor was from the Church of God, another denomination “suspicious” of mainline denominations like United Methodists.
Sam was a member of that church. He told me he actually was “interdenominational.” Indeed he was, if his family is any indication.
In his mission work, Willard has pastored a 1,000-member interdenominational church on the Ivory Coast of West Africa that has at least 20 denominations represented. That’s quite a mix of doctrines and styles of “doing church.”
But they work together because they discovered genuine Christian living is never really defined by doctrinal boxes. It is more honestly identified by the ways people choose to relate to one another. And the greatest way is love.
My brief and intense introduction to Sam and his family has been a wondrous reminder that Jesus’ way is best. Doctrine was silently set aside because our primary concern was Sam’s health and the way we could be lovingly supportive of him and each other during this family crisis.
Jesus’ way and truth that leads to life is more about love and compassion than about doctrinal correctness or the “right way to do church.”
My Methodist spiritual father, John Wesley, knew this more than 200 years ago. As he dealt with secondary differences, he would often and simply say, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”
Quite simply, I was reminded of Wesley’s wisdom when a family in grief allowed me to love them and walk with them along Jesus’ compassionate way.
What a gift! I hope you receive it, too. M The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and social services director of Mountainside Care Center, has been a United Methodist minister for 28 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com, or regular mail in care of The Spokesman-Review, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA 99210.
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