The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
March 5, 2023
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life.” This sentence from Scripture is one of the most well-known. It is emblazoned on all sorts of merchandise to proclaim one’s faith in Christ. And yet, when it’s taken out of its context, we miss what it means.
Christianity has often added a corollary: that those who do not believe in Jesus will perish and will not have everlasting life.
The power of Christianity is reduced to a simple yes or no about faith in Jesus, and Christianity is reduced to a ticket to heaven. And, by this simplistic logic, then, there are so many people who are left outside this eternal life. They’re left at the gates without a ticket.
We’ve seen this in the way that Christianity has treated the religion of Jesus, Judaism. For ages, Jews were the target of Christian wrath. Medieval Christians made up all sorts of stories against Jews, and the season of Lent was a scary time for our Jewish brethren. The fears that a crowd of Christians might be whipped into a frenzy on Good Friday and set out to get “revenge” for Jesus’ crucifixion was a very real fear, a very real threat. Doesn’t that break your heart? A day of solemn prayer and mourning turned to violence?
But it’s not just that. Even the tone of John’s Gospel has been taken to treat Jews as “less than”, as misguided, as unworthy. In today’s Gospel reading, Nicodemus comes across as being clueless or obtuse. But he’s not. He’s asking questions, he’s trying to understand. His heart shows his faith. And remember: in John’s Gospel, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus brings the myrrh to anoint Jesus’s dead body for burial. Nicodemus is faithful: faithful to his Jewish heritage, and a compassionate and faithful friend to Jesus.
We have seen a rise in antisemitism in recent years. The old lies have found new life online, and our Jewish siblings are once again being targeted. We must reject antisemitism and stand against it. We modern Christians have an obligation to undo the centuries of antisemitism, not just because antisemitism has caused such terrible crimes and wrongs, but we also have an obligation to undo centuries of antisemitism because it’s theologically and scripturally wrong.
The promises that God has made to the Jewish people are eternal, just as the promises that God has made to us Christians through Christ are eternal. God made promises to Abraham, and those promises endure down the ages. We Christians get grafted into these promises, like a branch grafted onto a tree. Jewish faith is lived through following the Law; Christian faith is lived through following the Gospel. Faith is infused in all that we are called to do. It’s not an intellectual assent to Jesus. It’s a living faith, a faith that is shown in our lives. It’s a faith that led Abraham to leave the land he knew. It’s a faith that has led Jews and Christians (and others!) to follow God on the long journey of life.
But maybe this is easy to recognize for us as Episcopalians. We’ve generally tended to be more ecumenical and interfaith in our orientation. We see God at work in many other traditions.
Yet there are other Christians who do think this and act this way. They think that God’s only working in their tradition, and that it’s only their kind of yes to Jesus that counts. It’s all about that ticket to eternal life, and the ticket’s only available through them.
What does that say about God? That God is stingy with gifts, that God only cares about a yes or no to Jesus? Really? That’s a pale, anemic version of Christianity.
So we need to be vocal about the Christian life. It’s something to share. Not because other faiths aren’t good – but because we see the vibrant life, the living faith that Jesus brings into our lives. It’s a faith that sees the sacred in other traditions, a faith that knows God is not limited by our intellectual categories, that God is expansive and we who follow Jesus rejoice in our faith without judging others.
We know that the promises of God are far more expansive than even those given to Abraham. And those abundant promises abide forevermore; God is faithful to God’s people, God is everlastingly faithful to all creatures. Amen.