All wars—indeed, all injustices—are based on a false premise: that is, “it’s us against them.” Let me be perfectly clear about this from the outset: there is no “them.” There is only “us.” When we look at the religions of the world from time immemorial, problems have arisen as soon as someone starts to believe that their God plays favorites. Even in ancient Mesopotamia, each clan or city had its own particular deities who were both their protectors and their promoters. Victory of one group over another was assumed to be a sign that the winner’s gods were more powerful than the other’s and therefore were the “right” gods, worth of honor and worship.
In our own religious bloodline, the Jewish people, our fathers in faith, were convinced that they were the chosen people of the One and Only God, Yahweh, and that they were the heirs of the promise of a lasting and special relationship with that God, not shared by outsiders, the “other nations,” the “goyim.” But what happens religiously as soon as that dichotomy is set up? A series of questions arise: Who are “we”? Who are “they”? What criteria for membership in the “we” do we use? Who gets to decide who measures up as one of the “we,” and who doesn’t? How does someone go about joining the “we”? How does someone get expelled? For the observant Jews of Jesus’s time, the criteria were laid out in the Law of Moses—the Torah—and the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees were the gatekeepers.
Those who are members of the “we” group are expected to adhere to a set of common understandings. So, to have contrary ideas threatens the unity and homogeneity of the group. When that happens, the authorities get involved. For them, disagreements are crimes, and they require punishment. That’s what happened to Jesus. He presented a new and—at that time—radical interpretation of their faith. With the permission of the Roman Authorities, they imposed capital punishment on that criminal and considered themselves rid of the problem. They never counted on the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. When the unorthodox group continued and prospered, even though they employed every power they had, arresting and imprisoning hundreds, they found themselves, as Nicodemus had once warned them, warring against the very Spirit of God himself.
The early Christians started off well. They saw themselves as what people today call “a big tent.” Wherever they went, both Jews and Greeks—the goyim—flocked to them. The concept of a people chosen by God had been broken open to include everybody. It wasn’t long before the question of “us versus them” arose. There were some who were not members of the Christian community yet were healing in the name of Jesus. Still others started to understand Jesus in terms of Greek philosophy and pagan religions. Some said Jesus was not human, but only a manifestation of the Father. Others taught that Jesus hadn’t really died on the cross, but only appeared to die. A large number denied the resurrection of the dead. This was so troubling that Saint Paul devoted an entire chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians [15:12-19] to this problem. “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…”
That started it. Who are the “real” Christians, and who gets to decide? We’ve been party to two millennia of these controversies. Each of these sects and denominations considers itself the “one true Church,” and all the others either heterodox or outright heretics. As always happens, over the centuries, religious authorities have used force to maintain orthodoxy: banishment, imprisonment, even torture and execution. Tragically, this well-entrenched us-against-them belief system has practically destroyed the Church it sought to preserve.
For Jesus, orthodoxy meant one thing. “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” He didn’t teach an orthodoxy of belief, but an orthodoxy of action…what we might call orthopraxy. Jesus called his commandment “new” and yet the concept of loving your neighbor as yourself is as old as any belief. What’s new about Jesus’s commandment is that it’s a love that extends to all without exception. There’s no litmus test of worthiness to receive Jesus’s love. No one can be excluded. For a true Christian—a true follower of Christ—there can be no “them.” “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” That’s the genuine test of orthodoxy. “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus never excommunicated anyone from his group of followers. He had no criteria for membership. Many found his teachings too hard, and left him, but never because he didn’t accept them. He was patient with them all and taught them all. His treatment of them was never punitive, no matter how much they disagreed with him, no matter what wrong they may have done. He may have rightly criticized the scribes and Pharisees, but he never sent them away.
To me, it’s an inescapable fact that whenever religious authorities step away from proclaiming and teaching the gospel, and start enforcing orthodoxy, they err. Contrary to Christ’s universal commandment of love, they pick and choose those they would withhold it from. Ironically, they do that in the name of love. They claim the spirit of discernment to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, and, in doing so, they challenge the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Love—who makes no such distinction. I understand that this is a radical worldview, but Jesus never claimed that his teachings were not radical.
When we talk about orthodoxy, we need to talk about meanings. Consider this: what I mean when I speak and what you mean when you listen can be two very different things. Your understanding arises from your learning and experiences, which are very different from my own, yet we’re stuck using the same language. We shouldn’t assume that the words we use mean the same to both of us. For example, I often listen to people who don’t believe in God, and even people who vehemently reject God. When they talk about their spiritual experiences, I hear hearts that have been bruised and broken by enforcers of orthodoxy. Yet their hearts still give and yearn for that love that Christ speaks of in today’s gospel.
We have all fallen short of showing others the love that the Father has shown us in Christ Jesus. We come together this morning to receive that love and to give it as Christ gave it to us. We come together not only to receive the Eucharist, but also to be eucharist to one another, giving of ourselves as Jesus gave to us: unconditionally, unreservedly, and without exception.