What comes into your mind when I say September 11 and religion? Most likely, you will probably think of the hatred displayed by Islamic fundamentalists.
What comes into your mind when I say Branch Dividian, Waco fire, and religion? Again, most likely you will think of religious fundamentalists.
What comes to your mind when I say the crusades and Spanish Inquisition? Once more, you will probably think religious fundamentalism.
Now, a curve ball. What comes to your mind when I say the Amish and religion? At this point, you probably are envisioning men and women wearing black and white sitting peacefully in a church with horses and buggies parked outside. Did religious fundamentalism pop into your head? Probably not. Why?
You see, I have a suspicion that in our media driven society, we are being socially conditioned to see religious fundamentalism as inherently violent and dangerous. While I cannot offer any hard, scientific proof: from the things I have read and from the feeling in my gut, I sense that anyone who has a hard, unchangeable belief is viewed with reservation if not out and out contempt.
"Don’t you know such hard, unchangeable beliefs lead to violence?" one might be asked.
And they would be correct in asking such a question. Most of the examples I listed at the beginning of this sermon are indeed examples of religious fundamentalism that led to violence. There is no doubt that some forms of religious fundamentalism lead to hatred, violence and a disdain for any other sort of belief or doctrine. Simply put, religion has been the cause of violence and warfare and still is in parts of this world. One cannot escape that fact.
But here is another question that I believe we must wrestle with: does religious fundamentalism necessarily lead to violence? Can one be a fundamentalist–can one hold unchanging beliefs strongly, passionately, unwaveringly, without hating someone who is different?
I believe these questions are important for Christians to answer in this day and age. For we live in a society that embraces diversity of thought and appearance. And because the society embraces diversity of thought and appearance, it is very leery of anyone or anything that proclaims to have the Truth. And that poses a problem for Christians.
St. Paul writes eloquently in our second lesson this morning, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’"
This begs the question: what about those who do not believe in Jesus in their heart and confess Jesus’ name with their lips? What happens to them? These particular questions arise quickly because of Jesus’ own proclamation about himself in John chapter 14 where He unabashedly says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Now, I also know very well that Jesus says the following words, "Do not judge because you will receive the same judgement that you give to others." I’ve said before that Jesus isn’t talking about whether or not we judge a particular action. We can call murder wrong and sinful. However, we must never say that a murderer will rot in hell. To judge a person’s eternal soul is not our job. Never has been. Never will be. That job is specifically for God Himself. So we must begin answering the question about those who do not believe by saying, "Well, we don’t know what will happen to them. That is up to God."
Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened historically. Remember the examples of religious fundamentalism I listed above? Because there has been this conditioning–this leading us to believe that those who claim to have the truth also embrace hatred and violence–if you begin to proclaim that Jesus is the exclusive way to God, then you are automatically assumed to hate anyone who doesn’t believe exactly as you do.
But it is an assumption. Let me say that once again. It is an assumption. It doesn’t necessarily follow. How can I say that.
Let’s go back to Paul for a second. Paul writes, "If you believe in your heart and confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, then you will be saved." This statement is true, but it is incomplete. For Christianity does not allow a person to stop there. Christianity does not allow a person to simply say, "I believe. I say Jesus is Lord. I’m done." No. Not by a long shot. You see, Christianity also says the belief leads to action. Again, belief in Jesus Christ, leads to direct action in our lives.
And what kind of action, you might ask. We believe that the Holy Spirit works in us and on us to transform us into the image and likeness of Jesus. This means that as we grow in faith, our words and our deeds mirror Jesus’ words and deeds. We strive to talk as Jesus talked and do what Jesus did. It is no small task–an impossible task in fact to achieve this side of heaven. Yet, it is important to recognize this because Jesus’ teachings and actions give us guidelines for how we are to interact with others. Which, simply put, if you really believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, how you live your life will reflect this.
And here’s the kicker:
Jesus didn’t say, "I am the way and the truth and the life, now, hate and destroy those who don’t believe in me."
Instead, Jesus said, "Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you."
Jesus didn’t say, "I am the way, and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me, so therefore, everyone else is going to hell and you can treat them like garbage."
Instead, Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."
Jesus didn’t say, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me, so therefore, if there is a fellow Christian who doesn’t share the exact same belief as you, cast them aside, do not talk with them until they believe exactly as you do."
Instead, Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
You see, fundamentalism isn’t a problem because people have too much faith. It’s a problem because they don’t have enough faith. It’s a problem because people stop at belief and do not follow through on transformation–of seeking to become like Christ. And when people actually put their exclusive faith into action, the world changes.
The Roman empire was a place very much like our current nation. They allowed religious freedom and tolerance–at least to an extent. They had a long list of acceptable, state-approved religions, and they were very tolerant of one another. But suddenly, an upstart religion came along that proclaimed to be exclusive. They proclaimed to know the truth. They proclaimed that Jesus was Lord.
This religion was persecuted within the Roman empire–unmercifully at times. They were not acceptable, and part of the reason was their intolerance of other beliefs. But things changed over time, and one of the greatest events that brought about change was the advent of a plague. As the plague spread into towns, people fled. People of all those acceptable faiths ran to save their lives. But who stayed? The intolerant, exclusive Christians. It was they alone who stayed to care for the sick and dying–risking their own lives to show compassion to others.
That’s fundamentalism at its best. If you believe in your heart that Jesus rose from the dead and confess with your mouth that He is Lord, you will be saved. But if you also live your life putting into practice what your Lord taught, then you are something more. Then, you are truly a disciple. Amen.