Whose Gospel Is This?April 24, 2005, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Easter
There has been much talk in the press and elsewhere these last few days about Pope Benedict XVI. Those who care for the church at a professional level have been reading the articles searching for clues about what he means for the future of the whole church. And I must tell you that, by what bits and snatches of the new Pope's own pronouncements that are available, especially with regard to "the dictatorship of relativism," his concern to be a "servant of the servants of God," and his disposition "to do all in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism," Benedict XVI appears, at least to me, to be a sign of hope and the man for our day.1 By that I mean, it appears that he is not about to let the center of the faith give way to the winds of relativism, nor to cower before those who, in this era of sensitivity to religious pluralism, would be comfortable with the notion that it matters not so much what you believe as that you believe. But more, his insistence that "Theological dialogue is necessary," reveals that the windows of ecumenical dialogue that many feared might further be closed, in fact will remain open. But, those conversations will be driven by serious twenty-first century theology not sociology or psychology, by Christology not humanism or the philosophy of religions. Put another way, the new Pope will not shrink from proclaiming the message announced in today's scripture lesson. For him, as for us, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not one religious opinion among many of equal value; it is the truth at the center of all reality.
As Jesus prepares his closest friends for his departure through death, he tells them not to fear, he goes before them to prepare a place for them. The "many mansions" of this text has brought great solace and comfort to any who have lost a loved one. It becomes a reason for hope to those who suffer through the hardship of their final days, often with not only debilitating physical circumstances, but also great pain. To know that our Risen Lord has gone before us through the veil of suffering and death and emerged risen and triumphant at the Father's right hand, never to die again, and to hear his promise that he goes before us to assure that a place is prepared there for us, are words that take away the sting of death and, in its place, give peace. I have read these words at virtually every memorial or funeral service I have ever conducted in the last thirty-five years. Knowing them by heart I more recite than read them, which means I can watch the faces of the listeners. And as I do, I see tears give way to hope; I see the pain of loss give way to expectation. I see the recognition that, as attached as you and I are to this life in all of its goodness, there is more life beyond this, life which we can barely comprehend, life that can only be grasped in the hope of faith--faith in the one who has named himself "the way, the truth, the life," and has gone before us on our behalf.2
quot;Way, truth and life" are easily welcomed by any who have walked his way, lived into his truth and, in doing so, discovered his life. But Jesus' words which follow these--"no one comes to the Father except through me"--challenge us and our view of the world. To twenty-first century ears immersed in an intellectual sea of relativism, they seem unsophisticated at best and arrogant at worst. This is precisely the dictatorship of relativism of which Pope Benedict XVI speaks.
That said, there remains a well intended impulse within us that wants to ask, "But what about Jews, what about Muslims, what about the devout Buddhist, what about the earnest Hindu, what about anyone who does not believe in Jesus as Christians do, but is earnestly seeking God?" Doesn't such an assertion on the church's part exclude these people? Doesn't the church holding such a position in today's world simply reek of triumphal exclusivism not unlike that of the Pharisees or Sadducees of Jesus' day?
The answer to that question depends upon how you understand Jesus' words: is he laying down a condition or simply stating a fact? If you and I listen to his words with the parochial conviction that unless one repeats a formula of belief in the way a particular portion of the church repeats its formula of belief, one is not saved--and remember, for those who hold to this conviction, not even the rest of Christ's church is counted among the faithful--then it is the worst form of religious arrogance. Such thinking witnesses not to the gospel, but to the extraordinary capacity of we humans to convert gifts we have received into personal achievements, and God's grace into our own accomplishment simply because we have mouthed the words of a religious formula. That is not a saving, life-giving, life-transforming faith, it is religion at its worst: the feeble attempt to manipulate God for our own purposes. When Jesus says "no one comes to the Father except through me," he is not laying down a condition, saying that unless one believes in him, names him as the Christian creeds name him as Lord and Christ, claims him as personal savior, one has no chance of ever coming to the One Jesus calls "Father." Jesus is simply stating the truth about his own nature and being. To understand what Jesus means by his "no one comes to the Father except through me," you must move beyond that statement to those that follow. And there we find an even more astounding assertion: the one that is at the heart of the Christian Gospel--Jesus--is Immanuel, God with us; he is God in the flesh; he is in the Father and the Father is in him; to see him is to see the Father; he and the Father are one.
But, Jesus is not God. In conversation with a neighboring Rabbi this last week she said, "But you believe Jesus is God." I reminded her that the church does not believe that; the statement "Jesus is God," is a heresy. Jesus is part of God. He is all the fullness of God that could be contained in human form, he is God's self-revelation to humankind in a medium humankind can recognize--human flesh. But there is more to God than Jesus: there is the Father and the Spirit. Remember, we are Trinitarians: we believe in one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, truth revealed in three distinct faces bound in eternal unity by their mutual nature, love and attraction, the way electrons are bound in attraction to the nucleus of an atom. The Father, the Son and the Spirit are one; to know the Father means to know the Son, as well as the Spirit, for that matter. For Jesus to say "no one comes to the Father except through me," means one thing--a statement of fact about his relationship with the Father and the Spirit--they are one. For you and me to say it about him as a condition for access to the Father, is quite another. If one is simply bearing witness to the truth that when we welcome Jesus' invitation to become one with him, we become one with the Father as well--perfect. That is orthodox Christian theology. But to say it as an absolute condition for access to God, suggesting that unless one acknowledges Jesus the way the church acknowledges him one can know nothing about God, is not only arrogant triumphalism, it is taking upon ourselves what belongs only to God--God's freedom to do as God pleases. In other words, it verges on blasphemy. After all, whose gospel is this?
What God did in Jesus Christ he did for the world not simply the church. At an objective level, that moment of God's redemption and atonement of and with the world that took place in Jesus' cross, is a fact in time and space, like Israel coming out of the slavery of Egypt into the land of promise or Caesar crossing the Rubicon. It is not conditional upon whether someone believes or embraces it as true. That is what makes it true--it is, without need of verification from anyone or any thing. Truth is like that. Yet, this truth is not the church's possession, but the gift it has received, its central mark of its identity, a mark, by the way, some are too ready to discard in the stampede to be modern and open-minded. New Testament scholar Charles B. Cousar has observed, "The Christian community of North America has so bought into the world's economics, its psychology, its standards of morality that visitors from outer space would have a difficult time discerning the difference between the social and political culture of the day, with its civil religion, and the church. Maybe the real issue is," he continues, "not whether people outside the church are saved, but whether people inside the church have any sense of their distinctiveness."3 Jesus' words remind us of our central identity, of who we are and whose we are.
This is, I believe, what the new Pope is pressing upon the church as he warns "Beware of falsehood in advertising," and "the dictatorship of relativism."4 We confess that we belong to God in Christ and find in him the way, truth and life in this life, and promise for life to come, welcoming any who would join us to do so, leaving the weightier concerns of who else will be there to God alone. For the gospel and its truth do not belong to us, but are a gift that has been entrusted to us to share, in good times and in bad, when in intellectual favor or ill repute. It is ours to give, not to leverage.
Whose gospel is this? Not ours, not the Presbyterian Church's, not the Roman Catholic Church's, not the Orthodox Church's; it is God's. It is the gospel of God that has been given to us, entrusted to us, to share, to give away just as it was given to us, that everyone may have life, both now, as well as in the world that lies beyond this one.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- "In Benedict’s Own Words: Praise for Predecessor, Plea for Ecumenism," The New York Times, Thursday, April 21, 2005, A-13. See also "Benedict XVI Promises Dialogue and Reconciliation," p. A-1, f A-13. I am also reminded that during his days as a professor of theology, Father Ratzinger was a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.
- John 14:6.
- Charles B. Cousar, et. al, Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV--Year A, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 299.
- Robin Toner, "Benedict XVI Promised Dialogue and Reconciliation," The New York Times, April 21, 2005, A-1,ff.
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