5th Sunday Easter

S Easter 5.23 “The Categorical Christ John 14:1-14

There is good news and bad news in this (a very famous passage of the Gospel) for us, this morning. The good news—and we like to start with the good news, don’t we?—is that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and he will take us with him where he is going, to heaven, prepare a room for us in the Father’s house, and do this by faith alone, by believing into him, becoming one body with him—a gift of pure, unmerited grace, not because of works of the law we do, but by his word and sacraments, even to unworthy and clueless sinners like Thomas, Philip, and us.

The bad news is that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and that categorically, so that no one comes to the Father except through him. And you’re like “Huh? You said that the good news is that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. How can the exact words you cite as good news be, at the same time, bad news for us?

Well; this sort of paradox is the stock in trade of holy scriptures, which I think no one read better or grasped more profoundly than Martin Luther. Here’s what Luther says of this very passage in his great book “Bondage of the Will” which we are reading together Wed. evenings, the very passage which we considered in our class last Wednesday. Luther writes:

“Christ is said to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ and that categorically, so that whatever is not Christ is not the way, but error, not truth, but untruth, not life, but death… Where and whence then comes your intermediate neutral entity (like ‘free-will’) which, though it is not Christ (that is the way, the truth, and the life), should not be error, untruth, or death? If all things that are said of Christ and of grace are not said categorically, so that they may be contrasted with their opposites like this: out of Christ there is nothing but Satan, out of grace nothing but wrath, out of light nothing but darkness, out the way nothing but error, out of truth nothing but a lie, out of life nothing but death—were these things not so, what, I ask you, would be the use of of all the apostolic discourses and, indeed, of the entire scriptures? They would all be written in vain, for the would not compel the admission that men need Christ (which is their main burden), and that for the following reason: something intermediate would be found which, of itself would be neither evil nor good, neither Christ’s no Satan’s, neither true nor false, neither alive nor dead, neither something nor nothing (perhaps), and its name would be called ‘the most excellent and exalted thing in the whole human race’!”

So far Dr. Luther.

That Christ Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life is good news only for poor, miserable sinners who have completely despaired of themselves and any goodness in their rule-following meretricious works—the band, as Luther put it once to Melanchthon (who was whining to Luther about his difficulty in being nice to colleagues) and Luther writes back “why don’t you go rob a bank or kill someone? Then you’d stop pestering me about trifling little matters of works and laws and rules, and would have to join us band of real and hardened sinners who’ve had to flee for refuge entirely by faith to the cross of Christ?”

That is, to say that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life—and that categorically, unconditionally so—is good news only to those who have categorically despaired of finding any goodness or worthiness in themselves, and have flung themselves by faith under the cross of Christ for shelter from the storm.

For those who are not so categorical—who do not see the world in black and white, but only in 50ish shades of grey, who don’t see a world of good and evil, believers and unbelievers, Christians or pagans, but see a vast spectrum of neutrals who are neither hot nor cold, good nor bad—for them it’s very bad news: to hear that the only way to the Father is by being so into Jesus by faith that you become literally nothing, while he becomes everything.

Because then, where is that little spark of goodness, that little bit of creativity, or taste, or style, or kindness that makes you just a tad better than us truly hardened sinners of the world? Where is that little bit of ‘free-will’ to which Erasmus was so attached and which inclined him of his own volition to the way of Christ, so that it wasn’t only and categorically by grace alone through faith alone that Erasmus walked the path to heaven, but was due, just a little bit, to his own cleverness and rule-following goodness? That tiny little “something” that makes you worthy of heaven, that makes you a good person (despite a few faults 😉 is damned by the Categorical Christ!

Jesus! That’s a really tough word for us to take, a bitter pill to swallow!” I know, right? It really brings you low, crushes you, grinds you to powder, destroys even that precious humility which you have worked so hard to achieve! Puts you on the same level with Hitler and Stalin, Ahab, and Herod and Nabal—the scum of the earth, the worst of the worst, the real hopeless cases. And who likes being in that band? It’s almost like it kills us, drags us down to hell, and leaves us utterly lost and bereft, without any self-esteem, without anything in ourselves of which we can be proud, right?

But this is the way God rolls. He kills in order to make alive, wounds in order to heal, drags down to hell in order to raise up to heaven (as scriptures and Luther never tire of sayin’ ;-). And Christ does this categorically. There is no intermediate state, no neutral ground, no non-combatants, with Jesus.

Now, our world kinda hates that about Jesus, truth be told. Some leaders of our own Synod have created a fantasy world where there are a small number of those who hear the word of Jesus and believe it, a small number of those who hear the word and utterly reject it, and a vast mass of great, unwashed neutrals who are neither good nor bad, sinner nor saint, Christian nor pagan, but are just waiting for us to go out and bring the word of Jesus to them in a winsome way that awakens that spark of ‘free-will’ and “goodness” in us all.

We’re all Erasmians now, I think. We look for a tiny little spark of ‘free-will’, “goodness”, “creativity”, “kindness”, in our dark hearts that makes us worthy, inclines us of our own volition to walk the way to heaven with Jesus—not as beggars after all, but like worthy, righteous saints.

That uncategorical waffling won’t work. Jesus will not be the Savior of half-hearted neutrals (who, categorically, don’t exist!), but categorically he’s Savior of that band of real, hardened sinners—the haters of the world, who despise our sinful lives, selves, world, so much, we’re ready to die and be damned to hell, to let Jesus categorically decide whether he feels like raising us to new life, and, if not… well; even in hell, we’d still praise him who alone is true, beautiful, and good.

The good/bad news, as Luther well says, is that whatever is not Christ is not the way, the truth, or the life. And we are not Christ, not as we are by nature. But; Jesus says: whoever believes—not in him, but Greek εις, into him—is one body with him, living stones built into God’s house. His word, sacrament, his faith alone does it all; gets us so into him, it’s all… good. Categorically! In Jesus’ Name. Amen.


About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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