“What About Everyone Else?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
July 3, 2016
Job 38:1-18, 39:1-40:5 & John 14:1-14
The betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion of Jesus is fast-approaching, so Jesus gathers his disciples in the upper room of a house to eat his final meal with them. Everything that Jesus has to say during the meal is recorded in the John 14, 15, 16, and 17. These chapters are called the Farewell Discourses because it is here that Jesus says ‘farewell’ to his friends and speaks to their most basic problem: how will they maintain their union with him when he is physically taken away? Early on in the Farewell Discourses Jesus makes a staggering claim that their belief in him will guarantee their union with him and with God when he is gone. Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus will be gone from them, but their faith will keep the relationship with their teacher, their friend, their Savior alive.
These words of our Lord have been a prickly thing for Christians throughout history. On the face of it, it appears that Jesus is making an exclusive claim—that access to God the Father, the very thing that most religions have as their goal, can only be gained through him, through belief in him. What about everyone else? What about all the people in history, in the present time, and in the future who do not subscribe to the Christian faith? Are they denied access to God? What about Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, those who practice Native tribal religions, or those who claim no religion at all? Is Jesus saying that the majority of people—and today the majority of people on earth are not Christians—is he saying that they have no hope in coming face-to-face, in having a relationship with the God of creation? What about all the people who live good, kind, and faithful lives, but do not have membership in a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque, who don’t claim any religious affiliation at all?
This is a deep and complex issue for Christians to grapple with, to be sure, and it seems to be getting even more complex as time goes on. In the 21st century, more than ever, the human family is coming to terms with a world that is just a button-click away, when not long ago it seemed large and unreachable. This has a very specific implication on the question we’re asking today. At one time, you could go your whole life and never meet a person of a different faith. Now, in an instant, you can have a conversation with someone of a different faith or with someone who is also a Christian, but who lives out their Christian faith differently than you do. This complicates the question about everyone else. What was once a concept, a thought, an idea, someone of a different faith, someone you may never meet in your life, has now become a living, breathing human being in front of you and we have to deal with that. The Church’s practice of theology—speaking words about God and belief—is easy in the abstract; when things get more concrete, like the fact that you know good people who are not Christian, what the Church says about God, about Christ, about faith, is vitally important.
Beverly Gaventa and Walter Brueggemann of Princeton and Columbia seminaries, writing with a vast awareness of where the Church has been and where the Church and the world are going, point out that Christians have interpreted Jesus’ exclusive claim to God in two different ways.
The first interpretation has been that Jesus’ words are polemical, words of judgement and warning. This interpretation is valuable and important given the context in which the gospel of John was written. In 70 C.E., about 40 years after the death of Jesus, there was a Jewish rebellion in Rome that the Roman military easily put down. It was during this rebellion that the temple in Jerusalem, the house of God on earth that was the center of Jewish identity, was destroyed for a second time. This tilted the balance of power heavily in favor of Rome, and two emperors—Nero and Marcus Aurelius—reigned with no tolerance for Judaism or for this new religion that followed Jesus. John’s gospel was written in this crucible of religious persecution and lack of identity as a source of hope and comfort for the fledging church of Christ.
It is comforting to know that Jesus has promised you an enduring relationship with God through him when each day you are forced to worship in your basement for fear that the neighbors might call the cops. It is comforting to know that Jesus has promised to show you the way, the truth, and life when you and your community are pushed out, excluded, looked down upon. It is a source of hope to know that Jesus has established a clear and open path to the Father, a path that no emperor, no military police, no outside influence, no threat of death or imprisonment can push you from. Reading the words of Jesus as a judgement and warning against the powerful forces of the world is empowering, especially when the government gives you two options: worship the establishment or die.
Now, when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the legal religion of Rome in 313 C.E., the balance of power in the empire tilted again, this time in favor of Christians. Rather than continuing as the people of hope and comfort that John’s gospel was written for, Christians began to do the very things that at one time forced them to hide. Crusades, persecution of non-Christians, forcing tribes and small kingdoms to either submit to Christian rule and doctrine or die—the oppressed became the oppressors. With Christianity’s rise to power came an intrenched sense of superiority that they had the one, true, exclusive way to God. Somehow the teachings of Jesus that demand humility, love, and a respect of the sacred dignity of every person were turned into the fuel and ammunition of imperialism, colonialism, and the desire to build walls to keep ‘them’—whoever they are—out. If we imagine that these are things of the past, or things that happened in lands far away, we fool ourselves; just look at the Christian conquest of the New World that utterly denied and decimated the Native tribes of America in our not-so-distant past. Unfortunately, Christian superiority is still a force of oppression in our world today.
The second interpretation of what Jesus says in the Gospel of John, according to Gaventa and Brueggemann and most of Reformed theology, is a matter of identity—our identity, not the identity of everyone else. When Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” he is pointing out to the disciples, and to us, the very thing that makes us unique and different in the world. What makes us unique and different among all the people of the world is that we believe Jesus is the direct revelation, the direct path, of and to God. When we confess that Jesus is Lord, and place the entirety of our lives in his hands, we are making a statement to one another and to the world that we encounter God, enjoy God, are instructed by God, forgiven by God, judged by God, and showered with grace by God, through Jesus Christ and nothing else. We are saying that we are who we are, who God intends for us to be, because of Christ; we come to the Father through him.
This makes Christians, you and me, distinct. This means that we gain our moral and ethical understanding of the world through the teaching and wisdom of Jesus Christ. This means that our understanding of power is informed by the folly and shame of the cross. This means that when we encounter the grieving, the poor, the persecuted, children, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, we are encountering someone blessed by God and given over to our care. This means that our attitude towards our enemies should be one of peace, not of violence. This means that when we have an extra coat, and we see someone without, we give them our extra coat without a moment’s hesitation. This means that we work each day, hand-in-hand with God, to bring about the kingdom of heaven here and now. This means that we have confidence that, when this short and fleeting life comes to an end, we have a place in eternity prepared for us by Christ. This is our identity—Christ is our identity.
This does not mean, however—and this is crucial—this does not mean that we have the only way, that we have the only good ethics and morals, that we have the only calling to serve the poor and needy. God chose to reveal God’s-self to us in Jesus Christ; this does not mean that God kept, or is keeping, himself away from everyone else, or that those who encounter God in other religions, other spiritualities, other ways of living, are wrong. To believe that everyone else has it wrong because we have Christ, or that everyone else is going to hell, or that everyone else is whatever—to believe this is not only counter to the Good News of Jesus Christ, it fails to recognize the unimaginable power and grace of God.
Think about the dialogue between Job and God that we’ve heard today. There is nothing outside the power of God. The foundations of the earth, clouds and the waters of the sea, the rising of the sun and its setting; the mountains in their majesty, the amber waves of grain, every animal that gives birth—the wildness of the donkey, the servitude of the ox, the ostrich who has wings but cannot fly; the mighty horse ready for battle, the soaring hawk—God’s power is the source and inspiration of everything. This is a powerful God. This is the God we believe created and rules all things, who created you and me out of the dust of the earth. This is a God who’s ways we will never be able to understand, a God who breathed the air we breath, walked the earth we walk, died the death the die, then rose from the grave to revoke death’s power over us. This is not a God we can mold according to our wants or demands, and this God is not subject to our theologies or doctrines or the limited power of our mortal minds. This God is free. This God is love, and that love is for all people and all things.
This powerful God, beyond our understanding or imagination, we believe came to life in Jesus Christ and interacted with people of different faiths. Two encounters come to mind today: the woman at the well who was a Samaritan, and the Syro-Phoenecian woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter. In both situations, Jesus acted decisively on God’s behalf to forgive sins and heal the sick. Instead of forcing his faith on them, instead of demanding their allegiance before agreeing to help them, Jesus extended the love of God without any concern for their religious affiliation. Jesus was not concerned with where they worship, how they pray, or what rules they followed; he did not ask them to be baptized or come to church with him and he didn’t hand them a pamphlet. He forgave the many sins of the Samaritan woman, and healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, out of deep love in their time of need and out of a radical respect of their dignity as beings created in the image of God. Jesus was a sower of seeds, of God’s seeds. The sower, according to the parable, goes out and sows seeds on every type of ground, which seems silly to the seasoned farmer. But the sower has confidence, confidence that growing something for God is not about the soil but about God’s power to bring good fruit out of anything. Jesus was confident in God’s power, in God’s power to draw all people into the divine presence.
In our world today, of indescribable beauty and deep, deep pain, we need to be Christians of this second interpretation. We need to be Christians who are focused on what makes us Christian, on our identity as redeemed sinners in Christ, instead of focusing on what makes everyone else not Christian. In our world today we need to be Christians who celebrate joyfully that we have direct and unencumbered access to God through Christ, that in God’s goodness we know God because Jesus came into the world. We need to be Christians who shed any sense superiority we might feel because of our faith, for it was Jesus Christ who said that the last will be first and first will be last. We need to be Christians who speak properly about what we know about God, but who also know how to act and live according to what we know about God. We need to be Christians who embrace that we simply don’t and won’t know the height and depth and breadth of God, who find peace and contentment in leaving the course of the world and its people in God’s capable hands. We need to be Christians who embrace the various religions and spiritualities of the world as Jesus did, with love and grace and not with fear or violence, because they too are bearers of God’s image. And we need to be Christians who share the love of Christ in all that we say and do, not just to fill the pews or the offering plate, but because we know Christ’s love changes things. To live this way, to be Christians of this sort, honors the God of our faith and shows to the world the One in whom we believe is the way, the truth, and the life.
Jean Calvin, one of our forefathers as Presbyterians, wrote in 1536 that, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.”
And so today I call you to go out into the world as Christians who know that the truth has been revealed to you in Jesus Christ, to be people who love as Christ loves you. I also call you to go out into the world as Christians who recognize and honor that the Spirit of God, wild and unpredictable, will inspire truth, goodness, justice, compassion, and love in whatever and whomever God choses. In what you say and do, reflect the one in whom you put your trust and faith, and leave the rest to God. God’s got it, I promise. Jesus promised that, too. Amen.