"People of Faith Must Lead"
Scripture - Romans 15:4-13
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, October 5, 2014

Today, millions of Christians around the globe affirm our unity in Christ. Try to imagine the magnificent throng of people from different denominations, cultures, and races. Picture people young and old, wealthy and impoverished, speaking French, Spanish, Arabic and Korean and a hundred more different languages. In your mind's eye, see them worshiping in stain-glassed cathedrals, in humble cinder block buildings, and in God's natural environment with the sky as their canopy. Picture all of them declaring our common bond in Christ by celebrating the Lord's Supper this very day. It is a beautiful image.

Yet, the scene is incomplete, because there are millions of Christians who will not be affirming our unity in Christ because they belong to churches that do not hang a welcome sign on the communion table, but instead a sign that reads, "Our kind only."

Fifteen years ago when I was serving a church in Virginia, I was invited to preach at the memorial service for a 45 year old woman who had been a member of my congregation for most of her life. In her thirties, she had lapsed into infrequent attendance, but a diagnosis of cancer at age forty drove her back to church.

Her husband was a Roman Catholic who had not been active for years. She tried to coax him into coming to worship with her, but he held back. As her health declined, she struck a deal. She would become a Catholic if they could worship together.

He agreed and for the final three years of her life, they attended worship services as a couple. When she lost her battle with cancer, her service was held in a Catholic Church, but since the priest barely knew her, he invited me to preach while he would lead the liturgy.

Following my sermon the priest went to the table and officiated the Lord's Supper and announced that the sacrament was restricted to Roman Catholics. Since a good number of Presbyterians were attending, that meant a significant number of us were excluded.

I remember having two strong feelings - one charitable and one not so. I felt sadness. How sad that we were all united in our love for Diane, united in our grief over our loss and united in our support for her family, but we were divided by the Lord's Supper.

My not so charitable feeling was that I hoped the priest was embarrassed by excluding such a large number of worshipers.

I understand that not all Christians have the same beliefs about the Lord's Supper. Some believe in transubstantiation, some in consubstantiation, some believe the elements are symbols. But when our differing beliefs are used to say some are worthy and some are not, we are surely out of step with Jesus.

The Pharisees criticized Jesus for dining with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees drew stark lines between us and them and they would only sit at the table with those deemed righteous. Jesus drove them crazy because he refused to exclude.

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a man who throws a great dinner, but those he invited make excuses and decline the invitation. Instead of canceling the dinner, the man tells his servants to go into the streets and invite others including those who do not usually make anyone's guest list. After rounding up a good number of people, the room is still not filled, so the man tells his servants, "You can do better than this. Bring in more!"

In Matthew's Gospel, the host even says, "Bring in the good and the bad."

In other words, everyone is welcome. The usual boundaries that separate people - wealth, race or belief; gender, sexual orientation or language - are tossed aside because Jesus does not want anyone to miss the feast.

Are we not far past the time when we should be concocting reasons to keep people away from the table? Why should the table not be open to everyone?

This morning's passage from Paul's Letter to the Romans may possess the wisdom we need. Paul is writing to followers of Jesus in Rome who belong to house churches. What is unique about these communities of faith is that they are comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul devotes a crucial section of this letter to explain that God has not rejected Jews for failing to accept Jesus as the Messiah. God made a covenant with the Jews and God does not break promises. Jesus opened the door to non-Jews so that everyone could be a part of the household of God.

In today's passage, near the end of his letter, Paul says that God wants Jews and Gentiles to separate from one another. Wait a minute; that's not what he says. He says, "May God grant you to live in harmony with one another." He declares, "Exclude one another!" No, that's not what he says. He says, "Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you."

Like all tribes in the ancient world, the Hebrew people initially believed that their God was one god among many. The Egyptians had their gods, the Canaanites had their gods, the Babylonians had their gods...everyone had their own distinct deities. But over time, the Hebrew people's understanding evolved. They eventually came to realize that there is only one God who is the Creator of all that is.

The early leaders of the Christian Church, especially Paul, declared that anyone, not only Jews but also Gentiles, could be a part of this emerging religion. And Christianity began to spread around the globe.

Tragically, the human tendency to separate and divide reared its head again. The claim that we are right and those who do not see things our way are wrong, took root. Theological disagreements sprang up within Christianity causing splits among Christians, and stark intractable boundaries solidified between Christianity and other religions. And the divisions between religions have led to persecution, bloody battles and endless conflicts that continue to this day.

This mindset of superiority and exclusion - we are right and you are wrong; we are in and you are out; we are worthy and you are wicked - provides the perfect cover for extremists to commit the most heinous crimes. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, until a year ago the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Great Britain, wrote, "Nothing has proved harder in the history of civilization than to see God in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different color, whose faith is not my faith, whose truth is not my truth." And he goes on to say, "God is my God, but also the God of all humankind."

There is no indication that Jesus had any knowledge of either Buddhism or Hinduism, and Islam would not come into existence for another 600 years. Jesus certainly knew about Roman mythology - since he lived under Roman occupation - and some pagan religions, but because he never spoke directly about world religions, it is impossible to declare that he rejected all of them.

Does it even make sense that the Creator of all that is - the One whom Jesus said is like a loving parent - would concoct a plan of salvation that excludes the majority of people? If God is truly just and loving, then I have to believe that there is more than one path to God. Many claim superiority of their own religion by pointing out the falsehoods they uncover in other religions. Would it not be better for the whole human race if we spent our energy affirming what is true in one another's religions?

For me, Jesus provides the best path to God, but I respect others who walk different paths that value love and treating others in the same manner they want to be treated. Surely the wars being fought by Islamic extremists, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict cry out for deeper understanding and mutual respect among people of different faiths. The "We're right, you're wrong" mentality threatens the future of civilization.

Some think that religions have always been rivals, but did you know that from the seventh to the twelfth century "a thriving interfaith civilization flourished in medieval Spain? Christianity, Islam and Judaism not only tolerated but actively engaged one another. They drew on one another's artistic and spiritual resources while maintaining the integrity of their own traditions."1 Five centuries! Why can't we manage to live in peace for even one?

While some instigate trouble between different religions, most people in North America and Europe respect people of different faiths. And there are numerous interfaith dialogue groups and interfaith worship services in which people of different religious traditions point to the values they share in common.

For the past few months, the brutal actions of the terrorists who call themselves the Islamic State or ISIS or ISIL, have dominated the headlines. Many have failed to discern that this is a minority, extremist group that distorts the teachings of Islam. While most people in the U.S. are familiar with the atrocities committed by ISIS, few seem to be aware of the opposition voices in Islam who have condemned their actions. Over 120 leading Islamic clerics and scholars signed an extensive letter to the leader of ISIS and its fighters pointing out the ways they have acted against Mohammad and the Koran. Among other things, they wrote: "It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent. It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat - in any way - Christians or any €˜People of the Book'. It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert."

The letter helped to expose the fact that those in ISIS are NOT people of faith. They are terrorists who are using religion to condone their naked grab for power and to justify their desire to control people and to silence opposition.

An amazing thing happened this summer as ISIS was terrorizing the people of Iraq. Large numbers of Muslims in Iraq stood in solidarity with Iraqi Christians who were being persecuted.

In Arabic, the letter N stands for Christian and Islamist militants began marking the homes of Christians in red paint with the letter "N." Suddenly, social media lit up with a campaign called "#WeAreN."

In other words, "We are Christian." Muslims across Iraq joined together in protest, prayer and viral photographs saying, "We are Iraqi. We are Christians." These Muslims were not converting to Christianity, they were courageously taunting the Islamic State while saying to their suffering Christian neighbors, "Doctrine aside, we see your humanity, deplore your persecution and we stand with you."2

If people of faith will respect each other and stand up for each other, we just might make some headway in overcoming the darkness that engulfs too much of our planet. People of faith must lead the path to peace. We cannot shirk this one. This is our calling.


  1. Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. 14.
  2. Jeremy Courtney, "Behind #WeAreN: If One Group is Marked, We're All Marked," Preemptive Love Coalition, July 31, 2014.