September 09, 2010

The Way of Jesus: Bigger Than Any One Religion

It was one of the strangest moments I've ever experienced in sermon preparation.  The words flowed easily, effortlessly, from my mind, through my fingers, and on to the page.  I almost didn't even think about it, until a voice in my head said, "Whoa.  Do you realize what you've written?"

I put down my pencil (yes, I write with a pencil) and read:  "The way of Jesus is bigger than any one religion.  The kingdom of God is bigger than any one religion."

Yikes!  I thought.  I can't say that, can I?  I might as well say that one doesn't have to be a Christian in order to follow Christ.  I might as well say that anyone can come to the Father without being a Christian.  Is that really what I meant?

Where on earth did such a thought come from?

I began reviewing my train of thought.  I had been discussing about how Jesus was the Jewish messiah, returning to his hometown, explaining how God has always shown favor to not only the people of Israel, but people from other nations and religions as well (cf. Luke 4: 22-30). 

Immediately, I searched my memory for other examples, and to my surprise, I found plenty.  Even though Jesus' religion was Judaism, he welcomed and ministered to Samaritans, Roman officers, and a Syrophoenician woman. 

I thought of the Ethiopian eunuch, returning home from a visit to Jerusalem, where he was most likely turned away from the temple because he was not Jewish enough (Acts 8). Nevertheless, he was baptized by a faithful follower of Jesus.  Baptized!  Who among us today would baptize someone who wasn't really Christian, who didn't worship the right way, or who didn't have all of the right beliefs? 

And yet, I don't see much difference.  In the first century, the followers of Jesus considered themselves Jews, followers of the Jewish messiah, but they were willing to welcome non-Jews.  Today, the followers of Jesus consider themselves Christians, but rarely are they willing to follow the example of first-century followers and welcome non-Christians.  Indeed, we often find ourselves leary of non-Christians and even downright fearful of those who don't worship the "right" way or have all of the "right" beliefs.

Paul and his companions welcomed Gentiles into the Jesus movement.  They didn't even require them to be circumcised first.  They understood that the way of Jesus was bigger than Judaism, that the kingdom of God was bigger than any one religion.

What does that mean today?  It means that the way of Jesus is bigger than Christianity as we understand it.  The way of Jesus is bigger than Christianity as we've made it.

I think it's safe to say that Gandhi, for one, considered himself a follower of the way of Jesus, even though he certainly did not consider himself a Christian.  (More on this.)  I think a good number of those who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" consider themselves followers of the way of Jesus, but not necessarily Christians.  This leads me to wonder:  Would the first-century followers of Jesus welcome them and accept them?  Would Jesus welcome them and accept them, accept their desire to follow, even though they might not have all the "right" beliefs?

I think he would.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that these thoughts have come to me as I've become more involved in interfaith dialogue in my community.  I hope that my friends who are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, etc., are not offended when I say that I am learning to see them as followers of the way of Jesus.  Probably they will not be as offended as some of my fellow Christians will be.

My statement concerning people of other faiths has nothing to do with a desire to convert them to Christianity.  After all, even though I am a Christian, I know that the way of Jesus is bigger than that.  Instead, it is a recognition that the way of Jesus is actually the way of God, and it is open to all.

The belief that "the way of Jesus is bigger than any one religion / the kingdom of God is bigger than any one religion" has since become a recurring theme in my preaching.  Clearly this is because it is a belief that I myself am still growing into.  (Sorry, church, but my sermons are as much for me as they are for you.)  Other recurring themes include:  understanding the kingdom of God as a present reality; our call to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world; finding a life of meaning and deep satisfaction through generosity and simple living.

These themes are all related.  A search through my blog posts will probably reveal that they occur here as well.  They are all themes that I have come to gradually, through prayer, study, and reflection.  None of them startled me as much as the idea that the way of Jesus is bigger than any one religion.  All of them, I believe, are true.

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