There is a story about a minister trying to get serious and speak about
the imminence of death and its power over us. His opening sentence was that
in 100 years, every member of this church would be dead. And with that, a
man in the fourth row began to laugh.
Now there is nothing in the world more upsetting and disconcerting to a
preacher than to have someone miss the mood and intent. So he thought the
brother had misheard him and he said again, I’m here to say that
within the next 100 years, every member of this church will be dead.
At that, the man laughed again. The minister began to get a little angry
and was losing his fervor. So he turns to the laughing man and says, you
think that’s funny? Yes, I do. Why do you think it’s funny?
Because I’m not a member of this church!
The church I long to be a part of is one with a radically inclusive
spirit. During most of my priesthood of nearly a half century I have tried
to have an inclusive spirit at the heart of my work—and I’m
I’m so grateful that your new dean has asked me to preach today.
Sam Lloyd is a dear friend, whose ministry I respect immensely. Sam will
bring strong, creative leadership at such a critical time; our nation faces
serious challenges to the core principles of our constitution, and the
Episcopal Church also faces serious global challenges to its proclamation of
full justice in the church of our gay brothers and sisters. Washington, D.C.
is very fortunate to have Sam Lloyd. This pulpit has been the place from
which some of America’s most searching and challenging proclamations
have been made. I’m honored to be your preacher today.
Carl Sandburg was asked just before he died what he thought was the worst
word, the most despicable word, in the English language. Without hesitation,
he replied: exclusivism.
Exclusivism. It means to exclude, to shut out, to keep out, to dispose,
to resist admission to the outsider.
Exclusivism is a terrible word because it is a terrible reality. Everyone
has experienced it at some point and at some level in our life—some
at minor places; others have been traumatized by vicious exclusions.
My hope this morning as your preacher is to bring us all into a closer
identity with the inclusive spirit of Jesus.
Christianity is often presented in the most exclusionary ways. In
today’s Gospel, John puts words on Jesus’ lips that have led
Christians through the centuries to claim an exclusive way to salvation.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father
except through me.” That is one of the most difficult verses in the
Bible to interpret adequately. Those who claim that Christianity is the
exclusive way to a saving faith cling tenaciously to this verse.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes
to the Father (to God) except through me.” If my reflections on this
verse are to have integrity, I must speak as though my close rabbi friends
and my Muslim colleagues are sitting right there in a pew in front of me.
Those good people in whom I’ve seen the glory of God.
I can no longer think about Jesus as the only way to God and to a saving
faith. How one comes into a relationship with God has taken on a meaning
that it did not have in my younger years.
“I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to God
except through me.” The first thing I want you to explore with me is
this: I simply refuse to hold the doctrine that there is no access to God
except through Jesus.
I personally reject the claim that Christianity has the truth and all
other religions are in error. Unfortunately, this is the position of the new
Pope, Benedict XVI, who says salvation is only possible through Jesus
Christ. I think it is a mistaken view to say Christianity is superior to
Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism and that Christ is the only way to
God and salvation.
Although the majority of American Christians probably believe that
salvation is possible only through faith in Jesus Christ, I find this to be
a profound distortion of what Jesus was about in his ministry.
My reading of the Bible points me to a God whose love is inclusive and
universal. This thought is very significant because it was this proclamation
of universal love that got Jesus into trouble. The flags of exclusivism were
flying all around Jesus, and he steadfastly resisted each one of these
seductive invitations to belong to us only and exclude the rest. Jesus loved
them all. He put his arms around everybody—and they killed him.
The Religious Right has drowned out everyone else with their absolutist
claims. They have the truth and the rest of us are living under false
claims. Now faith in Jesus has come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and
pro-American. Bill Moyers says these Religious Right advocates have hijacked
Jesus. The very Jesus who offered kindness and mercy to the prostitute and
hospitality and love to the outcast. This Jesus has been hijacked and turned
into the guardian of privilege instead of the champion of the
I’ve given my life to a different Jesus. The love I see at work in
Jesus is inclusive, a love that reaches out to everyone. Nobody is outside
the pale. And yet in the name of this loving Christ, some of the most
vicious acts of exclusion are perpetrated. Christianity is not the only
guilty party. So much tragedy throughout history and into this present hour
has come out of those religions that find their core message in
Is the Spirit of God calling this great Cathedral in all its work and
ministry, to set its face against the tide of this disease of exclusivism? I
hope and pray you will engage this critical issue.
Not only is this exclusive claim that Christ is the only way to God and a
saving faith a distortion of the total biblical message, it is the source of
the most deadly conflicts over the centuries down to this present hour. The
terrible effects of the Christian exclusionary claims to salvation have not
been confined to the horrendous persecution of Jews. We have mounted deadly
crusades against Muslims, and Christians have killed other Christians in the
brutal wars of religion—all in the name of bringing others to the
correct understanding of how God is uniquely known in Jesus Christ. The
arrogance of conviction. God be merciful.
Today, I proclaim to you that until this murderous and arrogant history
is faced with a genuine spirit of repentance; until we Christians confess
that our exclusionary theology has led Christian groups, Christian leaders
and churches as a whole to unspeakable sins against other Christians, other
religions and against God—until we face squarely and honestly this
truth about Christianity, there can be no possibility for the Christian
Church to be an unequivocal force for peace and justice in this radically
I love that seventeenth century anonymous saying: “I would rather
see coming at me a whole battalion with drawn swords than one lone Calvinist
convinced that he is doing the will of God!”
“I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the
Father except through me.” In the second part of this sermon, we move
to a different level.
If Jesus is to be real to me, I must move beyond the constrictions of an
exclusive interpretation to the liberation of pluralism.
You start toward the pluralist position the moment you imagine that the
one you call God is greater than your understanding of God. The pluralist
position begins the moment you suspect that the God you have come to know in
Jesus listens to the earnest prayers of people whose God we do not even
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” we sing in
that great old hymn. It’s the wideness of mercy in the divine that
provides the theological imperative for pluralism.
We Christians do not bring God to these non-Christian faiths. God is
already there actively at work. In the presence of some Muslims and Jews
I’ve come to know and respect, I sometimes think I hear those words
God spoke to Moses by the burning bush addressed to me: “George,
George, take off your shoes—for the place where you are standing is
Yes, I know—this is a radical change for Christians. No tradition
can claim the truth as a private property. Pluralism is not just diversity.
It is open engagement and participation in dialogue with those who are
different and remain different. And in the engagement we catch a glimpse of
the glory others see in the sacred.
I am drawn to this pluralist position because I think that it is only in
this deep respect for the traditions of others that we can survive the
conflicts of the twenty-first century.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “We have inherited a
large house, a great world house, in which we must live together.” The
differences are vast and we must learn somehow to live together in
You and I know there are great conflicts and arguments in the great world
house with many religious traditions, but its foundation is an everlasting
love and its language is the two-way language of dialogue and respect.
I have more to say, so stay with me. There is a third part to this
sermon, and it is so important and essential: Once all this is said, I am
still passionately committed to Christ. The God I see revealed in Jesus of
Nazareth is still decisive and central to my faith.
Seeing the authenticity and wonder of other religions has not compromised
my firm faith in Christ. The very opposite is true. God, for me, is still
best defined by Christ even if God is not confined to Christ.
I must live in this great world house we have all inherited, but this
does not mean giving up my own deep, sure foundations.
I don’t believe Jesus is the only truth about God so that we
consign other forms of faith to the dungeons of error and heresy, but I do
believe Jesus is a window through which I can look out upon God, upon the
nature of the creation and upon the reality of human existence.
Yes, it is true that Jesus was a visionary and dreamer. But above all,
Jesus was a great realist who saw into the heart of truth. Jesus came and
lived among us to show us how life is to be lived. In this war shattered
world, we ignore this to our peril. “I am the way and the truth and
the life!” There is a throbbing urgency in those words for me.
When Jesus finished his famous sermon on the mount about a gentle spirit,
the pure in heart, those who thirst for justice, the peacemakers—that
sermon about loving your enemies and praying for those who abuse
you—he drives home the seriousness of these teachings.
Jesus says, if you listen to these words of mine and live by them, you
are like the one who built a house which no storm could shake however
fiercely the winds beat against it—for it was built on a rock.
That regal claim still grasps my heart. I believe it with my whole being
and how I wish I could preach it in such a way that its truth could grasp
your hearts and minds. An actor once describing the difference between
actors and preachers said: “We actors talk about imaginary things as
though they were real. You preachers talk about real things as though they
God forgive us if we do, for those qualities of spirit, that truth about
life, the fullness of God and the oneness of the human family which Jesus
enfleshed and pleaded for are the real things on which much of the hopes of
the world depend.
I live gladly in this great world house arm in arm with my sisters and
brothers of other faiths and traditions. But I don’t give up my
deepest commitment to Christ.
When I say Jesus is the way for me, even when I say Jesus is the only one
for me—that is not a dogmatic statement, as much as it is a love
I don’t speak of Christ in exclusive terms but I speak of my
commitment to Christ as exclusive. I see God in my Muslim, Jewish, and
Buddhist friends and the power of their faith—but I’m
committed to Jesus. Christ is the only one for me. That is love language not
doctrine. When I say to Mary Regas, my love, that she is the only one in the
world for me—it doesn’t mean I have systematically surveyed
every woman on the planet and chosen Mary. It means simply and powerfully, I
Other religions make similar claims because no religion has a monopoly on
spiritual truth. It is precisely by going deep into our personal truth that
we learn from others. This is the authentic ground of interreligious
Faith in this great world house requires these cherished, deep
commitments. At the deepest level, it is about love and it means, dear
Christ, I give you my heart.
I invite you into this love affair with the one we call the Prince of
Peace. Will you come?