Exclusion and Inclusion

Is it alright to include some and to exclude others?

One answer comes to us from The Westminster Confession:

The only redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved; Much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they ever so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature (general revelation), and the laws of the religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and is to be detested.[1]

When a religious group is convinced that they, and they alone, possess and understand the whole truth, and that they are compelled to give this truth to others who may resist it, then you have a formula to justify cruelty, torture, and warfare . . . whatever the brand of religion, whether it comes in the form of a Crusade against the Infidels, a Holy Inquisition against heretics, or suicide bombing.

The favorite text used by Christian missionaries as they spread around the globe to save the nations from perdition was a verse from today’s Gospel in which Jesus is quoted as having said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jack Spong has written that this text

. . . became the basis for the ultimate assertion that Christians alone control the doorway into God. If you do not come to God through Christ, you cannot get there. It was a powerful claim wrapped inside a text that has been the source of enormous pain to many people. It is still quoted in Christian circles to justify religious bigotry and even religious persecution.” For that reason Bishop Spong included John 14:6 in his book, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love.[2]

What is not to be forgotten is that the verse (John 14:6) is part of a Gospel that begins with this affirmation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people.”[3]

Far from being an exclusive text, in John’s understanding, to say that “No one comes to the Father” except through Christ is to affirm that all are included in the reign of God because all people were created by the Christ who was with the Father in the beginning and is the light of all people.

Martin Thielen is a pastor who has written about his friend Danny.

When I first met Danny, he said, “Preacher, you need to know that I’m an atheist. I don’t believe the Bible. I don’t like organized religion. And I can’t stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians.” I liked him right away!

In spite of Danny’s avowed atheism and my devout Christian beliefs, we became close friends. Over the next year Danny and I engaged in numerous conversations about faith. During that time Danny softened his stance on atheism. One day he announced with a laugh, “I’ve decided to upgrade from an atheist to an agnostic.”

Several months later Danny said, “I’ve had an epiphany. I realize that I don’t reject Christianity. Instead, I reject the way that intolerant Christians package Christianity.” A few weeks after that conversation, Danny said, “Martin, you’ve just about convinced me on this religion stuff. So I want to know–what’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”[4]

“What’s the Least You Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” is the title of Martin Thielen’s book. In it he explores a number of propositions that are commonly understood as being significant or required beliefs of Christian faith.

  • God causes cancer, car wrecks and other catastrophes
  • Good Christians don’t doubt
  • True Christians can’t believe in evolution
  • Woman can’t be preachers and must submit to men
  • God cares about saving souls but not saving trees
  • Bad people will be “left behind” and then fry in hell
  • Jews and Muslims won’t make it to heaven
  • Everything in the Bible should be taken literally
  • God loves straight people but not gay people
  • It’s OK for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious[5]

There are many who would include these things in the canon of required beliefs. But they are not.

They’re a sideshow that gives all of Christianity a bad name. When media focus on fringe groups protesting funerals of those killed in war, draw attention to the burning of Korans in the name of God, proclaim hate or fear in the name of Jesus—the name of Jesus is diminished.

In fact, of all the doctrines and formulations of faith, the only one that seems to stand out as bedrock—is the Incarnation. From it, the other doctrines evolve. The reason it’s so central to Christian faith is that it affirms that—when God became human and dwelt among us—the entire human race became holy, sacred—and there are no longer insiders and outsiders, elect and un-elect, saved and damned.

The Incarnation affirms the dream of God that we are all part of one another in community, and that we need to care for one another, and to work for a society and world that is fashioned for the common good—the good of all our brothers and sisters.

This is Mother’s Day weekend. Here at Christ Church we’re also focusing on Fair Trade. There’s a strong connection. Many of the people who benefit from Fair Trade are women and mothers. Too often they and their children are victims of local and international economic forces that impoverish and victimize them.

A sacrament of the church is coffee. Some have said that coffee hour is the true sacrament since that’s where people often most deeply connect.

We buy Fair Trade coffee. There’s special display in the front hallway about Fair Trade. Christ Church has been recognized as the first Fair Trade congregation in the state of Ohio.

Fair Trade calls upon us to be conscious of who makes and produces the things that we buy. None of us can be perfect at this. But we’re called to ask the question. Who made it? Who benefits? Are the mothers of the world and their children exploited or benefited?

When we affirm and live this abundant, overflowing love as the essential heart of Christianity, even when it may cost us more,  then the Danny’s of the world will be drawn to learn more and even desire to be part of the Dream of God.

Amen

[1] From the Westminster Confession, framed after the Reformation by Presbyterians in 1646

[2] p. 233.

[3] John 1:1-4 (NRSV)

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/martin-thielen/whats-the-least-you-can-b_b_811353.html  accessed at 8:40 a.m. on 5/21/11.

 

[5] Ibid.