The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s028g08 Fifth Sunday of Easter 20/4/2008 St Barnabas Orange East
'no one comes to the Father except through me' John 14.6
No other passage in the Bible is used by those who describe themselves as 'christian' - so frequently as this one to justify the importance of attendance at worship - as if everyone who does attend worship is saved whereas everyone else, God condemns to eternal damnation. Attendance at worship implies that they believe like us, worship like us and live like us. Let me say at the outset that there seems some significant disconnection in our thinking when we willingly condemn others who do not believe like us, worship like us and live like us to eternal damnation without a second thought; all the while asserting that we are following a God who loves all.
This will leave us with three alternatives. Firstly, with a divine imperative to convert everyone else to our way of belief, worship and lifestyle, lest we be blamed for everyone else's eternal damnation. Or else it assumes that God is actually not forgiving and ultimately has no choice but to condemn others to eternal damnation. Or thirdly we can conclude that other people are simply recalcitrant and do not deserve eternal life. In such a situation we can dispose of others as we will, particularly if they get in the way of our pleasure. None of these are happy thoughts and hardly scriptural!
We have to be careful if and when we use this passage, especially if we use it to define who is 'in' and who is 'out', for it was precisely those who loved God most conspicuously, those who took their faith particularly seriously, even to tithing 'mint, dill and cummin', who had Jesus crucified. (Matt 23.23)
Jesus invites us all to consider these things when he says: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'" Matthew 7.21-23 So simply worshipping Jesus and invoking his name will not ensure that we are acting as Jesus would have us do towards others.
Again, Jesus warns us: 'They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.' Jn 16.2-3 There is presently a fierce debate in the Anglican Communion by those who wish to exclude gay and lesbian persons from the synagogues, believing that they are doing God's will.
The acceptance of the other who is different is not an optional extra, for those 'liberals' who like to be liked. The non-acceptance of the other who is different is to crucify Jesus anew.
So 'liberals' have no reason to avoid this passage of scripture, for our acceptance of the other is vital. It is the way by which we come to the Father through Jesus or not.
It is vital for our salvation and the salvation of all, for it saves us from having to convert everyone else to our way of belief, it proclaims a God who actually has choice, who chooses to accept others, and it also means that we have no excuse but to treat all others with respect which might allow for a possibility for peace in this world.
So the real question is about what the will of God is. Again we can focus on our personal behaviour towards others, but no religion worthy of respect doesn't assert the importance of probity in our day to day dealings with other people. Jesus was hardly crucified for suggesting our personal dealings with people ought to be above reproach. No, Jesus associated with others, people who were not religious or orthodox or devout, not in an effort to convert them, or to recruit a significant following to achieve some religio-political agenda. He associated with others, because he proclaimed a God who loves all, rather than just some, and it was for this that he was killed.
Many years ago, a colleague accused me of watering down the power of scripture, by which he meant that I questioned some things about which he considered scripture gave definitive and unequivocal answers mostly about sexuality surprise, surprise!
Again and again I assert that we have to think about scripture, to weigh up various passages, and to come to our own conclusions. This invitation to think, to consider and to decide for ourselves points to the power of scripture to raise us from compliant subjects to fully human beings. Instead of scripture being used to put others down, scripture invites and empowers all to become fully human. This seems an appropriate mission for the Church, as well as a fair description for the will of God.
And the good news is that God doesn't just do this through the church. God works through doctors and nurses and teachers. God works through parents and carers. God works through governments and aid agencies. God works through everyone who seeks the betterment of individuals and society, when that is not at the expense of someone else. Of course parts of the church have been notorious in their marginalisation and alienation of others, and they are often precisely those parts of the church that use John 14.6 as their justification for marginalizing and alienating others.
But large parts of the church do work to include others, usually quietly. My experience at Taizé showed me that being indiscriminately welcoming is in fact possible, and has its effect. It is never likely to become an identifiable movement, precisely because of the breadth of welcome and the fact that acceptance is the important thing - not forming a new movement. And again the good news is that doctors and nurses and teachers and parents and carers and governments and aid agencies and all who work for the betterment of individuals and society continue to do their work, quietly and largely unrecognised by the church, simply because it is outside the Church's field of influence.
One of the things that conservatives would accuse liberals is their lack of divine imperatives. Who was it that quipped that the 10 commandments became the 10 suggestions? But openness to the other is a divine imperative and the 10 commandments can be used to further openness or to avoid it.
God has a plan for us to live peaceably with all others. Jesus came to break down distinctions between people, particularly distinctions based on religion. So religion then could be used to magnify distinctions between people and it is no different nowadays.
But even with this divine imperative God gives us choice. But it is not choice to satisfy some existential imperative that we have free will. We are given choice in order to become fully human beings rather than compliant subjects. It is as we really are that Jesus brings us to the Father, not some clone of Billy Graham or whoever and this is surely good news too.
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