Those of us who attended this year’s St. Clement’s Parish Retreat had some deep and meaningful conversations about several “light” theological questions like the nature of God, the definition of Christianity and what it means when a parish allows anyone who wants to to take communion. It was very relaxing.
The common thread holding these varied and significantly important issues together was the question of identity; what does it mean to be a Christian in this age and in this place. Is being a Christian simply a question of what we believe or is there more to it than that? This debate – faith versus works – is one of the oldest in Christianity. And don’t expect that reading the bible will give you a definitive answer – because that’s where the argument began.
The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, clearly state that it is faith – and faith alone – that leads to salvation, while the author of the letters of James argues that faith without works is useless. For Paul – and the author of the Gospel of John – the answer to the question, “What must I do to have eternal life,” is simple – believe – believe in Jesus Christ. And that simple understanding remains the basis of their Christian identity for many 21st century Protestants. Believe and you are saved. Choose not to believe and – well – you get the idea.
But for others – including me – this idea is difficult to – well – believe. Especially when we can readily hear that inherent condemnation with which “true believers” assert their saving grace. To me the contradiction is obvious – and insurmountable. How could the same Jesus who repeatedly impressed on his disciples the importance of loving one another be the same man who allegedly said “believe in me” and you can do whatever you want?
For those who believe in justification by faith alone, the answer lies in Jesus’s full response to the question of what are the most important commandments. He said, love your neighbor – yes – but he also said love your God with all your heart, with all your soul – and with all your mind. This means, they argue, that loving God comes first and, if necessary – only. In this view, loving God means following all of God’s commandments as found in the Bible and, if you have to choose between “obeying” God and loving your neighbor – God wins. People who believe this way back up their view with the argument that Jesus himself condemned certain groups and that certain groups can be blamed for Jesus’s death. According to this argument, if believing is the true path to salvation, then unbelieving must be the path to damnation. This logic makes it okay to hate nonbelievers. You are, in fact, justified in your hate by your belief.
I recently read an article entitled, “The problem of the half-churched Christian.” In it, the author suggests that because very few people regularly attend church weekly anymore, it is “hard for church leaders to teach anybody anything in a sustained manner.” So, while many Americans still think of this country as being “Christian,” few of these people attend church often enough to develop the depth of understanding necessary to apply Christian ideals to their 21st century world. They are prone to miss narrative nuances that can completely change the meaning of a story.
Which brings us to Good Friday. Because it is on Good Friday that we hear John’s gospel – the one where “the Jews kill Jesus.” I think this gospel is potentially the most harmful piece of literature ever written. It has been used by a variety of different ethnic, religious, and national groups to justify the dehumanization, debasement, and wholesale murder of Jewish people for centuries. John’s gospel, like the verses from Isaiah we read before it, is designed to help us to feel closer to Jesus by providing us with a visceral sense of his suffering. Instead, it has been used d to incite Christians to hatred of those who do not believe as we do. This is perhaps the ultimate irony – because it was this specific kind of evil that Jesus most often condemned – and it is this kind of evil that John’s gospel is meant to counteract. But that half of the story seems to have been lost – just like many other crucial Christian truths.
That’s why many churches changed the language of the passion narrative we usually hear on Palm Sunday. Late in the twentieth century, after somewhat belatedly realizing that by doing so the church was complicit in providing reasons for unspeakable acts of religious hatred, many churches exchanged the term “the Jews,” for “the people.” But many people argued against this, and we have retained the older language in the reading of John’s gospel, which occurs on Good Friday. We do this to help us better understand the circumstances of Jesus’s crucifixion and thus to feel its horror and pathos in a deeper and more meaningful way.
But that understanding is not that some other ethnic group killed Jesus. That understanding is that we killed Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, so by naming the Jews as his persecutors, the author of John’s gospel is reminding us that Jesus was betrayed by his own people. And who are his people now– in the 21st century? Christians, that’s who. So, ironically, by lashing out at others in a misguided attempt to – I don’t know – get revenge for Jesus- Christians are actually repeating that betrayal. Every time Christians condemn others in Jesus’s name, Jesus’s people are denying his ideals and tarnishing the horrifying beauty of his death – again and again and again.
Because ultimately, Jesus’s life and death were about love. And his crucifixion was a demonstration of that love. For Jesus, there was no separation between faith and works. When Paul argued that faith was the only basis for Christian identity, he was talking to people who believed that salvation was attainable by following human laws. And he told them that rules were not the answer. And rules – even those some Christians believe are found in the bible – are still not the answer. The answer was and is love – the love that is embodied in belief in Jesus Christ. And to truly love Jesus is to want to do well. To truly know Jesus is to be unable to believe and fail act according to that belief.
Just as, for Jesus, there is no separation between loving God and your neighbor. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Anyone who believes that – who uses their expressed love of Jesus Christ as an excuse to persecute their neighbors – does not truly know him.
The question is not, “What would Jesus do”? The question is, “What did Jesus do”? And the answer is love. John’s gospel is not about who killed Jesus. John’s gospel is about whether Jesus will continue to be killed – by the betrayal of all that he was and all that he gave to us. Good Friday is not about hate. It’s about love. It’s about Jesus’s love for us and what we are expected to do for love of him. To be in relationship with Christ is to understand that there is no separation between faith and works, between God and neighbor, between self and others. There is only the perfect gift of love that is Jesus the Christ and the opportunity to live by and in that love. If we only learn half of what it means to be a Christian, then let us know love. Let us know the better half. AMEN.