“It is a picture of Jesus. It’s in an old-fashioned style, with Jesus in long flowing garments. Jesus is shown seated on a rock, slightly above the followers gathered around listening to his teaching. The scene is beautifully lit. Jesus holds his hand aloft. And he says, “Okay, everybody, listen carefully. I don’t want to end up with four different versions of this.” That’s another one of the pictures my clergy friends pass around on facebook. I laughed when I saw it, mostly because my reaction is the exact opposite.
I love the fact that we have four different versions of the teachings of Jesus and the life of Jesus. One of my favorite things about Christianity is that the Bible itself doesn’t restrict us to only one interpretation of who Jesus is. The Bible itself gives us four different gospels, four different versions of The Truth. I am grateful that we have the fast-paced energy and directness of Mark, and the grandeur of John, the orderly teachings of Matthew, the beautiful poetry and songs of Luke.
All of that is in addition to the rowdy collection of voices at the party throughout the Old Testament. We hear the wild visions of the mystics, the indignation of the prophets, the exaltation of the triumphant, the lamentations of the oppressed. Even within the psalms we hear the voices that shout in fury at God, and the ones that are as quiet as a child at its mother’s breast, we hear the pumping aggression and the breathless awe. And we hear the stories. Sometimes even in the same book of the Bible they tumble over each other like long-married spouses who interrupt each other at dinner parties to tell the same story differently. The party goes on, spanning the centuries, as each of the biblical writers tells their own version of the story of God’s interaction with humanity. The Bible itself doesn’t take the easy way out by giving only one version of the story; it includes the multiple voices. In the beginning, there are two creation stories that are both kept in Genesis, one story in the first chapter, and the second story in the second chapter, and the multiple voices just keep going from the beginning on.
There have been times when these multiple versions felt disconcerting to me. If I was going to base my life on this book, shouldn’t the Word of God be able to get its story straight? Is that too much to ask?
But I had a spiritual director named Marilyn who told me something that has stayed with me for many years. She said, “The opposite of a small truth is a lie. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth.”
So we read in Matthew 25 that on judgment day Jesus will separate us like separating the sheep from the goats to determine who enters the kingdom of heaven and who enters the eternal fire with the devil, and that God will separate us based on what? How we care for the poor. Remember that passage? Jesus welcomes them into heaven and says,
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”
What is striking about this passage is that these folks are just caring for the poor because they’re caring for the poor, they are totally surprised at the idea that they’re doing it for Jesus. In this passage, when Jesus determines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, he shows no interest in examining what people’s religious beliefs are; in this passage, when Jesus determines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, Jesus is examining whether people care for the poor in society.
Today, we turn to the gospel of John, which contains the best-known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In this passage, Jesus does not talk about caring for the poor, Jesus says everyone who believes in the Son of God will have eternal life.
A topic that has come up in Heathsville recently is the question, “Does being a real Christian mean you have to believe that all non-Christians are going to hell?” There are some people who say yes, there is only one interpretation of the teachings of Jesus, and John 3:16 is quite often the verse they quote. Still, passage about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 reminds us that the Bible itself gives more than one interpretation of the teachings of Jesus, and the Bible itself gives more than one interpretation of what Jesus says about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
I am deeply grateful we have both of them in the scriptures. I’ve heard people say that all religions are equally valid pathways to God. I’m sure those folks are well-intentioned, and on the surface that idea seems very pleasant. But as soon as you look below the surface, things change. All religions? Let’s be honest: you don’t have to look very far to see that there are a lot of nutcases in the world, and there are some religions out there that are also really nuts. Some of them are creepy or horrifying, really. The all-religions-are-equally-valid-pathways-to-God idea doesn’t actually hold up too well under close examination.
I think Christianity is the fullest and best expression of who God is and how God relates to us. If I thought there were a better expression of who God is and how God relates to us, I would hang up my clerical collar and go follow that instead. In Christianity, God shows his love for us in the life and teachings of Jesus, which shows us what God’s love looks like in real life, in the crucifixion, which shows the lengths to which God will go to express that love, and in the resurrection, which shows that God’s love can overcome even death.
At the same time, I have seen in members of other religions a relationship with God that is deep and rich and faithful and holy. I believe God sees the faithfulness in their souls too, and I believe God welcomes it. Jesus spent a lot of his ministry telling religious leaders not to condemn others. I do not think that Jesus requires me to say that other people are going to hell in order to be a Christian myself. I do not think that Jesus requires you to say that other people are going to hell in order to be a Christian yourself.
There is a story of a kindergartener who takes out crayons and begins to draw a picture. His teacher asks, “What are you drawing a picture of?” And the child says, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” His teacher says, “You can’t draw a picture of God. Nobody knows what God looks like.” The kindergartener just keeps drawing, and says, “Well, they will when I’m done.” I love that story. Because the teacher is right. We can’t take the full glory of God, the full splendor of the Almighty, the full transcendence of the divine, and capture it on a piece of paper. None of us really know what God looks like. But one of the things Jesus does in his teachings is to draw us pictures of God. God looks like a shepherd who has 100 sheep and one of them goes astray. God looks like a father who has two sons. God looks like a vine and you are the branches. God looks like a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Jesus draws us lots of pictures of God; they’re all different and they’re all true. Jesus tells us lots of stories of who God is and how God relates to us. They’re different stories and they’re all true.
And I also love that story because I love that kindergartener. What he has are some crayons and his own small fingers, but there is something in him that has had a glimpse of the beauty of God, and there is something in him that wants to draw it. People sometimes ask me how I got into the ministry, and part of the answer might be that I became a preacher because I wanted to spend my life drawing pictures of God.
In many ways, it is an impossible task, of course. So I am grateful that there are other kindergarteners out there, with their own small fingers and their own crayons, drawing pictures of God. There will be different pictures of God, different versions of the story. Will people know what God looks like when we are done? In some ways, I hope.
And when we come to the end of our lives and we show Jesus the pictures we have drawn of him, I think he will welcome them. I think Jesus will put our pictures up on the heavenly refrigerator. Not because they are a perfect representation, but because Jesus loves us.
Because in the end, the good news of the gospel is not about us. The good news of the gospel is not about our faithfulness, it’s about God’s faithfulness. The good news of the gospel is the story of God’s mercy. The good news of the gospel is a picture of Jesus. The good news of the gospel is a picture of God’s love.”