There is something very disconcerting about being accosted by someone who challenges you with the question, “Have you been saved?” This question is not as innocent or caring as might at first appear, because it frequently means: “Are you committed to God in the same way I am?” In such instances, the question seems more an accusation than a sincere query. It implies that there is only one authentic manner of commitment, and all others are fraudulent.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus assures us that there are many dwelling places in the heavenly mansion. In other words, there is room for everyone. Since each person is a unique creation of God, there will also be a uniqueness to each one’s search for and encounter with God. This is not meant to enshrine every idiosyncracy and regard it as akin to spirituality, but to acknowledge the diversity of valid spiritual searches.
The Gospel points out the confusion of the disciples. They are troubled that Jesus will leave them. He reassures them that he is merely going away to prepare a place where they will ultimately join him. Thomas’s response shows that he knows neither where Jesus is going nor how the others will follow him. To this Jesus replies, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Philip misunderstands Jesus’ claim that no one can come to his Father except through him; and Jesus responds, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”
The first disciples are not the only ones who fail to grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ words. Believers down through the centuries have struggled with them. At the First Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) there were heated arguments over the nature of the union of Jesus with his Father. We profess our acceptance of its final statement on Jesus’ divinity each time we proclaim the Nicene Creed at Mass. That council carefully articulated the statement of faith, but who really understands fully this divine union? It is, after all, a mystery.
Jesus’ words—way, truth and life—call to mind the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. That tradition addressed the manner of living that will result in happiness. One chooses either the way of the wise (the way of truth), which leads to life, or the way of the wicked, which leads to death. Jesus states that he and his Father are one. From this it is easy to understand why Jesus would say that he is the way to the Father. Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, believing that this way of living will lead them to God.
On the other hand, the claim that “No one comes to the Father except through me” has also caused religious antagonism, sometimes even resulting in bloodshed. How are we to understand this statement in the face of contemporary interfaith dialogue? The Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” provides the beginning of an answer to this question: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions [Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.]. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”
This is only the beginning of an answer, for we still struggle to reconcile acceptance and respect toward other religious faiths with the Christian belief that Jesus is the way to the Father. The council document offers some direction in the midst of that struggle: “The church, therefore, urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”
We see in this document that the church summons us to discussion, collaboration and witness of life as ways of dealing with the diversity among the religions of the world. Today’s first reading offers an example of employing these means within the church itself. A conflict between Hellenist and Jewish Christians was resolved in a way that “was acceptable to the whole community.” This conflict was ethnic in origin, not unlike many conflicts we face in the church today. Diversity is inevitable, and it sometimes results in disagreements. When this happens, the challenge is to address our differences honestly and to seek ways of resolving the disagreements with the kind of reverence to which the church exhorts us, as it does in the council document.
Jesus said that there are many dwelling places in the heavenly mansion. Since it is God’s mansion and not ours, we have no right to presume that some will be admitted and others will not. This is in God’s hands. All we can do is follow Jesus and continue our struggle to understand the teachings he left us and their implications in our lives today.