The bookstores are full of best-sellers warning us that religion is dangerous. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have written books that have caught the fancy of people who believe that religion, including Christianity, is at best irrational, and at worst “really does poison everything.” Religious fanatics who fly planes into tall buildings, blow up clinics, protest at funerals, or offer bombastic statements about any number of issues, only give support to these claims. And as for you and me, well, apparently we give cover to the fanatics simply by professing faith in God.
I could try to ignore the critics, but some of their critiques are helpful, because they point out our tendency toward self-righteousness and feelings of superiority. And so when I saw the announcement that Pluralism Sunday would be observed on Pentecost, I decided to look into it and then I signed us up. Pluralism Sunday is sponsored by The Center for Progressive Christianity, and while only a handful of churches have signed up so far, it’s important that we think about the way we live as followers of Jesus in an increasingly pluralistic society.
Fanaticism erupts when we think we alone have all the truth, and fanaticism becomes violent when it feels threatened. Spiritual bullying is more common than outright physical violence, but both are expressions of a faith that has become absolutist and unable to recognize the good in others.
And so, next Sunday, as we celebrate Pentecost, we’ll also think about our place in a diverse and pluralistic world.
1. Our Witness is established by our Unity
This morning we observe Ascension Sunday, the last Sunday of Easter. The Easter season celebrates the presence of the risen Christ with us. But now we must say farewell and begin our journey with the Spirit of God. The ascension stories include the commissioning of the disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, but this morning our text takes us further back to Jesus’ moment of prayer in the Garden. We find him praying for his disciples, asking the Father that they might be one, even as he is one with the Father. He prays this prayer because he knows that if the Disciples aren’t united their testimony won’t bear fruit.
Many years ago I saw a listing of the 100 most influential people in history. You’d think Jesus would be among the top 2 or 3 on the list, but as I remember he barely made the top 20. And the reason given was that Jesus said a lot of good things, but his followers didn’t do as he said or did. That’s unfortunate, but it helps point out why our behavior toward one another either gives or takes away from the credibility of our witness.
In a few minutes were going to sing “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love.” It’s a great song, just like another one we could have sung: “We are one in the bonds of love.” These songs make John’s point. Our oneness in love is our testimony to God’s presence in the world. Whenever the 2.6 billion of us, with our many differences in gender, ethnicity, political views, nationalities, and social standing come together, and not only affirm our oneness in Christ, but also live it out, then the unity of Jesus with the Father is made present. Our critics say our faith is dangerous, and when we allow anger, hatred, and divisiveness to spill out from our communities, then they’re right. But it needn’t be that way.
2. Our Unity is rooted in Jesus’ Unity with the Father.
While this prayer probably doesn’t go back to Jesus himself, it does underline an important point. Our unity as the body of Christ is rooted in a relationship with the one who is united with the Father, and this unity gives us strength to overcome our human tendency to go our own way. Unity isn’t something that comes easily. Think only of the stresses life puts on a marriage. We’re supposed to become one flesh, and yet everyone who has been married knows how difficult it is to keep that oneness in place.
This is why it’s important that we gather at the Lord’s Table. The loaf and that cup are reminders, just as a wedding ring is that we’re called to be one body, even as Jesus is one with the Father.
3. Our Unity is Demonstrated by Acts of Love
I recently read a book on evangelism called Unbinding the Gospel. In fact the Elders are going to be reading this book written by a Disciple pastor named Martha Grace Reese. One thing this book does is help us discover the barriers that keep others from experiencing a transforming relationship with God. When we look at our witness we discover that acts of love, not just words are the key to our witness. It’s not just what we say, it’s how we live. And so when we welcome the stranger into our midst and allow them to experience the loving presence of God through our lives, we give evidence of the truth of our words.
We talk about being family and love is the glue that holds a family together. But as we all know, not every family is able to reach out and include. Many families are closed circles, difficult to break into. If you like the image of the family, then consider, as Martha Reese suggests, the prospect of being the new son-in-law at a family reunion. I need say no more.
4. Giving Our Witness to the World
We’ve been called to share our faith with others, but some of us are a bit hesitant to do this. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid of risking a friendship or perhaps we just don’t know what to say. Maybe it’s because of that TV evangelist or street corner preacher that makes you a bit uncomfortable. There is, however, another way. If we live out our relationship with God we will find opportunities to share with others how God has changed our lives, and on occasion an opening will be there to invite others to share in that life-changing relationship.
Sharing our faith with others doesn’t have to be contentious. It’s not about proving that our faith is better than theirs, and it’s not about whether people are going to hell. In fact, it’s not about winning people to Jesus. It’s simply entering a conversation with someone else in a way that’s respectful and loving. As we share how God has changed our lives, that witness may stir in another person the desire to have that same relationship. This is then the foundation of an evangelism that’s appropriate and ultimately effective in an increasingly pluralistic world.
Next week when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, we can stop to consider how the Spirit makes us one, even as the Father and Son are one, in the midst of our diversity of experience and background. And as we do, our God will be glorified.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
7th Sunday of Easter
May 20, 2007