It is important that we understand what this famous passage from John's gospel is really calling us to do, and especially perhaps to engage proactively with the text of verse 16, which in relatively recent Christian history has been used as a kind of trump card against the worth of other religions. The first thing to do is to put it in its historical context. It is of course a late piece of scripture and it is highly unlikely that these words attributed to Jesus were actually spoken by him. The situation for the writers of John's gospel, after the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues was one of ongoing conflict between Jews and Christians. It is small wonder then that the first century Christian apologists who wrote this gospel were anxious to encourage their adherents to stick to the Christian way and not to go back to Judaism. Yet I do not think we have simply to dismiss the text as unhistorical. Rather we can dig into it further and find much that can help us in the ongoing task of doing greater things in Christ's name.
The Christian theologian Wesley Ariarajah writes about it in this way.
When my daughter tells me I’m the best daddy in the world, and there can be no other father like me, she is speaking the truth, for this comes out of her experience. She is honest about it; she knows no other person in the role of her father. But of course it is not true in another sense. For one thing, I myself know friends who, I think, are better fathers than I am. Even more importantly, one should be aware that in the next house there is another little girl who also thinks her daddy is the best father in the world. And she too is right. In fact as the level of the way the two children relate to their two fathers, no one can compare the truth content of the statements of the two girls. For here we are not dealing with the absolute truths, but with the language of faith and love. …
The language of the Bible is also the language of faith….The problem begins when we take these confessions in the language of faith and love and turn them into absolute truths. It becomes much more serious when we turn them into truths on the basis of which we begin to measure the truth or otherwise of other faith claims. My daughter cannot say to her little friend in the next house that there is no way she can have the best father, for the best one is right there in her house. If she does, we’ll have to dismiss it as child-talk!
In other words as a verse written by Christians for Christians it was designed to encourage the response of faith and love - 'it is all right Philip, you are on the right path and you can trust that this path will take you to God and you do not have to go back to the Jewish way.' As such it is understandable and helpful. But if it is seen as a prescription for all time of how Christians are to treat those of other faiths it is not helpful at all. Rather we need to understand that the way of Jesus, the way of self-giving and sacrifice, the way of telling truth to power, the way of loving neighbour, does indeed lead to God, to the Father if we using Christian language. We are on this way and on this way we can seek to do all those things. When we do so as a body, we incarnate, just as Jesus did, this way of life-giving love and through us greater things happen than Jesus could ever have imagined in his lifetime. Just think of all the schools, hospitals, soup kitchens and Aid programmes run by Christians. But as Christians we are not the only ones on such a path. As a Hindu teacher wrote, 'that way--of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being--is known in all of the religions of the world." The "way" of Jesus is a universal way, known even to millions who have never heard of Jesus.' Along that way, those of other sheepfolds are contributing to the great works of God just as we do, and we leave it to God ultimately to bring us all together into one flock. Meanwhile we have works of love and transformation to perform.
Throughout his life and ministry Jesus sought to show us who God is and how God works through love to bring transformation to the world. Now it is our turn. As Christ's hands and feet and eyes on earth we are to show what God's love is like in our generation. Sometimes I think we can become disheartened because we expect God to act in the miraculous ways we are told Jesus acted in the gospels. But this is to miss the point. Rather we are to be like the small child in the gospel story who offered up his fish and bread lunch and saw it magnified to feed the thousands. We are to offer what we can, do what we are able, and continue in faith along the way and in so doing greater deeds than those of Christ himself are accomplished.
Some of you will have seen recently on line the Indian scientist Peesapaty who has invented an edible disposable spoon. Eat your stew and then eat the spoon you ate it with - perfect! Or if you don't want to eat it, it will bio degrade in ten days anyway. It sounds like a small thing but when we consider the damage plastic does to the environment and the fourteen billion plastic spoons used each year in America alone, we can see that such small steps are essential. Peesapaty and his wife staked their careers, their apartment and the regard of family and friends over a ten year period to bring the spoons to the world. They took truths - that plastic and the excessive propagation of rice over millet are causing irreparable damage to our planet, and walking the Christ-like sacrificial way of love, are bringing to us something genuinely life-giving and transformative. May we like them, and with the students of Hillbrook Anglican College, walk the path that brings life, in the name of Christ who showed us the way. Amen
by Penny Jones, for Easter 5 Year A, 14 May 2107