Curtis Weinstein is the third generation of his family to serve in the American military. He attended the United States Air Force Academy, as did his brother and father before him. His grandfather also attended a military academy.
When Curtis’ father came to visit him at the academy in Colorado Springs in the spring of 2004, he could tell immediately that something was not right with his son.
“All right, Curtis, what have you done?” Mikey Weinstein demanded.
“It’s not what I’ve done, Dad,” his son replied. “It’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to beat up the next person that calls me a lousy Jew or accuses me or our people of killing Jesus Christ.”
Curtis then related nine separate incidents in which he was the target of anti-Semitic remarks, including the time an officer taunted him by asking, “How does it feel to know that you killed Jesus?”
Curtis also recounted the intense evangelism, some might say harassment, of Air Force Academy cadets by the 14,000-member strong New Life Church, located not far from the academy. The church’s then pastor, Ted Haggard, who at the time was also president of the National Association of Evangelicals, had targeted students at the academy for conversion.
Several high ranking Air Force officials were happy to assist his efforts.
Their goal, according to a group called the Officers’ Christian Fellowship, was nothing short of a “spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” an objective that seems particularly chilling at a time when our country is engaged in wars with religious overtones.
Curtis’ story is in the beginning of the documentary Constantine’s Sword. The film, based on James Carroll’s book of the same name, is a history of the violence perpetrated in the name of Christ.
It is a long and disturbing history, one that begins with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the year 312 and that continues to this day. It is a history littered with the bodies of millions of Jews and Muslims slaughtered in the name of the Prince of Peace.
Unfortunately, the gospel passage we heard today is one that has often been used to justify such violence.
It is a familiar and beloved passage, one that is often read at funerals.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells his disciples. “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…I will come and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
And then when the disciple Thomas asks Jesus to explain, he replies, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Beautiful, comforting words.
If only Jesus had stopped there.
But he goes on to say, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
No one comes to the Father except through me.
I’ve often wondered whether Jesus looks back with regret on those words. Certainly the world would have been a less violent place over the last two millennia if he had not said them.
“These words have been turned into a weapon with which to bludgeon one’s opponents into theological submission,” one commentary I read this week says. “They have been used as a litmus test for faith, a rallying cry of Christian triumphalism, proclaiming that Christians have the corner on God and all others are to be condemned.”
And if all others are to be condemned, then it becomes easier to regard them as less than human, or as an evil which must be destroyed.
Somehow I don’t think that is what the Prince of Peace had in mind.
What are we who profess to follow Jesus to do with these difficult words? Do we simply ignore them, wishing Jesus had kept his mouth shut?
Or is there a way to redeem them from their frequent abuse, to understand them in a way that fits the Jesus whom we worship?
In order to do that, we must start with the context in which these words were spoken. It is the last night of Jesus’ life, hours before his betrayal, arrest, and execution.
Jesus is trying to prepare his friends for what is about to happen. He washes their feet, commanding them to serve and love one another. He shares bread and wine with them. And he tries to ease their fears and worries.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, knowing full well that his friends will be devastated and terrified by the events that are to come, knowing that they will not only mourn his death, but will be afraid about what might happen to them because they are his followers.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, reassuring his disciples that they are on the right track. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
What Jesus is doing here is offering a series of assurances that although he is leaving his friends, he is not abandoning them. No matter how difficult things may get – and in our reading from Acts today we see that things get quite difficult – they can be certain there is a place for them in God’s kingdom.
In the future I will not be physically with you, Jesus says, but following me is still the way for you to go.
Barbara Brown Taylor notes that when Jesus said these words “he was not addressing an interfaith tribunal as the central figure of a dominant world religion. He was speaking to a small circle of friends on the night before he died.”
Jesus was not making a theological proclamation that night, he was speaking in the language of love.
Think about when you use the language of love.
“You are the only one for me,” we say to our lover. “I could never love anyone the way I love you.” And that may be true, but it does not mean condemnation of all other loves.
“You’re the best boy in the whole world,” I frequently told Joseph Henry when he was little. That statement will always be true for me. But that truth does not lessen or negate the love that other parents have for their children.
The language of love is extravagant and exaggerated. It is by nature exclusive. It is how we stake claims on one another.
Jesus was staking a claim on his disciples that night, assuring them that he would love them always, that he would be with them always, and that despite what others might say, following and loving him would lead them to God’s eternal love and care.
To turn Jesus’ words of comfort and love to his friends into a sledge hammer of condemnation and hate seems to me to be the worst kind of betrayal of Christ.
Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was once asked if she thought that belief in Jesus was the only way to get to heaven, if, in fact, no one came to “the Father” except through Jesus.
Here is her response:
“We who practice the Christian tradition understand Jesus as our vehicle to the divine,” she said. “But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus says to his disciples.
Those words are true for me, and I suspect, for you, too. For us here today, Jesus is our way, and our truth, and our life.
And it is precisely because we try to follow the way of Jesus that we must show hospitality to strangers, must strive to be a blessing to those less fortunate, must reach out in love and respect to those who differ from us, and must work for justice and peace for all God’s people, including those whose path to God is different from our own.