Are you familiar with the I AM statements in the Bible? There are 7 of them (some folks advocate for 8). They all say something different, something unique.
- The Bread of Life
- The Light of the World
- The Door
- The Good Shepherd
- The Resurrection and the Life
- The Way the Truth and the Life
- The True Vine
So, given their differences, which one is true? Which one do you believe in?
This is not a fair question is it? But isn’t this the attitude of many in our society today? Isn’t it interesting that our society likes to set ideas up against one another? We seem to believe God is not capable of creating a world where multiple things that may seem to contradict one another can all be true.
Today, I’d like us to look at a passage that has been used in the Christian Tradition in an exclusive way. Read along with me from John 14:
“Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.”
Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.”
This verse is most often used to prop us our Christian faith to the exclusion of people who do not believe in Jesus and people who are seeking, searching or struggling with their beliefs.
Belief is a tricky thing. Belief for many is something they stake their lives on. For others belief is an honest and vulnerable journey of discovery traveled throughout a lifetime.
Sometime we believe what we say and say what we believe. Other times we say we believe in something, but sure don’t act like it. And sometimes we deny we believe even though our actions say otherwise. For example,
I believe in free speech. But there are some forms of speech I do not accept, will not support and I certainly will not go along with certain kinds of speech – hate-speech, bullying, slander.
I believe evil exists, but I do not seek it out, I do not give my allegiance to it, I do not follow it.
I believe in the goodness of bacon, chocolate, and ice cream….but I do not base my diet around them, I try not to give into them too much, I eat them in moderation.
I believe in science and reason, but I do not stake my whole life in them because there’s more to living than science and reason, there are too many things that we cannot explain with them. And the irrational and unscientific are too beautiful to resist, too real to renounce, and too true to ignore.
Belief – an acceptance that something is true or that something exists
I believe in a lot of things. That does not mean I put my trust in them. It does not mean that I follow them, that I change my life because of them, that I live differently because of them.
You see, Belief is cognitive. And the life and teachings of Jesus are so clearly about the way we live – not merely about what we cognitively believe in.
In fact, the word belief in our language is much to simplistic of a word to fully get at the meaning of the relationship with Jesus that scripture calls is to.
The Greek word in scripture is pistueo – and it is usually translated belief. For example, John 3:16 –
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that anyone who believes in him shall have everlasting life.
The word believe here is pistueo – and it means more than cognitive acceptance. It means to trust, to entrust your life to, to follow because you have confidence in, something which you accept so as to live your life differently because of it.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son that anyone who follows him, trusts in him and lives out that trust shall have eternal life.
That’s a good bit different than simply believing in Jesus.
Let me be a little provocative: Jesus does not desire your belief. Jesus desires your trust. God desires that you follow the way of Jesus through your living actions to fulfill your purpose within God’s good creation.
And it is in this sense that we must hear the verse I am the way, truth and life.
- Jesus embodies the way that we should trust and follow.
- Jesus embodies the truth that we can trust with our lives, with the way we live.
- Jesus embodies the kind of life for which we should strive.
This is neither exclusive or inclusive. It is just not a teaching that speaks an answer to that question. Despite how Christians have used it over the years.
This verse is written to a specific community of Christians to show them that the one whom they say they believe in calls for more than their belief. That Jesus life, death and resurrection are not simply about saying you believe in something. That through Christ, God seeks more from us than an ABC (accept-believe-confess) prayer, that God seeks more than our acceptance our belief and our confession. That God reaches out to us through his son to create a relationship that calls us to live differently. To live lives marked by those actions that Jesus showed us – love, Grace, mercy, compassion, honesty, service, vulnerability, forgiveness.
For far too long, the church has weakened and watered down its core message to one of belief. And frankly it’s made us look liked a sleezy used car salesmen. Far too many people have bought our belief only approach to faith and found that not much changed for them – they still had the same struggles and doubts, the same concerns about their lives, the same old same old. They were looking for the amazing Grace we promised, but they found that the John 3:16 belief they bought was breaking down in their lives after a few hundred miles.
And they have been leaving the church by the droves over the past several decades. Today we call them religious nones, that is, when asked about their religion or their faith, they answer “none.”
Roughly eight-in-ten religious “nones” say they were raised with a religious affiliation. When asked why they no longer identify with a faith, about half say they stopped believing or started rejecting religious beliefs
Another 20% (One-in-five) say they came to dislike or distrust religious institutions or organized religion in general. 18% say they are unsure or undecided. They no longer identify with a particular religion, but they still describe themselves as religious or spiritual, or in some cases “seeking” or uncertain about their beliefs. And about 10% say they are simply no longer practicing their childhood faith, or are too busy to engage in religious rituals.
Of those nones who simply say their religion is “nothing in particular,” 37% say that lack of belief is the reason they no longer affiliate with a religion. And of nones who now identify as atheists, 82% say a lack of belief spurred them to leave religion.
Now bear in mind they are not talking about the way they live when they say lack of belief. They mean exactly what the Church and society have taught them to mean about belief, that is, that they do not conform to the cognitive beliefs the church says they must have to affiliate with a family of faith.
And this saddens me greatly.
The church has reduced faith to cognitive assent such that people who have honest, authentic and vulnerable questions, doubts and other struggles with their cognitive thoughts about faith, about God, about Jesus end up leaving the church because they essentially do not fit the mold the church created for them.
What if, by contrast, the church were a place where we held one another in the midst of our questions, doubts and struggles in our thinking about God and Jesus? What if we walked the journey with one another, supporting especially those who were unsure of their beliefs, who questioned what they really believed, who were trying to make sense of the beauty and truth of things that are beyond our ability to rationally explain? What if the church was a family that accepted one another because we love one another, that made space for struggles, that welcomed cognitive dissonance?
I’ll tell you this, I would sure rather have all those nones as living participants in the life of our family of faith, than see them wander through the world disconnected from the spiritual roots from which they came. I would rather see them here trying to cognitively work out their faith while learning to live out the way of Christ.
What would a church look like that created welcoming space for such persons? What would that church say? What would they teach and preach?
Unless the church is to simply be a country club of people who think they cognitively have all the answers, then we ought to figure this out. We might just find that in doing so we become evangelists in the truest sense of the word.
Because being a country club of believers is not what following Jesus is about. As writer Christian Piatt has written,
[following Christ] Is not about believing the right things, about making the right statement of faith before a cloud of witnesses. It’s not about staying out of hell, and it’s not about making sure your sin tab is paid up in case jesus pops in for a surprise inspection.
After all, many of Jesus’ own disciples questioned, even doubted, who Jesus was. They had different answers when he asked them who he was. But that didn’t mean he condemned them, threatened them or kicked them out of the group. They were committed to seeking, to following, to learning and growing, and to help him realize something better for their own lives and the lives of others.
You know, saying “I believe” is like saying “I do” when you get married. You can say I do all day long. But actually living as a person who loves another person is what being married is all about. Making concrete choices each day to love and show love to another person is what marriage is about. And this is not to say that saying “I do” or “I believe” is not important. Surely it is an important ritual and marker in time and in a relationship.
But actually practicing love is what the relationship is about, isn’t it?
Jesus said, “I Am the way the truth and the life.” That is, I am not simply a person to believe in. No, I am about a particular way of truth and life. Come and follow me along that way and it will make all the difference. He did not say give your cognitive assent to me and you will have life.
Jesus said, no one can come to the father except through Christ. That is, if you want to know God as your parent, if you want to live as a child of God, you can do so through the way, truth and life of Jesus Christ. He did not say, the only way to be a Christian or to go to heaven is by cognitively accepting Jesus.
For as CS Lewis has said:
We do know that no [one] can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.
Folks, the church of today must get over our excessive focus on cognitive belief. We must get beyond belief. We must realize the journey of faith brings us through many different beliefs. I don’t know about you, but my cognitive understanding of Jesus today is quite different than 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. So let’s realize that belief changes – it struggles, it grows, it questions, and it deepens.
We must get beyond belief and discover that faith is a walk that takes us up mountains and down into valleys. But always involves walking – that is, doing, acting, learning, practicing, living. For there are a great many people today trying to walk alone ostracized from a family of faith that could be encouraging and supporting them as they walk so that along their walk they might discover the Jesus that they have in truth believed in all along.