Are You a Christian?

Date: May 3, 2009
Scriptures: Acts 4:5-12 and 1 John 3:16-24
Sermon: Are You a Christian?
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

There is a scene in the novel, Life of Pi, in which the main character, Pi, a teenager, is walking down a beach promenade with his parents in their home city of Pondicherry in India. As they walk along, they happen to run into the local Muslim imam, the local Catholic priest, and the local head of the Hindu temple, the pandit. Quite unexpectedly, they all coalesce as they walk along. All three religious leaders, much to the surprise of Pi’s parents who are non- religious, know their son well. And to everyone’s surprise, it is discovered that Pi is a devoted practitioner of all three religions. He has linked himself with all three faith communities. He is observing the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

The three religious authorities proceed to have a conversation about the attributes and criticisms of their varying religions. The comments include:

Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.

And Muslims have many wives.

There is salvation only in Jesus.

Where’s God in your religion? You don’t have a single miracle to show for it.

It isn’t a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time. We Muslims stick to the essential miracle of existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing – these are miracles enough for us.

A whole lot of good it did for God to be with you – you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet?

The word of God? To that illiterate merchant of yours in the middle of the desert? Those were drooling epileptic fits brought on by the swaying of his camel, not divine revelation. That, or the sun frying his brains!

Things finally deteriorate to the point that the three religious authorities conclude:

With their one god Muslims are always causing troubles and provoking riots.

Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls.

While Christians kneel before a white man! They are the nightmare of all non-white people.

A few pages later in the novel, the highly embarrassed Pi takes severe lampooning from his older brother who challenges him:

‘So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the hajj this year?’ . . . bringing the palms of his hands together in front of his face in a reverent namaskar. ‘Does Mecca beckon?’ He crossed himself. ‘Or will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pius?’ He drew in the air a Greek letter, making clear the spelling of his mockery. ‘Have you found time yet to get the end of your pecker cut off and become a Jew? At the rate you’re going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life.’

So, is Pi a Christian? Is he a Hindu? Is he a Muslim? He is observing the dictates of all three, so which is he?

When questioned, the adolescent Pi replies, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” [Life of Pi, Yann Martel, pp. 64-70]

In the conversation between the priest, the imam, and the pandit, the Catholic priest is the one who reminded all that, “There is salvation only in Jesus.” Here we have the quintessential Christian claim of exclusivity. There is only one way to truly love God. And it is the Christian way. Through Jesus.

We heard this claim articulated in the scripture we heard from Acts: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” And there are numerous other verses in the New Testament with similar sentiments:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [John 14:6]

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already. . .[John 3:17-18]

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16]

And there are many other examples of similar sentiments.

As we consider these New Testament scriptures, we want to remember that they were written down more than thirty years after the death of Jesus. So decades had gone by, and the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were facing certain challenges. And they needed their faith to speak to those challenges.

In 70 CE, the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The Temple was demolished and later the entire city itself. Scholars tell us that the city was completely destroyed in 139 and a pagan city built in its place. The surrounding area was called Palestine, a reminder of Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. Within one hundred years, the governor of the region had never even heard of Jerusalem, so complete was the destruction. [Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, p. 26-27.]

The destruction of the Temple had a profound impact on the Jews since their religious practice was centered on the Temple. The leaders wanted to hold their religion together in the face of this horror. So they had to reconstruct their religion without its focal point, the Temple. They needed to make sense of what had happened. Were they being punished for neglecting the Law? The leaders decided they needed to get back to strict adherence to the Law to regain God’s favor and to bring cohesion to their community, since they no longer had the Temple to fulfill that role. Now the Jews who followed Jesus took the perspective we are free to love God and neighbor; we don’t need the Law anymore. This was at odds with the agenda of the religious leaders who were trying to save their religious tradition by focusing on implementation of the Law. So the Jesus Jews were targeted. Shut them up. Cast them out. Turn them off. For they were seen as undermining the very survival of the Jewish faith.

The Jesus Jews responded by notching up in their expression of their convictions, too. We’re right. Jesus is the one. He is the Messiah. He’s the true way. Listen to us. They want vindication of their beliefs and their sacrifices and their deaths. So, they promote the idea that believing in Jesus as Messiah is the only true way to love God within the Jewish tradition. If you don’t love Jesus, you don’t love God.

This is basically a family fight within Judaism. They are not confronting paganism and other religions. This is a conflict within one religion, and those are often the nastiest, most hostile conflicts as we see, for example, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics.

These verses then, from the New Testament, which refer to the extreme exclusivity of the Jesus movement, emerged in a very specific, intense, emotionally charged situation. They were then universalized by the later church to cultivate the supremacy and exclusivity of the Christian religion. And that has led to severe consequences which don’t particularly reflect love for God or neighbor.

This idea, that Christianity is the only way to love God, that it is the right way, that it is the only path to heaven, has caused much strife in human history, including much behavior that is very “unchristian.” This belief in the supremacy of Christianity has fueled violence by Christians against Jews for over 1000 years, including the holocaust in Nazi Germany. In 1543, the revered leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther, “wrote On the Jews and Their Lies, a treatise in which he advocated harsh persecution of the Jewish people, up to what are now called pogroms. He argued that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated.” [Wikipedia, “pogrom,” accessed 4.29.09] The belief in the supremacy of Christianity fueled the crusades and the killing of Muslims. Do you think the US would have engaged in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the same intensity if the populations of those countries were predominantly Christian? I doubt it. In addition, it was the belief in the supremacy of Christianity that fueled the fire of Empire and led to the decimation of indigenous populations in the Americas. When you look at this heritage, it is hard to see Christianity as a religion centered on love of God and neighbor.

The concept of the exclusivity and supremacy of Christianity has led to unintended consequences that are drastically at odds with what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus that we have in the New Testament.

Nowhere do we see teachings that if people don’t accept the way of Christianity, they are to be punished, tortured, or killed by Christians. In fact, in the life of Jesus, we see the exact opposite. We have the story of Jesus telling his followers, if you are not welcomed in a town, shake the dust off of your feet and move on. [Matthew 10:5-14, Mark 6:6b-13, Luke 9:1-6] No defense, and certainly no violence is encouraged.

In an article reflecting on, “Who’s Taking Blame for Christian Violence?,” journalist Calvin White, writing for the Toronto Star, reminds us:

Contrary to what some might like to insist, Christianity is not the religion of ‘an eye for an eye’ but it is the religion of Jesus, who refined those earlier directions and distilled the ten commandments into two. One was to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Pretty definitive isn’t it? As is the edict of turning the other cheek.

Jesus expected to be betrayed. He expected to be arrested by the authorities. There was no exhortations [sic] to prepare for battle. There was no bloody attempt to stop the proceedings.

Even as Jesus was brutalized while carrying his own crucifixion cross and being nailed onto the timbers, there was no violent counterforce from his disciples. Not even an outcry.

No matter where one reads in the accounts of Jesus, the only conclusion one can come to is that Jesus was about love. [“Who’s Taking Blame for Christian Violence?,” Calvin White, published on Tuesday July 26, 2005 by the Toronto Star.]

In the stories we have of Jesus, we do not see him insisting on right belief, correct doctrine, or specific religious observance, before receiving God’s blessing and grace. While the Jewish religious institution sent the message you have to do these sacrifices, say these prayers, give this money, follow this rule to be right with God and neighbor so that God will bless you, Jesus just gave out grace. You need food, here it is. You need forgiveness, here it is. You need healing, here it is. Embodied in the life of Jesus is expansive love for everyone, of his faith, other faiths, and no faith. No questions asked. No testimony of faith required. No rules to follow, no tax or tithe necessary. There is no quid pro quo, and there is no demand that people endorse a certain religious persuasion. And there is certainly no endorsement of violence in the name of Jesus.

In considering this claim of the superiority of Christianity, we want to remember that when Jesus was alive there was no Christianity. He was born, lived, and died a JEW. Not a Christian. Christianity did not develop as a completely separate and distinct religion until after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple. So Jesus could not have promoted the exclusivity of Christianity because it did not exist during his lifetime.

And yet, this concept has become a core belief of the Christian religion. In the memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, talks about her spiritual journey. She tells us, “Culturally, though not theologically, I’m a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo Saxon persuasion. And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian.” [Eat Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, p. 14.]

The early faith community developed and perpetuated the notion of the exclusivity of Christianity as the only way to love God in response to their specific situation. There were reasons at the time and in that context. We now know that promoting the Christian-only view of salvation actually undermines love of God and love of neighbor and is fomenting violence, injustice, inequality, disrespect, and death. These are the very things Jesus wanted to eradicate, not to promote. We are in differing circumstances today. The time has now come for the faith community, the church of Jesus Christ, to present an alternative to the view that Christianity is the only true way to God. This is needed to reduce the harm and violence done in the name of Jesus and to extend the love and support of the faith community to those like Gilbert who are attracted to Jesus’ teachings of love, justice, and community, but repelled by the exclusivity and consequent violence that has been done by the church.

The Christian claim of superiority and exclusivity is keeping people out of the church. Thoughtful people have a hard time endorsing an institution that has caused such harm in the name of the exclusive claims of Christianity; harm which is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. In addition, someone who has a sister who is married to someone Jewish, a daughter who has become Hindu, a neighbor who is Muslim, a co-worker that’s Buddhist, and they are all good people, can have a hard time with a religion that relegates loved ones and friends of a different religion to second class status.

We have a friend who went to a church where the pastor warned the congregation against the practice of yoga because, they were told, this was not just about exercise, but it was Satan luring them away from Christianity.

The exclusivity claim is keeping people away from the church- people who need the church, and people the church needs.

Remember, there was also a time when the church endorsed slavery.

The time has come for us to proclaim that Christianity is about embodying love and you can definitely do that without promoting the exclusivity of Christianity. You can love God and neighbor, without condemning other religions or insisting on the superiority of Christianity. In fact, in today’s world especially, one could argue that it must be done that way.

There is a story in the gospel of Matthew in which the people are separated into two groups. Those who responded to the needs of the “least of these” – helping those who were hungry, naked, or in prison, and those who did not respond to those needs. [Matthew 25:31-46] The parable of the last judgment teaches us that it is our behavior that determines our path. The belief in the superiority of Christianity can lead to behavior that is not loving or compassionate or Jesus-like. It is time to bring Christianity back to love of God and neighbor, all neighbors, regardless of race or creed.

It is not essential to believe that Christianity is the only true religion to be a Christian. In the scripture we heard from the first letter of John, the writer challenges us: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” This is getting at the core of Christianity. This is getting at the essential heart of the teachings of Jesus. Love God by loving your neighbor through concrete acts of compassion, generosity, and justice. That’s the core message of Christianity. That’s what defines a Christian.

So, are you a Christian? Am I a Christian? Was Pi a Christian? Look at the love and you will know. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.