Monday, August 20, 2012

Challenging Christian Exclusivism

So Bill Gates – the founder of Microsoft – dies and stands before the pearly gates.  St. Peter asks him if he wants to spend eternity in heaven or in hell.  “I don’t know,” Gates answers, “can I take a look at each before I decide?”  “Sure can,” Peter replies.  So they go to see hell and it is a beautiful, tropical, sun-splashed beach with bikini-clad women, a steel-drum band, and a pig roast.  Then they look at heaven and it is a white cloud with people drifting about playing harps and singing hymns.  “If it’s all the same to you,” Gates says, “I think I’d like to go to hell.”  “Your choice,” Peter says and he obliges.  A month later the saint goes to check up on Mr. Gates to see how he is getting along.  He finds him chained to a stone wall surrounded by burning flames and being tormented by a hoard of demons.  “How is it going,” Peter asks him?  “Well, I’m not at all happy,” Gates replies, “This isn’t working like I thought it would?  What happened to the beach and the beautiful women and all that other great stuff?”  “Oh that, that…” Peter says, “that was the screen saver.”

Today I want us to focus in on Jesus’ words, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.”  Taken positively, this saying assures us that the Eucharist is a sign of God’s grace and God’s enduring love.  But it is a verse that can be and has been used negatively – not to uplift the comfort we find in the sacrament, but to point out those who are excluded from God’s salvation.

In the Middle Ages the church took these words of Jesus literally and then used its exclusive control of the Eucharist as a means to keep the faithful in line.  In those days there was no greater fear than the fear of eternal damnation in the fires of hell.  The only safeguard against such a fate was to remain in the good graces of the church.  Thus, the church held no greater threat than the power of excommunication – being cut off from the life-giving communion of Christ’s Body and Blood.  How powerful was this weapon?  Well, in 1077 King Henry IV of Germany, on being excommunicated after a dust-up with Pope Gregory VII, walked barefoot across the Alps and waited three days in the snow outside the gates of the Pope’s fortress begging for forgiveness.

With the advent of the printing press, the Bible became available to more and more people in a greater variety of languages.  Reformers emerged to challenge the notion that receiving communion was the only means to new life and to eternal life.  Faith, they said, plays the critical role and as such the individual does not stand in judgment before the church, but before God and God alone.
While these two positions from the Middle Ages and the Reformation are at odds on many points, they share one notion in common: that only those who are ‘in Christ’ – either through sacrament or through faith – will be saved.  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” – what else can this possibly mean than those outside the Christian faith are doomed to an awful punishment on the other side of that screen saver?

There was a time not too long ago when a preacher could deliver a well-received sermon on this text proclaiming that all non-Christians are going to hell.   In some congregations that kind of message still plays.  When we were growing up most of us were told the reason to be a Christian was so you can get to heaven and not be sent to hell.  It was clear, simple, and compelling.  As a result, we assimilated the message that Christianity offers benefits to its adherents and catastrophic threats to those outside its walls.  But for many of us this now thuds with the clanking sound of a cracked bell.

We now live in a multi-cultural world of religious pluralism.  We have learned about other faiths through college courses and by reading books.  We see other traditions portrayed in movies and on television.  And most impactful of all, many of us have personal acquaintances with people who practice other religions.  Yes, there are fundamentalists bent of killing innocent people in the name of God, but we are learning that they are the exception, not the rule.  We are learning that in every religion there are many, many good people doing good deeds as they pursue God and what is true.  And we are learning that there are teachings in each religion that tie in closely with what our tradition teaches us.

The carrier who delivered mail to my townhouse in Richmond was Muslim.  There were many days in the winter when, as the sun was setting around five o’clock, I saw his truck pulled off to the side of the street and he was standing on a hillside, under a tree, facing east, and praying to Allah.  Let me ask you this: what do you think God wanted me to do in those situations?  Should I have walked up the hill, tapped on his shoulder, and explained to him that his religion was a construct of the devil meant to trick him away from the truth of Christianity or should I have passed by in respectful silence, offering a prayer from my own tradition thanking God for his faithful witness and asking God to receive him as he searches?

A recent survey found the following:

• When asked “Should Christians seek to convert people of other faiths or leave them alone?” 22% said convert while 71% said leave them alone.
• 78% agreed with the statement “All religions have elements of the truth.”
• Only 17% agreed with the statement “My religion is the only true religion.”

When describing various faith traditions a number of scholars are now using the language of “internal core” and “external form.”  The internal core, which is the heart of a religion, is the pursuit of God, the Holy, the Sacred.  The external form is the particular expression of the religion: the particularities of what is done in worship, the particular words it uses from its sacred texts and stories, the particular practices it teaches, and so forth.  All religions are similar in their internal core and different in the external forms.

Perhaps you have heard the old adage that religions are different paths headed to the same mountain top.  The closer the paths get to the summit, the closer they become to one another.  This region, near the peak, is the internal core.  At the base, where the mountain is broad and wide, the different paths are far apart.  This helps to explain the differences between the eternal forms.  The differences matter not because one is better than the other or right while the others are wrong, but because each path’s distinctive route to the peak matters.  Each path has an inherent integrity that needs to be recognized and respected.  A nonchalant attitude that all religions are basically the same is demeaning because the external form of each religion is its pathway to mediating the Sacred.  Problems arise when followers of an external form absolutize their path as being the only true way to God.  This is how fundamentalism arises and exclusivity inevitably follows.

All of this may make sense to you.  You may even acknowledge that it articulates how you see the world today.  But it does not help us to make sense of the words of Jesus: “Unless you eat my Body and drink my Blood you have no life in you.”  Is there any way to reconcile this statement with a more generous, more open approach to different faith traditions?  I think there is.

In the 10th chapter of Mark’s Gospel we read the story of a young merchant who approaches Jesus with a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It is the same concern that we find in today’s reading from John.  Do you remember how Jesus answers the merchant?  He tells him he must not commit murder or adultery, not steal, give false testimony, or defraud anyone, and he must honor his father and mother.  The questioner responds, “I have obeyed these commandments since I was a boy.”  Do you remember what Jesus says next:  “One thing you lack.  You must sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  When we study this lesson we recognize that there is something important for us to hear in Jesus’ words, but we also understand that ‘you’ refers specifically to this particular person: ‘you,’ young man, must sell all that you have…   We do not take it to mean that each and every one of us must sell everything we have and give away all the money to the poor.

Let me suggest that when Jesus says “Unless ‘you’ eat my Body and drink my Blood…” we can hear the ‘you’ in a very similar way.  When Jesus says ‘you’ he is speaking to a specific group of people who are already a Eucharistic community.  In this sense the ‘you’ can be us as well, because we also find life each and every time we come to the Lord’s Table.  It is an external form that holds great meaning for us.  It is a powerful and potent way for us to encounter the Sacred.  But it does not mean that ‘you’ refers to every person on the planet.  In fact, it doesn’t even refer to every person in the Christian faith.  There are many Christian communities for whom the Eucharist is not a central, life-giving practice and yet members of these congregations are faithful followers of Christ who are devout in their faith.

I do not think the ‘you’ refers to my Richmond mail carrier either.  I think there is another way for him to practice a faith whose external forms are very different from mine and yet still be received by God and nourished for this life and the life to come.  It wasn’t Jesus who gave this particular verse broad, sweeping implications for people outside the Christian faith, we, his followers, have done that.  Nowhere in the Gospels is Jesus specifically asked to comment on the fate of those who do not practice what we are calling the external form of Christianity.  If the question was posed to him, I doubt he would have responded with the words we hear today.  In fact, consistently throughout the Gospels, when Jesus encounters a person outside the Judeo-tradition he marvels at their faith and lifts them up as an example for those of us in the covenant tradition to follow.

I suspect that many of us are open to finding a way to hold our faith and to practice our traditions faithfully that allows us to be generous towards those who adhere to a different tradition.  I’ve said a lot about this.  There is much more that I could say, but won’t this morning.  Please feel free to talk with me about thoughts, questions, or concerns that arise based on what you have heard.

This is what I hear Jesus saying this morning: Those of us the Eucharistic tradition of the Episcopal Church find at the Lord’s Table a life and a nourishment that we find nowhere else.  We affirm this every time we miss a Sunday or two and realize that we have lost something by not being in Church.  I do not hear Jesus making a broad, sweeping condemnation either of Christian traditions that are not centered around the Eucharist or of other world religions.  In different ways, following different paths and practices, we are all searching for the same thing – relationship with God and a way of living in this life that is pleasing to God.