|Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on Feb. 1, 2009.
After 9/11, I went to a ministers’ conference in San Diego. The conference was about how to conduct ministry in the 21st Century. Having survived airport security in that particular week, we made our way there and it was an interesting conference. One of the featured speakers was a woman named Jennifer James who had the wonderful profession of being a futurist. A futurist is someone who studies trends and tries to tell everybody the way things are going so we can anticipate them for whatever our business may be.
It was her task to talk to this large group of preachers about what faith, spirituality, and religion would be in the United States in the 21st Century. She said it was really very clear. It was going to be pluralistic which meant there were a lot of different views. It was going to be eclectic which meant people were going to choose different things. She said there would be many truths and many choices. She said Christianity would not dominate and any religion that claimed to be exclusively the way to God would lose believers.
I am a preacher so I can tell you how preachers are. With this being a big group of preachers, I knew I had better strap on a helmet and seatbelt and get ready because people were not going to like that at all. She had no more finished speaking when one person jumped up and very violently said, “Well, what about John 14:6 where Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.’”
She was a rather patient woman and said, “I can show you in a lot of holy books where people claim to have the only way to God. I am just telling you that if you try to be exclusive, you are going to lose market share.” You needed shoulder pads after that. It was quite the buzz in the hallway for a good while. What do you do with somebody who says that and you really do believe that passage from John where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father but by me”?
This has been one of our claims. This is one of the things that, as Christians, we more or less hang our hats on. Jesus said it; I believe it; that settles it. That makes a good bumper sticker. A lot of times, Jesus’ claim is what gives us confidence in the arguments with people of other religions. This is the trump card in salvation’s version of Family Feud. We get to say, “We win; you lose, because Jesus said this.” Jesus said it and we are absolutely confident. Christians are winners in the faith battle because Jesus said it and we believe in Jesus.
If Jesus is the way to God, the only way to salvation, as Christians, is it just enough that his statement is true or is it important enough that we walk that way, too? Do we get a pass simply by being a Christian and saying, “Jesus said it and I believe it? Whew! I’m covered,” or is there something in what Jesus says when he says, “I am the way,” that then becomes a compulsion on me to walk the way. Is it just enough to say in my mind, “OK, that’s true,” or does there have to be something in my life that then compels me to live the way Jesus lived, to believe that the way Jesus teaches and the way Jesus would respond in a given situation is the right way all the time. Do you understand the difference? Is it only a mental exercise and we get credit for it because Jesus said it and we believe it or is there something then that we have to do to walk this way?
In preparation for this sermon, I read a very interesting line that really works with this. It says, “The heights may charm us but the paths to them don’t.” Several years ago, we were taking a family vacation in Colorado. I made up my mind that I was going to climb a 14-er. That’s a 14,000 foot mountain. There was one 20 or 30 miles away that was relatively easy as those things go. Rachel said, “I am up for it. Let’s go.” We got in the car and got to the jumping off point at about 10,000 feet. I said, “OK, I think I can do that.” We started up and somewhere around 12,500 feet as we were getting ready to cross the third snow field, it was really hard to breathe. Looking at that charmed me a whole lot more than the path I saw the rest of the way up there. The heights charm us, but the paths to them don’t. We would like to be charmed by the height of Jesus saying, “I am the way,” but the truth is something is undone and incomplete unless Christians walk in it. I would classify “the way” as sharing in God’s life whether that means abundant life on this side of the grave or eternal life forever with Christ. If Jesus really is “the way,” don’t we walk it? Aren’t we supposed to walk the way Jesus walked?
In Acts 9:1-2, you will find the first of seven times in the Book of Acts where followers of Jesus Christ are called “the way.” Before Christians are ever called the church, they are called “the way.” It comes about from an observation of people looking at them thinking that there is a distinct way that these people live. There is a distinct way that they act and treat each other and other people. It struck the observers of their time that there was a particular way about them. Long before they are called a church, they are called “the way.”
At this time, Paul (known then as Saul) persecuted people of “the way.” As a matter of fact, if you look at all the verses, five of the seven times somebody in “the way” is getting into trouble. “The way” is getting in the way of somebody.
Have you seen the bumper sticker, “My karma ran over your dogma”? I am sure you have. It is really a cute metaphor. Beyond that, it is a pretty succinct statement about what people think about certain expressions of Christianity today. Christianity has often indeed been about beliefs. Do you believe these five things? Do you believe these eight things? These are the things that people call “dogma.” People are pretty down on that today. So you take a little Eastern religion and make a cute statement, “My karma ran over your dogma,” but it does reveal something. A lot of times Christians have allowed statements about God and Christ to be enough. If everybody will just check it off and say, “I believe these five, ten, or twelve things” that is good enough, but do you realize that at the time when Saul was persecuting “the way” and the expression “the way” was being used to describe Christians, it was still 300 years until anybody wrote down a Christian creed stating that people are living in a particular way because they follow Jesus Christ?
I hope you are getting the point here. Is it enough simply to say that I believe something about Jesus and not live like Jesus? Is it simply enough to say, “I believe Jesus is the way and now I am covered for everything,” or is there something that hangs on our souls as people who say they believe in Jesus Christ and that we should walk that same way?
Which is enough? To agree that Jesus was born of a virgin or to live by the statement that love never fails?
Which is enough? To believe as the creed says that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried or to believe and act upon those who lose their own lives for his sake will live?
Is it enough to believe the statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” or is there something that requires me to walk that way, too?
Part of it is the poverty of the English language. You can see this if you think about it. “Belief” actually comes from an older English version “by life,” what you live your life by. What you live your life by are your beliefs. Belief has come to mean something you think with your mind when it originally meant a conviction that directs what you do all the time. When we talk about believing in Christ, if you understand that, it is not simply something that goes on in our minds so that we can say, “I believe the right dogmas,” but it is something that directs our lives so that we live the way Jesus lives. When we find ourselves living the way Jesus lives, we find out, “This is right.” This is consistent with what I understand to be what life, health, goodness, and God’s blessing in my life would be. When I don’t, I find myself running headlong against it, frustrated all the time.
Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a counselor about approaches to faith in counseling. He said, “I am really convinced that to tell people to read a chapter in the Bible, go home, and pray about it,” is not counseling. He said, “I think that is good but that is not counseling.” Then later in the conversation, he said, “I will tell you this: In counseling, almost every problem I run into could be improved if people would learn to forgive, if people would treat each other the way that Jesus wants us to treat each other, and if people would recognize that hate is acidic and will simply burn a hole through your gut.” He named off all these things that are a part of the way Christ wants us to live. He said, “I cannot think of one case where people living the way of Jesus Christ would not be healed of why they came to me.”
Is it enough simply to claim that Jesus made the claim himself? Is it enough for us to take that claim, hold on to it, and think it covers everything for us or if we truly believe it, if we truly live our lives by it, then don’t we find it is true when we live that way also? “I am the way.” Then why would we want to live any other way? Why would we want to try to take a shortcut? Why would we want to get off the path and try something else? Why would we want to go another way and think that we are still going to end up closer to God or more at peace with God or even other people in the world?
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” I will go back to the statement, “Heights charm us but the paths to them don’t.” It is much easier to want Jesus to do it all and just simply check it off on a box somewhere and let that be enough for us. When we do that, we shortchange ourselves to what Jesus would give us. It is in the walking of the way of Christ that we discover that this is true. It is in the walking of the way of Christ that we find out that we are truly closer to God.