25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I have seen a number of bumper stickers in my day. Some make me smile, and some make me cringe. Some are witty, and some seem to be so witty that they go right over my head. Some are comforting, and some are controversial.
About a decade ago someone came to me because they were offended by a bumper sticker that they saw a number of Christians sporting on their cars that said “Coexist,” spelled out with various religious symbols. This person was outraged because he understood this to saying that all religions are essentially the same. I scratched my head a bit and said, “I thought it meant that we were to exist at the same time, and not kill one another, which is a message I can get behind.” He hadn’t seen it that way, and I hadn’t really considered it from his perspective, either.
Who was right? What do these stickers mean? Here’s the issue: different people mean different things when they put these stickers on their cars. Surely some would go so far as to say that all religions are the same. But maybe others just think it would be good to get along.
The point that I’m trying to make is that while bumper stickers can be a fun way to make a statement and begin a conversation, we should never assume that we fully understand what a person means or believes when they stick a little piece of vinyl on their bumper. I know that my belief system cannot fit on a bumper, nor can it fit into 140/280 characters, or a Facebook post. When someone makes a religious proclamation, we should not assume we fully understand what they are trying to say based on a few soundbites or lines of text.
Over the next few weeks I want to spend our time looking at some of the religions of the world, not because I think that all religions are the same, but because we know so little about other religions. We tend to have bumper sticker understandings, limited to just a few short ideas or concepts. And what we do think we know, we (I) often get wrong! What I want to do today, before we even begin to look at other religions, is to ask why we are doing this and give us some guidelines for how we will be studying these religions.
Before we go any further, let me make myself absolutely clear: I am a Christian. I believe that there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved, but that of Jesus our Lord. Just how Jesus saves and what it means to be saved are fun topics of discussion, but that’s not what we are talking about. Since this isn’t a sermon series on how Jesus saves, I just want to put that out there as my prima facie: salvation is through Jesus. And I want to add that I’m really glad that we don’t have to have all of the details about how Jesus saves worked out, something we call “atonement theory,” or even “soteriology,” if you really want to get technical. We don’t need to have Jesus’s relationship to God the Father and the Holy Spirit worked out to be under the grace of God, which I’m really glad about, because I cannot explain the Trinity without falling into some historical heresy. So all of these things blur the question of salvation a bit, so praise God that we don’t have to have it all figured out!
I grew up in a rural community where we thought we were being diverse when we hung out with the Catholic kids. I don’t think that I knowingly met a Jewish person until I was in college. I did graduate from high school with a kid from India, who moved to our area when his family purchased a hotel in our community. I didn’t think about him being a Hindu until we were changing for gym class one day and I noticed he wore a string over his left shoulder, across his shoulder, and under his right arm. And when he would go to the bathroom (not that I was looking), he would pick the lower end of the string up and place it over his ear.
We finally asked him, “Kunj, what’s with the string?” All he said was that it was a part of his religion, and we were all caught off guard that he wasn’t a Christian like everyone else.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, Kunj was singled out for being different. Many kids called him Gandhi, because that was the only Indian that they knew. And later, when people started figuring out what a Hindu believed, every time we had hamburgers at lunch, someone would say, “Hey Gandhi. I’m eating your grandma!”
My experience with other religions growing up was quite limited, but I know that my children’s experience will be different. For decades, maybe even centuries, the United States has been known as a melting pot. But in recent years there has been a movement toward embracing the differences of other cultures and backgrounds. Today we live not so much in a melting pot, but diverse stew of potatoes, beef, and carrots. Each is distinct from the other, and each contributes to the overall flavor.
Our backyard neighbors are Jewish. When we went to the water park over Christmas, there were Muslim women wearing Burkinis. You probably know someone who practices an Eastern religion, like Buddhism or Hinduism. We are no longer talking about world religions, we are talking about the religions in our own neighborhood.
Our scripture for today is one that you are surely familiar with. I would bet that if I asked you what the greatest commandment is, you would be able to tell me. I could probably even push you and ask you the second greatest commandment, and you would be able to tell me the answer to that, too. We find Jesus answering this question in both Matthew and Mark. Evidently he said this a lot, because on one occasion, a lawyer asks Jesus a question, and when Jesus turns it back to the lawyer, he too knows the greatest and second greatest commandment. From Luke 10:27, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Sometimes the church can be accused of being anti-intellectual. But the greatest commandment includes not only loving God with your heart and soul, but also with your mind. We are commanded to be thinking people! So just to warn you, this sermon series will probably be a bit more heady than some. I’m not going to just stand here and tell you what to do. These next few sermons will be more teaching and less preaching, though I have a difficult time differentiating between the two sometimes.
I can’t emphasize enough that Jesus does not and perhaps cannot separate the greatest commandment from the second. Nobody ever asks him for the second, he just offers it. Free of charge! Loving neighbor is intricately linked with loving God.
In Luke’s telling of this story, the lawyer then goes on to ask a follow-up question. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
It is this simple question that leads Jesus to telling one of the most powerful stories in the Bible, the story of the Good Samaritan. A man is beaten, stripped, and left along the road to die. Several good men pass by. Religious men who you might expect to stop and help. But for whatever reason, they cross over to the other side of the road and leave the man there to die.
Who stops to help? It is the outsider, a Samaritan. Remember that the Samaritans traced their ancestry back to Abraham, like the Jews, but they weren’t Jewish. They were a different people group with different religious beliefs. And much like we see today among many religions, the Jewish people didn’t trust the outsiders. They aren’t a part of “us”; they are “them.” This is why the story of the Good Samaritan would have been so powerful. Nobody believed a Samaritan could be good!
Jesus had other interactions with Samaritans. Most notable would be the story of the woman at the well. I think we can say that Jesus had an interreligious dialogue with the woman at the well about theology and ethics. And when the disciples walked in on this conversation, they were surprised that Jesus would be talking to a Samaritan, and a woman Samaritan at that!
A good take-home point from that interaction is that if you are confident in your faith and your system of beliefs, it shouldn’t intimidate you to talk to people outside of Christianity about faith.
There are so many stories of people doing absolutely terrible things to people of other religions, and often doing so in the name of Jesus. I understand that people are afraid. After September 11, 2001, fear became normal for many people who previously hadn’t felt afraid. But fear makes us do some absolutely un-Christ-like things. And sometimes, we Christians can learn a thing or two from other religions when it comes to living out our faith.
In February of 2015, a Houston, TX mosque was set on fire by a man who claimed it was an accident. The imam from the mosque took to social media, posting things like, “[We] hoped from the beginning that it was not a hate crime.” And, “We feel that this world has enough hate, and we have to have love and harmony and solidarity.”
A truck driver responded via social media, calling all Muslims “scum,” and writing that he hoped a mosque “burns for every American killed by these terrorists.”
Do you know how the imam responded? He invited the truck driver to stop by the mosque the next time he was driving through town and get to know the community. And the amazing thing is, the truck driver did just that! He spent five hours with the Islamic community that day. Here’s what he had to say afterward: “Everything that a lot of us are told as Christians, they do as far as treating everybody the same. Even after my comments that I made, they still treated me good. It’s just not what I was expecting.”
The imam continued to interact with people on Facebook. One man wrote on the mosque’s Facebook page after the fire, “I can donate some bacon sandwiches and a bible if you all want!”
The imam accepted the offer: “We would gladly take you donation. Knowledge is something we can never have enough of. And we may feed the homeless in our area with the sandwiches. You are such a thoughtful human being!”
You might say that the imam is trolling these people a bit. But what is he teaching? Being kind to people who seek to do you harm? Loving those who hate you? Seems like someone else we’ve studied here.
No matter what stream of Christianity you come from, these Christians acted inappropriately. If you lean toward Evangelical Christianity, everything you do and say is supposed to point others to Jesus and his self-sacrificial love on the cross. If you lean toward peace and justice Christianity, you should be building relationships, not tearing them apart. If you are a part of the holiness/pietistic tradition, your goal is to be set apart from the way of the world, transformed through your relationship with Jesus. And if you are a part of the Pentecostal tradition, you are to be a living embodiment of the Spirit of the living God.
All of that is to say that there is no place for hatred, there is no place for threats, there is no place for mocking, arson, or online trolling in Christianity.
We hear a lot about religious tolerance in our world today. Don’t get me wrong, I think that religious tolerance is a good thing. We should tolerate one another. This goes right along with the bumper sticker that calls us to coexist. But as Christians, we aren’t called to tolerate one another.
I wish I could claim this example as original to me, because it is just that good! Unfortunately, I need to give credit to Bruxy Cavey, a Brethren in Christ pastor in Canada. Bruxy reminds us that tolerance really isn’t a biblical concept, but love is. Tolerance doesn’t go far enough, the bar is set too low. I’ve been married to my wife now for almost 15 years. And some evenings, after the dishes have all been washed, and the children are all in bed, I will often turn to my wife, look her deep in the eyes, and say, “I tolerate you.”
I’m thankful for when the religions of the world tolerate one another. But we are followers of Jesus Christ who called us to love one another. And yes, the love between a husband and wife is different from the love between a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. But there are other aspects of this shared emotion that I think would be helpful.
For instance, how many of us who are married remember when you first started dating your spouse and everything was new and exciting? You spent time writing letters, talking on the phone, sending texts, or using AOL instant messenger (dating myself, I know). I’m sure many of you stayed up way too late just talking to one another, getting to know the other person. When you love someone, you want to know all about them.
That’s why we are doing this sermon series. We need to get to know the people who we are commanded to love. Not because all religions are the same, but because Jesus Christ is Lord!