Part 4 of the sermon series “This We Believe”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 25, 2012—Lent V
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
Jeremiah 31:31–34 • The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
John 12:20–33 • Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Some years ago, at a United Methodist campus ministers conference, I was talking with a colleague who was the director of Methodist campus ministry for the Great Britain. I was fascinated by this for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that Methodism had its start in Britain. The Wesleys were English priests trying to start a renewal movement within the Church of England. Now, Methodism was far more successful in America than it was in England and the British Methodist Church is a good deal smaller than the U.S. church. And so, I was asking him a bunch of questions about Methodism in the UK. At one point I asked, “How are Methodists generally seen there?” I was curious to know how this British faith was seen among the people who had spawned it. “Oh,” he said, “We’re generally seen as the people who are against things.”
That took me aback. Methodists… against things? Well, I suppose he might have been talking about things like gambling or various other social ills. But that statement struck me: “The people who are against things.”
There is a sense that that is how Christians are generally perceived in this country. Against things. Or against people, at any rate. The most common caricature of a Christian is of a narrow-minded bigot. It’s one I’ve encountered myself. It’s one that I myself believed for a long period of time.
One night after a screening of one of our Monthly Movies with the Methodists, the conversation went on late into the night. At the end there were only four of us left: me, one of our student leaders, and a young man and his girlfriend. The young man was covered with piercings and had spiked hair, dressed in a leather jacket and looking every bit the punk rocker. The conversation had drifted over a number of topics throughout the evening, but at this late hour the topic was all about Christianity.
“You Christians think that people who don’t agree with you are going to hell,” he said. “You Christians think that gay people are going to hell. You’re opposed to women’s rights.” And so on. I kept having to say, “I don’t believe that”, and then explain what I thought. This went on for quite some time. By the end of it, I think I had managed to convince him that at least our on campus community weren’t a bunch of hate-mongering bigots, and for the next few years, every time he saw me on the quad, he’d come up and say hello and chat for a bit.
But we really have a reputation out there, don’t we?
Part of that is a function of the nature of our faith. Ours, like the Jewish faith out of which Christianity comes is a particular faith. That is, it tends not to play well with others. It tends to resist the idea that it is simply one among many options.
The pagan religions of the ancient world tended to get along more or less okay. When you believe in a number of different gods, learning that your neighbors worship a different one is no big deal. You might not think it efficacious to worship your neighbor’s god, but there’s not harm in it either. And sometimes, you can hedge your bets and worship your god and your neighbor’s god, just in case.
Judaism and the Christianity that followed didn’t see it that way, of course. When you are to worship one god, and believe that god to be the only god, then you can’t really accept as true what your neighbors are doing. This particularity made the Jews and Christians the subject of persecution and often derision for their insistence that only they possessed the truth. Now, for the Jews, while others might be irked, or at least perplexed by their monotheism, they did not think that there was any real consequence to their neighbors’ faith, as far as it concerned their neighbors eternal fate. Even though by all Jewish accounts their neighbors would be idolators, that didn’t seem to figure into any kind of speculation as to whether God was favorably disposed to them. In fact, during the Babylonian Exile, the idea was developed that God was the God of all the nations, whether they knew it or not, whether or not they worshiped or even knew who God was.
But Christianity was a little different. Christianity was about salvation. Christianity was an apocalyptic religion that spoke of the coming of the Kingdom of God in fairly stark terms. Sheep being separated from goats, wheat being separated from tares. The righteous being separated from the unrighteous. There were those who were in and those who were out. The stakes of nonbelief were much higher than they had ever been in Judaism. If you failed to be a part of the One True Faith, you would be cut off from the world to come, from any hope of participating in the Kingdom of God. People of other religions, then, were not simply exercising some other option, or simply unfortunate not to know the God of Israel, they were lost. Damned. Cut off.
Of course, we Christians didn’t stop there. We quickly determined that there were other Christians who didn’t quite measure up. Christians who taught that believers should continue to observe the Jewish law. Christians who claimed that there was a time when the Son of God was created by the Father. Christians who claimed that Christ had one nature both divine and human. Christians who claimed that Christ had two natures side by side. Christians who claimed that the Spirit proceeded from the Father alone. Christians who argued for the efficacy of good works. Christians who argued for salvation by grace through faith alone. Christians who believed Christ saved us by being an exemplar rather than a sacrifice. Christians who believed in free will. Christians who believed in predestination. Christians who believed that God was a god of liberation. Christians who believed that God wasn’t necessarily a male. And so many others. We Christians have done a great job of being particular. To the point of the old joke where a man has died and is getting a tour of heaven. As they pass by the room with one group of Christians he is told, “We have to be very quiet around this next room; they think they’re the only ones here.”
And so, we are good about defining people in and out of God’s care and keeping. We have a long pedigree of being particular. Of claiming God’s love is only for the elect. Only for the righteous few. The Chosen.
III. THE TEXT
But that seems to be a function of religion. Because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Jesus.
John’s gospel, from which we read earlier, is a gospel that has a high wall of separation between insiders and outsiders. John is what is known as “sectarian” literature; it defends the identity and mission of the sect versus the parent body. In this case, John’s gospel defends the Christian community that had been expelled from the synagogue sometime in the late First Century. As such, it presents Christianity as superior to and high above all the other options, including Judaism.
But even so, John’s gospel doesn’t quite let go of what makes Jesus special. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the “synoptic gospels”, Jesus is constantly portrayed as one who reaches out beyond the boundaries of the community. He talks to the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the unrepentant sinners, the marginalized, the outsiders. This is a common feature of the Synoptic Gospels. But even here in John, sectarian as it is, Jesus still transcends our religious inclination to be exclusive and keep God all to ourselves. In the third chapter of John’s gospel we are told that God “so loved the world…” and here in the twelfth chapter, Jesus is quoted as saying that when he is lifted up (that is, crucified), he “will draw all people” to himself. All people.
It seems that despite our inclination to be particular, God seems inclined to be expansive. We have, it seems, confused Christian faith, the response to God’s love and grace found in Jesus, with the requirement to receive that love and grace. We set up a religion to respond to the encounter with God that we’ve had, and then we quickly made that religion the object rather than the medium.
IV. HILLUL HA-SHEM
In Judaism, there is a concept called hillul ha-Shem, which means “profanation of the Name”. It refers to a particular kind of sin—bringing disrepute or shame upon God or upon Judaism. That is, when one acts or speaks in such a way as to make the Jewish faith or the God of Israel look unfavorable, one has committed hillul ha-Shem. In Jewish thought, there is no atonement for this sin short of death. That is, no amount of grain or guilt offering, no amount of repentance, can atone for this sin. Only at one’s death is this sin atoned for. This is how seriously Judaism takes it when people cast God or their faith in an unfavorable light. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had that?
Because I think that’s what we’re doing when we take the expansive love of Jesus for all people and restrict it through the lens of religion. Jesus says, “I will draw all people to myself” and we add “… who believe in Jesus.” Jesus says, “all people” and we add “who are truly repentant”, or “who accept the Trinity”, or “who believe the Bible is inerrant”, or “who are straight”, or a whole host of other conditions we place upon who it is God is allowed to love. We diminish God when we do that. God is so expansive but it is we who are not. As the hymn we just sang says, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind….”  It is we who insist on making God in our image rather than the other way around. It was Anne Lamott who said, “You can rest assured that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he hates all the same people you do.” And we do that all the time.
We make God look like us, think like us, love like us, when we are supposed to resemble God, think like God, and love like God. To the extent we don’t, we misrepresent God and profane the Name.
In Christ we encounter God most fully. And the God we encounter in Jesus is one who constantly expands the boundaries of who is on the inside. One who comes to us as we are, loves us as we are and for who we are. The God we are in relationship with is one who does not differentiate among us based on the divisions that we come up with.
The God we know will only be known to the world through us. If we fail to love all people, regardless of race, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, politics, nationality, or any other distinction, then we misrepresent the God we serve. For the God we serve is one to us revealed to us in the love of Jesus Christ, who when he was lifted up on the cross, demonstrating the deep love and solidarity of God, drew “all people” to himself.
 Frederick W. Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, 121.