By Rev. Brooks Berndt, Pastor, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Vancouver, WA
(While the following play is authored by Brooks Berndt, it is based upon the writings of Diana Eck, Robert Funk, James Gertmenian, and John Hicks. )
Professor Freed: Friends, we gather here today at Applebee’s for the inaugural meeting of the Bohemian Supper Club of First Congregational United Church of Christ. Does everyone have their fajitas and mozzarella sticks?
Janice, the Poet: Ah, Professor Freed, you truly have an innovative, pioneer spirit. If only the university could have seen your genius, you would never have been denied tenure. Let’s have a toast to the creative spirit of God at work in the Bohemian renaissance of Vancouver. May God bless our band of loving hearts and free minds. May God be the spring water that delights our souls.
Professor Freed: Oh, Janice, you are ever the poet.
Harry, the Free Love Hippie: We are a groovy bunch!
Janice: Well, Professor Freed, what do you propose we talk about for our first meeting?
Freed: My dear bohemians, I was rather taken aback by our pastor’s sermon today. Let’s discuss that sermon.
Janice: I’d rather discuss the scripture reading, since that was the real cause of controversy. I don’t think we should bash our pastor.
Harry: No, that wouldn’t be groovy.
Freed: Right, right, I think it would indeed be splendid if we were to discuss that sermon text of his.
Janice: Even though it’s a controversial text, I still think it is lovely in its own way…
Freed: I am afraid I have not yet come to that opinion, but let’s discuss it.
Harry: I dig Jesus and everything, but what he was saying about how no one comes to God except through him wasn’t cool man. Mohammad and Buddha were righteous dudes too.
Freed: Right you are, Harry, but the point that I would make is this: I don’t believe Jesus said those words in the first place.
Janice: Professor, you are ever the heretic. Explain yourself…
Freed: You see our text comes from John, the last of the Gospels written. Only in John does Jesus say these things. Such remarks are really not in keeping with the earlier gospels. I don’t think the Jesus of history was given to making grand pronouncements about himself. Only John has Jesus going around saying, “I am the light of the world. I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus was really more into telling parables and clever sayings about the Kingdom of God than he was into talking about how great he was.
Harry: If only I had had a professor like you, I never would have dropped out! I always knew the real Jesus couldn’t be so closed-minded. How could someone who hung out with Samaritans, Jews, and Romans not be open to Buddhists and Muslims?
Freed: You are right, Harry! In the Gospels, often the best people of faith are people of other faiths. There’s “the Roman centurion, the Syrophoenician woman, the Greek Cornelius, the good Samaritan.” Jesus was a bit of a free spirit, much like yourself.
Harry: Ever since I backpacked across India, I’ve always liked what Krishnamurti had to say. He said he wasn’t a Christian, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. He didn’t even claim that he was on the right path to truth and that everyone else should follow him. He said, “Truth is a pathless land…You cannot approach it by any path [or] …religion.” He believed people got imprisoned when they tried to follow a path.
Janice: I think you two have taken this too far. I think whoever wrote the gospel of John was a great poet. The entire gospel just sings of poetry. You are taking it too literally. John was trying to capture the essence of Jesus. He was trying to speak a poetic truth about him. Let’s not get too caught up in debating what actually took place 2000 years ago.
Freed: Leave it to our poet to make such a good point. I’ve always felt that all that talk about the incarnation of Jesus was really just a metaphor for saying that Jesus embodies the best of our ideals, the highest potential of humanity.
Harry: You know Gandhi was a pretty hip dude. Maybe he had that incarnation thing too. He once said that his life was his message. Maybe that’s kind of like what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the Way and the Truth.” But what I don’t get is why Jesus had to put down other religions?
Freed: Well, there are other ways of understanding this scripture. You know I once taught this text to a class of 150 students. I said to them, “If ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what exactly was the question?” No one could remember the question, but almost everyone knew the answer. The question wasn’t about whether Buddhists or Muslims or Hindus would make it to heaven. Jesus wasn’t trying to condemn anyone. He was answering a question asked by Thomas. Thomas was worried about what the disciples would do after Jesus was gone. Thomas asked him how the disciples could possibly know what path to follow if they didn’t know where Jesus was going. So Jesus was actually being helpful and compassionate when he explained to Thomas that he was the Way.
Harry: But what about that part about no one coming to God except through him?
Freed: That’s a good question. One could say that Jesus or whoever wrote the Gospel of John wasn’t dealing with a world where there were viable alternatives for what to believe. The religions we all know about today simply weren’t an option back then. With good reason, worshipping the Roman Emperor as the Son of God would have seemed pure idolatry.
Harry: But then how did Jesus relate to Jewish people?
Freed: Well, Jesus himself was Jewish. Now, he was against the religion of the establishment. This is actually important to understanding what John has Jesus saying. When Jesus said, “I am the way,” he was actually freeing people from having to follow doctrines and laws for no good reason. His life would show them how to live. So, today, when we try to figure out what to do in our lives, we don’t have to mindlessly follow some set of rules. We ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” We have to figure out for ourselves what it means to follow Jesus, what it is that’s right and true, but we are also not just left by ourselves with no examples at all to help us sort things out. In the end, I don’t think Jesus was preaching a message that imprisoned people in their faith, he was preaching a message that liberated them.
Harry: I like it. I like it. I always knew Jesus came to set our minds free. It’s kind of like Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” That’s rad, dude.
Freed: So my dear bohemians, we’ve discussed the meaning of what John wrote back then, but we haven’t faced the question of how we as Christians are supposed to relate to people of other faiths today?
Janice: I like to think of it this way. Imagine you are in a room with no windows or lights. You fumble around in the dark unable to see. Then, over in the far wall you notice what at first looks like tiny specks of gold. As you get closer, you realize that each of those specks is a small hole in the wall and that on the other side is this bright, magnificent light. You discover that if you get close enough and look through one of the holes you get a good view of the light. When you stand back, you again see that there are many holes through which you can peer, but you know that you can only look through one of them at a time. So if you want to get a good glimpse of the light, you have to choose just one of the holes to look through. I think that’s how life is with God. At first, we just fumble around in the dark, but then we see that there is a light somewhere and that there are these different holes that allow us to see it. One hole is Christianity, one is Islam, another is Buddhism, another is Judaism, and so on and so forth. All of them can give us a glimpse of what is ultimately meaningful in life. It’s good to recognize that they are all there and provide a glimpse of God, but in the end, we see God best if we get up close to just one of them and use it as our window into God. We can spend our whole life just trying to grasp what it is we see when we look through just that one hole.
Harry: Wow, you must have been on one of those vision quests. That’s rad dude. I mean duddette.
Freed: Janice, that is indeed a good image. But let me put a challenge to you. We’re all Christians here, but we’re also bohemians, and you know as well I do that there are other Christians out there who don’t like us bohemian Christians. In fact, they don’t think we’re Christians at all. In turn, we may or may not think they are true Christians either. My question for you is this: Do we really worship the same God as these other Christians? What if they believe God hates gays and lesbians, while we believe God loves gays and lesbians just as much as everyone else? Can we truly say that they are just looking through another hole in the wall that shows them who God is?
Janice: Oh, professor, there you go taking things too seriously again. A metaphor only works to help figure out a part of the puzzle but not all of it. There is a time for appreciation and tolerance just as there is a time for speaking what is true and denouncing what is not. Not all paths lead to God. Some paths would have us marching into war for the most unholy of causes.
Harry: Yowzers! How’s one to make sense of it all? First, we have all this stuff about what Jesus did and did not say, then we have to decide whether or not we still like it, then we have to think about all these other religions which might be good or might not be. What are we supposed to do? Shouldn’t religion be easy? Shouldn’t we be able to just love another?
Freed: I think there are some basic truths to our religion that are easy to grasp, even if they aren’t always easy to apply. Still, I think we also can’t be lazy about our faith. We need to investigate things and figure certain things out for ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll all just end up in some cult following whoever’s got the most appealing personality.
Harry: But how are we supposed to know who to follow and who not to follow? Why not just join some other religion?
Janice: The way I look at it is like this. In life, we are all in a dance. We are all in a giant ballroom. You look around, and you see that there are many different partners you can dance with. Some may catch your eye for a moment, but after dancing with them, you see that they are not for you. Some may turn out to be your worst nightmare. Still, others might be nice and attractive, but you simply don’t click with them. Then, finally you dance with someone for whom you develop more than a superficial attraction. You get to know them. The relationship develops and deepens over time until one day you are able to say, “You’re the only one in the world for me.” This doesn’t mean that you have danced with everyone in the whole ballroom and know that this partner is indeed superior to all others. It simply means that you have developed a deep and meaningful relationship that works for you and that is all you need. In the relationship, there may be rough times when you don’t always understand each other or see eye to eye, but in the end you know that this is the one to whom you have given your heart. This is how I feel when I think of Jesus and say, “You are indeed my way, my truth, my life.”
All three: Amen.