The Gospel of Judas has been in the news this month. Everyone agrees that the document is authentic, but what does it mean? It does not necessarily change our view of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus – or even necessarily shed any new light on the event, but it does give us another look at the many competing Early Christian interpretations of Jesus' life and message. We've already discussed the Gnostic Gospels, the Infancy gospels, the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, and Mary Magdalene among others. One striking bit of news from these Gnostic messages from the past, is there was a startling latitude of thought, a wide range of opinions among the Early Christians. But we've also discussed how the need for "institutionalizing" the Church – establishing a straight or orthodox interpretation most folks could agree on - was essential to giving the church a solid basis for growth and stability through the centuries. Time has shown that broadly, this strategy has worked. Christianity survives – although broken into a wide range of schisms and denomination both within the US and around the world. We, of course, are just one of the denominations.
The newly discovered Gospel of Judas does not in any way lessen the impact and meaning of Jesus' life and message. But this discovery – and there will be others -- does invite us to look more deeply into our faith. I don’t mean to defend institutional religion, nor, on the other side, do I want to defend broad or heretical, non-orthodox thought. Both can and must coexist. In fact, as Christians we should pray strongly for finding a common, core set of beliefs that all Christians around the world can unify around. At the same time, we need to recognize that the Church – any Church – can not be “religious” for us. We must as Christians agree on the basic truths, and then move on to wrestle with the deeper issues of applying these truths to our lives and personal faith. Paul warns us in Philippians, to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling." And it is a life work. Which is why we are here today.
There’s an ancient prayer, one that we here in the Presbyterian
Church pray regularly: "May all the ends of the Earth know
the salvation of God." The Psalms describe all the nations
of the Earth, all the Kings and Princes, all the Peoples streaming to
the knowledge of God, to Zion, to worship the Creator. Since the
time of the Jews when this Psalm was written, God's purpose of bringing
humanity to UNIVERSAL belief and salvation has been clear. True
Judaism acknowledged the universal Fatherhood of the Creator, and the
ancient Jews prayed this prayer, that all mankind would come to know
this saving power of God. So, how are we doing? And, what
does this mean for the subject of our talk "Is Jesus the Only Way?"
One plus one equals
In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
 And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
 Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?
 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
 If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.
 Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.
 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?
…  If ye love me, keep my commandments.
Is this a claim of Christian exclusivity? That is the question we will discuss today. But before we begin our discussion, let's note here that Jesus did not claim to BE the Father, but to show the WAY to the Father. When Jesus says to know Him is to know the Father, he is demonstrating the divine calculus, that one plus one equals one. The Father is to be found in Him, in Jesus. Jesus shows the way to the Father, how to get to the Father. The way to get to the Father is to believe and to live in imitation of Jesus, the Son. This is the meaning of Jesus' teaching in John's gospel.
Exclusivity? First, what did Jesus himself have to say about other religions? What did he teach about the folks who were not following Him? At the time, in the Roman empire, there were not many monotheistic religions. Most of the world known to westerners was pagan. Buddha's revelations and teachings were not known generally in the Roman Empire, Persian Mazda worship was a multi-god religion, and Hinduism was an ancient multi-god belief. The monotheistic religion of the time was Judaism. So, as Jesus introduced the way of the “Christian religion” we can hear His comments and opinions about Judaism as an example of how He thought about "another", "competing" monotheistic religion.
Did Jesus teach that Judaism, this “other” monotheistic religion of the time was wrong? Not at all. He said, I have not come to abolish the law. Not a jot or tittle of the Law shall pass away. Jesus’ accusation of the Jews was not that they were following a wrong belief. He accused them of UNBELIEF, NOT WRONG BELIEF.
Unbelief in what? Jesus? No. Unbelief in God the Father. Jesus said, you are far from the Father. While the principles of the religion Jesus learned as a child were correct, the Pharisees were practicing their own religion, a religion of men, and a religion of unbelief. They taught correctly, but their personal practice was as unbelievers.
Actually, the field was full of unbelievers needing education and conversion to belief in the one true God. The major belief system of the time was Paganism. The Pagans were the unbelievers. The Pagan world remained mired in belief in multiple, competing, and capricious and contentious gods. In fact, towards the end of the Roman Empire, the emperors even thought themselves gods. Or, at least, wanted others to think of them that way. Man, that's a power trip.
Were the Jews wrong?
Now, let's talk about Love. Love, love, love. The name of a Beatles song. Love is the answer. Falling in love with love. I love you truly, truly dear. What's love got to do with piety, heaven, God or Christ? When "God talkers", theologians and ministers mention love, they often apologize for the skimpiness of English, and go on to explain that in Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are three different words for love. After their explanations of Philios, Eros and Agape, the best I can take away is that Christian love means "disinterested love" – the definition usually given for Agape. Disinterested Love! Man, no wonder Protestants are intellectual!
The other day it struck me, hearing the readings about Jesus in the synagogue, teaching with "authority", not like the Scribes, it struck me that we need words in English that don't make us head for a Greek dictionary. Jesus taught with authority, and we should listen with authority. The basic Law of Moses has taught us the difference between right and wrong, obedience and disobedience, and Holy and vulgar. Jesus came to teach us what comes after the Mosaic Law. That is, what humanity, what we, are ready for now. Jesus was teaching Jews, and they were shocked that he would speak with authority instead of just reciting what the book said. But Jesus had something new to teach. Not something different, something new. It's as if we had discovered the shoreline of a New Continent, and now He was leading us inland. Jesus didn't deny the reality of the coastline and beaches; He taught us it was time to move in and occupy the land.
When he said, "I have not come to abolish or change the Law, but to Fulfill the Law", what did he mean? Did he mean the Law of Moses was wrong? The Jews, the Scribes, the Pharisees had been following a false map? I don't think so. What Jesus taught was it's time to stop looking at the coastline from afar. It's time to rise up to a new height from which you can look down and see the land. And then go in and occupy it.
Jesus taught it was correct to not kill another person. But, to be angry enough to kill, and hold yourself back from murder is not enough. You cannot be angry enough to kill another person if you understand that the other person is your child, your mother, your brother, yourself. And this is why he taught that to be wrathful, angry, scornful of another is akin to murder. Certainly not in the Civil Law sense, but it is unlawful in the Law of the Creator of the Heavens, the Earth and Us. Here's why.
The other word is "connectivity". We are connected with many things. Most of which we are not conscious of. We are conscious that we are connected to our club, our lodge, our Religion, our church, Temple, the local sports teams, our favorite national teams, our country. We are white or black or women or men or tenth-graders. We are conscious of our connections to, our membership in, these surface things. We are also connected to other things. We are connected to the people in Auburn, in Boston. In Chicago, in the villages of India, in Sudan, the lowlands of Viet Nam, the Palestinians, the Iranians, the Brits, and even -- this one is hard -- the French. We are connected to the trees in town, the soil in which they are rooted, the bluffs around the lake, the grass in the fields, the stars around us. But we are, with rare exception, not conscious of our connection to and with all these people, cities, bushes, herbs, animals and whirling nebulae.
We exist in and are composed of the same stuff as all these. And at root, we are all vibrating strings of force, of energy. We are all composed of the same stuff, from the same stuff, and will return in form to this same stuff, this energy, these fields of energy, which shape our very DNA, never mind the watery carriages we call human bodies. Logically, we know all this. But we are not often conscious of it.
What Jesus taught is this: when we are confronted with our enemy, the person who strikes at us, rips us off, cheats others, pushes us around, we are not to even think of getting even. When we become instantly conscious of our connectivity, our sameness and linkage with this fellow human, our feelings are to be of forgiveness and empathy. He is you. The act of forgiveness is not a calculus. It is not weighed and rational. It does not proceed from the other person asking our forgiveness or begging it. Forgiveness is certainly not denying evil or harm or trying to excuse it away. Forgiveness flows from our focus, our awareness, and our consciousness of our connectivity with the other. We know and feel we are one. The Greeks called this Agape. It is not disinterested love. It is conscious connectivity. This ain't love, love, love. It isn't I love you truly, truly dear. It is an understanding that both your enemy, the other, and you are Holy. You are both standing on Holy ground. This is Jesus. This is The Word. This is His message.
So what is His message to us? Karen Armstrong, a popular religious writer, just published a new book, reviewed this week. She does a good job of describing the difference between Religion and Belief. The two are not the same. Religion teaches about Belief and prepares us to Believe. But, Religion is not a substitute for Belief. Religion brings us to the doorstep, but we have to knock and walk through the opened door of Belief ourselves. No one can do this for us. Then, once we believe, we begin the lifelong process of our own Transformation, of Conversion.
Jesus taught us
to open our inner eye
And who else teaches this truth? Who else believes this truth? This is the question we should ask of a person or a religion. What do you teach? What do you believe? What is your relationship with God? What is Man to become? Jesus taught The Way, and demonstrated the way. Thus, He IS the Way. The question to ask of another belief system is not whether it calls itself Christian, but what does it teach and demand of men and women? Christianity is not a club, a flag or a nation. It is not a single church on earth. To be Christian is not a question of belonging to a group. It is not membership. To be Christian is to follow the teachings and example of The Christ. To become Christ, to become like Him, and thus become adopted sons or daughters of God the Father. Can this be true of a Buddhist? Can this be true of a Brahmin? Can this be true of a Muslim? Can this be true of a Jew? Is it true of all who call themselves Christian?
So, some questions we might ask:
Aren't other religions bad, or inferior to Christianity – flawed in some way? The important thing to remember is, keeping the religion -- Adoration of God and Love of neighbor -- is important and difficult. It matters less under which banner you approach God, than that you are walking towards Him. The Bodhisattva, the Pious monk, the adoring penitent, the breast-beating Pharisee, the meditating Imam, the whirling Sufi --- all these may be closer to God than the lukewarm, cynical Christian. The practice of belief is the determinant. Are you faithful, are you constant and strong in belief, do you notice God and Love neighbor all day every day, are you repentant? This is what is important. If you are unfaithful in your religion, it doesn’t matter at all which religion you are faithless in. Are you faithful to the one true God and filled with Love of Neighbor? You are in the right way, the Way Jesus demonstrated. Jesus died for all humans at all times, not just Jewish believers at the time. All are paid for. Redemption of this payment is a matter of faithful belief and practice, not of flag, nation, ethnicity or even brand or flavor of religion. Do you suppose Jesus died for Pentecostals and not for Presbyterians? For Catholics and not Coptics? For Methodists and not Maori's?
That leads us to another question: If it doesn't matter which religion, as long as it is Monotheistic, why shouldn't I just worship God in my own way – without a formal or organized religion? After all, every religion has flawed people in it, bad priests, sinning ministers, hypocritical congregants? I feel closest to God when I take a walk in the woods, or sit peacefully in my room or look out at the lake and the clouds. Isn't that just as good, or better than attending a flawed Church? Why not?
What's wrong with
my own personal religion?
So, the question is; should I make up my own religion? Should I commune with God on my own, looking out at the lake, the clouds, breathing the Spring air? Isn't that the best way for me to be close to God? Tempting? The answer is this: If you are absolutely confident that you are above error, sinless, free from temptation and on the certain road to full conversion from your animal nature to a new spiritual nature, then go it alone. You are close to God. But as for me, I know my reptilian self, my primitive instinctual self, mixed with my self-reflective rationality, brew up a lethal egocentric cocktail. I know that on my own, without the continuous guidance and support of sacraments, daily disciplines and structure, I would morph my personal religion into a Mini-Roman Empire with me as Little Caesar.
Here's why I think we submit, accept and enter a traditional religion – even knowing its faults and human failings. The reason we willingly humble ourselves and submit is simple: we need it. Humans need structure to resist and support as much as a tomato plant or rosebush needs something to climb on. Without the guides to grow on, just like the plants, we turn into briars and brambles and chaos. True, the guides, the supports do not produce the fruit. As Paul says, "God gives the increase." But without the supports, we cannot get to the point where our spiritual fruit can develop. I really believe the desire to "go it on my own, to create my own religion, my way of worshiping God" is one of the subtlest tricks of the devil. Think how many times the word "my" appears in that statement. Jesus taught crucifixion of the Ego. The death of the Personal Self is necessary for salvation, for redemption. It's tough to work on the death of your ego when you are developing your very own personal religion. Doesn't that take a lot of ego?
If your culture teaches Jesus, embrace Jesus. Don't start over. Grow. If your culture teaches Jesus and you reject Him, you are just running away. Running away not just from Jesus, but from God the Father who sent Him to you. For us, it's simple. We preach, teach and live Christ. Other religions? We do not judge, lest we be judged. We pray for all that all the ends of the earth may come to know the saving power of God.
So is Religion the same as Faith? No, but one is necessary for the other. Religion teaches us and our children about faith and prepares us for belief in God. Once we do believe, the practice of our religion preserves us in faith, and helps keep our human nature in check. Thus, I thank God for the gift of organized religion, and I thank God for the gift of faith.
There are so many other questions we might ask. But, now it's time for you to ask some…
Q. What about the people in Hell?
A. Our creed teaches us that after his crucifixion, Jesus descended into Hell. I don't think He visited as a tourist. Isn't it possible that in God's limitless compassion Jesus went on a rescue mission?
Q. You quoted, "At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord"?
A. Yes, but the passage concludes with… "to the glory of God the Father. Paul is referencing the Old Testament, where Isaiah (45) speaks for God… "That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear." Jesus came to bring us to the Father.