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    Sep 26, 2021

    Christianity: It’s Not What You Think

    Christianity:  It’s Not What You Think

    Speaker: Rob McClellan

    Series: September 2021

    Category: So-called Christian Values

    Today's Scripture: The “I Am” Sayings of John

    Today's Sermon


    "Christianity:  It’s Not What You Think"


    The “I am” sayings of Jesus in John
              I am the bread of life. - 6:35 
              I am the light of the world. - 8:12
              I am the gate. - 10:7
              I am the good shepherd. - 10:7
              I am the resurrection and the life. - 11:25
              I am the way, the truth, and the life. - 14:6
              I am the vine. - 15:5

    Christianity:  It’s Not What You Think

              Last week, Bethany gave her stewardship sermon, during which she mentioned a sizable increase in her family’s giving. To top it off, our stewardship chair announced a challenge pledge from an anonymous member, offering to match increased gifts dollar for dollar up to $50,000.  Today, it’s my turn, and obviously I feel no pressure! We’ll get to stewardship later.

                At my annual preacher’s gathering, held virtually just a few weeks ago, a colleague shared that the first Polish language encyclopedia, Nowe Ateny, which was published in 1746, apparently had the following the entry for the word “horse”:  “Horse: Everyone knows what a horse is.”  It was probably true.  Why complicate it?  We might, in our setting here, say the same for car:  Everyone knows what a car is. 

                What if we asked about the word Christian?  If we asked Christians, they might be able to give you a one sentence answer.  Chrisitan: someone who believes Jesus is the son of God.  Christian: someone who believes Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ.  If you asked non-Christians you might get very different answers.  In fact, some years ago a survey did just that and the words that topped the list included homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental. A Christian author I follow posted something to the effect of this yesterday:  What’s the first word you think of when I say Christian…That’s why I’m writing this book.  The assumption is the first word would be a negative one. 

                There is a strong, even dominant, strain of Christianity out there that has left an unfavorable impression.  It could be characterized as narrow, exclusive, formulaic, simplistic, and transactional.  If you do this, you’re in, but if you don’t, you’re out.  That way of being Christian has caused trauma for many, perhaps some here today.  To those carrying such a negative impression, I say Christianity may not be what you think. I want to be careful not to pretend we have all the answers, to respect other perspectives or way of practicing, but I do believe there is a more expansive, perhaps deeper and broader version of the faith that I believe leads more directly to the heart of Jesus. That’s why I care about what we try and be about here at Westminster. 

                One way to measure the distance between how Christianity is so often embodied and how it could be is by turning to Scripture and its interpretation. Today’s seven “I am” sayings of Jesus is a perfect set of texts, in which John has Jesus say just who he is. Let’s go through them one by one and see what vision we can identify.

               “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).  Jesus’ hearers, like some today, might connect this to the Exodus story, when Jesus’ ancestors were said to have escaped slavery, surviving on manna, bread from heaven. Now, Jesus says, “I am the bread.” This is not your ordinary bread. This bread is more lasting; those who eat of it will never be hungry.  It should be said from the outset that having Jesus repeatedly say, “I am” is a statement in and of itself.  Do you remember what God’s name is?  It’s “I am,” or more accurately, “I was what I was, I am what I am, I will be what I will be.”  We learn this when Moses asks God what God’s name is, God responds by saying, in effect, “I am being—past, present, and future.”  So often, you hear Jesus reduced to a formula – you accept Jesus, and only Jesus, or you’re out.  But, from the beginning Jesus is simultaneously identifying with and pointing toGod, the great “I am.”  Jesus says “I am” is the bread of life.    

                “I am the light of the world” (8:12).  Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan whose writings have been so helpful to many Christians, reminds us that Christ is not just the one to whom we look; Christ is a way of seeing.  It is a way of seeing the divine presence in others.  This is an even more powerful imagine in the ancient world. They didn’t understand sight as we do, where light comes into the eye.  For them, seeing was about projection, so to see as Christ does is to see things for what they truly are.  Even more, since we project with our seeing, it is to give reality its shape and definition.  So often, we hear Jesus talked about as something to be possessed.  I have him, but you can no more possess Christ than you can grab a handful of light.  Rohr’s Universal Christpicks up on a classic theme that Christ is not the exclusive property of the Chrisitan, but a force at work in and through a much greater reality.  If Rohr isn’t good enough for you, read Colossians of the New Testament which points out that “in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created…and in Christ all things hold together” (Col. 1:16, 18).  Light of the world, not light of Christianity. 

                “I am the gate” (10:7).  “Aha!” some seem to say with the way they embody their faith.  So often Christianity absolutely consumed with gatekeeping, obsessing about how is left out or “left behind.”  But, something incredibly obvious struck me this week.  You don’t put a gate in to keep out.  For that you simply build a fence or a wall.  A gate is to allow passage.  You come in through a gate.  As we’ve said before, John’s Gospel was written for a people who’d been effectively kicked out of their community and Jesus says, I am a gate through which you may come in, anyone may come in.  Similarly, the gate allows the shepherd, if we are to use that biblical metaphor, to let the sheep out, when they need to graze and wander.  Too often, Christianity is about boundaries that keep people in, confined, bound, but there are moments and seasons of life that require exploration, expansiveness, freedom, and some pushing of boundaries.  Christ invites the proper flow of going out and coming in. A good gatekeeper manages both.

                “I am the good shepherd” (10:7).  Think of all the other available options – warrior or maybe king (others say that of him, he doesn’t).  Even Son of God is tricky because Jesus doesn’t outright claim to be the onlyson of God.  No, the good shepherd.  So often, loud Christians drive others away, parroting a Jesus who exists primarily to damn people to hell.  Yet we have an image of Jesus as the one who gathers them in (as one of our hymns for today says).  The shepherd brings the flock safely home.  Early on, the dominant depiction of Jesus was not the cross.  That came along when armies needed Christians to fight.  More prevalent symbols of early Christianity were lamb and shepherd.  Next time you walk a labyrinth, imagine Christ not hanging at the center from a cross, but drawing you into the center, the true center, bringing you home for safe keeping.

                “I am the resurrection and the life” (14:6).  Those who believed in the resurrection in Jesus’ time, were awaiting it at the end of the age.  So often in our time Christianity is depicted as a ticket to heaven that you turn in when you die.  As for this life, you just say the magic words and you’re in.  We recognize that Jesus also embodies the resurrection in the here and now.  Christ shows us what it looks like to live in the world with a resurrection ethic, that the dead can be brought back to life, that God’s way prevails, and no one is beyond redemption.  Jesus invites us to a personal and corporate transformation as radical as rising from death to life. In Christ, we don’t have to wait to die to experience heaven.  We experience it right, particularly when we find ourselves among the outcasts, when we practice lifting up the downtrodden, calling out false power, being a healing presence, and committing to peace and mercy rather than violence and vengeance. 

                “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).  This is the one that makes Christianity sound the most strident, for we know it is followed by “no one comes to the Father but by me.”  I have shared before, no doubt, the story of when John Philip Newell heard a rabbi once affirm this saying of Jesus, a rabbi! The rabbi explained, simply and profoundly, “Jesus’ way was the way of love, and of course the way of love is the way.”  So often, to paraphrase Newell, Christians interpret Jesus saying I am the way, as us saying “weare the way.” 

                On September 12, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong died.  A heretic to some, Spong was a hero to others who struggled with what they thought they were supposed to believe.  He cast a wider vision and pushed boundaries religion can falsely draw.  In the wake of his death, a quote of his has been making the rounds.  Spong said:

    God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition [Christianity], I walk through my tradition, but I don't think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.[1]

                Ours is a way that points us to God, the great mystery.

                The last is maybe my favorite.  “I am the vine” (15:5).  The wine connoisseurs and winemakers among us in this part of the world might have much to say about that imagery.  I’ll simply point out that so often, Christianity is defined in terms of what it disconnects you from – from partaking of this (wine, for example), doing that, or associating with them.  Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg talks about how many of us conceive of God as an angry sky dad, or to use another image of hers, we have vending machine theology.  We are subject to, and make requests from, a distant being, and further we are called to separate ourselves from so many “others” so many “thems.”  They are images of disconnection and exchange.  The image of the vine, however, is one of intimacy, closeness, and flow.  We are connected to the source.  In Jesus’ time, as there is in our time in some areas, some attention paid to blood lines as a qualifying characteristic, ethnicity, but one of the most beautiful aspects of the vine imagery is the notion that we are grafted on and then we are all connected by the true lifeblood.  Everyone wants to feel a part of something, and in Christ, we help one another feel a part of the great I Am.

                So, back to my stewardship sermon.  Why give?  Some give out of religious duty or obligation, and there is a place for obligation and duty. There’s something to maintaining a discipline, but it worked better in some eras than others, and it only carries you so far.  Some give out of what they get in return – this is what the church has done for me or those I care about.  That’s natural in our commerce-based society, but our faith is not a commodity. Transactions can only show you so much about the abundant way of God in Christ.  I think the best reason for giving to this church is because of this vision of Christ and version of the faith.  If we don’t share this, who will?  If you believe that this needs to be put forth into the world, then that’s why you should give.

                Everyone knows what a car is.

                Everyone still knows what a horse is.

                I’m not sure many truly know who Christ is or what Christianity could be. Your gift could help change that.