The Language of the Heart

Sermon on John 14:1-14.

Imagine with me, if you will, that you are a kid on a playground. You’re having a fine time running around on a lovely day. Then you decide that you’d like to feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair, so you start to make your way over to the swings. Just then, the biggest kid in the neighborhood steps in front of you, blocking your path.

The big kid says, “Just where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m headed to the swings,” you reply.

“Is that so?” he says, “Well, here’s the thing: Those are my swings. If you want to play on them, you’ve got to get through me first. Let’s find out just how tough you are!” And he puts up his fists.

Now, most of us can understand exactly what’s going on in this situation: The big kid is being a bully. As parents, that’s the moment when we would probably step in and say, “Hey now, that’s not nice! These swings belong to everyone, so anyone can play on them. Why don’t you take a step back and let the smaller kids go play on the swings?”

As grownups, we wouldn’t just stand by and let that kind of bullying happen to our kids on a playground. So then, why do we just accept it when certain kinds of Christians do it to other people? In my job, I spend a lot of time on the highway. I regularly see religious billboards with messages trying to convert people to Christianity. A common Bible verse that appears on these billboards is John 14:6, which we just heard in our gospel reading this morning. In this verse, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, I’m not going to speak against this verse itself; it’s part of our sacred scriptures and I love it. What I am going to speak against is the fact that some of our fellow Christians use this Bible verse as a threat. When Christians post these words of Jesus, out of context, on their billboards and church marquees, they are sending the implied message that no one can have a genuine spirituality unless it looks like theirs. That’s a problem. In a country where Christians already make up a majority of the population, that’s bullying.

More than that, it’s a misrepresentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The word “Gospel” means “good news”, and those who post these billboards think they’re just “preaching the good news”, but frankly, I can see nothing “good” about it. The real Jesus didn’t threaten people with hellfire and damnation. The real Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick. The real Jesus welcomed outcasts and forgave sinners. The real Jesus got himself in trouble for hanging out with the wrong kind of people. The real Jesus is more likely to be found at the Stonewall Inn than the National Cathedral.

[SIDE NOTE: If you don’t know what the Stonewall Inn is, then please watch the award-winning documentary The Stonewall That Didn’t Fall by Cadence Phillips, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Michigan. This documentary recently won first place in the state and has been nominated to represent Michigan in the National History Day film competition in Washington, DC. Cadence is currently trying to raise $1,000 for the trip to Washington.
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Now that we’ve talked about what Jesus didn’t mean in that verse, let’s talk about what he did mean when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

First of all, it’s important for you to know that biblical scholars generally agree that these words were never spoken by the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. There was a literary convention in the ancient world that feels foreign to our own. It was a common cultural practice, in the ancient Mediterranean, for students of a great teacher to honor their mentor by writing in their mentor’s name. The idea was that they were continuing their teacher’s thought where the teacher left off, so any credit for brilliance would be given to the original mentor and not the student. Outside of the Bible, we can see this happening in the writing of the great philosopher Plato, who wrote most of his Dialogues in the name of his mentor Socrates. There is little debate among modern scholars that most of Plato’s ideas come, not from Socrates, but from Plato himself (even though he writes in the name of Socrates). It is the same with the author of John’s gospel and the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

When John puts these words into Jesus’ mouth, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”, he is not committing forgery, but honoring the teacher who changed his life. The author, in this verse, is telling the readers of his gospel what Jesus meant to him.

This is a problem for us readers in the modern world, who value accuracy above all else, but it was not a problem for ancient readers, who understood that biography was more about “who this person was” than “what actually happened”. If we were to describe what the author of John’s gospel was trying to do, in modern terms, we might say that he was “speaking the language of the heart”.

Let me describe what I mean by “language of the heart” by way of analogy. Imagine a married couple, out to dinner on their wedding anniversary. One of them raises a glass to the other and says, “Sweetheart, you are the most wonderful person in the world and I am the luckiest person in the world. There’s no one else for me. I love you with all my heart. Happy anniversary!” Now, we would all agree that this person was speaking from the heart. So, imagine how inappropriate it would be if the waiter were to interrupt the speaker in that moment and say, “Now wait just a minute, Buster! You can’t possibly say that your partner is the most wonderful person in the world because you haven’t met all the people in the world! For all you know, there could be another person out there, more wonderful than your partner, so you shouldn’t say such inaccurate things on your anniversary!”

If you were sitting at a nearby table, you would be perfectly justified in standing up and saying to that waiter, “Hey now, that’s not nice! This person was talking to their partner on their anniversary. You had no right to interrupt them. In fact, you have no right to pass judgment on their relationship at all!”

When it comes to the language of the heart, most of us would agree with the philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”

This is also how it works, when it comes to Christian faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We owe no one an explanation when we say, “Jesus, you are the way, and the truth, and the life.” We are speaking the language of the heart, just like that couple out to dinner on their wedding anniversary. This is what the author of John’s gospel was trying to say when he put those words into Jesus’ mouth. Using the cultural conventions of his time, he was trying to express his love for the man who had changed his life for the better.

In our day, let us also be just as exuberant in our praise of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Let us proclaim to the world the good things he has done for us, not only in our words, but in our deeds. If Jesus is our way, our truth, and our life, then let us strive to become the kind of people that Jesus was. When we see the hungry, let us feed them. When we see the sick or injured, let us heal them. When we meet the outcast and sinners, let us welcome and befriend them. May we, like Jesus, get ourselves in trouble for hanging out with queers and freaks. When the bullies of this world come hunting for us, may they find more of us in Stonewall than they find in cathedrals. That’s how they’ll know we are there because we are following Jesus, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Image credit: Billboards Portrush by Willie Duffin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons