No Easy Answer

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2023

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places … I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  (from John 14:1-6)

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is a paradox.  It sets forth two propositions about God that apparently contradict each other.  They cannot both be true.  As I pondered the notion of a paradox, what came to mind was a classic thought experiment called The Ship of Theseus.  The story goes that Theseus, the legendary founder and hero of Athens, travels to Crete, defeats King Minos and his minotaur, and rescues the captive Athenian children.  He sails home and anchors his ship in the harbor, where it remains as a symbol of Athenian identity.  Every year the citizens take it out for a commemorative sail to honor the gods. 

Over time the ship begins to show its age.  Wooden planks rot and become encrusted with barnacles.  The rigging frays, the sails tear.  But the people determine that the ship of Theseus is worthy of perpetual repair.  Thus, plank by plank, year after year they replace the decaying parts of the ship so that it is always seaworthy and available for the annual pilgrimage.  It is unquestionably the historic ship of Theseus.  Little do the citizens know, however, that every time they remove a plank or a sail from the ship, a dockworker collects the unwanted piece and brings it back to his shop.  Soon the dockworker begins reassembling the discarded parts, and a second ship starts to take shape.  After many years every single plank, sail, rope, and mast of the original ship is replaced, yet collected by the dockworker.  Now, two ships claiming to be the authentic ship of Theseus are in existence.  The claims contradict each other.  Both claims are legitimate, but both cannot be true.  Which one is the true ship of Theseus?  That’s the paradox. 

Now back to the Gospel of John, where in the 14th chapter we’ve heard one of the most recognizable, yet one of the most paradoxical passages in all of the Scriptures.  Within the first six verses of today’s reading (14:1-14) we find two familiar sayings of Jesus, both of which have provided the basis for major strands of theological thinking within the church.  Both of these theologies have a vital message that the church needs to preach and the world needs to hear.  But strangely, like the two ships of Theseus, the claims they make seem to contradict each other.  The two sayings are these: John 14:2 reads, In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  And John 14:6 reads, I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. 

One reason today’s passage from John is familiar to us is because we often hear it at funerals.  People choose these words in the context of grief because of the breadth and roominess of John 14:2, In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  This verse is descriptive of an immensely large topic: heaven, the Father’s house, God’s dwelling place that exists in light inaccessible from before time and forever (Book of Common Prayer, p. 373). 

A great fear in countless people is that they themselves or their departed loved ones won’t make it to heaven.  They fear that their particular beliefs about God will be judged incorrect or of insufficient intensity.  Thus at the time of death they will find no friend, no welcome, and no room in God’s heavenly home.  But in this one verse on the lips of Jesus, people have heard the wide-open, even universal welcome of God’s embrace to all sorts and conditions of believers.  Those whom we might call “John 14:2” people rightly point out that it is the love and grace of God that saves, not the merits of anyone’s correct believing.  John 14:2 people are concerned with the church’s ongoing relevance and mission.  Will it float still today?  Will it sail still today?  Yes, if we proclaim that aboard God’s ship you’ll find room for everyone. 

Only four verses later, however, the tone changes.  The wide-open embrace becomes exclusive.  The entrance to the ship becomes narrow.  In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  So, we have left the realm of the universal for the level of the particular.  Indeed, here is but one example of a consistent Biblical truth often referred to as “the scandal of particularity.”  God chooses particular nations and individuals – and not others – to be the focal points of revelation.  God poured himself into a covenant relationship with the Jews as he did no other nation.  God poured himself into Jesus as he did no other person.  It’s a scandal because God’s designated doorways to the Father’s house seem too few, too narrow, and too culturally constrained to reach a diverse world. 

How can such particular claims be universally true?  Many, even in our own Episcopal Church, say that they cannot, and should not be true.  Actually, a lively debate is ongoing in contemporary theology that in today’s pluralistic society, Christians would do well to concentrate on John 14:2 and back off from John 14:6.  We should lay down our particular truth claims, and acknowledge the legitimacy of all pathways to God.  (It’s interesting to me that no other religion seems pressured to lay down its particular truth claims.  But that’s another sermon for another day.)  Perhaps we have only ourselves to blame.  Over the centuries we have earned the world’s suspicion by using John 14:6 as a guarded door barring entrance to the ship.  We have needlessly shut people out, and thus have damaged the cause of Christ.  But the fault lies in us, not in the particular means by which God chooses to reach the world.  John 14:6 people are concerned about identity.  When we shy away from pointing people to the doorway God has opened into the ship, this is failure to commend the faith that is in us.  Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  We dilute these words to our own extinction. 

There you have the paradox within six short verses of John 14.  I hope you realize that we’re talking about something bigger than an exercise in theological hair-splitting.  The pastoral implications are enormous.  Who’s in, and who’s out?  Who’s aboard, and who’s not?  John 14:2 people claim that we are children of God by virtue of creation, and you can’t issue boarding passes only to those lucky enough to have heard about Jesus.  John 14:6 people counter that we are children of God by virtue of the cross, resurrection, and gift of the Spirit.  You can’t have a church whose only particular truth claim is that we have no particular truth claim.  On and on goes the argument, sometimes with ugly consequences. 

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts (7:55-60) is an example of the worst of what can happen when passionate people argue about who has the truth, and who does not.  Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church, was a man whom Luke describes as “full of grace and power,” doing “great signs and wonders among the people.”  Stephen preached about Jesus in the synagogues, and some of his fellow Jews didn’t like it.  They fabricated charges against him and brought him before the council.  In the run-up to today’s reading, Stephen stood before his accusers and recast all of salvation history.  Israel’s response to God, he thundered, was a sordid tale of rebellion.  The death of Jesus, he declared, was just the latest example in a long legacy of rejecting the prophets.  It was hardly a flattering sermon.  One could not argue that Stephen was a diplomatic preacher.  If Stephen meant to poke the council members in their eyes, he succeeded.  If he meant to arouse a reaction, he got one.  It would be an understatement to say that an argument ensued.  The people were enraged.  They dragged Stephen to a pit and stoned him.  Still today, it’s enough to make you throw you hands up in despair.  The ship of religion embarks on a journey you may not want to take.  Will we ever solve the paradox between the many and the one? 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me … It seems to me that while the disciples’ hearts were troubled, while Thomas was perplexed and Philip was confused, Jesus was completely at peace with what we might take to be the inconsistencies in what he said.  He was not worried about how to reconcile the many and the one.  He was comfortable – indeed, he embodied – the tension between the universal and the particular.  Karl Barth was a highly influential German theologian of the 20th century.  During one of his university lectures, Barth had a brief exchange with a student that has always been remembered and is often retold.  The student asked, “Sir, don’t you think that God revealed himself in other religions, and not just Christianity?”  Barth replied, “No, God has not revealed himself in any religion, including Christianity.  He has revealed himself in his Son.”  Barth’s point was to keep our eyes on Jesus.  Our calling is never to follow any one theology, any one religion, any one culture, but rather the risen Lord Jesus, who is alive and leading. 

The Psalmist (31:3) prayed to God: For the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.  If you are looking for guidance, if you are looking for a pastoral application to what Jesus has to say, it may be as simple as this: relax.  If you don’t understand how all things are working together for good in your life, relax.  If the pieces of your life and faith don’t currently seem to match, let not your heart be troubled.  Note well that “relax” doesn’t mean give up the quest for truth.  It’s actually rather fun to read how philosophers over the centuries have tried to work out the paradox, The Ship of Theseus.  Today you can go online and watch little cartoons that lay out the possible solutions for you.  Indeed, some prefer YouTube to dusty old tomes.  The logic they employ is impressive.  The conclusion they always reach seems to be that no solution satisfactorily solves the paradox of which one is the true ship of Theseus.  There is no easy answer.  Relax. 

Likewise, theologians of have forever tried to work out the paradoxes at the heart of faith, and the effort continues to this day.  How do you put the two contradictory statements of Jesus together?  How do you reconcile God’s election of the Jews with God’s love for the rest of the world?  No easy answers will satisfy.  But whenever people of varying opinions and faiths engage the questions with patience, humility, and love, surprising breakthroughs can result.  Predictably, eye-poking and stone-throwing never increase the kingdom. 

No easy answer will satisfy.  I was sad to read earlier this week about the death of Rabbi Harold Kushner.  Kushner was a bestselling author and longtime rabbi of a synagogue in Massachusetts.  Perhaps his most influential book is entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, first published in 1981.  The book had its genesis in Kushner’s struggle over watching his son, Aaron, suffer from progeria, or, rapid aging disease.  Aaron was just three-years old when he was first diagnosed.  By age ten he weighed just 25 pounds and had the physiology of a sixty-year old.  He died when he was fourteen. 

Through his grief Rabbi Kushner wrestled with an ancient paradox: how can a omnipotent and loving God allow the innocent to suffer?  God’s love, or God’s power?  Our lived experience is that these assertions contradict each other.  Which is the truth?  Kushner’s book brought hope and comfort to many people not because it provided easy answers, but precisely because it did not.  Kushner showed that one could question the ways of God, and even contend with them, without losing sight of God’s infinite love for the world, and all the children of earth.  I give thanks for Kushner’s work and witness, and pray that in the many rooms of God’s house, he is enjoying a joyful reunion with Aaron, his son, whom he never forgot, and never stopped loving. 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  No, Kushner himself would not have quoted Jesus here.  Instead, he might have recited a verse from today’s Psalm (31:5) that was on our lips as well: Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.