On the night before he was crucified, Jesus said something to his disciples so beautifully profound that it changed their lives. Ironically, this same statement has also been badly misused by future generations of Christians. It began when Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, asked him this question: “Lord, you say you’re going back to God. How can we find our way back way to God, too?” [John 14:5, my paraphrase]
In response, Jesus said,
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).
To put it another way, Jesus was trying to say, “Thomas, I am the way to God, and the truth and the life you seek. I’m the way because when you know me, you know God, and when you look at me, you’re also looking at the face of God. Since I am he, don’t look anywhere else for what you seek. You’ve found him already.” That was Jesus’ way of assuring Thomas and countless other disciples, myself included, that in Jesus is the way, the life, and truth we’ve always been looking for.
But many Christians have taken hold of this beautiful verse and have used it to say quite emphatically to our non-Christian neighbors, “Jesus Christ is the only way, the only truth, the only life, and the only way to the Father. You can’t come to God unless you come to him and convert to Christianity.” I join a lot of people in shuddering at the way some people misuse Jesus’ statement about himself.
As a disciple of Jesus, I believe he is God who has come in the flesh, both fully God and fully human. So I believe what Jesus is saying about himself when he invites his disciples and anyone else to come to him and to discover the life, the way, the truth and the fullest expression God. I mean, just give a fresh read to the gospel accounts of Jesus from the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and you’ll find the reason why billions upon billions of people through the ages, both Christians and non-Christians alike, have flocked to this man and love him.
But many, very understandably, have stopped short at the doors of the Christian church and have said, “No, thank you.” One such prominent example was Mahatma Gandhi who once said,
I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.
The problem is Christianity has often done Jesus a great disservice. Some of you reading this post already have a bad taste of suspicion or even disdain in your mouth because of the ways Christians have betrayed the true spirit and person of Jesus. (I have to admit that my life has at times betrayed him, too. I’m very much a work in progress!) Christianity is a diverse culture and organization which has a long history of being both faithful and unfaithful. Christianity has spawned and revolved around God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ is not Christianity.
So, I want to make a very clear distinction for both my Christian and non-Christian readers. There is and always has been a clear line of demarcation between what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ and the religion of Christianity. If Christianity can remember this principle, then it will always remain in a constant state of reform in order to be more faithful to Jesus. If non-Christians can understand this, they might have the freedom to explore and believe in Jesus without the worst of Christianity to to contend with. Perhaps non-Christian believers in Jesus can be Jesus Christ’s Church (the community of his disciples) in a way that might shine the light of Christ into the Christian world and into their version of the Church. Wouldn’t that be a sight to be behold??
I’m not saying here that Christianity is all bad or that it’s wrong to be a disciple of Jesus as a Christian. Christianity and Christians come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are more faithful to Jesus than others. There have been and continue to be Christians who are model disciples of Jesus. Without deceiving myself, I hope to be one. There are wonderful Christian congregations out there who truly embody what it means to be the Church, the community of Jesus’ disciples and his Living Body and presence in the world. As a pastor in a Christian church, I work to make my congregation more faithfully one of those.
But let’s be clear: there is a major difference between believing, trusting, and giving our lives to Jesus and converting to the religion of Christianity. The former may happen within the later, but it doesn’t have to and it won’t for a great many people, including, in many instances, people of other faiths.
Will much of the world come back to its Creator through Jesus Christ who died and rose for the salvation of the world? I believe so, yes. The grace of God leaves out no one. Admittedly, I don’t know how that will happen; I simply believe it will. And yes, some will inevitably reject God and his Son and lose out on life. However, not all those who come to know and follow Jesus will be of the Christian religion, and that’s fine by me! I welcome them as my brothers and sisters in one common faith…