Sermons

pastorEric aug2014Sermon for 5th Sunday of Easter

Many Mansions
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -

 
In my three plus years as your pastor, I have preached lots of sermons and several of these have been distributed widely through the internet.  My sermon three years ago this same Sunday, on this same text, is the one sermon that members here at Mt. Olive have requested that I repeat.  One member three years ago said to me, after listening to my sermon on this text, “Pastor, please preach this sermon again, soon.  There are so many who need to hear these words.”  Thus, today’s sermon is similar but not identical, to what you may have heard here three years ago.

There are certain Bible texts that are un-affectionately known as “clobber” texts, texts used in harsh, nasty judgement by some Christians against other Christians and non-Christians, most always quoted out of their Biblical context.  St. Paul’s writings are sometimes used to put down women or to suggest that women should not be able to be ordained pastors.  Words from the Old Testament book of Leviticus are used to condemn homosexuals. 


Today’s text from St. John’s Gospel has also been used in unkind and judgmental ways.  In this text, St. John records Jesus as saying, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
 
 
Many people, believing that these words should be understood in the narrow sense to declare that only Christians will be welcomed into God’s kingdom, too many people use it as another “clobber” text.  Heaven is for Christians and only Christians (and even often only certain kinds of Christians).  Everyone else?  Sorry, you are all going to hell!
 
 
I want to be very clear about this so-often misinterpreted text – Jesus is not saying that only Christians will be welcomed into God’s kingdom.  That would be impossible, of course, since Jesus lived his entire life on this earth as a Jew.
 
 
But, more importantly, such thinking is both hateful and wrong.  It has helped spark the blood-letting of the Crusades and helped pave the road to the Holocaust.
 
 
More recently, some Christians have latched onto these words to justify their intolerance of other faiths. You may remember a Florida “pastor” named Terry Jones who burned the Koran or the Kansas Baptist “pastor” Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Homosexuals” campaign (only he didn’t use the word “homosexuals”). 
 
 
AnuttamaDasaOf course, most of the Christian intolerance based on these words is less dramatic, but it is no less harmful.  I will always remember introducing my good friend, Anuttama Dasa, an international leader of the Krishna sect of Hinduism, the monotheistic, one god, sect of Hinduism, to David, a leader in another Lutheran church body, not the ELCA.  Afterwards, David told me that my friend Anuttama was clearly a very fine person, but that Anuttama was also going to hell!  I really didn’t know how to respond to this hateful statement and, to this day, regret that I didn’t respond with some words about how hateful David’s statement was. 
 
 
Some Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus believe that their religion is the only true religion. Extreme Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists justify violence and terrorism. Extreme Christian fundamentalists call on the U.S. government to declare war on Muslims. Ultra orthodox Jews declare that only they are God’s chosen people. 
 
 
Too often some people of faith boast, “God is on our side! Only people who believe as we do are right.”
 
 
Makes me wonder how many people today keep their distance from religion because they think it requires them to be intolerant of other beliefs and to have contempt for people from other faiths?
 
 
I believe that one of the reasons the Christian church is shrinking in the USA can be traced to the misuse of this passage.  Many younger adults do not and will not identify with any faith that would keep 2/3 of the world’s population out of heaven.  That heaven would be one they would not want to occupy.  And neither would I.
 
 
Let me state this clearly:  I believe that Christ is the best revelation of God – Christ is the way for me.  I will preach and try to live Christ as savior and guide until my last earthly day.  But I also will try to remember that it is very easy to slip into the mindset that God acts only in ways that are especially beneficial to me.  That is not how God acts.  And, it is clearly God’s task, not ours, to determine who enters God’s kingdom.
 
 
When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” it sounds exclusive, open only to Jesus’ branch of Judaism.  But, there are other passages where Jesus strikes a very different tone.  Vicar Sharon mentioned one last weekend, earlier in this very same gospel, when Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd and his followers are sheep and then adds, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16)
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, we find a story about a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter.  His first response to her is to say that his ministry is directed only at his people, the Jews.  Yet, after she begs for help, Jesus heals her daughter and tells the woman that she possesses great faith, despite the fact that she is a Canaanite, a non-Jew.
 
 
And of course there is Matthew’s dramatic scene of the last judgment in which Jesus separates those to be included in God’s kingdom from those who will not. His basis for separating them never mentions what people believe. He says those who will enter God’s kingdom are the ones who “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the ill and visited those in prison.”
 
 
And, it is vital that we remember the context of today’s passage what was happening when Jesus said these words. This text is part of Jesus’ farewell speech to his closest followers, a speech given just a few hours before Jesus is captured and put to death. He is not conducting a seminar on the legitimacy of other faiths. Nowhere does Jesus show any knowledge of Hinduism.  Islam would not emerge for 600 years. Jesus is not judging other faith traditions; he is comforting his closest friends and encouraging them to remain faithful to his mission after he’s gone.
 
 
Jesus immersed himself in God. He studied and lived the Jewish Scriptures. Jesus is “the way” not in the sense that only people who believe in him will be saved, but in the sense that he is a model. He shows us a life that is totally committed to God. It is a life filled by God’s love, God’s wisdom and God’s desire for justice.  Jesus calls on us to also be filled with God’s love and wisdom and desire for justice.  That is Jesus’ way.
Christ is the way for me, but I do not believe that God is limited to only one way of reaching people. It makes sense that God would provide different paths for people to follow. Some scholars even suggest that in today’s text, Jesus’ words about the “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house, is not about heaven, as much as we often use this text at funerals, but more about our lives now and that the “many dwelling places” could be the many religions of this world.
 
 
Again, let me be clear:  This does not mean that any path will do or that every faith is the same. Following Christ leads me to respect people of other faiths, but following Christ also leads me to question any path that promotes injustice or fails to highlight compassion.
 
 
The great German theologian Karl Barth said it better than I can:  Barth was lecturing to a group of students at Princeton Theological Seminary.  One student asked him, "Sir, don’t you think that God has revealed himself in other religions and not only in Christianity?”  Barth’s answer stunned the crowd.  "No,” Barth answered, “God has not revealed himself in any religion, including Christianity.  God has revealed himself in his Son."
God has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ.  And, Jesus says this in verse 12 of today’s gospel lesson: “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.”
 

 
Jesus challenges us to accomplish amazing things. He challenges us to outdo him in acts of compassion and works of justice. That is quite a challenge.  Our works do not save us, Jesus does, but our works are our response to God’s love in Christ Jesus.  Jesus challenges us to be his hands and feet in this world and to carry on his mission. He challenges us to break into people’s lives by loving them as he would.
 
 
As I have often shared with you, for me, this is best summed up in Micah 6, chapter 8: “What does the Lord require of you - do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  That is how we “come to the Father” in this life and the next.
 
 
Amen.
 
 
 

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
May 14, 2017


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