Over the years, the familiar statement of identity from John chapter fourteen, verse six has developed into a litmus test, an indication of God’s implacable judgment, his unbending exclusion, and – for those unfortunate enough to find themselves outside his circle – his absence.
“No one comes to the father except through me” is taken at its most simplistically literal and transforms this description of identity into a declaration of prohibition rather than a word of promise. To hear this verse as such places it in opposition to every other “I Am” statement in John’s gospel, and that alone should give us pause. Seven times in this mystical and metaphorical portrait, Jesus defines himself. And in every one of those seven definitions is an invitation. Including this one.
To interpret this verse too literally, too narrowly, makes it a proof text for Christian exclusivism. “No one comes to the father except through me” has repeatedly been made into a weapon with which to bludgeon our perceived opponents into theological submission. One side will use these words as a test for acceptance that they are on the right side of the gate and, by extension, that others are wrong. It reduces the faith of the Son of God to a zero-sum game that must have a winner and a loser. Where is the good news to be found in such a hollow victory?
Many of us, over the years, have found ourselves in various positions on this theological spectrum. Certainly my understanding has evolved. The more I learn about God, and the more I experience God’s presence, the more I understand God as radically inclusive – not radically exclusive. Jesus devoted his ministry to breaking down walls and widening the circle. And so I struggle with the idea that this statement, made in the middle of his Farewell Discourse, is a warning to his disciples to close the doors.
With that in mind, let’s explore what “No one comes to the Father except through me” might mean if it is not a categorically exclusive statement.
To begin with, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to God relationally. That is, he repeatedly calls him the Father, naming him in relationship. God as Father is the very specific and concrete affirmation of a faith community about the God who is known to them because of the Incarnation. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus continually acts in ways that will point to his Father, reinforcing the concept that knowledge of God is found in relationship. Our concern, then, is not focused on those outside the Christian tradition but on whether those within Christianity – whether you and I – truly understand our distinctiveness as students and followers of the Son of God.
The late Gail O’Day was the dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity and a scholar of John’s Gospel. She writes that it is important to hear this theological affirmation in the first-century context of the gospel. This statement is not the sweeping claim of a major world religion but the relatively new conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. What our ears might hear as exclusionary would be described more accurately as particularism. That is, the claims made in John 14:6 express the particularities of John’s knowledge and experience of God; and, membership in the faith community for which he writes does hinge on this claim, a claim that has distanced them from their previous religious identity and that will shape their new religious identity. It says, “We are the people who believe in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.” John’s Gospel is simply not concerned with the fate of Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists. This is the confessional celebration of a particular faith community, one convinced of the truth and the new and liberating life it has received in the incarnation. John’s chief concern was to clarify – and to celebrate – what it means to believe in Jesus. And that means closing the door – on the way we have previously been living. It means closing the door – on the solo journey that is unconcerned with our brothers and sisters. It means closing the door – on the false glitter and easy glamour of this world. It does not mean closing the door in others’ faces and insisting that we are the only ones who win.
We can hear this statement as the core claim of Christian identity, one that only Christianity holds, without using it as a way to diminish others. Marcus Borg, a theologian of the late twentieth century, writes: “ ‘Here, in Jesus, I see more clearly than anywhere else what Jesus is like.’ This affirmation can be made with one’s whole heart while still affirming that other traditions also know God.”
For you and for me to find in this verse a declaration of particularity worth celebrating is, in fact, in belief and in truth, the good news – the gospel. And we can live it in the way that we model the Son of God to those around us. To affirm that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” is to believe that Jesus is the path of transformation, from a way that leads inevitably to death into a way that leads to new life, to resurrection, to being free to love – not with the self-righteous triumph that shuts others out but with the joyous exultation that welcomes others in.