Chaim Potok was a deeply religious rabbi and prolific author of novels. He once gave a lecture at Johns Hopkins University on vocational life entitled, “The ball is now in your court.” He told his audience about a conversation he had with his mother as he was preparing to leave for college.
“Chaim,” she said, “I know you want to be a writer, but I have a better idea. Why don’t you become a brain surgeon instead. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying and you’ll make a lot of money.” “Mama,” Chaim replied, “I don’t want to keep people from dying. I want to show them how to live.”
The Gospel today might feel a bit strange on this fifth Sunday of Easter. It takes us back in time to the night of the last supper and the farewell discourse Jesus gave to his closest friends, preparing them for the new life that was about to emerge and the challenges and amazing opportunities that await them.
However, for me and, perhaps for many who hear this text, there is an elephant in the room. Jesus tells us that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” That shouldn’t rattle us too much. Jesus shows us a way of life that values inclusion rather than exclusion, reconciliation rather than discord, mercy rather than heartlessness, peace rather than war, sharing our wealth rather than hording it, liberation of the oppressed and marginalized rather than abuse of power and disregard for human dignity. And he speaks to these life-saving tenets of authentic Christianity with authority and sometimes disturbing truth.
Then comes the rub. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Is Jesus telling us here that Christianity is the only way to know God and for God to know us? Is he saying that the faithful Jew or Buddhist or Hindu has no chance of enjoying eternal happiness in those many dwelling places? What about atheists and agnostics who live really good lives and make a difference in the world? This statement of Jesus has disturbed many and has been the basis for some Christian denominations asserting that they are the one, true faith and the only way to salvation.
Is this verse a translation from the Greek gone amok? Did the author of this passage put his own slant on what Jesus actually said? I don’t know. I do know something about Jesus and how he welcomed everyone without distinction or prejudice and I do know that he is telling us that he is the face of God for us, the closest we can come to knowing God in this life.
I think what Jesus is talking about is “access” to God, not because Jesus is the only way to know God but because it’s the way for us who espouse to be Christians. It’s our way, not necessarily everyone’s way.
Poet W.H. Auden imagined this idea of access to God in his poem:
“Jesus is the way. Follow him in the land of unlikeliness. You will see rare reality and have unique adventures.
He is the truth. Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety – you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the life. Love him in the world of the flesh and, in the end, you shall dance for joy.”
My money is on the truth that anyone who lives the kind of life that Jesus taught us to live will know God and be known by God. And one disturbing truth is that some non-Christians are more Christ-like than some Christians. In the end, the final test of our belief is not what we profess with our lips but how we treat each other. How we live in love.
Jesus says something near the end of this Gospel that is astonishing and remarkable: “You are going to do greater things than I have done.” He tells us. Greater things than even Jesus has done? Wow! Jesus is telling them and those who follow them to expect a power surge of God’s Spirit that will amaze them.
In the second reading today where we are called “living stones to be “built into a spiritual house.” Peter tells us that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” That’s a mind-blowing description of what we are called to be as a community.
Our own story as the church is a very real and living thing, a wonderful and tangible connection through the ages, through so many years and centuries—from that small band of ill-prepared anglers and tax collectors and schlemiels who sat in that room and heard Jesus tell them that they would do greater things than Jesus had done— to you and me with all our imperfections and human failings. We are the church— a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, empowered to do even greater works than Jesus did.
A wise leader once said that we humans in community are glorious but far from perfect, rather like porcupines in a winter storm. We huddle together to keep warm until we start poking each other. Hard work, like anything worth doing, takes both thick skin and deep commitment. Anything worth doing is hard work. Growing up is hard work. So is finding and staying with someone to love, or finding your calling and making something of it.
The conversation Jesus had with his followers that night wasn’t so much about what to anticipate after his death or theirs. Jesus didn’t want them to keep people from dying. He wanted them to show them how to live. And that’s what he expects of us. The ball is in our court.