5th Sunday in Easter18 May 2014
Elizabeth M. Deibert
The first funeral that I ever conducted by myself was for the dear old aunt of a church member. As we drove together a couple of hours to the family cemetery plot in rural Alabama, I heard stories of this aunt, who according to her three nieces, always said to them, when they said good-bye, “Be particular.” By that she meant, be real, be yourself, be selective, don’t try to please everyone. I have always remembered that line as good advice to teenagers and all others who might try to just blend in with the crowd – Be particular.
Be particular but not partial. In one of the earliest sermons of the church, Peter announces that he has learned that God shows no partiality but in every place those do his will are acceptable. The Spirit of Christ has told us to be impartial and not to judge others.
It is hard to be particular and not partial because we have been guided to believe through centuries of religious conflict that being particular requires that we be partial to our faith tradition and even opposed to other faiths. People have quoted verses like John 14:6 to make arrogant claims about the faith, leading us as Christians to be quite different from our Savior Jesus Christ.
It is important to remember that Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet and told them to love one another as he has loved them. They are feeling anxious as he is speaking of departure. Into that context come these words of reassurance.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
It is important to pay attention to the all the references to oneness between God the Father and God the Son. Especially note that if we know Christ, then we know God. If you want to know more about God, look at Christ. And Karl Barth said, “If you want to know the destiny of any human being, look at the destiny of The Human Being.” So the beauty of Christ is his oneness with God and his oneness with humanity.
It is that which makes this “I am the way, the truth, and the life” a reality. When he articulates, no one comes to the Father but by me, he is communicating not the gate to an an exclusive club, to which only followers of Christ may belong. No he is communicating the oneness created by Christ’s union with God and with humanity, a particular claim that no other religion makes. A particular claim that shows no partiality. This truth, we believe, has radically altered the shape of human life forever.
C.S. Lewis wrote these words in Mere Christianity, “We know that no one can come to the Father except through Christ. What we don’t know is that only those who know Christ, will come to God through Christ.”
Brian McClaren in his book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road challenges us to see that we do not have to have live in the following continuum: on the right pole, we have strong, evangelical Christian faith that is intolerant of other faiths. On the left pole, we have weak, timid Christian faith that is tolerant and relativistic. No, we can and in fact, if we truly follow Jesus, we must hold to a strong particular Christian faith while being generous, tolerant, and appreciative of others faiths.
We can be particular but not partial or prejudiced. We can be secure enough in our Christian identity that we do not need to define ourselves in opposition to other faiths, as if our rightness depends on their wrongness, as if our security depends on our dominating, assimilating, or exterminating them. Sadly, too much of our history is filled with violence and harm done to those of different religious beliefs. But none of that violence is true to the faith. In our case as Christians, we are unfaithful to Christ when we do not welcome all people warmly, as if they are Christ himself. The generosity of spirit that we have when we follow in Christ’s way, truth, and life is that we truly listen and care about the perspectives of others, but without denying our own faith.
We do not need to live as if diversity compels division. All goodness comes from God, whom we see so clearly in Christ. So there is no threat in sharing life, country, and even this chapel with peaceful, loving persons of other faiths. The measure of our Christ-likeness is not in keeping ourselves separated from persons of other faiths, but in building bridges with people of other faiths with the kind of loving interest Christ showed to all people when he walked this earth.
Having said that, I do not believe we are called to give up our own Christian faith in order to accommodate the faith of others, but simply to be respectful. I do not believe that being respectful means I have to blend some of what I believe with some of what they believe in order to get the right mix of tolerance and inter- faith. We attended a family wedding this summer conducted by a Methodist minister who has given up his ordination in that church, in order to be inter-faith. He would say, “There are many ways, many truths, many means to life.” He might even say they are all equal and that we should seek to blend them in a way that seems best to us. He and I talked at the wedding reception. I did not argue with him. I looked for points of agreement, and there were quite a few. But where we differ is this: I still believe that it is not only possible but right for us to hold to a strong Christian identity, even while we are consummate peacemakers with persons of all true faith. Whether they are Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Hindu or persons of very different kinds of Christian faith, we can learn from them, and grow by being in relationship with them.
But we do not need to water down our beliefs, finding the lowest common denominator in order to be in community. When we give up the authenticity of our own faith, we found that our weakened Christian identity is swallowed up by the dominant culture of consumerism, sports, entertainment, and temporary pleasures of an increasingly agnostic world. When we live with such a weak faith, we inoculate the world with such a small dose of Christianity that they become immune to the real thing.
Our Christian faith is rooted in the belief that God became one of us, Jesus Christ, in order to unite all of us fully with God’s Spirit. That’s why Jesus can say, “Ask anything in my name and the Father will give it to you.” In Biblical times, to do something in someone’s name was to be unified with that person in purpose.
So if we are unified with Christ in purpose, then we could not ask God the Father for anything that Christ would not ask. We have misunderstood when we think we can get whatever we want by tacking on to our request, “in Jesus name” without being utterly devoted to Christ’s will and purposes.
When we understand both the particularity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the impartiality of the love of God, then we are secure in our faith and able to share it in humility and respect for all humanity whom God loves. Sharing the love of Christ is the sharing of a transforming relationship. Authentic relationships are not coercive nor dishonest. Love does not insist on its own way. Jesus is not insisting on his own way when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He is simply announcing his unity with God and inviting, not coercing all people, to join him in that communion with God.