Easter 5, May 14, 2017
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
I know some priests who when reading this gospel at funerals refuse to read the last line that says: “No one comes to the Father except through me”. They edit it out because of those Christians who have used this line as a cover for their arrogance and even violence against those who don’t believe exactly the same way they do.
I clearly remember the day in Atlanta when a religious argument broke out between two of my neighbors. David, a member of the conservative Church of Christ and Kristy, a Roman Catholic were screaming that the other was going to hell because of they attend a church with false beliefs. This was in 1960 when the three of us were 8 years old.
So I get it when some in the mainline churches decide the world would be a better place if we took a pair of scissors to passages like John 14, that make claims about Jesus that might offend others.
I also was tempted once to try believing in Christianity without believing in Christ. But I soon found that to throw out incarnation, resurrection, and the Second Person of the Trinity, is to lose the central tenants of the faith. Christianity IS the story of the creator of the cosmos, the Source and Ground of all Being, coming among us as a first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, not just to teach about God, but to heal our alienation and restore us back into fellowship with Triune God. Jesus does this for every human being who has ever lived and will ever live. This is the good news we proclaim, so that everyone might hear Jesus’ call to open their hearts and receive the forgiveness and healing of God who is always right here for us.
But even as important as the experience of knowing this Jesus is to me, there is a bigger problem when Jesus is dethroned. In 1933 Adolf Hitler was moving to solidify his control not only of the German government, but also the protestant Churches. Wikipedia tells us that he “wanted to transform the subjective consciousness of the German people…into a single-minded, obedient “national community”…., [so he] attempted to create a unified Protestant Reich Church. from Germany’s 28 existing Protestant churches. Wikipedia
In reaction to this, in October 1934 members of the newly formed Confessing church met together in Barmen, Germany to draft the Barmen Declaration, written largely by Karl Barth, the greatest Theologian of the last 500 years according to Pope Pius the 12th: the declaration quotes this passage from John 14 and says in part:
“We, the representatives of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches, of free synods, Church assemblies, and parish organizations united in the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church, declare that we stand together…and are bound together by the confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church….” And “we publicly declare…that what they hold in common in this Confession is grievously imperiled….by the teaching methods and actions of the ruling Church party of the “German Christians”….We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords….”
In short, those brave followers of Jesus Christ proclaimed in public that Jesus Christ is the only Lord of heaven and earth and Adolf Hitler is not!
According to Barth, the reason so many could go along with Hitler’s takeover of the church and fail to stop his madness is because since the Enlightenment the western church began to allow secular idols like materialism and nationalism to share the throne with Jesus as Lord and Savior. Once it is decided that Jesus isn’t really the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God made flesh, then why not enthrone other ideas in the name of being progressive and modern.
It’s easy for us 83 years later to see the damage that comes when the church abandons the Cosmic Christ and embraces a mythological nationalism. It is much harder for us to see in real time when we put the flag in the place of the cross, and our comfort in the place of Christ’s call to serve the poor, the marginalized, and the stranger.
But if we hang on to the centrality of Jesus how do we engage with our friends and co-workers who follow other religions or no religion?
Here’s a thought experience that made sense when I first heard it: Imagine Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammad, and Krishna having a meal together. I imagine we’d see spiritual grownups listening deeply to each other, while respectfully sharing their differing views of the nature of reality.
I’ve mentioned before one of the most important books of the last 30 years on this issue was written by an evangelical Anglican Bishop, Leslie Newbigin, who served 40 years as a missionary in India and was also involved in international ecumenical organizations. The book is called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
In the chapter called “The Gospel and the Religions” Newbigin offers some practices for those who, on one hand, believe Jesus is God’s embodied Word in the flesh, and yet who also want to interact with those of other religions in the same way Jesus did when he healed the pagan Centurion’s servant and welcomed the Samaritan woman at the well.
Newbigin says first we should “expect, look for, and welcome all the signs of the grace of God at work in the lives of those who do not know Jesus as Lord.” He says “our first privilege is to seek out and to welcome all the reflections of that one true light in the lives of those we meet.” The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, P 180
If, as John says in the prologue to his gospel, everything that is comes into being through the Word, then we should not be surprised to find Christ’s thumbprint on everything.
Second, Newbigin says the “Christian will be eager to cooperate with people of all faiths and ideologies in all projects which are in line with the Christian’s understanding of God’s purpose in history.” So let’s build houses, hospitals, and schools together.
“Third, it is precisely in this kind of shared commitment to the business of the world that the context for true dialogue is provided.”
Newbigin is exclusivist in the sense that he affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but he “is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian”. He is a pluralist “in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings”, but he “rejects the pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” Ibid. page 183
Last week our Senior Warden gave a photo to Norm and Frank for their work in maintaining our buildings over many years. The picture shows the construction a hundred years ago of the cloister that connects the chapel and the church. I don’t know if it was Wilson Waters, the rector at the time, or maybe the vestry, who chose to carve these words into the granite blocks: it reads, “Jesus saith: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.”
Notice what else Jesus is saying: He is saying that Billy Graham, Mother Theresa, and all other Christians are NOT the way to truth and life. Therefore, none of us are in a position to point fingers at others as if we were Truth itself.
He is also saying we come to the Father through him, therefore he gets to choose how he to use other churches or no churches at all to bring people to the Father.
What he is saying is that Jesus is in the business of bringing every human being, indeed the whole cosmos, into the joy of Triune God. (see Colossians 1:15-20)
So it makes perfect sense for Jesus to say in John 10, in another passage often used at funerals: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”