Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Way, the Truth, and the Life--A Sermon

The Way, the Truth, and the Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

New Year’s Day 2012
John 14:1-31

I am excited about my new radio program, Religion For Life, that begins airing this Thursday.   I have recorded and produced several interviews already.   Anthony Flaccavento is this week’s guest and then our own Jennie Young will be on the following week talking about mountain top removal strip mining as a moral issue.   

This past week I interviewed Carol Delaney, professor emerita at Stanford.  She is now a research scholar at Brown.  I used her book Abraham on Trial as a resource for my series of sermons on Genesis.  Her latest book is about Columbus.    It is called Columbus and The Quest for Jerusalem

Do you know why Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 14 hundred 92?

It wasn’t to prove the world was round.
That was common knowledge already.

It wasn’t to be greedy or imperialistic. 
Nor was it a matter of curiosity.

It was because of religion. 

He wanted to get to China to get gold and spices, not just for the sake of gold and spices, but to fund something else.  He needed to get enough capital to fund a crusade to take Jerusalem from the Muslims.   Why? 

Only when Jerusalem was in Christian hands could the temple could be rebuilt.  Then the stage would be set for Christ’s return.    Columbus saw himself as part of a divine plan to wrap up the end of time for Jesus. Lest anyone think that religion is not a powerful motivator look to Christopher  “Christ-bearer” Columbus.

Columbus was not unusual.   He was unusually bright, gifted, and creative.  His beliefs were not unusual.  He was devout.  He acted on his beliefs.   His beliefs would have been common for the medieval period.    In his world, there was one true faith.  Muslims, Jews, and other sects were mistaken, wrong, and false.  Religious diversity was not a value or even a possibility.

Columbus and those of his time saw Earth as the center of the universe.  The sun, moon, stars moved around it.   Christ, the Father, and Spirit, sat on the heavenly thrones just  beyond these heavenly bodies.   The universe wasn’t particularly old, 6,000 years or so and it would end, Columbus believed, less than 200 years from his own time.  He had calculated the end for himself by reading the Bible.  

Changes were happening around them and Columbus saw these events as signs of the end.  The clock was ticking and the faithful had work to do.  They needed to prepare Earth for Christ’s return.  That meant making sure that the false believers were not in control of the holiest of places, Jerusalem.   Columbus wanted to finance a holy quest, a holy war, to take back Jerusalem.   That is why the rhyme tells us:

He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

Why tell this business about Columbus?  In part, because I want you to listen to the radio program when it airs.    I also want to illustrate how foreign his world is from ours.   That foreign aspect is not just in terms of technology, that we have fancier ships and google maps. 

His world is different from ours on multiple and significant levels.  When you enter his world both in terms of time, space, and theology, you can see how his views at least fit his universe.    His view of Earth was small, contained in time and space and central to existence and human beings were the apex of creation.

For us, Earth is not the center of the universe.  It is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of a galaxy that is one of billions of galaxies.    The universe is 14 billion years old.    Homo sapiens are so late to arrive it is difficult to plot our arrival on the time scale.    The universe will do its thing billions of years after the last of the homo sapiens has breathed her last.   There is no “end”, certainly in human time.     

In terms of the time and space of what we even know of the universe, we are a speck of sand on a beach.    Human beings are evolved not created and not above but related to all other forms of life.    We are only beginning to imagine what “meaning” is in that universe.  We need to catch up with the universe as we discover it and explore ways of creating meaning in it.

Columbus’s theology, philosophy, and motivation are not possible today, except in the minds of the deluded and there are plenty of those.     It is a good thing that the majority of us do not embrace his world-view.  Imagine starting a holy war to win back Jerusalem from the Muslims so that Jesus will return.   How insane is that?  The insanity is that there are people who still believe that today.    We do not want those people to have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Columbus is 500 years before us.  If his world is foreign to us, go back another 1400 years to the Gospel of John.     Yet there is less difference, far less difference, in terms of world-view between the time of Jesus and the time of Columbus than the time of Columbus and our time.   

The modern symbol of Columbus, imperialism and genocide, is a myth.   As professor Delaney discovered from her research, the historical Columbus was actually a devout, good person.   His beliefs were not unusual for his time.  They were just really wrong.   It didn’t happen.   It is important to state that obvious point.   The purpose, the goal, the whole reason for his voyage never came true.  He never started a Crusade and Jesus didn’t return.    He was wrong.  History took a different turn.

Here we sit in church reading a text 1900 years old that was written by people who had a view of the world far closer to that of Columbus than us.    A text in which Jesus says,

“I am the way, the truth, and the life…no one gets to the Father unless it is through me.”

And he says,

“If I go to prepare a place for you, I’ll return and embrace you, so where I am you can be too.”

Columbus read that same text.  He thought it meant that Christ and Christendom is the only way and the goal is getting to the place that Christ prepared, a new Earth that will be created by Christ who is now in heaven just above the stars.    Christ will return, destroy the old Earth and make a new Earth.    That is what Columbus thought.  Columbus was wrong.

He wasn’t the only one wrong about that.   The Apostle Paul was wrong.  As was John the Baptist.  While there is debate regarding the historical Jesus, as to what he thought, it is possible that he thought he lived in the end times too, and if so, he was wrong.   A plethora of prophets predicting the end of days since then all have one thing in common.  They were wrong.  The guy who predicted the rapture this past May and again in October, was wrong.  Those who want to search the mysteries of the Mayan calendar and predict that “the end” will occur on 12/12/12 or 12/21/12 or whenever, will be, you guessed it, wrong. 

What is the point of these sacred texts if reading them leads us to do some really strange things?  Things that are wrong and potentially harmful?   If you really believe the end of the world is coming, what is your ethic?  Columbus’ ethic was crusade and holy war.    I am going to go out on a limb and say that is not good. 

If you are still searching for a New Year’s resolution, I will offer an option:  resolve not to believe wrong things.  Even if, especially if, these wrong things are shrouded in sacred tradition and holy hoopla.   Be blasphemous.   Blasphemy may be the only thing that will save us from those who think they are divinely inspired to start holy wars.

This season is the via creativa, the spiritual path of creativity and imagination.   I do think that we need creativity and imagination to face the task before us as human beings at the start of 2012.   One of the tasks is to create meaning and to find a goal, a reason, and a purpose.  

Columbus and medieval Christendom lived in a world of meaning and purpose.   It was wrong, but cozy.   Our challenge is more difficult in some respects.  Our world is not cozy and tidy in terms of time and space.   How do we live in a universe that will exist long after we as individuals and as a species are gone?  How do we live accepting that we are not the center or the goal of the universe?    Our religious traditions don’t prepare us for those questions.   

Columbus had a grand scheme.  He thought he was part of a divine plan to end the world.  

  • What if we lived as though we were not part of a grand plan but rather something quite other entirely?   
  • What if we trusted the truth that we are the eyes, ears, and voice of the universe right now, in our own way? 
  • What if we valued our purpose on on that scale?    
  • What would happiness, peace, justice, and contentment look like if our god was a god of small things?    
  • What if our goal was not to end the world or to live forever on a new Earth, but to be authentically human in this one?    
  • What if our purpose was to be comfortable in our own skin? 

I think that Jesus was much smaller than the tradition wanted him to be.  The Gospel of John said that his smallness was cosmic.   I read this gospel as an invitation to be real and present to life as it comes to us.    The disciples want “the Father.”  They want the big deal.  Jesus says you have seen the Father when you see me.   

I don’t think the historical Jesus said that, that is John’s creation, however, the point is that it is in the historical person of Jesus and in his life in the present that we see the Father.  That is what the author of John's gospel saw in Jesus.    It is in the everyday doing and being that we find the holy.    For Jesus, it was a life of compassion for others, for himself, and a profound respect for life.     

His purpose was to love.

If you are like me at all, you spend more time thinking about what will happen or might happen or what has happened than about what is happening.   We might spend a lot of time judging our past and our future.     We over-think things.  We allow our emotions to control us and that can tend to make us anxious about life.    The truth is that while we have thoughts and while we have emotions we are not those things.  We can step back and be conscious of them.

So when Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life, I see it as an invitation to live here and now with awareness.    The only way to be authentically here and human is to be here.   

And the place that "he has prepared for us" is right here and now 
when we give ourselves permission and time to be here and now 
and to accept who we are here and now 
and to love ourselves here and now 
as we are here and now.  
There is nothing else we have to be.
Nothing else we have to do.

I said that a possible New Year’s resolution is to resolve not to believe wrong things.

A second one is to believe something about yourself that I think is right.

You have been thrown into this world, now, in this time, for a purpose.

That purpose is to love.
Love yourself.
Love others.
Love life.
Love this moment.
Love it all.



  1. Unfortunately, what Columbus believed and acted upon is no different from what Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum believe and are prepared to act upon if elected. More unfortunately, Newt Gingrich is only too happy to pretend he believes the same thing so that he can act upon his own false belief, and start WWIII with Iran -- all to cater to the medieval belief system 20% of our population believes in.

    We have work to do. Your work is vital. Keep it up.

  2. You came to mind today when someone who identified himself as RtRev wrote "I am a Bible believing Christian and I find some that would call themselves Christians could be so willfully ignorant and/or just plain naive."

    This prompted me to re-visited your web site today principally because I was impressed by your honesty and candor when I discovered your site a few weeks ago and I wanted to send him a link to your site.

    And then I found myself dumbstruck by your glowing account of Christopher Columbus. I'm sure you were referring to the Christopher Columbus who was eventually taken back to Spain in chains and also the one depicted here:

    That said, thanks for your continuing good work.

  3. Duke,

    Thanks for the comments and for sending links to my stuff. I wouldn't call what I said regarding Columbus "glowing." I was mostly interested in his apocalyptic views as motivation for his quest. I found Carol Delaney's book illuminating.

    Thanks again for the good words!