One Way - Week One: "This, That, or The Other"

I've been serving in church ministry of one form or another for over sixteen years.  Over the course of that time I have had more people than I care to count approach me and offer the following statement:

"I have a friend who says that there's more than one way to get to heaven. Is that true?"  

Now the question might be framed a bit differently from person to person, but the idea is always the same.  Christians make the claim that a belief in Jesus is the only sure way to know that you will "go to heaven" when you die.  But in an increasingly diverse culture, those of us who call ourselves Christians often find ourselves in relationships with people of other faiths, or with people who may not have any particular faith at all. 

And in this increasingly diverse culture that we find ourselves a part of, our claims about Jesus being the only way to God often get challenged.  These claims might get challenged directly by relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors or classmates, or indirectly by our own doubts.  Because when we have non-Christian relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors or classmates who we know and like, it's difficult to believe they might not "make it" into heaven.  

For some Christians this kind of thing can really be a deal breaker... 

I call this Led Zeppelin Theology.  

For the benefit of all of you non rock-and-roll types, let me explain.  In the classic Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven, there is a great line that goes something like this:  "Yes, there are two paths you can go by... but in the long run, there'll be time to change the road you're on."  Believe it or not, I have had actual conversations with people about that very line.  "Duuuuuddeee... that's so wise, don't you think?  I mean even if I'm on the wrong path, and I don't really know it, I will get a chance to get on the right path before it's too late."  

Led Zeppelin Theology. 

Let's be honest, though.  Christianity makes a scandalous claim.  At it's very core, Christianity espouses a particular faith--the sort of faith that is grounded in the belief that God has revealed one particular way to achieve eternal joy in His presence:  Jesus.  More specifically, God requires a belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and that through his death, burial and resurrection those who follow him are "saved" from an eternity separated from God.  Some Christians simplify this (a bit too much, I might add) by saying: "If you believe in Jesus you will go to heaven, if you don't you will go to hell."  

But in the culture around us we are constantly confronted with a growing distrust of general claims about truth in favor of more relativist claims.  In other words, people might say to one another: "My truth is just as valid as your truth."  Or to a Christian claiming that Jesus is the only way to God they might say, "Well, Jesus is the way to God for you, but for me there might be other ways, too."  So what do we do in the face of growing diversity and increasing relativism? 

Do we get really good at arguing and defend our beliefs with fervor?  This seems to be the preferred option for mainstream, evangelical forms Christianity--masked under the polite term "apologetics."  In a way, this kind of approach is a bit like a politician or political operative receiving "talking points" from political party leadership.  Oh, and this approach doesn't seem to be working all that well anymore, if it ever really did.  I haven't heard too many stories of people who came to follow Christ because they lost an argument to a better prepared Christian apologist. 

We could do what Christians have done for centuries: retreat into our own little corners, separate ourselves from "the world," and spend our time and energy boycotting things, whining about how immoral everyone else is, and living ostensibly in a Christian "ghetto."  This approach doesn't work all that well either.  

Some Christians, particularly those in mainline Protestant churches (read "progressive" or "liberal" if you like) have gone in the opposite direction, and have embraced the relativist point of view.  They are so opposed to being abrasive and exclusive in their beliefs that they don't really seem to have any at all. Or if they do, they will qualify them so much before declaring them that you are not really sure if they believe what they are saying.  

What would happen if we stopped placing Jesus as the only logical claim over and against all other claims regarding eternity, God, heaven and such?  

What might happen if we stopped reducing claims about Jesus being the way to God to the level of all other similar claims?  

What if we simply demonstrated all of the ways that Jesus is the way?  

You see, I believe that when we begin demonstrating all of the ways that Jesus is the way, we will discover a powerful and persuasive approach to sharing the particularity of the Christian faith in a very un-particular culture.  This is the very essence of the sermon series that we'll be working on for the next several weeks through the season of Lent.  

My hope is that when all is said and done, we won't find new ways to argue for Jesus as a result of this sermon series--we'll find new reasons to live for Him.

Today we're going to be studying a passage from Matthew chapter 17--a passage that contains one of the strangest stories from Jesus' life: A story commonly referred to as The Transfiguration.

What I want for us to take away from this story today is very simple:
Jesus is the One Way to God that finds assurance in a real relationship.

As we will discover, at times the disciples experienced Jesus in very other-worldly, mysterious ways---what they came to understand as divine.  These experiences were understandably frightening at times, which makes Jesus personal relationship with them--the assurance of his touch, and his words so much more meaningful.  Let's read...

17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 

"Six days" refers six days after Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi.  Jesus had taken Peter, James and John to this pagan place of worship in the northern part of Israel.  There he asked them, "Who do you say that I am?"  Peter had responded, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."  

A great moment, to be sure--but then a little later when Jesus tells his disciples that he will be arrested and executed in Jerusalem, Peter pulls him aside and rebukes him, which doesn't go over all that well.  The disciples seem bent on looking for a way out Jesus' proclamation.  They had believed he was going to bring the kingdom of God down on the heads of the Romans and the Pharisees and when the dust settled they (the disciples) would be in the proverbial cat-bird seat.  

Then Jesus takes the three disciples up to the top of a mountain.  The mountain in question has traditionally been held to be Mt. Tabor, but considering their close proximity to Mt. Hermon at Caesarea Philippi, it was probably the more likely destination.  

2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

The word "transfigured" is the Greek word metamorpho, which literally translated means "changed in form."  Something so incredible happened to Jesus at this moment that it was hard for the disciples to describe it.  And to top it all off, Moses and Elijah show up and are just hanging and chatting it up with Jesus. 

The arrival of Moses and Elijah is incredibly symbolic.  To begin both of them were considered prophets.  Both had been rejected by their own people at some point in their ministry.  Both were advocates for the Torah and the covenant with God and God's people.  And both were believed to have been taken up into heaven without actually dying.  Scripture explicitly states that Elijah was taken up "in a whirlwind," but is more vague on Moses.  In Jesus day, most people believed Moses had been taken up as well.  Jesus shining face is reminiscent of what happened to Moses when he encountered God on Mt. Sinai and had to wear a veil when he spoke to the people of Israel so as not to freak them out. 

4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Two things happen here that are very symbolic as well--including Peter's inane babbling.  To begin, the passage indicates the presence of God as a "bright cloud," which points us all the way back to Exodus when God would lead the people of Israel as a "bright cloud" during the day, and a "fiery cloud" at night.  When Peter starts babbling about shelters, he is actually referring to booths---like the ones the people of Israel would build during their journey through the Wilderness. For centuries since then the Hebrew people celebrated a feast called The Feast of Booths to commemorate that time of their history--when God sustained them through the Wilderness as they journeyed to the Promised Land.  

Incidentally, this feast was a sign and symbol of the future advent of the kingdom of God, which the Hebrew people longed for... A time when Israel would be restored and pagans like the Romans would be subject not only to God, but also to them.  

Peter is simply reflecting what all of the disciples feel at this point: "Jesus, there's no need to leave the mountain and go through all of that dying stuff. Let's just stay here and let the world come to us!"  

But then they see the cloud, and they hear the voice--what ancient Israelites would have referred to as the bat qol--literally interpreted as the "daughter of the voice of God" or "the echo of God's own Word."  This is the voice that spoke at Creation--the voice that came to the prophets--that spoke to Moses out of the burning bush--that spoke to Elijah in the stillness... 

The voice says "Hear!" or Shema! which is the first word in the most important prayer that Jews would (and still) pray... "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One..."  

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Understandably, the disciples begin freaking out.  Everything is confusing.  They thought they had it understood, they are overwhelmed by the possibilities of what they are seeing and hearing... 

And then just like that it's over, and there is only Jesus--their Jesus--standing there, reaching out to them, touching them and speaking words of grace and peace.  "Don't be afraid..."

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The early Christians wrestled with this story and it's implications.  Scholars believe that the reason it was a part of the Gospel narrative is evidence of the conclusions they reached.  They saw a direct connection between Jesus and God.  Jesus wasn't ordinary by any means, but there were lots of extraordinary stories about rabbis and holy men in Jesus' day.  Miracle stories abounded, just like they do in our own culture.  For the early Christians, Jesus was something more, though.  He was more than a new Moses... more than a new Elijah... more than the Law and Prophets...

He was the manifestation of God himself.

Jesus isn't a concept to be argued.  Jesus is not just another exceptional human being, prophet or great teacher.  He is not just an example to be followed.
He is the decisive representation of the Divine---who touches us, and tells us to not be afraid.  He is, as the first Christians called him, Emmanuel, God with us.

We have in his touch, his words the unbelievable assurance that comes from a Creator who desires a relationship with the created.  And further, a Creator who desires to do whatever it takes in order to secure that relationship--even if it means coming down from the mountaintop and walking toward the Cross.

I have experienced the evidence of the closeness of this God-in-Christ...  I have experienced it in the moments when I have been sitting with a patient who receives terrible news in the hospital, and who then reaches out to comfort her grief-stricken husband.  "Do not be afraid."

I have experienced it in the moments when I have been tearfully watching the news of disasters, school shootings, unimaginable tragedies that tear at the soul... and I hear a story of sacrifice, redemption, rescue in the midst of it.  It's as if I can feel the touch of Jesus and hear his voice.  "Do not be afraid."

And then there is what Sammie saw on that night when I sat at her deathbed.  She was a woman from our church, who had been stricken with Alzheimer's and eventually with cancer.  I was called to visit on her last night on earth. She had slipped into a coma, and was unresponsive. After sitting alone with her that night for quite some time, I tried to leave but found that for some reason I couldn't.  I kept hearing a voice in my head tell me "Wait!"  So I waited.  And then suddenly she opened her eyes and stared at me in confusion.  I tried to speak to her, but then her gaze drifted to something (one) behind me.  I felt all of the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand up on end.  There was a presence in the room with us that night.  I whispered to her, "What do you see?"  She tried to speak, but couldn't.  Then her eyes dropped and closed.  She returned to unconsciousness. A few moments later, a nurse arrived and checked on her.  I felt released to leave at that point, but I left my number for the nurse to call if anything changed.  My phone rang before I got home.  Sammie had died five minutes after I left.  As I drove with my eyes filled with tears, I knew that Sammie had seen Jesus.  He had been there in that moment... touching her... speaking to her... telling her... "Do not be afraid."

Listen to me.  The story of the Transfiguration teaches us that those "other" ways people believe lead to God---they have to do with religion, not a relationship.  They tend to create institutions that claim to have knowledge of God, but provide no ways to describe the importance of experiencing God in a real relationship.

And that relationship is embodied in a Jesus who touches us, who comforts us, you tells us to rise and let go of our fear as we stumble after him.

Beloved, Jesus is the One Way to God that finds assurance in a real relationship. 
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