Text: John 10:1-10
During World War II the famous American pilot, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, was flying on a special mission to the Pacific Islands. The plane crashed, and Rickenbacker and his crew were lost at sea for 21 days. Rickenbacker wrote of that experience:
"In the beginning many of the men were atheists or agnostics, but at the end of the terrible ordeal each, in his own way, discovered God. Each man found God in the vast, empty loneliness of the ocean. Each man found salvation and strength in prayer, and a community of feeling developed which created a liveliness of human fellowship and worship, and a sense of gentle peace."
Our hearts are strangely warmed, are they not, when we hear Rickenbacker say that "each man, in his own way, discovered God" on his own terms.
Yet, if that is the case with those brave souls 60 years ago who "found God in the vast, empty loneliness of the ocean," why is it that so many Christians today cannot believe that the same thing might be true of millions of people around the world who have found God outside of the Christian religion? What makes us think that the only people on earth who have found God, or better, have been found by God, are Christians?
The answer most often given to this question is ostensibly from the lips of Jesus himself: "I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved…." The same writer makes a similar point in chapter 14, where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me."
The truth is that these favorite Bible verses may well not mean what we have assumed they meant. Whether Jesus actually spoke the words, or the early church created them as consistent with who and what they believed Jesus to be for them in their circumstance, is not the critical issue. What is important is that they are linguistic metaphors of faith, figures of speech in which a word denoting one idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them. The writer of John’s gospel loves human metaphors: Jesus is the "shepherd," the "bread of life," the "true vine," the "light of the world," the "gate," the "way," the "truth," the "life," etc.
And as metaphors, they are definitively true for Christians today. Jesus is our "gateway" into God’s realm, God’s reign, God’s life. He is our "good shepherd" who cares for us spiritually and provides a safe place for us to be accepted for who we truly are (as our Stephen Ministers know so well). He "lays down his life for us." He is "the bread of life" and "the wine of joy" for those whose hunger and thirst cannot be satiated by the secularism of our age. He is "the way, the truth, and the life" for us: our truest and deepest experience of the invisible God.
But to say that this is true for us as Christians is not to say that our language or experience must be true for all people. Marcus Borg tells the story about a sermon preached by a Hindu professor in a Christian seminary several decades ago. The text for the day included the "one way" passage, and about it the Hindu professor said,
"This verse is absolutely true – Jesus is the only way." But he went on to say, "And that way – of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being – is known in all of the religions of the world." The way of Jesus is a universal way, known to millions who have never heard of Jesus."
The way of Jesus is not about a set of beliefs, it is about a way of life. "Believing in Jesus" does not mean believing certain doctrines about Jesus, "as though one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word ‘Jesus.’ Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables. Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection – the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being." (1)
The way of Jesus is the way of nonviolent love over and against violent injustice. The root meaning of the word, "believe" in both Greek and Latin, means, "to give one’s heart to". Let’s face it, we know more about God’s heart than about God’s mind. "God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them." (2)
For the Christian, "to believe" really means, "to be-love." That relationship transforms us into more and more compassionate beings, "into the likeness of Christ".
We believe that Jesus is "one with God." He is the disclosure of what a life full of God looks like. For Christians, these claims should not be watered down. And we can say "This is who Jesus is for us" without also saying, "And God is known only in Jesus." (3)
A good many Christians will tell you that they have better access to God than other people. And they demonstrate their convictions by insisting, "We welcome everyone to our church, a long as you’re willing to become like us!" That’s not a welcome, it’s an ambush! "I Love You Just As You Are: Now Change!"
One is reminded of the definition of a "nation" given by the French philosopher, Ernest Renan: "A nation," he says, "is a group of people united by a mistaken view of the past and a hatred of their neighbors." (4) So are many of our churches.
"It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right," said Isaiah Berlin, "that you have a magical eye which sees the truth and others cannot be right if they disagree. This makes it certain that there is one way and one only, and that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the way prevails."
We have seen this especially since September 11, as many conservative church leaders have denounced Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism as evil religions. In fact, James Mercer, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, was so bold as to urge the millions of Christians in his denomination to join in the celebration of Ramadan by fasting and praying for Muslims’ conversion!
Joe Hough, President of Union Theological Seminary, whom many of us heard preach from this pulpit last year, puts the matter clearly: "It is high time that this brand of Christian fundamentalism is called into account for what it is: a distortion of Christianity, resting on an exclusive claim by some Christians that theirs is the only ‘true’ religion and that all others are evil [or at least inferior]. It is this sort of exclusivist claim that has been at the heart of much of the sorry Christian history of religious wars between Christians, crusades against the Muslims, and continued persecution of the Jews. In these episodes, Christianity has acted as the enemy of peace and goodwill. In our religiously pluralistic nation, such a narrowly triumphalist Christianity echoes the divisive and dangerous fundamentalism that we find so alarming in other religions….
What is required in this time," Joe says, "is a ‘new’ Christian theology of religions that moves us beyond tolerance toward genuine respect, or even reverence, for other great religious traditions….What is essential for Christian faith is that we know we have seen the face of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is not necessary for us to deny that another has seen God in another face at another place or time…
This does not imply that all religions are equal for me. I am a committed Christian, but I am a Christian who strongly believes that God is working everywhere in exciting ways that I do not yet even know to redeem the world….wherever there are faithful practitioners of religious traditions who live with compassion toward other people, who live responsibly toward the world, and who enhance the human community," God is at work. (5)
I love what Bishop Krister Stendahl calls "holy envy". That is, we should try to see something beautiful in what is different from us, something highly desirable, instead of trying to find ways in which we are all the same.
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. I commend him to anyone seeking to know God. Christ is my doorway into God. It is not, perhaps a doorway that everyone can use, and it is certainly not the only doorway; but it is my doorway.
Further, I concur with Bishop Jack Spong when he says, "my hope is that my brothers and sisters who find Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism [or other paths] as their point of entry [into God's realm]…will also explore their pathway into God in a similar manner, until they too can escape the limits of their tradition at its depths and, grasping the essence of their system’s religious insights, move on to share that essence with me and all the world."
When that happens, "A new day will be born, and Jesus – who crossed every boundary of tribe, prejudice, gender and religion – will be honored by those of us who, as his disciples, have transcended the boundaries of even the religious system that was created to honor him." (6)
I know how hard it is to change cherished ways of thinking. It takes courage to follow one’s mind and heart into new truth. I know the struggle that some of you might be going through right now. It has taken me years to come to this place in my spiritual journey. And you and I may not see these things the same way. The important thing is that we give one another the freedom to experience our common faith differently. Because, in the end, it is not what we believe about God that saves us, but what God believes about us.
There are a lot of people out there searching for God in the vast, empty loneliness of the secular ocean. How beautiful it would be if our visible commitment to God in Jesus Christ led them to discover God in their own way.
I think Edwin Markham sums it up best in his poem, "Outwitted":
He drew a circle that shut me out -
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in."
May that be true of each of us, and in this church.
5. Joseph C. Hough, Jr., "Beyond Toleration: Toward a New Christian Theology of Religions," Progressive Christianity. Published by Mobilization for the Human Family, Claremont, CA 91711, Winter 2002, pp. 1, 6-8.