Believing in Jesus is inclusive living
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Easter 5, 10th May 2020
It’s funny that these days, Christians find ourselves criticised for our beliefs by atheists, because one of the criticisms levelled at the early Christians was that they were atheists! They were considered atheists because they didn’t worship the gods which were popular in the Roman Empire at that time. They were also considered abnormal, due to misunderstandings about the nature of their worship and practices.
Today, those who are antagonistic to Christianity are more likely to see our beliefs as quaint, rather than atheistic. Ironically, many who consider themselves to be atheists, could be accused of being religious, because they engage in rivalry, which is a central feature of classical religion. It is we Christians who are more like atheists, because the God we believe in is nothing like the gods of classical religion, or the cultural alternatives, which function like gods.
Christians have not been free of engaging in rivalry though, despite the fact that our founder revealed it as the cause of the world’s problems. Since we are human, we face the same struggles as anyone else, but we should be at least committed to repenting of it. One way that Christians have and some still do engage in rivalry is to identify themselves as being different to those who are not Christian. Sometimes this develops into a sense of superiority. It can be in the form of judgementalism, including the belief that non-believers are going to hell. But perhaps the most dominant form is the desire to make everyone else like them, into Christians. All this, it seems, can be justified by the Bible, and especially today’s gospel passage (John 14:1-14).
Jesus’ words, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me, seem absolutely exclusive. It’s hard to take that as anything else than that you have to be Christian to connect with God. And to reinforce that, Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for us (believers) in his Father’s house. In other words, when we die, we’ll go to heaven. Right? No. That’s not what he means. In fact, Jesus doesn’t actually mention heaven, so he’s not talking about when we die.
When we use this passage to claim any sort of superiority over others, or that in any way, we have something that others don’t, which makes us special, it completely contradicts everything Jesus stood for. Jesus didn’t say ‘I was friendly with people who were outcast, I was compassionate to those who were rejected by others, I was forgiving to people who’d done wrong, I ignored cultural differences and gender stereotypes, now forget all that, and judge people, condemn people for not being like you, tell people God is against them’. And Jesus didn’t die on the cross to free humanity from rivalry so that we could engage in rivalry by defining ourselves as not like those who are different to us. This is why it’s so inappropriate to use this passage to create a division between those of us who follow Jesus and those who don’t.
There is actually a great paradox here. As Christians, we repent of rivalry. We try not to let our lives be run by competition against others, wanting what they have or what they are. We try not to understand ourselves in terms of being different to others, not like that person, or those people. Especially, the gospel tells us not to understand ourselves as being unlike those society deems to be sinners. This is fundamental to being Christian. So, that makes us different to the rest of society (generally speaking), because the rest of society believes in rivalry. It values punishment for sinners, judgement of people who hold politically ‘incorrect’, or socially ‘incorrect’, views, it rewards those who get ahead of, or on top of, others. So, we are different in that way. But here is the great paradox: because we see forgiveness as being broken out of rivalry, we therefore have no need to define ourselves by how we differ from others. The more we live in the way that makes us different to mainstream society, the more we should see ourselves as the same as fellow human beings, and the more we should identify with them. That’s what Paul alludes to when he says that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, and we would add that in Christ, there is neither Christian or non-Christian. To be Christian and yet define yourself as unlike others because of it, is contradictory. Paradoxically, it is our very exclusivity which makes us so absolutely inclusive. We exclusively follow Jesus, who includes everyone in his embrace.
And what is Jesus’ embrace? It is God’s embrace. Philip says to Jesus ‘can you please show us God?’ Jesus replies that God has been with you all along, you silly man. This is what God looks like: someone enjoying meals with the respected and the outcasts, someone caring about those who are down and out and including those who are rejected. God looks like someone who is not interested in religion, custom or tradition which makes people into the acceptable and not-acceptable. And then ultimately, we know, and Jesus flags this by saying he’s ‘going to the Father’, this is what God looks like: a human being who will go to the cross for others. There is God and there is God’s embrace.
What then is Jesus talking about, when he mentions his Father’s house? The only other time he mentions his ‘Father’s house’ is when he’s talking about the temple in Jerusalem. So that’s what he’s talking about here too, but remember he said he’d tear that down and rebuild it in three days, which is his way of saying that instead of God coming into the world through the temple, God would now come into the world through him, for he would be the new temple. So Jesus becomes his ‘Father’s house’. But wait there’s more! Now he’s saying there are many dwelling places in his ‘Father’s house’. That means there’s lots of room in him. Room for what? Room for us, of course. Not just room for us to enjoy something others don’t have, but room for us to be what he is. In other words, for us to become him. So as Christians, we are becoming the artist formally known as Jesus, who was himself, the artist previously known as Yahweh. In other words, we are the body of Christ.
How profound is that!! We tend to put Jesus up on a pedestal. He’s the one we look to, as our saviour and example. And that’s okay, because we need that, but only so we can become what he is, by imitating him. That’s why at every Eucharist, we proclaim that we are the body of Christ.
This whole thing, about Jesus being the way to God and so on, is really saying something very concrete about us: that we are becoming the ‘place’ where people can meet God, but that only happens to the extent to which we imitate Jesus, which means repenting of rivalry, and instead of seeing ourselves as different to those who don’t follow Jesus, we identify with them. There is no them and us, only we. This movement towards others is the opposite of seeing ourselves in any way superior to others, or needing to make them like us. When Jesus says that later, people would do even greater works than he did, he’s alluding to how creative we can be when free of rivalry. This includes new and creative ways of working together, finding ways of appreciating one another, new ways of dealing with conflict. We know what it’s like to live with rivalry and conflict, but living without them is an unknown and can only evolve as we go. For that reason, sometimes the best way is to start with symbolic actions, such as washing others’ feet, passing peace to one another, sharing bread and wine or sharing Zoom worship together.