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Lombard CRC

Is Christianity too narrow?

You’ve seen the bumper stickers:

COEXIST, they say.

The implied judgment is that religions

are the reason or all the war and strife in the world

and that you all should just get along

because all religions point to God

and no one has a monopoly on the truth.

Even U2 made this a part of their tour

a few years ago singing:

 “JESUS, JEW, MOHAMMED, IT’S TRUE…

ALL SONS OF ABRAHAM…

FATHER ABRAHAM, LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE, YOU’VE PITTED YOUR SON AGAINST YOUR SON,

NO MORE, NO MORE, NO MORE…”

This sounds like a judgment

that your truth is as good as mine,

and that you can believe something contradictory

to what I believe

and if you don’t accept this then your

intolerant, narrow-minded and exclusive.

And that’s our question as we explore God this week:

Is Christianity too narrow?

 

I have a hard time with this question

because I think it’s more an accusation

than a question.

In the name of tolerance

Christianity is judged intolerant

and no one needs to tolerate that!

 

But it’s good to ask this question

because I and maybe you too

have to learn to get beyond our offense

to at least ask

what the questioner means by that question.

Perhaps there is some hurt behind the question.

Perhaps the one who asks

has been on the receiving end of merciless judgment.

 

Perhaps there is something else altogether,

like that’s the public perception of Christians,

or, the narrow way of Christ is an offense to me

because shouldn’t any of us be able

to do spirituality

any way we want?

 

Responding with our own struggles

regarding the narrow way of Christ

is a wise way to probe the objection more deeply.

We who believe in Jesus didn’t make this up.

We don’t say Jesus is the only way

to say we’re right,

we believe this because we take Jesus at his word.

 

Don’t you think I’d like to live being my own Lord? Deciding for my own what’s good and right for me? But Jesus won’t let me.

Believers have to struggle to accept

that Jesus is the only way to salvation

as much as anyone else.

 

We preach Christ crucified

because every person needs a Mediator;

we can’t get to God on our own.

 

Which is why we have the story of Nicodemus

here in John 3,

and by the way,

it’s this encounter with Jesus –

which will sound exclusive if we want it to -

that is the occasion for the most well known verse

in the Bible, John 3:16,

that offers the most inclusive gospel of salvation:

For God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

 We are introduced to Nicodemus

and told he is a spiritual man

and is deeply committed to his religion,

which happens to be Judaism.

He is a Pharisee,

which shows the highest level of devotion

to his religious practices.

He is also described as a member of

the Jewish ruling council,

so he is invested in practicing religion

as correctly as is humanly possible.

And later in the story we are told

he is Israel’s teacher,

so he is knowledgeable

about what he believes and practices,

and is also using that knowledge to train others.

 

Nicodemus has his faith.

He has his religion.

And he’s good at it: an expert, a mentor and teacher.

So shouldn’t Jesus just bless him on his way?

We expect to find a verse that reads something like: Nicodemus, all paths lead to God,

continue on your road.

But that’s not what happens

in this meeting with Jesus.

 

Let’s stop right there a second.

That’s a big part of this question.

You see, the Christian faith at its heart

is not a collection of human ideas

or notions or opinions.

The Christian faith is based on a revelation, encounters and experiences of the living God

with human beings throughout the ages.

The Christian faith is not merely

knowing and believing certain concepts about God,

it is a living faith relationship with Jesus

as Savior, Lord, a brother in suffering

and friend of sinners,

described as ‘union with Christ,’

belonging to him and

finding our identity in him.

 

In John 3, Nicodemus, the religious one,

the spiritually settled one,

has an encounter with Jesus.

And look, verse 2 says, he came to Jesus at night.

This is not about what time it is.

It is because of confusion and question in the soul.

This is because Nicodemus,

for all his own personal spiritual accomplishments,

sees something different, something more, something to consider, in Jesus:

vs 2 - “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

 

For all Nicodemus has accomplished

he still finds himself in the dark

when it comes to a living relationship with God.

The gospel of John refers to night

another time:

when Judas betrays Jesus.

In John 13 there we read ‘and it was night.’

It’s a description of your and my condition:

it’s night.

For all I’ve figured out it’s still

only and merely what I figured out,

and when I’m honest about it

there’s still so much more

that’s mystery so what am I missing?

Are you in the dark about something today?

Jesus is meeting you there.

 

Nicodemus wonders if he’s missing Jesus.

He says it this way in his incomplete understanding:

God is with him.

Nicodemus has the religion down,

the spiritual practices down,

but God isn’t with him,

at least the way he sees God with Jesus.

 

Jesus doesn’t affirm Nicodemus

in his religious practices.

He doesn’t say keep at it

and you’ll find your own way.

Instead vs 3 - Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

He says, Nicodemus, what you’re missing is me.

You can’t get to God on your own

no matter how good you are.

Only I can get you there

to your heart’s desire.

 

So here’s the thing:

The reason the Christian faith looks

narrow and exclusive

is because of who Jesus is,

what he has accomplished,

and his living word.

Christians know this goes against

the cultural grain of the day.

It goes against our own fleshly desires.

We live in a day of expressive individualism:

You be you.

Be true to yourself.

Follow your heart.

Find yourself.

Our assumption is that each one of us

has our own way of realizing our humanity,

and that it is important to find one’s own way.

 

So like the video we saw with Larry King,

it’s offensive for you to say there’s only one way.

And Christians feel pressured

to give in like that Bishop did

in the interview with Larry King.

Here’s the battle today:

Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church:

The highest good is individual freedom,

happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.

The primary social ethic is tolerance

of everyone’s self-defined quest

for individual freedom and self-expression.

Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance

is dangerous and must not be tolerated.

 

But all this just keeps us in the dark.

Even Ayn Rand saw this generations ago.

I don’t like what she stands for

or how her philosophy is used today

to protect the rich at the expense of the poor,

but she describes our individualism today:

We live by multicultural “tolerance”,

on the one hand,

and “zero tolerance,” on the other.

Multicultural tolerance is about

the destruction of values

reducing them to personal preferences

and coping mechanisms – you do you and I’ll do me. While “zero tolerance” is about forcing people, especially children, to conform to this madness,

turning truth into mere preference.

 

So one way we can respond to this question is to ask,

do you think things like justice,

like forgiveness,

like having a living relationship with God

who is above us and holy,

is up to my preference,

the same thing as deciding if I like

chocolate or vanilla,

pepperoni or sausage,

Coke or Pepsi.

If you would like me to really consider your question

would you consider that certain truths

mean that some other things are not true?

 

Jesus challenges the belief that it’s up to us

which way we choose to make our way to God,

because he knows Nicodemus

is lost without Christ’s saving grace.

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Listen to the passion of Jesus for you,

for your salvation.

Why is Jesus so insistent?

Because he loves you enough to rescue you,

from evil,

even from the evil inside you.

The Kingdom of God is God’s reign

which brings everlasting shalom:

a universal thriving and flourishing,

an atonement for sin

and cleansing from guilt with absolution of shame,

a true and lasting justice

based on mercy and lovingkindness.

And Jesus says plainly,

we won’t see it,

won’t experience it,

won’t have it,

unless we come into a living relationship with Jesus.

Nothing else, no religion, no philosophy,

no human practice gets us there.

 

Exclusive, narrow-minded, intolerant,

all the things people accuse Christians of today,

but it’s what Jesus said, not what anyone made up.

So can we say to our accusers,

you can only ask this

if you haven’t really dealt with Jesus?

CS Lewis said these intriguing words:
I could not believe Christianity

if I were forced to say

that there were a thousand religions in the world

of which 999 were pure nonsense

and the thousandth (fortunately) true.

My conversion, helped me recognize

Christianity as the completion, the actualization . . .

of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man.

Lewis won’t let this question trap us

so that Jesus can be easily dismissed

by 21st century sensibilities.

Lewis is not arguing that to say

Christianity is 100% correct,

is to say all other religions are 100% false.

You can’t win that argument

because at that point it’s political, not personal.

Christians can see their beliefs as the completion,

the actualization, the fulfillment

of something that humans have been partially

and continue to partially experience.

So I think Lewis is a great guide here.

No, not all roads lead to God.

But every experience is an invitation at least,

and a revelation more truly,

encountering the living God in Jesus Christ.

And life has not been fully engaged until we do encounter the living God in Christ.

 

That’s what Jesus reveals to Nicodemus here.

It shocks Nicodemus

because he’s just doing what he’s been taught,

why should he need anything else,

let alone Jesus?

But Jesus is just responding to Nicodemus’ wonder.

OK, there is a reason you see something in me.

There’s a deeper need in you

that only Jesus can satisfy.

 

When Nicodemus asks about

having to be born naturally a second time

he is putting on his teacher hat

and falling back on his Jewish training.

He was really saying, tell me more,

I know you don’t mean

I have to be born a second time,

so what do you mean?

Vs 5-7 - Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’

 

In other words,

this is NOT something any human being

can realize on their own.

Salvation is a gracious gift of God,

not a human achievement.

We won’t get to God on our own.

We may think we do,

but what we do get to while it may be pleasant

or confirming or prideful,

isn’t God.

It’s the Holy Spirit of God that leads you to Jesus.

 

The rest of the story

leads up to the John 3:16 moment:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

But don’t forget verse 17:

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

 

It turns out that the gospel of Jesus

is not exclusive at all.

Listen to the words again:

world,

whoever,

not to condemn

but to save the world . . .

 

And that’s the next point:

Christianity only sounds exclusive

because we want to have the ultimate say

in our own lives about everything.

We are offended by Jesus because

he declares we need his help or we’ll perish.

Could it be when we judge Christianity too narrow

we’re really saying more about ourselves than about the Christian faith?

 

So maybe the best thing we can do

when this question is asked is to absorb it

until we can help our friend ask

why do you think that?

If you’re really asking

it is because the Holy Spirit is compelling you

to finally deal with the real Jesus.

Could it be that your real issue is with Jesus?

 

Because there is nothing exclusive about grace.

There is no human exclusion to the grace of God.

Here Jesus reveals salvation to Nicodemus.

In the next chapter Jesus will be present

to an unnamed Samaritan woman.

The contrasts between the two couldn’t be greater.

Nicodemus is a man; the Samaritan is a woman.

Nicodemus is a respected leader;

the Samaritan woman is an outcast.

We know Nicodemus by name;

the Samaritan woman is not named.

Nicodemus is Jewish; the woman is a Samaritan.

Yet each encounters the living Lord Jesus.

Each is told salvation comes through Jesus to them

by grace alone.

Jesus is God-with-each-of-them,

loving each with a holy, everlasting love.

 

So here’s the thing:

to insist on doing life without Jesus

is to be a different sort of narrow-minded person.

It is excluding God’s love from your life.

18 - Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

 

17th century John Flavel said it this way,

"If the greatest love hath been manifested

in giving Christ to the world,

then it follows that the greatest evil and wickedness is the gospel of love manifested in despising, slighting, and rejecting Christ.'

There can be no greater condemnation

than to disregard the amazing love of God

in giving His only Son to suffer in our place.

What does God ask and expect of us?

God demands what love always desires:

to be received.

Imagine, the Holy God,

the Creator who gave you life,

who gave His Son to redeem you in love,

and you say,

Nah, I’m good.

I don’t need it.

It’s of no value to me.

Do you see what you’re really saying to God

when you devalue the unique love of Jesus?

 

Why are Christians so narrow and exclusive?

We are searching to know and live by the truth,

we profess that truth is found in Jesus

and we profess his grace and Spirit

are performing a long and lifetime transformation

in us.

But we are not there yet,

our failure is not hypocrisy,

it is cause for repentance.

Why only Jesus?

Because he said so,

and we trust and love him,

so this is our gospel.

 

Lastly, we can ask the one who objects

do you think I'm narrow-minded and intolerant?

of you?

How am I like that?

Make it personal.

Do my beliefs make me narrow minded,

intolerant and exclusive?

How?

Then confess where we must,

but also point out where this is a caricature

and while there are bad examples,

that is not what we strive for.

 

Just as Jesus took time for Nicodemus,

just as Jesus was present for him,

so he is for you and me,

and we are in his name.

He came not to condemn but to save.

For Nicodemus.

For you too.

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