Finding one’s Way in an intercultural world

Text: John 14:1-14 (“the Way, the Truth, and the Life”)

Is Christ the only true path? We just heard Jesus say to Thomas, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to God but through me.” That seems straightforward, doesn’t it? No Jesus? No God. Full stop.

But Christianity is hardly the only religion. There have been thousands — as many religions as there were separate tribes or kingdoms in the ancient world. Most of them no longer exist, and Christianity — followed by about 30% of the world’s people — is the largest one today. But Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism also have billions of adherents.

For a religion to have survived, it helps if it adopted a “My Way or the Highway” stance. “Only the Buddha’s Noble eightfold-path leads to enlightenment and liberation.” “Only the Holy Koran shows the way to God’s Salvation.” “No one comes to God but through Jesus.” You get the idea.

Starting 500 years ago, European empires conquered the world, which is the main reason why Christianity is now larger than Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. The period of European conquest was also when the idea of religious tolerance began to spread. At first, this was just for Europe. Tolerance developed as a way to end bloody civil wars between Catholics and Protestants.

When European colonists encountered other religions, they often eliminated them. But some cultures were too resilient to be wiped out; and so over the past hundred years or so, tolerance among competing Christian churches has been extended to other surviving faiths such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, all of which were larger than Christianity before 1500.

This increasing religious tolerance has also been accompanied by the rise of secular faith — people who don’t care all that much about religion or who have abandoned it altogether.

So today, we live in an intercultural world. And I am told that no place in Alberta is more diverse than Mill Woods. Given this diversity, what do we do with passages like the famous one we heard from the Gospel of John this morning? Do we tell our non-Christian neighbours that it’s Jesus’ way or the highway?

On Wednesday and Thursday, I attended a meeting of the Intercultural Committee of the Alberta and Northwest Conference of the United Church in St. Albert. The theme was spiritual practice and how different forms of prayer and meditation might help us understand people from all cultures.

One of the leaders, Lois Huey-Heck from Naramata, suggested that when a practice goes deep enough, people from different traditions might touch the same Source and feel a mystical union with the Divine.

Mystical experiences do not eliminate the differences between different spiritual paths — whether Catholic or Protestant, Christian or Islamic, secular or religious. But they can help us remember a sacred inner spark that unites us.

I enjoyed meeting people in the United Church from Chinese, Korean, and Japanese backgrounds in St. Albert as well as others like me who trace our roots to northern Europe. I hope that attending this meeting will help me be more aware of the many cultures here in Mill Woods.

One group I have yet to contact is other local churches. Janice has provided me with a list of the ministers in Mill Woods. But so far, I haven’t called any of them.

This week, Edmonton Presbytery circulated an email from the Christian radio station Shine FM inviting ministers to a “Pastor’s Appreciation Breakfast.” Even though I will probably not like the program, I may attend to meet non-United Church ministers.

After I got the email, I looked at Shine’s website. Its Statement of Faith includes claims that the Bible is supernatural and without error and that all those who reject Jesus will be tormented by God in Hell forever.

So Shine FM seems to know how to interpret the phrase “no one comes to God but by Jesus.” It means, Follow the Way of Jesus, or Go to Hell. A simple choice, non?

I am grateful that there are other ways of looking at exclusivist passages like the one from John today. We heard one from Rev. Catherine McLean at the Covenanting Service here at Mill Woods United on March 16. I deeply appreciated her sermon, which used today’s Gospel reading as its text.

Another sermon on the topic also came to my mind this week. Five years ago, I attended Metropolitan United in downtown Toronto where the minister, Rev. Malcolm Sinclair, preached on a text from Acts that is often paired with today’s reading. In that text, Peter says “Salvation is found in no one else but Jesus; there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4: 12).”

That service also celebrated the 75th anniversary of a wind orchestra at the church called “The Metropolitan Silver Band.” In his sermon, Sinclair compared Peter’s claim that there is no other name than Jesus by which we can be saved to a claim that the Metropolitan Silver Band was the greatest musical group of all time. Both claims seemed like silly exaggerations, he argued.

But then he starting talking about how he enjoyed the Band, how people said that participation in it had changed their lives, and about the many worship services led by the Band that had helped people to heal.

He ended the sermon by saying he could confidently proclaim that the Metropolitan Silver Band was the greatest musical group of all time and that the name of Jesus was the only one by which we must be saved.

By speaking to both sides of the issue, Sinclair gave space for those of us listening to reflect on how a claim that sounds like a ridiculous or dangerous exaggeration can also point to a heartfelt truth.

In the church, we search for truth on the Way of Jesus. On this Way, Jesus shows us that new life arises from death. In the struggle for justice and love, individual pilgrims die and rise as do beliefs, churches and empires.

Lois Huey-Heck on Thursday said that even a spiritual practice can become a distraction. Sometimes our ability to give and receive Love requires that we die to an old way of seeking union with God and rise to a new one.

In the spirit of the Way of death and resurrection, I pray that any church, mosque, or temple — or radio station — that claims it knows the only way to God will soon abandon this claim in favour of practices that take us deeper.

The point of a religious path — whether that of Jesus or any other — is not an outcome, whether belief, or mystical union, or even the struggle for justice. The path itself — and the companions we try to love on it — is what is important, I believe.

We are all on the journey of life. If a particular religious path helps us to stay awake and to accept the Grace of God’s Love in its inevitable ups and downs, then I am OK with it.

In the church we say that Jesus is the Way, and the Truth and the Life. I don’t believe this Way is the only one in which one can encounter God in loving service. It is, however, the way that I try to follow.

May it be a Way on which we sometimes go so deep that we meet neighbours who have travelled other paths. And may we know in our hearts that we are all humble fools, all fed by the Grace of the same Source, and all touching a Love that heals everyone.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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