(Read Genesis 12: 1-4a, Luke 3:1-17. Also, see Ephesians 2:11-18, Message translation)
I truly believe that my Christian faith has made all the difference in my life. Not only is my life’s work intertwined in the religion, but Christianity has shaped the way I think and act, given me hope, and helped me to be a more forgiving and loving person.
But one of the great struggles I have had, and continue to have with Christianity, is our claim at exclusivity. When Christians say that belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, that being a Christian is the only way to salvation, to redemption, to heaven; immediately, warning bells go off in my mind.
The claim that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation has New Testament basis, especially if the verses of Scripture are read in isolation or without utilizing any historic or literary criticism, (which to most modern and progressive people, this type of Scripture reading is considered unacceptable).
Some examples of such Scriptures are: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14: 6).
Or from the book of Acts, a more obscure passage: “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:10-12).
Also, from our Gospel lesson this morning, it says: “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’” (John 3:5). A Christian might claim that this Scripture means that a person must be baptized in order to enter God’s kingdom. However, this is just one way of interpreting the text. Other religions believe that we are born of God’s Spirit, and water could refer to many things, including the purity rituals of other traditions.
Also, the great commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), has lead some Christians to force our faith on non-Christians throughout the world. Jesus commanded his followers to share the good news, to forgive and to love, but instead, many have used the great commission to justify oppressive, cruel and violent behavior.
The bloodshed that occurred in the name of Jesus Christ during the Crusades is part of our religion’s less honorable past. Wikipedia offers a brief summary:
The Crusades were a series of military conflicts of a religious character waged by much of Christian Europe against external and internal threats. Crusades were fought against Muslims, pagan Slavs, Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians, Mongols, Cathars, Hussites, and political enemies of the popes… The Crusades originally had the goal of recapturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule and were originally launched in response to a call from the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire for help against the expansion of the Muslim Seljuk Turks into Anatolia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crusades).
Basically, the sad truth of the Crusades was that so many people were killed in the name of Jesus, which disgraced our religon. Even to many people today, Christians are remembered as violent people because of these battles wages by our Christian anscetors.
Christian missionary work has also given Christianity a bad name throughout the world. Nowadays, we have done much to remedy the mistakes of our past. Current Christian missionary efforts try to honor and respect the cultures and societies we enter. We try to be helpful and of service while sharing the good news, but not coercive in making people believe. This is a relatively modern approach to missionary work. A few hundred years ago, Christian missionaries to South America, Africa, and other parts of the world literally tried to eradicate the native cultures and practices of the people, and replace them with a quite narrow, Western Christian paradigm.
Some even argue that the Holocaust was one of the results of the belief that Christians are superior to the Jewish people. Although, I think there is much more to the Holocaust than that, which makes this too general of a statement to make
My point is: the Christian claim that we are the only faith, the only religion acceptable to God, the creator of heaven and earth, for salvation has had devastating consequences for people throughout the world
Not only has the claim of exclusivism degraded the Christian faith and lead to violence, it contradicts many of the teachings of Jesus and the overall message of the gospel.
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but he never said, ‘Love them only if they are exactly like yourselves.’ One of the origins of our faith is that at one time, only a chosen few were loved, protected and redeemed by God, and that was the tribe of Israel, but through Jesus, God made a new covenant for everyone and anyone so that all people could be in relationship with God, protected, healed and redeemed. (See Ephesians 2:11-18, especially the Message translation). In time, however, a certain criteria developed that faith in Jesus as Savior was necessary to enter into this relationship with God. It is ironic that a once inclusive movement developed into an exclusive religion.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking towards him, John cried out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Of the world.
“And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). The Savior of the world, not only those who believe.
“Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all [Adam], so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all [Jesus]. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18).
Some Scriptures say that believing in Jesus is critical, others just focus on the will and work of God to save all people through Jesus. Period.
I think John 3:16-18, part of which we heard this morning, demonstrates the problem at hand very well. It describes both an inclusive and exclusive point of view.
Verse 16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [inclusive], so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Exclusive.
Verse 17: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Inclusive. Jesus came to save the world, not to bring condemnation to anyone, which I imagine includes even those who do not proclaim him as Savior.
Verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Exclusive!
It is a great struggle for our religion. Interestingly, in the lectionary, the reading ends at verse 17. I think that is because verse 18 condemns people, and Christians are trying to steer away from that sort of judgment.
Christianity is one of many religions throughout the world. Does the rest of the world have to be wrong in order for us to be right? Can we continue to believe in the Cross without having to hang anyone else upon it?
Will we continue to believe in the Cross without having to hang anyone else upon it?
Abraham is the father of our nation, but not just ours. What about the other two religions that claim Abraham as their father? Judaism and Islam.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12: 1-3).
All the families of the earth, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian are blessed through the faith of Abraham.
The question for us is: How do we remain faithful and convicted as Christians AND tolerant, respectful and loving of people of others religions, especially Muslims and Jews?
This past week, I went to NYC to participate in interfaith dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews with 25 other Methodist ministers to ponder this very question.
I want to say a little bit about what I learned from the Muslim and Jewish conversations because it is our lack of education about these other religions and the people who practice these other religions that leads to our prejudices. And it is our prejudices and de-humanizing of other people that allows us to condemn and be violent towards them.
First of all, Christians, and Muslims for that matter, are forever indebted to Judaism. Monotheism rose from the tribes of Israel, and the Hebrew Scriptures are the first great record of a monotheistic people. Both Christianity’s sacred texts and Islam’s sacred texts contain the sacred texts of Judaism.
That’s not to say that we are not different. We are. The basic and fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism is that Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews do not believe Jesus is the Messiah. Jews do not believe the Messiah has come yet.
Steve, a United Methodist Minister, was talking to a Rabbi and an Imam one day, and what the Rabbi said helps to explain the problem between our faiths from the Jewish perspective. The Rabbi said, “We know that you [meaning Muslims and Christians,] look at us as though there’s something missing, as though we are incomplete.”
The Rabbi was right. This is one of the problems.
It has lead to what is called supersessionalism. Christians think and act like the Jews are not as favored as we are, not anymore. We believe that our new covenant through Jesus Christ supersedes or takes the place of the covenant that God made with Israel, and that the covenant God make with Israel so long ago is now inferior or even broken.
I was told in seminary never to try to convert a Jew. It’s okay if a Jew wants to convert, just as its okay if a Christian wants to convert, but they don’t need to The covenant God made with the Jewish people has not been revoked. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God said to them, “But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’” This promise has not changed, and when Christians act like it has, that is very hurtful.
Trying to be more sensitive to the Jewish perspective, I asked a Jewish woman who was at the conference if the Jewish people were mad at Christians for letting ourselves in on their covenant with God?
And she simply said, “That is your belief.”
Then, she concluded by saying that maybe we were not so different after all because the Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to come, and we are waiting for the Messiah to come again. Maybe next time, we will both agree.
When it comes to being tolerant and respectful towards our Islamic neighbors, the main danger we Christians face is our ignorance. We simply do not know much about Muslim faith and practices, partly because Islam is predominantly practiced on the other side of the world. We haven’t really been exposed to it.
And sadly, our great exposure to Islam has come recently through terrorists, who aren’t the average Muslim, but are Islamic extremists. There are millions of Muslims out there that we do not know at all. It would be kind of like if people thought that you and I were the same as the Christians of the Crusades. The one thing we must be clear on is that the terrorists are not the Muslim people.
A few basics about Islam: Islam began in the 7th century when the Prophet Mohammed was given the Quran by God. Muslims consider Moses, David, Jesus prophets, but Mohammed is the last prophet sent by God. Allah simply means ‘the-God,’ the same God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus. Muslims even believe in the virgin birth and consider Mary the most holy of women. Their five pillars, the five duties of every Muslim are: 1. a confession of faith. 2. pray five times a day (which comes from the Christian monastic tradition), 3. fast during the month of Ramadan, 4. give money to the poor, 5. take a pilgrimage to Mecca if able.
One of the main confusions for me is that the governments of Middle Eastern countries and the religion of Islam are kind of intertwined. For example, when we think of Islamic women, we often think of their head coverings or hijab. “Hijab is the Quranic requirement that Muslims, both male and female, dress and behave modestly. The most important Quranic verse relating to hijab is sura 24:31, which says, "And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their adornment except that which ordinarily appears thereof and to draw their headcovers over their chests and not to display their adornment except to [the men in their family]..." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_and_Islam#Dress_code).
One of the women that spoke to us when I was in NYC said that only in Saudi Arabia and Iran are there laws and legal ramifications for not wearing the hijab. In Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and all the other countries where Islam is practiced, women are expected to wear them as a sign of their faith, but they do have a choice. The Prophet Mohammad said something to the effect of, religion should not be under compulsion. The idea being that religion and religious practices should not be forced upon anyone, but that these things are a matter of the heart.
The woman speaking to us was maybe in her 20’s, and she said that more and more, Muslims in this country are wearing hijabs to set themselves apart as faithful women, women who reject the exploitation of women in American society. I found myself thinking I might like to wear one myself.
As Christians, we might think of the hijab kind of like how we are supposed to go to church, pray, read the Scriptures, ask for forgiveness, serve the poor, take care of the sick, etc. These are commended to us by our religion, our priests and pastors. There is even some sort of social pressure to do these things that comes from other Christians, but no one enforces it, no one can make you. Ultimately, acts of piety and acts of mercy are up to each person. It is similar in Islam, except in some countries, in particular Saudi Arabia and Iran (and before the US took over, Afghanistan), which have made the rules of the Quran the rules of the country.
I believe our task as Christians of the 21st century is to have more honorable relations with Jewish and Muslim people. As Christians, our goal is to remain faithful and convicted in our beliefs that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, AND AT THE SAME TIME, to be tolerant, respectful and loving towards the people of others religions.
Three ideas on how we might do this:
1. Leave judgment and salvation up to God.
Romans 4: 16 says, “The fulfillment of God's promise depends entirely on trusting God and [God’s] way, and then simply embracing [God] and what he does.” (Message Translation). This is God’s world, not ours. Let’s just accept that what God is doing is bigger than we can comprehend.
2. Dialogue with people of other religious traditions. Get to know each other. Listen to what everyone has to say, and at the same time, proclaim our beliefs clearly and sincerely, but without coercion and forcefulness.
One of the ways we tend to try to make amends for our checkered Christian past is to water-down our beliefs. We don’t have to do that or apologize for what we believe. The Pastor at St. James and St. Andrews UMC in NYC, whose name is K, said that the first time he knew Jewish people would be attending his Christmas Eve service, he preached on angels. He was afraid to offend his guests so he barely mentioned Jesus. Pastor K said the sermon was a total flop; his worst Christmas Eve sermon ever. At the end of the service, a Jewish person came up to him and said, “That was a nice service, Pastor, but I thought I would hear a lot more about Jesus.”
The importance of dialogue is not only to learn and understand, but to connect a theology, a religion with a person. When we sit down and actually speak to people of other faiths, we realize that there is no such thing as meeting a faith, we meet a person. All of our grand ideas and theories don’t sound so smart when you are actually sitting face to face with another human being.
3. Another way we can remain faithful and convicted in our beliefs that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and at the same time, be tolerant, respectful and loving towards the people of others religions is to get educated. We can do this through dialogue, through books, classes, lectures, TV programs. I for one want to read some of the sacred texts of other traditions. The idea is that we learn so that our ignorance and prejudices are replaced with knowledge and understanding.
Not only should we learn about other faiths, but we should also go deeper into our own faith. We barely scratch the surface in here on Sunday mornings. The more convicted you are in your own heart, the more you understand our faith and believe our teachings, the more you experience the Living God, the less you will need to defend your beliefs or convince others of your beliefs.
It’s kind of like when you know the final score of the basketball game was Knicks 76, Cavs 75. Then, sitting near you, there are 2 guys fighting back and forth. One demanding the Knicks won, the other demanding the Cavs won at the buzzer. You might pipe up and say what you know, but as they go on arging, you detach from the conversation. You don’t need to fight about it. You know the score.
The more convicted you are in your faith, the less there is to argue about. However, in religious dialogue, we should still listen to one another, find commonalities, disagree on matters of importance, but do so without acting superior.
I’ll close with this antidote, told by Dr. Irvin, President of New York Theological Seminary:
There was a shepherd whose sheep kept escaping, wandering off, so he had to build up larger walls and put up more fences to prevent them from leaving the pasture.
Meanwhile, there was another shepherd who had no walls, no fences, and his sheep all stayed in their pasture, happy as clams.
The first shepherd said to the other, “What’s your secret? How do you do it?”
And the shepherd who had no walls, no fences, no protective barriers said, “I have dug very deep wells. This is the place they want to be.”
So I think it should be with every person’s religion.
I say these words in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.