Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 4, updated

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This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love.  It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way.  The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.  

The Place of the Stranger in the Christian Faith

A parable in the Hindu Vedas tells of a man entering a darkened room. To his horror he sees what looks like a snake coiled in a corner. Though full of terror at the prospect of a venomous snake ready to strike, he fights the urge to flee and instead moves toward the snake to examine it. Upon a closer look the specter is discovered to be nothing but a harm-less coil of rope.

This, according to the Vedas, is the purpose of philosophizing to disarm the fearsomeness of the world by removing the threat of the unknown. Knowledge of the truth about the worldrenders the world less fearful and more bearable.

Is there anything more natural, innate, and universal than our fear of the Other? This natural, innate, adaptively beneficial propensity to stick with our own tribe makes all the more remarkable that early on in Israel’s history, God’s people are explicitly commanded to “love the immigrant… as yourself”: When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:3334 CEB). Unnatural enough to be told to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt 22:39) but to love even the foreign, alien (NRSV) is counter to the way we come into this world.

To be sure, there is some tension in the biblical story between God’s commands not to  “oppress the immigrant” and the command to exclude and drive out strangers like the Canaanites (many early American preachers labeled Native Americans as “Canaanites” and sought biblical justification for the European conquest of North America). Still, Leviticus’ command not just to receive or tolerate but to love the stranger is remarkable.

The stranger plays a curious role in Scripture, Old Testament and New. Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, threw the thirty pieces of silver on the floor of the Temple and then hanged himself. Matthew says that the priests who had paid him refused to use the “blood money” for God’s business. They bought a field “as a place to bury foreigners” (Greek: Xenois, foreigners, immigrants, strangers), casting the body of Judas among the im-migrants and foreigners as if Judas were not really one of the Twelve.

In Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgment, when all the nations would be judged and separated, the enthroned Human One says to the blessed sheep, “I was a stranger (Xenos) and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35 CEB). Surprise. In welcoming Xenois, they had received the Human One unawares.

Ephesians joyfully proclaims to new Christians that they “are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s house-hold” (Eph 2:19 CEB). Xenophobia, the fear of the Other, stems from the Greek word for strangers.

Christians must learn to say to all those who would attempt to play on our innate fear of the Other, “For Christians, hospitality to the stranger is not only expected of us by God butalso commanded of us.”  The stranger, and our reception of strangers, is therefore a sort of acid test for Christian faithfulness.

Will Willimon


Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 3

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Please click on this link for more info, and to order

The Test of the Church

This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way. The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.

Receiving Others as We Have Been Received

Xenophobic, exclusionary fear of the Other is more than a matter of preference for people whom we enjoy hanging out with, or those with whom we feel most comfortable. In deep fear of the Other we separate ourselves from others in order to better oppress, exploit, expulse, confine, hurt, or deny justice and access to others whom we have judged to be so Other as to be beyond the bounds of having any bond between us or any claim upon us.

A subtext of recent debates over whether or not to admit Syrian refugees, has been, If we let them in, what’s the cost? Will our nation be less secure? Will property values in my neighborhood be diminished? Will these newcomers help or hinder the economy?

While these are not unreasonable questions, Christians ought to admit that in debates about others Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ. Sure, we can argue about how we ought to be hospitable and what steps to take to integrate these newcomers and to enable them to thrive in North American cultures. We can be honest about the challenges involved in their coming to and being received as strangers in a strange land. However, as Christians we are “prejudiced” toward hospitality, particularly for those in need, because that’s the way God in Christ has treated us and commanded us to treat others.

Christians believe that the one, universal God is known in a particular way in the one who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly—Jesus Christ. God has refused to be obscure. In this one who was fully human like us, and fully God unlike us, we believe that we have seen as much of God as we ever hope to see in this world.

God’s move toward us enemies went against just about everything we thought we knew about God. It still does.

God? God is righteous, holy, high, and lifted up, glorious and good. We are not. God is up there; we are down here. Can’t say anything for sure about God because God is aloof, obscure, obtuse.

And then came Jesus, challenging and refuting by his words and his deeds just about everything we thought we knew for sure about God. He was Emmanuel, God With Us, but not the God we wanted to meet. Where we expected judgment and exclusion, he enacted mercy and embrace. Where we craved unconditional affirmation of our righteousness and insider status, he slammed us with judgment upon our presumption and a call to even higher righteousness. He practiced unconstrained hospitality, inviting to his table people whom nobody thought could be saved, people whom nobody wanted saved. Resisting the clutches of the powerful and the proud, he condescended, touching the untouchable and lifting up the lowly. In his suffering, loving outreach to us, in his truthful preaching, and in his resourceful, relentless drawing us unto himself, Jesus was other than the God we expected.

This is the Christological basis for Paul’s command to the church in Rome, “So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory” (Rom 15:7 CEB).

The cross of Christ mysteriously, wondrously unites Jews and Gentiles, without regard to ethnicity, gender, race, or class (1 Cor 12:13). God refused to stay singular, a monad. God is inherently self-giving, connective, and communicative. Not merely our otherness toward God but our downright enmity has been “put to death” and peace made “through the cross” (Eph 13:17 CEB). The power of the cross was so great over the imagination of Christians that Paul could say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20 CEB).

We Wesleyans believe this is not some heroic stance reserved for a super saint like Paul; it is a presently available life based upon not only what Jesus did for us in the cross but also what Jesus daily does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is not simply love but love in action, love making a way for us to overcome evil with good and to miraculously unite with others despite our various separations.

The great liberator, Frederick Douglas, made a speech in the tense days before the Civil War. The equally courageous Sojourner Truth was in the audience. Douglas spoke honestly and eloquently of the plight of African Americans in this country where they were held as slaves. Douglas thundered that there was no hope that white America would ever grant freedom. Whites only understood violence.

“Frederick,” Sojourner Truth called out, “is God dead?”

Will Willimon




“Will You Enforce the Discipline?”

James C. Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte is one of our church’s most effective and thoughtful pastors. Now James is the Western North Carolina Conference’s endorsed candidate for election as Bishop. James recently published a blog in which he noted one of the most frequent questions put to him was “will you, as bishop, enforce The Book of Discipline?
Of course, everybody in the UMC knows that the question is really will you enforce the few paragraphs in the Discipline that refer to sexual orientation?

I was reminded that this was a frequently asked question of me before I finally blew my stack and said, “That’s insulting. As a bishop I would promise to administer the rules of my church. It’s like asking, ‘As a bishop, will you promise not to commit adultery?’ Besides, of all the stuff in The Discipline about mission, evangelism, pastoral effectiveness, why are these the most important paragraphs to ‘enforce.’”

In his thoughtful response to this less than thoughtful question, James said:

Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one. Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation. Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.
A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?” This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in. The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
I wish we wouldn’t speak in code. Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced. But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all. Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive. Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
But Jesus established a different kind of community that trades not in force and punishment, but in love and reconciliation. If you actually read the Discipline, the bishops are charged with theologically robust tasks, like vision, pastoral care, renewal, and prophetic transformation. Maybe we can expect them to “uphold” (rather than “enforce”) the Discipline and all its lofty dreams.
Besides, when we have rules, and a genuine need for order, what are theologically meaningful processes to restore order? Punishing, like public censure, the loss of income, or permanent removal from ministry, seems so very secular. Should church authorities dispense punishment? Or offer something better? Aren’t there wise ways to uphold the Discipline and honor our covenantal relationships forged through it?….
Aren’t there creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline – as it must be upheld? If a pastor re-baptizes, for instance. Yes, we could eradicate his income or fire him from ministry. But perhaps, we could send him to the Jordan River with a veteran pastor who would befriend him and help him understand the overwhelming power of God’s mercy and grace…. Of course, there are egregious infractions that harm others (like child abuse) or break the law (like embezzlement), and the Discipline rightly deals firmly with those, although even with a criminal action we would, as Jesus’ people, still pray and yearn for redemption.
Reflecting a little further on rule-breaking:  we have in our country and in the long history of the Church a tradition of civil disobedience.  Once in a while you see disobedience with malevolent intent.  But most rebels I know who break rules with some real theological gusto are noble in intent.  They show considerable courage, and risk-taking, and quite often are zealously advocating for somebody who’s been marginalized.  We don’t suffer from an excess of courage in ministry – so are there ways to uphold the Discipline and yet in some fashion uphold the holy boldness and willingness to bear the cost in a pastor who with some agony feels it is God’s hard will for her or him to choose covenant with God over covenant with fellow clergy?
Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t. I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover. It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world. As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus. But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?
.…let’s acknowledge the Discipline is not divinely inspired Scripture. Who is the author of this book? Several hundred people, clergy and laity, working through translators in nine different languages, meet every four years, and after considerable rancor, debate that involves no listening whatsoever, and backroom manipulation, and in an exhausted, cranky mood, finally take a vote, and the winner, maybe with nothing more than 50% plus one of that vote, becomes the Discipline.
….after the majority vote, we don’t excommunicate or murder the losers. We are the Body, with different members. We disagree, and then we get this book that I will never for a moment believe enfleshes God’s will in any perfect way….
And have we even understood the Discipline’s own humble claims for itself? The preface to the Social Principles, that chunk of the Discipline that contains the few paragraphs we treat as if it’s the whole book, plainly and rather invitingly declares “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort to speak to human issues from a sound biblical and theological foundation… They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive… a call to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.” This doesn’t sound like an ironclad decree to be enforced. It sounds like a holy conversation starter.
If I could wave a magic wand and change our relationship to the Book of Discipline, I’d say Let’s actually read the whole thing; it is profound and highly motivational. Let’s be humble about it; its composition happens during our denomination’s most embarrassing moments. Let’s treat it as a covenant between us all…. Let’s find ways for this book to be a joyful liberation to launch us into exciting and transformative ministry in today’s hurting world. The Discipline truly can be a book of good news and great joy.

Thanks James. The UMC is blessed that you have been willing to offer yourself for leadership in our church.

Will Willimon

Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 2

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Please click on this link for more info, and to order

The Test of the Church

This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way. The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.  But for the Grace of God

The phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” was first used in the sixteenth century by John Bradford upon seeing a group of men led to the gallows. If God practiced justice rather than graciousness, if God loved high moral standards more than God loves us, we all should be headed for the gallows. Or, as Paul put it, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom. 3:23 CEB). Not “most,” all.

“But all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24 CEB). Jesus Christ saves sinners, only sinners.

Paul’s sweeping declaration of our sin and Christ’s redemption is a basis for Christ-like response to the Other: “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people” (Rom. 5:6 CEB).

Or as 1 Peter puts it, “Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18 CEB).

“Joe would do anything for his family. He was a great husband and father,” a speaker intoned at a funeral. Goodness toward ones family is morally noteworthy? As Eddie Murphy complained of folk who brag about how much they love their families, “That’s your job!”

Of course I love my wife, my children; they look like me. When I have loved the Other, as Christ has loved me in my otherness and enmity, then that’s a specifically Christian, countercultural, virtually miraculous love.

When a presidential candidate talks of closing our borders to members of one faith, speaking about them as insidious, dangerous, threatening, evil doers, I remember a TV program some years ago (during one of our many wars to end all wars in the Middle East). A group of Afghan boys had their homes and town destroyed by American bombs. Now, without parents, they had fled to a safer but more wretched life in Karachi, Pakistan. They now lived in a garbage dump, surviving off rotting food and living in filth.

The boys’ only hope was to be received by one of Pakistan’s many madrasas, Muslim religious schools, infamous breeding grounds for Jihadists. The boys told the reporter that they hoped to be selected as students because there they would be protected, fed, and clothed.

When asked what they thought of Americans the boys responded that Americans were cruel killers who bomb a whole country into oblivion and ought to be paid back for their cruelty.

We have met the enemies of Christ—us.

I remember when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a victim of Soviet repression and punishment, was invited to the United States. We celebrated our welcome of this hero of the Cold War (a deliciously in-your-face gesture to the Soviets). Then Solzhenitsyn gave a stunning speech in which he failed to condemn the Soviets but instead criticized American capitalism, superficiality, and godlessness! Solzhenitsyn really believed what he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties….but right through every human heart.”

More than one presidential candidate has recently bragged, “I will never apologize for America.” Christians, on the basis of the great grace we have received from Christ are always apologizing, confessing, and repenting. “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people [us]” (Rom 5:6).

In the light of Paul’s testimony in Romans, an important function of Christian preaching and church life is to render me into the Other. I am the enemy of God. I the one who by my lifestyle and choices makes myself a stranger to my sisters and brothers. I’m free to admit that because, in spite of my hostility to God, Jesus Christ has received me as friend.

I am also the one who has received grace and revelation from the Other. Even as Christ came to me before I came to Christ, I have been the beneficiary of ministry from the Other before I was able to receive the Other as Christ had received me.

I grew up in the segregated South; I’m a product of an unashamedly racist culture. Every day I boarded a Greenville bus with a sign: SOUTH CAROLINA LAW. WHITE PATRONS SIT FROM THE FRONT. COLORED PATRONS SIT FROM THE REAR.

Nobody I knew questioned that sign, especially no one who sat next to me in church each Sunday.

My Damascus Road conversion came when my church sent me to a youth conference at Lake Junaluska and I was assigned a room with another sixteen-year-old from Greenville. When I walked in, there he sat on the bed opposite me, better prepared for me than I was for him. We had never met, even though he went to a school four blocks from mine and played on ball fields where we never ventured. He was black.

I recall nothing from the conference worship or lectures, but I’ll never forget our conversation that lasted until dawn. He told me what it was like to go to his church, and not mine, his school, rather than mine, his world in which I was a stranger. In a paraphrase of Langston Hughes, your Greenville was never Greenville to me. By sunrise, I had my world skillfully cracked open, exposed, and also infinitely expanded, ministered to by the Other who was kind enough to help me go where I avoided.

Later, when I read Richard Niebuhr define “conversion” as “a new way of seeing,” I knew he was talking about me. I once was blind, but now I see.

Will Willimon

Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 1

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Please click on this link for more info, and to order

The Test of the Church

Competing attempts among politicians to leverage our fear of others into votes for them led to the idea of a book that thinks as Christians about the Other. Let the politicians do what they must to be elected by people like us, though I think they are selling us short. My job is not to worry about opinion polls, or what nine out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus.

A few miles from where I live, three Muslims graduate students–Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha–were executed by a gunman who looks a lot like me. I am bold to believe that Jesus gives usthe means to condemn, repent of, and defeat such crimes.

I confess that I have rarely been the Other. Born to relative privilege, anything I lacked at birth I made up for by youthful manipulation of American higher education and the church to my advantage, encouraged and welcomed by others all along the way. Almost nobody regarded me as a potentially threatening Other.

In conversation with a ministerial colleague, he casually recalled being a sophomore at Methodist, Milsaps College. He had finally summoned the courage to ask a young woman to go with him on a date to a restaurant in town.

“Order anything you want,” he told her as she examined the menu.

“It all looks so good, it’s hard to decide,” she said cheerfully.

They chatted about school, about this and that. And chatted.

When a waitperson finally brushed by their booth, he said, “Excuse me. No one has taken our order.”

“Take a hint,” she snarled and bustled away toward another table.

He sighed and shut the menu saying, “I’m not really all that hungry after all.” And they left.

Did I mention that my colleague is African American?

Listening to his story I thought, nothing like this has ever happened to me. I can count on the fingers of one hand the rare moments when someone has reacted negatively to me or judged me unfairly because of my race, religion, gender, accent, parents, or appearance.   I have treated another person not in the way of Jesus, as my neighbor, but as the fearful, threatening Other. Though I have sometimes tried to excuse my sin as “just the way I was brought up,” or due to my psychological insecurities, my behavior was in clear rebellion   against the expectations of Christ.

I have treated another person not in the way of Jesus, as my neighbor, but as the fearful, threatening Other. Though I have sometimes tried to excuse my sin as “just the way I was brought up,” or due to my psychological insecurities, my behavior was in clear rebellion   against the expectations of Christ.

Yet I also write as one who, solely by the grace of God, is being redeemed of my own sinful inclination to Xenophobia. I have personally experienced the joy of receiving another not as enemy but as potential friend and the grace of being received warmly by the Other.

As Bishop I saw churches transformed in their obedience to Christ’s command to welcome the stranger and in baptism, to name the stranger as family. More than one congregation, in showing hospitality to the Other, has had Jesus slip in their once closed door.

Tom Long repeatedly relates the story about the Sunday, in his boyhood Presbyterian church in Georgia, a man in shabby clothes ambled into their church during the service. Perhaps he was a drifter passing through, or maybe he had jumped off a boxcar on the nearby tracks, up to no good, planning to prey on people while their guard was down at church.

All they knew for sure was that he wasn’t one of them.

The ushers stepped aside as the stranger entered. He was handed a worship bulletin, but not graciously. He sat by himself on a pew toward the rear. Throughout the service, pasto and worshippers cast nervous glances in his direction, wondering how he might disrupt their worship. When the offering plates were passed, folks suspected that the stranger might take something out of the plate, rather than put something in. After listening to the sermon, the man arose and quietly departed.

Though Tom was a child at the time, he recalled that after service the Georgia farmers  stood under the big oak in the churchyard, talking in serious, muted tones.

“They probably didn’t know how to say it,” says Tom, “but everyone knew that God had  put our church to a test. And we had flunked.”

Tom so frequently retells this story because he knows that it is at the heart of what it  means to be best friends of Christ and at the same time, his most disappointing betrayers.

In presenting our church with sisters and brothers whom we fear as the Other, God is not only testing us but giving us a gracious opportunity to recover the adventure of discipleship. By the grace of God and the ministrations of the church, we are enabled to have better lives than if Christ had left us to our own devices.

Will Willimon



Preaching on the Way of John 14:6

originally posted on MinistryMatters.com 

Jesus is on the way, the way of the cross. And on his cruciform way Jesus speaks about the way of the disciples.

He tells them that he is the way his way is the way that is, the same way that Jesus is walking (the way of the cross) is to be their way too. “Way” (hodos) is used only here in John. It’s the same term for the Christian movement in Acts 9:2, 22:4, etc. It can mean not only a road, a path, but also a practice. This Gospel ends with Jesus telling Peter, “Follow me” (21:19). Elsewhere Jesus has used the image of a path to speak of his own movement from God and to God. Now, the path becomes a road, a practice, an insight whereby Jesus’ disciples get to God.

At last Jesus, who has been rather elusive in this Gospel, comes forward, looks his followers in the eye, and declares that he is the way. “I am… “ His declaration is graciously simple and absolute. That which was once elusive and implicit is now graciously made explicit. “I am… “

Surely Jesus means more than simply his way of life (and death) is to be the disciples’ way. He doesn’t say that his philosophy is the way (as Plato might have said) but rather “I am the way… “ A person, rather than a doctrine or a belief, is the way. It’s similar to what he says elsewhere about being the Door and the Shepherd (10:7, 11), a saying much like Matthew 7:13f. Because Jesus is uniquely related to the Father, he is our way to the Father. Verse 14:7 is a statement about destination. When we see Jesus, we see the Father. To know Christ is to at last see God.

John Milbank says that modern theology is in the grip of a “false humility.” God? Oh God is too grand, too ethereal; therefore, it is impossible to say anything definitive about God.

We wish. If God were not incarnate in Christ, then we could make “God” mean anything we please. John 14:1 dares to assert that the one standing before us— this Jew who is soon to be crucified by an unholy alliance of church and state because of what he said and what he did— is our access to God. Belief in Jesus is not something added on to a belief in God, but rather belief in Jesus is our belief in God. Here, standing before us is not only the “way” but also the “truth” about God.

Yet while this talk of “way” speaks of gracious access, it also smacks of exclusivism. Is Jesus not only “the way” but also theonly way? “No one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6, compare with Hebrews 10:20) sure sounds exclusive.

It may help to put this exclusivism in context: We think that John’s Gospel arises in a bitter struggle between Christ-affirming and Christ-denying Jews. We are reading the literature of a persecuted, hanging-on-by-their-fingers minority, literature that is meant to strengthen a minority in their struggle with the majority. For those of us who live in a majority Christian environment to simply apply it to ourselves (“We have the one and only way and you don’t.”) is to do scripture an injustice. Followers of “the Way” who were being expelled from the synagogues (9:22) are reacting to their rejection by proclaiming that their newfound minority way is the way.

The passage may be intended to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Here, in this rich, expansive Gospel, is a faith that has “many rooms.” Jesus reassures his disciples that there is room for them in  the Father’s house (v. 2). “House” (oikia) can also mean “household” or “family.” Jesus is the way we are adopted into God’s rapidly expanding family.

There is no way for people like us to get to the Father—but now Jesus has generously opened one (Heb. 10:20). We are to read John 14:1 as saying that Jesus is the open-handed way; not that he is the only way who now closes off all previous ways. In fact, in verse 7, Jesus gives explicit reassurance of the openness of his embrace. In his Father’s home, there are many rooms (v. 2). Thomas can’t figure out how to get there (v. 5). To this, Jesus reiterates, “I am the way…” (v. 6). To Philip’s obtuse, “Show us the Father” (v.8) Jesus reiterates, “I am in the Father.” He is the way. For all those earnest seekers who have longed to see God, Jesus graciously reveals the way. He is the way that God has made to us; he is the way that we get to God and God gets to us.

Jesus ends what we thought to be an exclusivistic discourse with an inclusivistic bomb: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (10:16). What? You mean that we—a persecuted minority who are giving our lives to follow Jesus are not the only “sheep” God has got?

There are a number of possible ways to preach this, “I am the way…” One way is to think of this as the extravagant poetry of love. The community that first heard these words and recorded them in John’s Gospel is a group of people who are swept up in loving infatuation of Jesus. They have suffered dearly for their love. Most people in love are firmly convinced that their beloved is “the one and only” for them. These words are written by followers of Christ to followers of Christ to strengthen their love and fidelity to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. The language is passionate and personal, centered not on a set of doctrines or beliefs, but rather on a person, a Savior who is the Beloved.

In saying that Christ is the one and only way for them, is this community also claiming that Christ is the one and only way for all? Probably, but not necessarily. On the basis of our daily experience of walking with Jesus, we have difficulty imagining any other way for people like us—inherently selfish, violent, idolatrous, cowards that we are—to get abundant life other than through a crucified and risen Savior like Jesus. But why should we try to imagine other possible ways, truths, and lives? We’ve got our hands full just trying to keep up with Jesus. Cannot we joyfully, lovingly testify to the unique, unsubstitutable way that has led us to such abundant life?

I’m not advocating the mushy sentimentality that plagues much of our theology. I’m saying that if we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, it is because Christ has lovingly made a way to us. This is not our doing, our achievement, but rather his. He has come out, in the Incarnation, to love us, and it will cost him dearly (John 1:10-11). Furthermore, Christ himself says that his “way” is wide, eager, and resourceful. Lots of rooms, other sheep. Having found us wretched sinners, he is determined to seek others. Unwilling to bed down with us good, faithful “sheep,” he is on the move toward “other sheep” whom “I must bring… also, and they will listen to my voice” (John 10:16). For all I know Jesus is here saying, “I’ve had so much difficulty getting you to listen to my voice, I’m going to go out and find me some more attentive sheep!”

Our great evangelistic challenge as preachers is not to exclude—it’s not up to us to decide who are and are not his valid “sheep.” Rather it is our tough task to keep pointing toward Christ’s peculiar way as the way, the truth, and the life, to pray that in our preaching more sheep might hear his voice.

What gets me is not that Jesus had the nerve to say that his way was the only way but that his way—the way of the cross—is the way! I was helping in a church center where homeless persons are being trained for possible employment. The job trainer said to the group that this was a Christian ministry to help people get off the streets and into good jobs. A homeless man stood up and began raving, “Where do you get off telling us we need to get jobs? Did our Lord Jesus ever have a job? Show me in the scriptures where Jesus ever said, ‘get a job, get a mortgage and buy a home!’”

Can you believe that way, the way of homeless, jobless Jesus, is the only way to truth and life?

C.S. Lewis spent his life trying carefully to define and advocate for orthodox theology. But an important text for Lewis was that obscure moment at the end of John’s Gospel when Peter asks Christ, “What about this other disciple, what is his ultimate fate?”

Christ responds, “What has that to do with you? Follow me!” (21:22) Rather than preach John 14:1 to determine who’s on the way and who’s got the truth, we’ve got our hands full just trying to follow Jesus down his wide and narrow way. Let’s preach that. Believe it or not, it’s the only way.