Sunday, April 24, 2005

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A, April 24, 2005

In the name of the God the Creator, Jesus the Liberator, and the Holy Spirit the Sustainer. AMEN.

Someday, when I’m retired and have all the time in the world, I think I need to write a book about our Master. The book will also be an expose on the church. Now don’t worry, not an expose on St. Peter’s! Rather it will be an expose on how the church as managed to mislead so many of us regarding the nature of Jesus, our Master.

It was the reading from John today that got me thinking about this. One simple verse. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Great words and great sentiment. But the question is, what does it mean? Was the Master saying that he was the ONLY way, the ONLY truth and the ONLY life? That is what many would argue without a second thought. But I have to ask myself, if Jesus meant the ONLY way, wouldn’t he have said it? The next sentence “No one comes to the Father except through me” is likewise open to a great deal of interpretation in my mind, but many have for many, many years determine that it can have only one possible meaning, namely that you must receive Jesus as your savior in some sort of emotional event.

We use this verse and others like it to build up barriers around us. We build up barriers against those of other faiths whom we characterize as non-christian. Because we do not like the doctrinal teachings of some we denounce them as a “sect”, ignore what they actually say about the Master as their savior and declare them non-christian as well. We have given the term sect a dirty name, conveniently forgetting that Christianity started out as a sect of Judaism. We use it to build up barriers even against those whom we may grudgingly admit are Christians, but we classify them as heretics who must be expelled from the fold.

Sadly that is what some in the Episcopal Church are trying to accomplish right now. The fundamentalists in the Episcopal Church are hard at work to destroy our communion.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist minister who eventually ended up teaching practical theology at Union Theological Seminary and preached at the First Presbyterian Church of New York as a “special preacher”, spoke to this issue. In a sermon entitled “Shall the Fundamentalist Win?” he took on three touchstones of the Fundamentalist viewpoint, the virgin birth, biblical inerrancy, and the Second Coming. He asked the question “Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of Christian fellowship?” In spite of the fact that there are a few bishops in the Episcopal Church who would easily answer yes to this question, for Fosdick, of course his answer is no and he makes the following points:

Both sides need to practice tolerance

“Love is more important that doctrine.”

“The mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

“The main business of Christianity should be not to discuss details of theology but to minister to human misery.”[1]

Those words have profound power for the Episcopal Church and the world-wide Anglican communion today. But Fosdick wrote this sermon in 1922. It is amazing how his words are just as timely for us today. The Episcopal Church and other denominations as well are being torn by the conflict between a fundamental view of the Bible and a liberal view. Bruce Bawer in his book Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity calls it the difference between the Church of Law and the Church of Love.

Many churches have made requirement to doctrinal positions necessary for membership. And that is obviously their right. But that has never been the Anglican way. It has always been our way to be wiling to tolerate a wide variety of views within the Church. We recognize the danger of believing that any one group of people have all the right answers.

In the Gospel today the Master responded to the questions of two of his students. In spite of all their time with him, in spite of all they learned, they still had questions. What that tells me is that it is ok to have questions. It is ok to not get it right.

The Windsor Report attempts to force on the Anglican Communion a document that will outline our faith once and for all. It suggests giving greater power to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the primates of the 38 independent Anglican Churches in the world. In actually what it will do is remove that very independence that makes us stand out as different from any other denominations. Even in our own diocese we have had those who have chosen to, in one way or another, partially separate themselves from the rest of us.

The fundamentalists have latched on to the Windsor Report and see it as a way to destroy the Episcopal Church. In spite of the flaws I see in the Windsor Report, I believe they are wrong. They read what they want into it and conveniently disregard those sections which to not serve their means.

They believe that we need a Church of Law to reflect the teachings of our Master. But they are so wrong.

Harry Emerson Fosdick had it right. In these times of dissention and trouble we need to remember his wise advice. We need to remember that both sides need to practice tolerance. As Episcopalians we need to remember that we do indeed believe that “The mind is a terrible thing to waste.” And we do need to remember that above all, “Love is more important that doctrine.” If we remember that lesson then we truly can get about to “The main business of Christianity (which) should be not to discuss details of theology but to minister to human misery.”[2]

[1] Bruce Bawer, Stealing Jesus, pp. 111-113.

[2] Bruce Bawer, Stealing Jesus, pp. 111-113.

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