In her work, A Sunday in the Thirties, Barbara Hinchcliffe tells about her Uncle Frank. Frank was a New York City atheist whose gorgeous Mexican mistress always kept trying to win him back to faith. Time and again, Uncle Frank resisted her attempts to convert him.
Finally, after numerous refusals to believe in God, Frank says it the best he can:
“All I know about Jesus is, he never used a gun; he had no use for money; he never burned anyone at the stake, and by God he never turned his back on anybody.”
I think Uncle Frank was a lot closer to God than his niece thought he was. I believe that people who have given up on religion are often the most religious people. They don’t just assume and consume their Christianity. They have thought enough about the faith to make a choice. And they usually have opted out of the institutional church because either they were too skeptical to believe everything that they were told, or else too serious about living an authentic, meaningful life to be satisfied with simplistic answers and “niceness.”
I like the invitation that the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., has displayed on their signboard: “Curious Pagans and Bored Christians Welcome.” I think that is exactly the case here at our church.
Last week I spoke of our defining identity here at First Presbyterian as being four things: a Christ-Centered faith, a place of Creative Celebration, of Compassionate Caring, and Inclusive Community. These are some of the primary ways in which we understand ourselves as a Center for Progressive Christianity, which means nothing less than trying to embrace the essential teachings of Jesus.
One of the primary issues which separates progressive churches from those which are not is our understanding of salvation. We do not believe that we, as Jesus’ followers, have a better access to God than other people – or that our way is right and theirs is wrong. For us, Jesus is the essential definition of God. Jesus fully reveals God to us. We have found in Jesus Christ the highest definition of what it means to be human, and of what it means to be divine. We see in him what all of us were created to be. For us, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But in saying this, we do not discredit the faithfulness of other religions or ways of spirituality. We are convinced Christians. We are attempting to make sense of our lives within the Christian framework and tradition. But we will never say to an outsider, “We welcome everyone as long as you are willing to become like us.” To do that would be reducing God to our understanding of God. And God is bigger than all of our ideas about God.
So, what do we do with John’s assertion that Jesus said, “No one comes to God (or “the Father”), but by me”?
First of all, we must remember that the Gospel of John in general, and these texts in particular, are the confessional celebrations of a young, enthusiastic faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ. “The Fourth Gospel is not concerned with the fate, for example, of Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity as they are configured in the modern world.” (1)
Second, it is possible for one to be a “Christian Universalist,” as are many of us. As St. Paul puts it, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself” (the world, not just those who are Christians), “Christ is the savior of all, especially those who believe.” (2) By that, I understand him to mean that God’s salvation of the world through the mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is an accomplished feat, once and for all – and once for all. Whether we believe it or not does not alter the reality of the world’s salvation having already occurred. We live by every breath we take, whether or not we understand the chemistry of oxygen. So it is that all people live by God. Our responsibility is to live transformed lives in the world, that the world might know God.
Third, no one has ever been saved by dogma. Damned, yes. But saved, no. Conceptual philosophy or theology cannot save us. At best, it can help us to make some sense of our lives and our faith. As St. Augustine put it, “theology is faith in search of understanding.” We already have the faith, as a gift from God. Theology is our attempt to make some sense of it all. Two weeks from now, some 25 new members (one of our largest classes ever) will affirm that they trust in Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior. Yet, their salvation (and ours) is not in their belief about God, but is in God – period.
And fourth, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We all want, at some deep level, to be in touch with the truth. It is hard to live with ambiguity – with the possibility that someone else, who has a point of view that contradicts our own deeply held beliefs, might also be right.
We are accustomed to thinking of church as a source of security and comfort, if not complete certainty. Sometimes the conflict and confusion that arise from thoughtful faith can be scary. As Jim Adams puts it, “When people really come up close to contradiction, I think it’s the fear of the infinite. I think it’s in the midst of that tension that we’re closest to God. So the fear is natural and appropriate. And one way to deal with the fear is to cling to one pole or the other. Whereas to me, faithfulness is moving forward in spite of the fear.” (3) “Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Fear not.” We need not fear that which we cannot understand.
Important as it is for Christians to be clear and positive about what we stand for, the time has come for us, as followers of Jesus, to embrace our uniqueness, while at the same time recognizing our place within a pluralistic society. As Progressive Christians, we understand our sharing of bread and wine in Jesse’s name this morning to be a representation of God’s feast for all peoples. Eating together is an ancient and archetypal symbol of human harmony and unity. As we share in this ritual meal, we participate together in the vision of a just world where all people live at peace.
Philip asked Jesus to “show us God.” Jesus responded by asking him a question, “Have you not seen God in me?” God is not found in our doctrinal distinctives or creedal confessions, nor in our theological dogmatism. God is found in our relationship with the spiritual life and with one another.
Some time ago, a Catholic priest was interviewed on a TV program. The host asked him about the nature of Jesus. Instead of lecturing him on theology, the priest asked if he could tell a true story.
He told about a woman who went to her priest and told him she thought her father was dying; would the priest please come by to see him?” He promised he would when he was in the neighborhood. “I’m sometimes out to run to the store,” said the woman. “I’ll leave the door open. If there’s no answer to your knock, just go on in. You’ll find my dad’s room in the back.”
One day the priest stopped bye. There was no answer to his knock, so he went on through to the father’s room. When he got there he found a chair puled up close beside the bed. “Ah, you must have been expecting me,” said the priest. No, said the man, the chair hadn’t been put there for the priest. “I’ll tell you, father,” said the man, “I’d been having trouble praying. But a friend said if I would put a chair there for the Master, and pretend he was sitting here, I could talk to him more naturally. So I placed the chair there and tried it, and it really works.” “That’s fine,” said the priest. Anything that helps.”
A few days later the woman come to the priest and told him her father had passed away. The priest expressed his sympathy and asked if her father had died easily. “Oh, I think so,” she said. “A little while before, he had called me in to show me something in the funny papers, and we both had a laugh over it. Then I went out to the store to get some milk, and when I came back he was dead.”
“I’m glad it was easy,” said the priest.
“There was just one odd thing,” said the woman.
Oh?” said the priest.
“Yes,” she said, “Apparently he had puled a chair over to the bed and was struggling to get into it, or to use it to stand up, because when I found him he had pulled his head and shoulders over to the chair and died with his head in it.” (4)
Have no fear. Christ will always be our leader, our redeemer, and our friend. For he is the Christ of God and the Savior of the world.
1 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), Vol. IX, p. 745.
2 II Corinthians 5:19; I Timothy 4:10.
3 James Adams, quoted by Leah Rugen, “Reclaiming a Progressive Voice for Christianity,” The Center for Progressive Christianity (Cambridge, MA) 1996-1997 Report, p. 4.
4 A conversation reported by John Killinger, “Jesus Christ, the Same Yesterday, Today and Forever?”, Preaching the New Millennium (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), pp. 111, 112.