Southern Baptist pastor, Robert Jeffress, head of a megachurch in Texas spoke on May 14th at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. His words are fueling inter-religious tensions on our volatile planet. “Robert Jeffress says ‘you can’t be saved by being a Jew,’ and ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.’ He’s said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem,” tweeted Mitt Romney, a candidate for the Senate in Utah and a Mormon.
Romney’s politics and mine are very far apart, but I share his indignation about the holier than thou theology mouthed by Jeffress, who ignorantly and arrogantly claims his own views represent the gospel truth. To address such claims I share below a sermon I preached in 2004. This sermon grapples with Christian orthodoxy, and with Christian scriptures, and lays a theological foundation for interfaith respect.
How Does Jesus Save?
Preached at Hanover Street Presbyterian Church
On September 12, 2004
By the Rev. Thomas C. Davis, Ph.D.
Romans 5: 1-11 and John 1: 1-14
Before I begin this sermon on how Jesus saves, I’d like to read one more scripture, which some followers of Jesus once regarded as holy. But it does not come from the Bible we know. It comes from a library of thirteen ancient manuscripts that were hidden away in earthen jars, and then, many centuries later (in 1945) unearthed by a wandering shepherd in northern Egypt. I will read to you from a book called The Gospel According to Thomas, which is written in the Coptic language. We have only a portion of this book, which may have been written earlier than any of the four gospels in our Bible.
These are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote. And He [that is, Jesus] said: Whoever finds the explanation of these words will not taste death. Jesus said: Let him who seeks, not cease seeking until he finds, and when he finds, he will be troubled, and when he has been troubled, he will marvel and he will reign over the All. Jesus said: If those who lead you say to you: “See, the Kingdom is in heaven,” then the birds of the heaven will get there before you . . .. But the Kingdom is within you . . .If you know yourselves, then you will be known and you will know that you are the sons of the Living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty . . .
Route eleven wends through the Shenandoah Valley, over the rolling hills of “God’s country,” where I attended college. In my sophomore, junior, and senior years I had the loan of my dad’s V.W. Beetle, so I came to know those rolling hills intimately, as one must who has only thirty four horses under the hood. Bound for Lexington, when I came upon a weathered barn with huge white letters on its side proclaiming “Jesus Saves,” I knew I was getting close. “Jesus saves!” The message evoked in me unpleasant associations of simpleton radio evangelists, quack healers, and spiritual snake oil salesmen. Jesus saves! “Right,” I would grunt in jaded retort to the old barn. Despite my Sunday school training, I wondered whether the message was sanctimonious hoopla, like the silly rhetoric we hear in political conventions. Does Jesus really save?
The skeptic after whom I’m named, doubting Thomas, asked that sort of question. If we’re to believe that it was he who wrote the passage I just read–and I think that’s a good bet–then while the other disciples were trumpeting the familiar refrain, “Jesus saves!” Thomas was asking, “Oh yeah, well how?” I have Thomas in my head, have since childhood. He wants to find his own answers, Thomas does. He isn’t content with accepting what others tell him. He wants to know for himself, even if by looking hard he gets troubled, as the text says. That doesn’t scare Thomas off. He believes that if you don’t chicken out and don’t give up, eventually you will come to the truth, because it’s really very close. It’s inside you, you see. God’s kingdom isn’t in some heaven beyond the stars. It’s inside you. But you have to persist in digging for it, because the digging hurts.
If you read Thomas’ whole gospel, you’ll see that he didn’t think Jesus saves us as a champion descended from on high, like a Greek or Roman god. No, mostly it’s the wisdom of Jesus that saves us. Or, you could put it this way: The Holy Spirit, which was so abundantly present in Jesus, is in each of us too. God puts the Spirit there. If we awake to it, and respond to it, that Spirit can save us from poverty of soul. Thomas has a do-it-yourself idea of salvation. He would agree with the gospel tune that says, “Nobody else can do it for you. You gotta walk that lonesome valley by yourself.”
Even if I’m wrong that the Apostle Thomas thought of Jesus in those terms, scholars do maintain that there were early devotees of Jesus who did. The Gospel According to Thomas and other literature found in the earthen jar library of Northern Egypt suggest that very early in the history of Christianity there were disciples who followed Jesus as a way-shower. They revered Jesus, but they did not worship him as God incarnate. Judging by the literature which they secreted away and buried, they were scarcely concerned about Jesus’ death at all. They were much more interested in what Jesus taught and how he lived. With the help of his Spirit they wanted to be like him.
If I could find the person who painted the “Jesus saves!” sign on that old barn on the way to Lexington, and ask him or her just how Jesus saves, I dare say the answer would not be much like the early Christian answer that I have just described. Rather, it would sound much more like Paul’s teaching, set forth in his letter to the Romans, a portion of which we read this morning: Paul wrote that Jesus saved us by his sacrificial death upon the cross. We are saved from God’s wrath, writes Paul, by the blood of Christ. We have been reconciled to God by the death of his son. In the same passage Paul also says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” which sounds a good deal like the Gospel of Thomas’ teaching about how Jesus saves. But the mainstay of Paul’s teaching about salvation is that Jesus paid a price for us. He died in our place. He interceded for us. He appeased God’s anger on our behalf by taking the punishment that we deserved. No matter what Paul may say about God’s grace, his notion of salvation is really the ancient Jewish one rehashed: We are saved by sacrifice. The book of Hebrews teaches that the need for temple sacrifice ended with Jesus, for he was the last and perfect sacrifice, the lamb without blemish. But could Jesus really have ended the institution of sacrifice by sacrificing himself? Isn’t that logically absurd? A sacrifice to end all sacrifice does not abolish sacrifice. Rather, it affirms the need for sacrifice. However, the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 1) taught that God does not need sacrifice, and does not want it. God wants justice from us; God wants us to be merciful to each other. God rejects sacrifice as a way of getting right with God. We get right with God by treating each other rightly. Scripture notes that Jesus affirmed this view where he said (Matthew 9: 13): “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'”
The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas and the other Coptic manuscripts in Northern Egypt has revealed that among very early followers of Jesus there was quite a diversity of opinion about who he was. Not all early Christians believed that he was uniquely God’s son, or the sole mediator between God and humanity, or the lamb without blemish who offered himself as a sacrifice to appease God’s anger. Such New Testament ideas, now labeled “orthodox” (correct teaching) were written down as early as fifty or sixty years after Jesus’ death. But there were other early Christian ideas that did not make it into the New Testament. We are sure of this now because of the manuscripts recovered in northern Egypt.
The contest between competing views of Jesus lasted a long time–at least four centuries. In 325, when the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of his realm, there was strife between Christians who saw Jesus as a spirit-filled human being and those who saw him as God incarnate. Constantine recognized that Christianity could unify his empire, but only if Christians would get their act together. So, he called a theological summit at a beautiful estate near Nicaea, and he wined and dined the attending bishops, and told them to come up with a creed that would bring unity. Eventually they wrote one that bears the name of the place where they were sequestered, the Nicene Creed. It says, among other things, that Jesus was “very God of very God, and “of one substance with the Father.” Obviously, the idea of Jesus as God incarnate had prevailed. But the creed did not bring unity to the empire. Even after the creed was promulgated, the now heretical view that Jesus was a spirit-filled human being continued to be very persuasive and popular. So the squabbling between Christians continued unabated. Finally, Athanasius, a bully bishop on the side of the winners, hired thugs to beat up the opposition, and that settled the matter. Violence brought capitulation. Symbolically, it were as if Jesus had been executed again, for the domination system which he had resisted with every fiber of his being had won.
Since the Roman empire was pretty much evenly divided at the time of this Nicene crisis, why couldn’t Christianity have moved in the other direction, toward recognizing Jesus as a spiritual brother instead of God incarnate? The reason was political. The ideas that prevailed in the Nicene contest were those convenient to imperial rule, both in the church and in the state. Ponder this: If Jesus was a Spirit-filled human being and we all have his Spirit in us too, then we all have authority to rule ourselves. That way of thinking about Jesus promotes democracy. But on the other hand, if Jesus is not like us, if he is the only begotten son of God, (whereas all the rest of us are made in the usual way), and if he is the only mediator between God and humanity, and other divinely appointed people–the emperor, or the king, or the arch bishop, or the bishop mediate his authority–then clearly that way of thinking about Jesus promotes hierarchy, not democracy. It seems quite clear to me that Constantine went with the set of ideas about Jesus that conveniently legitimated imperial rule. As I said before, the domination system had won.
Now, I want to bring this sermon home. You may be asking yourself why Tom is giving you a theology and history lecture instead of a sermon. Bear with me. I promise you there is no fluff here. It will all prove soul food, I trust.
About a week ago Al Mascitti wrote a News Journal column about a Jewish woman named Mona Dobrich. Her son complained to her that he was required to join in a Christian prayer in his public school in Georgetown. Mona went to the principal and asked whether it would be possible to devise a school policy to insure that when prayers are said, they will be non-sectarian. In other words, they should not presuppose any particular religious point of view. No student, Mona pleaded, should feel even tacitly obliged to participate in a prayer which does not accord with his or her own beliefs. Well, the principal did not keep the matter private, and the upshot was that Mona was accused of wanting to put an end to prayer in public schools altogether. And her son and daughter received such hateful comments from peers that she felt she must move them out of their home town to protect them.
One of our recent high school graduates, Lindsey Harris, said that one thing she prizes about Hanover people is that they don’t just stand for inclusiveness among themselves, but that they work to promote God’s welcoming love for all people in society. Well, here’s the practical reason why I brought up all that theology and history earlier: How can we work for a an inclusive society if we espouse a theology that says that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and that he is the sole mediator between God and humanity, so that the only effective way to pray to God is in Jesus’ name? Unless we know the historical details of our own tradition and are ready to grapple with orthodoxy, we’re going to have a mighty hard time disputing those Bible thumpers in Georgetown who justify their actions on the basis of New Testament teaching. The problem is our sacred texts! Morally, we cannot afford to base our actions solely upon the opinions of our revered forebears. Just because an idea occurs in our scriptures, even the New Testament ones, doesn’t make it right. I’ve already preached to you about how that is so with respect to passages concerning women, and gender different people, and people of color. Well, now I’m likewise saying that we shouldn’t automatically accept all New Testament teachings about how Jesus saves either, just because they happen to be found in holy writings that got circulated instead of buried or burned. And why shouldn’t we strive to respect all those teachings, as the Bible thumpers say we should? Because some of them represent points of view that I’m sure Jesus himself would disapprove. And they represent an ideology that got its way by violence and continues to legitimate domination.
Now, the interesting thing about our Bible is that it contains many voices, so that if you think you’re not hearing a morally helpful voice in one place, you can weigh that against what you hear from another voice somewhere else. On the question about how Jesus saves, the voice that gives me soundest guidance is the one I hear in John 1, the voice that says that Jesus is the light that enlightens every person; and that no one has ever seen God, but Jesus reveals God better than anyone because he is “in the bosom of the Father.” That language sits better with me than saying that Jesus is God incarnate. If I understand Jesus as a person chock full of God’s spirit, instead of God incarnate, or the only mediator to God, then I can say to Mona Dobrich: I honor your prayers to God. I will pray with you, for I believe you have a portion of God’s Spirit, too. I can say to my friend Rudolph Ali, the imam at the mosque on Governor Prince Boulevard: I honor your prayers to God. I will pray with you. I believe that you have a portion of God’s Spirit, too. I can say to my parishioner, Isheta, who just helped to lay her mother to rest in India with Hindu rites: I honor those prayers that you said for your mother. And I can say all those things sincerely, because such affirmations stem not just from trying to be nice, but from what I believe about who Jesus is, and how he saves.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot establish authentic interfaith friendships just by being nice. Our best efforts will fall short if we have not rooted out those notions in our own scriptures and religious customs, which hold the stranger at arm’s length, or exclude him or her completely. We must find a way to understand the Lord whom we adore which makes room for all the people whom we love, or want to love. May God strengthen us with the courage to dig for that way, for the digging will likely trouble before we find the marvel.