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|Author:||Rev. Steve Kindle|
|Copyright:||© 2011 by Rev. Steve Kindle|
Please see the sermon manuscript for citations of sources quoted or used.
Progressive Christians are often accused of not believing the Bible. Actually, there is some truth to this. We don’t believe ALL of the Bible. No one does. This is to say, we all act on different parts, or emphasize or value more highly some parts over others.
One easy example is a side of God portrayed in the Hebrew Bible who advocates war by total annihilation. So some Christians eagerly support war as something God advocates as a means of destroying evil. Others reject totally this picture of God as not representing the God of love as described by Jesus, and see war as anything but God-inspired. I’m reminded of this teaching from Walter Wink that the Powers love our violence in return for their violence, for it makes us into that which we despise.
So against this second point regarding the value of the great world religions, certain predicable Bible verses are trotted out to prove us wrong. As the saying goes, "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text." The first is from John 14:6. I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the father but by me. So let’s look at the context.
Let’s first examine the idea that Jesus is the way, and of course, implied is the only way. I should pause a moment and confess to you that I believe this and believe this with all my heart.
We need to recall that the early Jesus movement was not known, either to itself or to the world as Christianity. It was simply The Way. In a very important sense, it was not yet a religion. There is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus was trying to begin a new religion or was even calling for converts to what some recognize as his “brand” of Judaism. His focus was in calling Judaism back to its original purpose of being a “light to the nations,” rather than an inward looking people devoted to their own preservation.
Much has been made of 20th Century theologian and Christian martyr to Hitler’s Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s desire for a “religionless Christianity.” Unfortunately, he died too young to flesh this idea out for us, but I believe he was on to something important.
Religionless Christianity. Isn’t that an oxymoron, a self-canceling phrase? How can there be Christianity without religion? Isn’t Christianity a religion?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, it is a religion. It has creeds and rules and beliefs, and Holy Scriptures, and official bodies, and adherents, and heretics, and saints, and on and on.
And no, it is not a religion. Perhaps what’s wrong with Christianity is that we have left The Way ... a way that is open and available to all people ... and turned it into a religion, that is, a belief system and not a way of life. Christians are now identified on the basis of what they believe and not how they life. Life for most Christians is indistinguishable from that of nonbelievers.
What’s wrong with Christianity is no different from what’s wrong with any “religion.”
When we believe that only we have the truth, we become elitist, aggressive for converts, overly protective of our system, and thereby consider all who would differ from us our enemies.
Perhaps the most controversial teaching of Jesus of all is his plea that we should love our enemies. He put it this way, But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27-28) In no small way, how we treat this command of Jesus’ will determine Christianity’s value to the world.
I know you agree with me that a world filled with enemies is not a fun place.
When confronted with enemies, we try either to dominate them, or eliminate them, or failing these, to run from them.
Enemies quickly become the evil ones, objects not humans, and certainly not anything like us.
If history has any lessons to teach, one lesson surely must be that people claiming special access to God have a tendency to justify their hatred and oppression of anyone who does not affirm their beliefs and traditions. Christianity has a long and bitter history of such efforts. And many today are hard at work to keep these efforts alive.
In the minds of most Christians, the religions of the world are our enemies.
So we send armies of missionaries to convert them to our religion.
And not just our religion, but our brand of Christianity.
In the process we often destroy their culture.
It should be abundantly clear by now that treating our non-Christian neighbors, whether they be across the street or across the world, as something to be pitied at the least and eradicated at the most, is a mindset that needs to be thrown upon the junk heap of history.
Jesus is the way and no one comes to God except through this way. In a very important “way,” Jesus way is exclusive, ruling out all other ways.
His way is this: Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.
Yes, his way is exclusive, but not exclusive to Christians.
It is found in all the great faith traditions, if one would bother to look.
And where we might find in other religions the things we fear and even despise, we find a falling short of this Way. For it is the Way and the Truth and the Life and no one comes to God in any other Way. Period.
For progressive Christians, that passage from John is not about exclusiveness, but refers to the "way" of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being, which is known in all the major faiths of the world. It's about a path, a journeying with, not a set of beliefs. The way of Jesus is a universal way, of relationship and transformation. Therefore it is Truth and Life.
Luke, who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of the Acts of the Apostles, has the apostle Paul joining all humanity together in one great assembly, the assembly of humankind. Here’s how he as Paul put it. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
We are not alone, not alone in our search for God, not alone in our humanity, and not alone as the objects of God’s attentive love. We, throughout the whole wide world, are in this together, and as soon as we renounce the category of enemy as unworthy of any who would be followers on the Way, we will be able to find God at work throughout the world.
It’s interesting to note that Luke gave us a genealogy of Jesus. But where Matthew ends his genealogy with Abraham, Luke takes Jesus’ family all the way back to Adam.
But Matthew does tell us of the Magi, those servants of Ahura Mazda, the god of the Zoroastrians. You may not know that Magi is where we get the word magician. Magis practiced sorcery. Every good Jew knew that sorcerers were to be stoned to death. Moses commanded it. Yet here come these visitors from a strange land, worshipers of a strange god, condemned to death, yet aware of the significance of something special happening in that little town of Bethlehem. How could they know? People on the way, recognize others on their way, too.
The last thing I am afraid of—and why I have no fear of death—is that I might have this all wrong; that my life has been spent following the wrong course. And this is NOT because I am confident that I am sufficiently in the right that I will be spared any untoward consequences in the afterlife. But it is because I am in the hands of a loving God. And I fear for no one who, having listened attentively to the teachings of their faith tradition and try to love God with all their heart and their neighbors as themselves.
NPR Radio recently reported that Heartsong Church of Cordova, Tenn. was approached by Muslims to use their space during Ramadan. What do you suppose it took for the Imam to feel comfortable making such a request? One thing is for sure: the Imam must have recognized in Heartsong a welcoming spirit that reminded him of the best that is in his religion. He could not have seen an enemy. So today, two great faith traditions are walking the Way together in running jointly a homeless ministry and planning a shared park.
So my plea today is for us to recognize that this Way, narrow that it may be, is wide enough for all who would walk in it; enemies no more, but friends of God and each other. AMEN