Theology Sermon #11—Gen 12:1-3; Isa 2:1-4; Matt 25:31-40; Rev 21:1; 22:1-2
Ted Grimsrud—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 4, 2007
Word associations: “religion,” “the religions,” “world religions”
A number of years ago, Kathleen and I sat in on a Sunday School class in a large Mennonite congregation. The speaker was a member of the congregation who had just returned from a year in an Asian country, and he was reporting on the experience. He talked about how interesting the religious beliefs and practices were that he had seen and then made a comment about how in his relationships with the people he had encouraged them to be the best Buddhists (or it could have been Hindus) they could be.
I learned later that this comment had caused a bit of a furor in that congregation. People who believed that faith in Jesus as Savior is the one way to find salvation were distressed. The speaker’s embrace of religious pluralism, his implied belief that any number of religions can lead a person to God, raised concerns….
So, what do we think of the various religions of the world? How do we relate our own Christian faith to Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on? How does our understanding of the religions fit with our broader theological convictions?
In my Introduction to Theology course, we spend several class periods discussing questions such as these. I ask the students to imagine a hypothetical person, say someone from Mongolia, an exemplary person in every way, loving, kind, morally upright, active and faithful within her religious community. Then imagine a similar American (perhaps someone they know) who is also exemplary in every way and an active and faithful Christian. The Mongolian is utterly ignorant of Jesus Christ, has never heard of Christianity. We assume the American is right with God—what about the Mongolian?…Often we then have a pretty lively discussion.
This discussion of the Mongolian, part of a bigger discussion of religious pluralism, comes near the end of the semester, after we have sketched out our understanding of basic Christian convictions. The idea is to apply our Christian convictions to this very real issue. Now, the Mongolian scenario is hypothetical, but the need to think about Christian faith in relation to other religions most definitely is not.
In reflecting on all this today, I want to return to the way I have addressed all of our theological topics in this series of sermons. How do we think of the religions in light of Jesus? “Religion as if Jesus matters.”
One of the first thoughts I have, then, is that we should recognize that the category “religion” is a human category. We seem to think that religions exist as fundamentally real things, rather than as labels we have created to try to place some kind of ordering framework on to our experiences. We do need such labels, but they are artificial, they exist only in our minds.
That is, the universe does not explode when my friend Sallie identifies herself simultaneously as a Quaker and a Buddhist. The universe does not explode when my friend Dan has membership in a Jewish synagogue and a Mennonite church—both at the same time.
Jesus did say, so famously, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But I don’t think he meant to say that Christianity is the one true religion. I don’t think he meant to say that a person must pass some kind of doctrinal test that clearly identifies one as a Christian and gives one a token to use for exclusive access to heaven after one dies.
I am not certain what precisely Jesus did mean, but these words were spoken before Christianity even existed. So he couldn’t have been talking about the religion Christianity. Perhaps a key point is to reflect on what it means to think of Jesus as “the way.” What is the “way” Jesus tells us about?
He gives us a very important criterion for discernment when he states that the Sabbath (a religious practice par excellence) is meant for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath. Religious identity, religious practice, religious faith—these are meant to serve human well-being. The “way” of Jesus as a religious leader, as the object of religious devotion, focuses on the question: Does our religiosity serve human well-being or not?
Back when I started my series of sermons on theology, I suggested that we should recognize that our “god” is that which we value most in life, that which we orient our lives around, that which rests at the top of our hierarchy of values. Theology is reflection on, articulating, what the values, the convictions, are that matter the most to us in life. “Christian” theology, I propose, emerges when such reflection takes as its central set of criteria for evaluating our values the life and teaching of Jesus.
When I say “Christian theology” here, I am saying what Christian theology should be, not simply what it is in practice. I mean by “Christian” something like Christ-follower, something that befits a follower of Jesus.
What about “religion,” then? I would say that our religion has to do with the practices, rituals, and such that reflect and sustain our theology. I would want to use Jesus’ life and teaching as our criterion for discerning how “Christian” (or how befitting of Christ-followers) our religious practices are. In my last sermon, I talked about sacraments as practices that make us aware of God’s presence.
What are core Christian sacraments? If we link them with Jesus, we would say sacraments are practices that empower us to love God and neighbor. In his book Body Politics, John Howard Yoder discusses sharing food and possessions as being sacramental. Also, the practice of open conversation in the community that leads to decisions and policies that serve the community’s well-being. Other “sacraments” for Yoder, in this sense, are the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of conflict.
This is all to say that “Christian theology” is not an exercise in buttressing the human religion we call Christianity. Theology with Jesus as its center does not focus on religious structures, institutions, doctrines, and ideologies of exclusion. Rather, “Christian theology” has to do with reflection that empowers us to follow Jesus and his way of love of God and neighbor.
The Bible passages we heard earlier give us a wide-angle look at Jesus’ hierarchy of values. His core message was not esoteric, it was not out of the blue, it was not an absolute departure from what went before. Jesus anchored his message directly in the broad message of the Bible, the message God had given to Israel through God’s prophets. The basic biblical teaching is that God desires peace (that is, health and wholeness) for the whole world, that God has called a people to know this peace and to share it with the rest of the world. The religion that God endorses embodies this teaching.
We see this basic message at the beginning of the story in Genesis 12. God calls Abraham and Sarah to establish a community; they will have descendants who carry the promise of God. This promise is that God will, through these people who know God, God will bless all the families of the earth.
Abraham’s descendants do form a people. The prophet Isaiah proclaims their vocation, echoing God’s words to Abraham and Sarah. Their faithful religious practices will be bring people from all the nations of the earth, from all the families of the earth, to learn the ways of peace. God’s will for God’s people is that they will lead the way in the conversion of swords into plowshares, of spears into pruning hooks. God’s people are to help all the families of the earth break their addiction to violence and to study war no more.
Jesus, in so many ways, gives the same message. He states it in almost shocking terms (at least to those with doctrine-based, exclusivist theology). Those who practice the kind of religion that unites them with God, those who inherit the kingdom, are the ones who give food to the hungry, who give drink to the thirsty, who welcome the stranger, who clothe the naked, who care for the sick, who visit the prisoner. The kicker here is that the religiously faithful people don’t even recognize the significance of their actions. It’s not the overt acts of religiosity that matter here, it’s the simple acts of caring. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
Then, at the very end, Revelation’s concluding vision of the New Jerusalem, the fulfillment of God’s healing promise, finds the nations being healed. The kings of the earth, who are God’s enemies throughout the Bible, find healing. These former enemies bring their “glory” into the circle of God’s community. The witness of the followers of the Lamb contribute mightily to this final healing….
I want also to mention a fifth biblical passage from the Gospel of Luke that captures the general message of all these others. Jesus was asked about eternal life. How is this found? His answer, summarizing the law and the prophets, is simple. Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor. That’s it, in a nutshell.
But the story does not end there. Jesus needs to spell out in a more pointed way what he means. His questioner presses him. So who is my neighbor? That is, “isn’t this what we all do, love our fellow religionists, practice formal worship of God?”
Jesus answer could not be more radical. He tells the story of the Jewish man traveling to Jericho who is mugged, robbed, and left for dead. Several people pass him by, including leaders of his own religion. Then, unexpectedly, he is helped, his life is saved, by the extraordinary generosity of a traveling merchant. So it’s more clear, the neighbor is the person who especially needs your help.
There’s more to it, though. The exemplary neighbor, the one who shows what Jesus has in mind (that is, the one who finds salvation!) is not even a Jew. He’s not a part of the religion of Jesus and his listeners. Even more, he’s a Samaritan, their sworn enemy.
The saved person is Jesus’ story is the one who does genuine justice, the one who loves his neighbor—not the one who is a card-carrying member of the correct religion. Would we want to go so far as to see this story as an explanation of Jesus’ famous saying about being the way, truth, and life? Is the “one way” to God that he proclaims in fact the way of the Samaritan in this story?….
One of the big tragedies of Christian exclusivism, one of the big tragedies of a focus on formal religion over Jesus’ values, is how blatant so much Christian history and so many present Christian practices are in contradicting the message of these Bible passages.
Christians, especially American Christians, are all too often a curse to the families of the earth, not a blessing. Christians all too often fuel warfare rather than teaching against it. Christians all too often benefit from the building of swords and spears rather than transform them into plowshares and pruning hooks. Christians all too often reject strangers rather then welcome them, all to often isolate and punish prisoners rather than befriend them, all to often privatize water supplies rather than give water to the thirsty.
These kinds of things are possible when we do theology as if Jesus does not matter, as if love of neighbor is something optional, something peripheral in our theology, at most an add-on after we get our basic doctrine right.
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference over at JMU on religion and peace. I was profoundly affected by what happened there. I have not had a lot of experience in serious interactions with people of faith from other religious traditions. The content of the papers inspired me (but also challenged me).
We each prepared our papers independently of each other. But what happened is that three of us, me the Christian, the Buddhist, and the Muslim all gave pretty much the same paper! We followed parallel outlines, talking about the core peace convictions that were present at the founding of our traditions, and how those have been marginalized in later developments. The Jewish speaker did not follow this same outline, but his presentation reflected a similar understanding. And numerous speakers drew directly on the Hindu convictions of Mahatma Gandhi.
I have to conclude from this experience—and from the Bible’s message—that Jesus’ values, the core stuff of Christian theology, Jesus’ values provide a clear call for us to join hands with peaceable people from all faiths. We share a calling to transform swords into plowshares—let’s go for it!