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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Only One Way Out

Easter 5A     John 14:1-14

Only one way.  Only one way out.  There was only one way out to avoid the inevitability of death and extinction.  The day was March 25.  The year was 1975.  The city was Da Nang, Vietnam, just as it was falling to the Communist military machine.  There was only one way out of Da Nang and it was a 727 jet sitting there on the runway, the last plane out of town.  Those left behind who had worked for the Western Allies would face inevitable death.  The plane was jammed with the meanest, the richest, the luckiest, the most powerful.  Underneath the belly of the plane, South Vietnam soldiers were fighting with each other as to who would be able to squeeze into the luggage compartments.  The door was slammed shut, and the 727 took off into the sky, with one person desperately clinging onto the wheelwell with all of his strength.  There was only one way out of Da Nang that day.

Same song, second verse.  A short time later, the city was Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  The war correspondent’s name was Claiborne Ley, and he knew that if he and his family remained in Cambodia, he and they would face the inevitability of death and extinction by the North Vietnam military forces.  He knew that a chopper was sitting out at the airport, waiting for him, his wife and two children and they drove frantically from his office in the city out to the airport, a twenty minute ride which seemed like an eternity.  They ran out onto the tarmac towards the waiting helicopter.  A young soldier stuck his gun barrel up his nose, threatening to kill the correspondent and his family.  They claimed they had the necessary papers, but the soldier had the gun.  Suddenly, the chopper was gone and they raced back to the city frantically.  Claiborne Ley telephoned Saigon; he telephoned everyone he knew and told them they had to leave town or they would be killed.  Finally, the word of hope, the word of one more airplane out at the airport.  Again, they drove frantically, and this time there was no soldiers on the runway.  It was deserted except for the bombs being dropped around them.  And there in the far distance, at the far end of the runway, was a small plane, waiting.  They drove as fast as they could, dashed up and into the airplane, and waved good-bye to the inevitability of their death and extinction if they had remained.  There was only one way.  Only one way out.  Only one way out from death and extinction.

Same song, third verse.  The year was 1275 BC, before Christ.  The land was Egypt.  The ruler was Pharaoh.  The leader of the Jews was Moses.  The Jews had been in slavery for four hundred years to the Egyptians, building their cities and pyramids. But God had sent the plagues, and now the Jewish nation was beginning their exodus from slavery.  And at this particular moment, they were stopped by a body of water, the Reed Sea, the Red Sea, and the Egyptian chariots and horses were rapidly coming to attack and bring death and extinction.  It seemed there was no way out and then a miracle.  Suddenly, before them, the Red Sea opened up and there was only one way.  Only one way out.  Only one way to avoid death and extinction and that was through the Red Sea. 

That paradigm, that visual image of only one way out of death and extinction is deeply woven into the theology of the Old Testament and New Testament.  I still can clearly see a picture poster from a Bible Series that I used to teach of a high piece of land on the left, a deep chasm in the middle and a high piece of land on the right. The high piece of land on the left represented Earth; the high piece on the right represented Heaven;  and then there was a bridge in the form of a cross that went from Earth to Heaven.  It was only on the cross of Christ that we moved from Earth to Eternity.  It was the only way.  It is the only way.

It is with these visual images that we approach the Gospel Lesson for today from John 14.  The situation was this:  The disciples were gathered together with Jesus on the last Thursday night of his life in the Upper Room, and he was talking to them about the inevitability of his death (and theirs).  And he said to them.  “Trust God.  Trust in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions, are many living places, and I am going to prepare a living space for you.  If this were not so, I would not have told you.  And when the time is right, I will come again and take you to myself.”  And Thomas said, “Jesus, we don’t know where you are going and we don’t know the way.  How would we know the way to my Father’s house?”  And Jesus said:  “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  I am the way to my Father’s house; the way to my Father’s living spaces; the way to Eternal life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And in this passage we clearly hear two wonderful promises of Jesus. And the promises of Jesus are the promises of God, and the promises of God are the promises of Jesus, for Jesus and God are one and the same.  And Jesus makes two wonderful promises:  “I am going to prepare a living space for you, a mansion, a place for you for all eternity.  Trust God.  Trust me.  That is what I am going to do for you.  And secondly, when the time is right, I will come again and take you to that place.”  And Thomas questions:  “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, and how would we get there?  Is heaven beyond the Milky Way?  Or in some other galaxy?  Lord, we have no idea of where heaven is and we don’t know how to get there.”  And Jesus said, “Thomas, trust me.  I am going to prepare a place for you and when the time is right, I will come and get you and take you to this place.”  Two wonderful promises of God.

There is an incident out of my family history that helps me to understand this passage.  The story comes from my mother so many years ago. I have revised this historical memory so that it serves the point of the sermon. In the early 1900s, my Grandpa Petersen and his family was planning to immigrate from Denmark to the Promised Land of America.  And my Grandpa Maurice made two wonderful promises to his wife, my grandmother, Elizabeth.  “Elizabeth, I am going to America to build you and the four children, (my mother, Edith, was the oldest), a new home, a wonderful new living space in Houghton, Michigan.  I will take the ferry from our home in Randers, Aarhuse, Denmark over to Copenhagen, then the big ship from Copenhagen to Ellis Island, then I will walk through the scary lines at Ellis Island, and then take the train to Houghton, Michigan, and there in Houghton, Elizabeth, I will build you and the children a wonderful home.  And when the time is right, I will come back and get you and the children and take you there.”  And my Grandma said, “Maurice, you must come back for me and the children.  We would never find our way to America.  I/We couldn’t do that.”  If you knew my Grandma Pete, this frail little lady who had twelve children, there was a certain frail quality to her voice, unlike the gruffness of my Grandpa Petersen.  And Grandpa said:  “You need to trust me, Elizabeth.  I will go and build our home in America  AND I will come back for you.”  Grandma trusted. 

And so Grandpa took the big journey to the Promised Land of America, taking the ferry to Copenhagen, the big ship to Ellis Island, he stood anxiously in the great halls of Ellis Island, and then took the train to Houghton. There, he built the family a lovely home.  And, when the time was right, he came back for his wife and children who would have never found the way by themselves.  He did what he promised. 

And years later, my mother, while watching the PBS special about Ellis Island, was flooded with memories that she had forgotten but seeing the TV documentary on Ellis, it all came back:  the ferry ride, waving good-bye to her grandma whom she would never see again, the ship to America. And the crowded hall of Ellis Island was so very frightening to a little five year old girl like my mother. Having Grandma hold her hand gave her great security.  And then the train ride to Houghton. And then they saw their new home and how wonderful it was. 

And so it is with Christ, who promises you this morning:  I have gone to prepare a living space for you in the Promised Land; it is a lovely place, a mansion, where there is no tears, no sorrow, no pain.  I am preparing a place for you.  And when the time is right, I will come again, and I will take you to myself, and I will take you to this living place.  And those who have the heart of a child trust Jesus in what he said.  And just as my Grandfather was faithful to his promises, so our God is even more faithful to his promises.  “Trust God.  Trust me,” is what Jesus said.

The best sermon that I ever heard on this passage from John 14 occurred this past winter.  I have shared it with you some months ago, but would like to briefly retell the story because that tragic event belongs with this passage from the Bible.  My friend, Jeff Barstow and I, were coming come from skiing up at Crystal Mountain when a car accident happened right before our eyes.  It was a terrible, awful tragedy in which two little girls, Jessica and Jennifer R., ages seven and three, Smiley 1 and Smiley 2, were severely injured if not killed.  As the aftermath of the accident unfolded and the helicopters took off for the hospital in Tacoma with the bodies of the two little girls, Jeff and I ended up in my car with the two parents of the girls and their surviving son. We were to take them to the hospital in Tacoma. At that moment, none of us were sure if their little girls were dead or alive. None of us will forget that terrible day. As time evolved, Jeff and I vowed we would attend the funeral if either child died.  Both children died. It was awful, one of the worst days in our lives, in that family’s life.

It was the day of the funeral and it was packed with children and families and everyone.  The preacher that day preached on the story where Jesus said:  “I am going to prepare a place for you in heaven.”  He then asked all the children who were up on the chancel area, (what seemed more than a hundred children), “How has your own bedroom?” Most of the hands of the children went up.  “How many of you share a bedroom?”  The rest of the hands shot up.  “How many of you like your bedroom?”  All the hands of the children shot up.  The pastor then told how Pat Rhoades, the father of Jessica and Jennifer, was not only  a youth pastor but a builder of homes.  He told the story of how Pat, the father,  recently built the first floor of their new family house where everyone lived, and then he started on the second floor of the house, upstairs, where he went all the time to build the three children their three bedrooms.  Pat, the father, built the bedrooms for his children because he loved them so very much.  About that time in the sermon, there was a loud booming noise of hammering coming through the walls, and before you knew it, you remembered that you were in the middle of a children’s sermon and suddenly there was a carpenter like Jesus with a carpenter’s apron around his waist and hammer in his hand, standing before all the children.  The Jesus-carpenter began to speak and tell all the children that he was up in heaven, preparing a living space for each one of them, like a bedroom for each one of them.  Jesus asked the kids, “Do you think I am preparing a nice bedroom for you in heaven?” The kids all nodded “yes.” It was stone quiet as Jesus spoke.  And the children?  They believed.  They trusted.  No doubts.  Not one trace of doubt.  They believed that Jesus was preparing a place for them to live someday in heaven; that he had already prepared a place for their good friends Jessica and Jennifer.  They believed.  They trusted.  They knew Jesus was true to his word.

And Jesus says to you this day:  “Trust God.  Trust me.  I have gone to prepare a place for you.  In my father’s house are many mansions, many living spaces.  If this were not so, I would not have told you.  I am preparing a place for you.  And when the time is right, I will come again and take you to myself and take you to this place.”  God wants you and me to trust, to trust his promises like little children.

For a moment, I want to focus on the word “mansions.”  In my father’s house are many mansions, are many living spaces.  The King James’ Version and Tyndale’s Version of the Bible use the word, “mansions,”  whereas the Revised Standard uses “living spaces.”  I like the connotation of the word, “mansion.”  When I think of the word, “mansion,” I think of the mansions over at Port Townsend or Craigdarrick Castle up in Victoria, BC or the many mansions that I have visited in my life.  A mansion connotes beauty, spaciousness, loveliness, grandeur.  The Bible says that our minds cannot possibly conceive of the beauty and grandeur that God has prepared and is preparing for us where there will be no more pain and no more war and no more sorrow.  God’s mansions are incredibly perfect.  It is a “living space,” not a dying space, where life is experienced at its fullest.

So we hear the two wonderful promises of Jesus:  I go to prepare a living space, a mansion for you, and I will come again to take you to myself and to that place. Jesus continues, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  I am the way to the father’s house, to the father’s mansions, to life eternal. 

No one comes to the Father except by me.” Let’s focus on that sentence and phrase, “except by me.” 

This line in the Bible is often used to illustrate a narrow list of those who will get into heaven.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, literally believe the Book of Revelation says that only 144,000 people will get into heaven, and they, of course, are part of the chosen 144,000.  The Mormons have these same tendencies.  “No one comes to the Father except through me” means except through the Mormon Church.  These same narrowing interpretations are found everywhere:  Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics; all the denominations have people in them who feel that their way of believing is the only way to get into the Father’s heavenly mansions.

Three weeks ago, we had a delicate debate in my Sunday morning Bible class.  It was the best class of the year, so many members said.  The Bible study was focused on this passage from John.  “No one comes to Father except through me.” I put a test question to them.  Based on this chapter from John, do they believe that both Anwar Sadat, the great past premier of Egypt who was as devout as Muslim as you can find, a praying pious man  and Jimmy Carter, the born again Baptist  who signed the Camp David Accords with Sadat in order to bring peace to the Middle East,  Jimmy Carter who is equally pious and praying as Sadat;  do they believe that one or both or neither will be in heaven when they die, knowing that God is the judge and we are not.  The debate was intense, feelings were strong, people were lining up on both sides.  Marion spoke the beliefs of one side:  “Maybe other religions know God and Jesus by a different name.”  On the other side, Orlie spoke of his great faith in Christ as the only way to salvation, that he admired Sadat enormously for his politics and his piety, and his only regret was that Anwar Sadat never had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in order to know God in all His fullness.  So I asked Orlie:  “Do you believe that Sadat is in heaven?”  And Orlie responded,  “I hope so.  I truly hope so.”  Then it was suggested,  “Maybe we should look at the word, ‘many;’  in my Father’s house are many rooms, many mansions, many living spaces.  Maybe these other spaces include people of different cultures and different centuries and different faiths. Who knows how they got there to these rooms, other than by the grace of God, like us all.”  And I noticed that people on both sides of the argument seemed to nod their heads positively, however slightly, as if to say “Maybe.  maybe.”  Still others shook their heads negatively, “We don’t think so.” It is a difficult question for all of us.

My suspicion is that there are going to be all kinds of surprises as to who is in God’s heavenly mansions, knowing that all people will be there through the gracious gift of God in Christ. 

There is only one way.  There is only one way out.  There is only way out of the disaster of death and extinction.  The 727 was sitting on the end of the runway, ready to take off as Da Nang was falling to the North Vietnamese army.  That 727 was the only way out and as it went up into the sky, one man was so desperate that he clung frantically to his only possibility, he clung onto the wheel well.  And so there may be times in your life which like that.  Feelings of suicide within.  A marriage blown up.  A family blown apart.  A life seemingly shattered.  And you may feel that there is no way out of your desperate situation other than the cling on tightly to Jesus Christ, as that man clung desperately to the wheel of the 727.  And so you cling to your only hope, Jesus Christ, to lift you up out of that desperate situation in which you find yourself.  And as you lose your strength and are about to let go of Christ and fall back into death, Jesus will grab you strongly with his strong arms and pulls you up to himself.  Amen.

(This sermon was given orally on Sunday morning, without notes, and then typed out on a word processor the following Tuesday.

Dear Mary,  Thank you for your note and good questions. I have written this extended commentary, not only to you but to myself.  Your letter is the occasion for me to think and pray about these matters.

I think that both you and your husband heard the sermon accurately.  Your husband says:  “Christ is the only way.”  You say,  “Christ is the Way....and there may be other ways for God in his infinite wisdom to allow others from other religious persuasions to inherit eternal life.”  I like the manner in which you clearly present the choice. 

I call myself a “missionary pastor;” I am a missionary to the Pacific Northwest which is heavily unchurched.  I also believe in sending missionaries whom God uses to convert people around the globe to Jesus Christ; I believe in the historic missionary patterns where Christ is brought to the hearts of all nations.  I believe that the early church was energized  by a combination of Bible passages:  “Go and make disciples of all nations” and “There is no other name given on earth whereby a person can be saved.”

At the same time, I also believe in God’s mysterious benevolence.  It is difficult for me to believe that all cultures and religions who never heard of Christ are condemned to hell, as has been the beliefs of the church in the past.  I leave it up to God to figure out who is in heaven and hell, knowing that anyone who is saved is saved solely by the gracious gift of God, revealed to us in Christ Jesus. 

In sermons, I try to address the hard questions and the difficult passages in the Bible.  I am keenly aware that this passage in John 14, “no one comes to the Father but by me,” is a primary passage used to encourage world missions and I agree with that.  On the other hand, I don’t appreciate the narrow, constrictive attitudes of the Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons and similar groups who believe that they have a corner on who gets into heaven.  Their self righteousness rubs against me.  To me, they feel somewhat like the Pharisees in the New Testament, who were very confident about their interpretations of the Bible, excluding most folks from the saving love of God.  I feel that some Christians today are too sure of their Biblical interpretations which claim that devout Muslims and Hindus or devout people of other centuries and other religions won’t be in God’s heaven.

I think there needs to be more humility about our human interpretations of the Bible and how we apply the Bible.  I am reminded of the current best selling Bible video study on parenting, RAISING KIDS GOD’S WAY, which lists so many Bible verses about parenting, but even conservative Bible scholars say that this course should be entitled, RAISING KIDS ENZIO’S WAY (the author’s way).  Enzio actually thinks that his interpretation and application of the Bible is the word of God because he quotes the Word of God.  All interpretations of the Bible, including mine, reflect the time and culture and group to which we belong. There are a wide variety of human interpretations of the Bible.  We test these spirits.  We test these interpretations. And I hope we have a sense of humility about our own. Of course, there will always be groups who believe that their own interpretations are actually God’s. 

I still think the question posed in Sunday’s sermon is a legitimate one:  “Do you feel Anwar Sadat, a pious devout man of God and Muslim, is in heaven?”  For some people, the answer is crystal clear:  “The Bible says he isn’t.  Sadat heard of Jesus and said ‘no’ to Christ, the Son of God, the only way to salvation.”  But others, like me, think:  “Well, I am not so sure about that.  I believe in the mercy of God for all people.  For me personally to be saved, I need God’s mercy beyond measure. If God can save me in spite of my imperfect behaviors,  God can also save me in spite of my imperfect beliefs.

I also believe in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the Living God,  the Spirit of his love which is so great that he was willing to die on the cross for all sinful people, even those who killed him, even those who didn’t believe in him.  Maybe, just maybe, Sadat was in touch with the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the true God, the Spirit of the true God who calls all true believers in God to be one with one another.  Was Sadat in touch with the Spirit of the Living God, the Spirit of the True God, the Spirit of the living Jesus Christ?  Did Sadat truly love God and his neighbors, as Jesus invited us to?  Was there really that much difference between the “lived out” faith of Jimmie Carter and Anwar Sadat?  I wonder what Jimmie Carter thinks about Sadat’s eternal well being, Jimmie Carter who is very much an old-fashioned, Biblically based, Southern Baptist, in the best sense of the word? My guess is that Carter thinks his friend Sadat is in heaven, knowing that only God is the judge.   

Mother Teresa?  I wonder where she was on this question as she cared for poor dying Hindus on the streets of Calcutta.  She, of all Christians, was the spiritual giant and genius of our century.  I don’t recall condemnation in her heart for those dying Hindus but rather the fullness of Jesus’ love for them. She had a profound love of Jesus found on this side of the grave and on the other side of the grave.  I don’t recall a whole lot of conversation about Mother Teresa converting those dying Hindus but loving them as they prepared to die.  If I were going to cast my theological vote, I would cast it with Mother Teresa.

And Jesus of Nazareth?  One time Jesus was asked by a nitpicking lawyer what must be done in order to be saved, to live for all eternity with God.  Jesus spoke directly to the question as to who would be saved:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,  mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.  Do this, and you shall live.” Did Sadat do this?  Was his life deeply shaped by his devout love of God and neighbor?  The answer seems to be “yes.  From a human point of view, Anwar Sadat seems to portray Jesus’ description of the kind of person who deeply loved both God and neighbor.

Knowing those are my deepest feelings and beliefs, I still am a missionary pastor, wanting all people to know and love Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. I am proud of my friends who are missionary pastors around the globe, bringing the good news of Christ to other cultures and religions and the “Anwar Sadats” of the world.  Why?  Because the Spirit of the Living Christ is fully alive in this century and all centuries before recorded time, and I believe that the Living God wants all people to know and love the Living Spirit of his Son who revealed himself most fully in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as told to us in the Holy Scriptures.  The Living God wants us to know and love and worship and follow the Living Spirit of Christ, the only Son of God, who was revealed in the historical person, Jesus Christ, of the Bible.

Recently, after that wonderful discussion on John 14 in my Bible class, I received the following note from a member who also happens to be on our church council.  She wrote: “I have never felt that Christianity was the only way to God.  How can it be when there is so much love, caring and compassion by others of non-Christian faiths?  These feelings have often times caused me to feel guilt and shame.  How can I be a “true Christian” without feeling that all people must know Jesus?  I loved it when Marion said, “Others come to know Jesus--but they know him by another name!  I agree with that statement wholeheartedly!  I so appreciate the broadminded views of others at Grace.  It is wonderful that particular points of view of faith can be discussed openly without everyone having to agree and believe the exact same thing!  What a unique congregation we have!  Thank you for your leadership!”

“I liked it that other Christians in my class honored and respected the various interpretations of the Bible and that we can discuss them openly without condemning or ridiculing each other’s interpretation.  In some congregations, you need to accept one point of view to be a member, or you need to accept the pastor’s point of view, but here at Grace there are a variety of strongly held beliefs about varying issues.  And many of us secretly or publicly think that our point of view is the wisest or most faithful to the Bible.  But part of the pleasure of being part of our Christian community is the realization that the person kneeling next to you at the altar and praying for you may not have the same beliefs that you do.”

Well, much more could be said about your wonderful note and questions.  I hope that this helps you.  In the Bible, there are often things said that seem contradictory to human logic but both things need to be said in order for truth to be known.  For example, God is a God of love and forgiveness; and God is a God of wrath and eternal judgment.  Or, Jesus is the only way to salvation and “no heart can conceive of the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”  That’s why I like the word, “paradox.”  Both sides of the truth need to spoken in order to be true to the Spirit of the Living God.

That is why I like what both and you and your husband believe.  Between the two of you, I think you are finding the heart of God.  Christ is the only Way and  Christ is the Way.

Sincerely,   Edward F. Markquart,  Pastor,  Grace Lutheran Church, Des Moines, WA.

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