Today's first reading, the account of the stoning of the deacon Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles, is the story of the first Christian martyr. Stephen was the first but by no means the last Christian martyr. In just the 20th c. the number of Christian martyrs easily numbers 50 million, if not more.
The thing that makes this story problematic is that Stephen is put to death by Jews. Really, I should say that Stephen is put to death by his FELLOW Jews, because in Stephen's time, there was not a clear and distinct difference between Jews and Christians. In Acts 11.26 we read that "in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians." In other words, the followers of Jesus only began to be called "Christians" in the period covered by the book of Acts.
We also know that Paul went first to the synagogues scattered around the eastern end of the Mediterranean because he understood the Christian message to be good news for Jews. For most of the first c. the difference was not between Jews and Christians but between one group of Jews and another group of Jews. But toward the end of the 1rst c, when non Jews began to outnumber Jews in the Christian communities, then Christianity was understood to be a new and different religion, rather than a sect of Judaism.
I'm sorry to say this, but within 300 years, Christians started to persecute Jews and continued to do so for most of the next 2000 years. That is a history with which we have only begun to reckon and we have a long, long way to go.
Regardless, my point is that the stoning of Stephen was motivated by religious differences.
The so-called "cultured despisers of religion" are likely to snort and mutter "how typical!" under their breath. There are many who blame most of the world's ills on religion. They point to conflicts between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East; between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; and between Hindus and Muslims in India; and between Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world.
There is something to be said for the idea that religious differences can foster hostility and even violence.
Following the Protestant Reformation Europe was rocked by a series of wars - the so-called "Wars of Religion" - that lasted a century and killed hundreds of thousands and caused untold misery and suffering.
However, it seems likely that religion is less a cause of violence and more of an excuse. The Islamic extremists who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Perl were not nice people who would have been his best friends had it not been for their religious convictions. They were killers. Period. Full stop. Killers don't need a reason to kill; they just kill.
But I think there is far more to be said for the explicitly anti-religious states of the 20th c as agents of death. By conservative estimates the Soviets, Nazis, communist Chinese, Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia, and others killed between 50 and 100 million.
Nevertheless, we are Christians, and we must take responsibility for those who kill others under the sign of the cross.
What is the answer? What can we do to end religiously motivated war and murder?
Before I answer that question, I want you to consider Jesus' answer to Thomas's question in today's gospel reading. Thomas asks Jesus, "How can we know the way [to the Father]?" And Jesus answers, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
That presents us with a real problem. Even if religion is not primarily a force for violence and unrest, there is no doubt that sometimes religious differences cause or at least are used to motivate terrible conflicts and even terrible crimes.
Just this week the people of India elected a new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who some hold responsible for the deaths of 2000 Muslims in religiously motivated violence.
What do we do with Jesus' statement, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." It appears that Jesus is saying that there is a non-negotiable difference between Christianity and all other faiths, that Christianity is the one true faith, that without adhering to the Christian faith there is no hope of finding God, no hope of finding the eternal life that God promises.
Furthermore, here at Christ Church we have committed ourselves to evangelism, to making every effort to reach out to and bring in people in this community who are without faith, who are looking for hope, for answers to life's problems. We say that we have good news for the despairing and joyless. And I want you to know that I believe that and believe that we are right to do that. I believe that we do have good news to offer the world.
At the priests' conference this weekend Bishop Edwards had a team of consultants lead the priests of the diocese in a workshop on evangelism, including how to use social media to promote the Christian message. I believe this is something that the Episcopal Church has desperately needed to do for a long time.
But how can we promote the idea that Christianity is unique and special, that we have a message of eternal significance, and at the same time reject the kind of violence that resulted in the deaths of Stephen and the millions and millions of other throughout history who have been killed in the name of religion?
This is no simple question.
One solution to this is the solution of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson rejected all the supernatural elements of Christianity. Indeed, I would say that he rejected everything that makes Christianity unique. Jefferson took the New Testament in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other and cut out all the miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus, and all references to the Trinity. Jefferson gave us an emasculated gospel, a gospel of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," a religion without all the hard bits.
But I don't believe we can have a religion without the hard bits.
As most of you know one of my dearest friends in the world is Rabbi Jonathan Miller, the spiritual leader of Alabama's largest synagogue. Jonathan is not just a friend; he has been a spiritual advisor for me. Sometimes we even read and offer comments on each other's sermons. But, needless to say, Jonathan and I disagree about many things, not the least of which is "who is Jesus Christ?"
For me, Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. For Jonathan, Jesus is a wise teacher, a wonderful representative of 1rst c. Palestinian Judaism, but in no sense is he the messiah, much less the Son of God. I believe that Jesus rose again on the third day after his crucifixion; Jonathan believes that Jesus died and sleeps the sleep of the just with his fathers and mothers before him.
But Jonathan and I agree on many more things. Jonathan and I believe that God created the world. We believe that God directs us to live good, ethical lives, and inspired Israel's prophets to give us directions about the best way to live our lives. We believe that we have an obligation to care for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed.
You and I live in an age when the "nones" are on the rise, and by "none" I don't mean women vowing to live a life of prayer and service. The Pew Foundation recently issued a study showing that one third of people under the age of 30 have no religious affiliation. A representative of the Pew Foundation said, "Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell."
In the age of the "nones" I am happy to make common cause with Rabbi Miller. I am happy to make common cause with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, with anyone who believes that life has meaning, has an eternal and transcendent significance, that there are eternal values embedded in the very nature of the universe.
But I still believe that Christianity has a unique significance. I can believe that God is fully and uniquely revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, and at the same time believe that there is wisdom in the other great religious and spiritual systems of the world.
I do not believe that only Christians have a purchase on eternal life. I believe that God has sons and daughters in all of the world's faith. How can I look at the life of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama and believe otherwise?
But I still believe in evangelism. I believe that we have a powerful and life-changing message to share with the world, and I believe that there is an urgency about sharing that message.
Listen again to Jesus' statement from John's gospel: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me."
Jesus did NOT say, "Christianity is the way, the truth and the life." He did NOT say, "No one comes to the Father apart from baptism or without the Christian church."
I am sorry to say this but the Christian church is often an obstacle. Too often we emphasize ritual, custom, and tradition over the substance of the gospel.
I believe that Jesus and his way, his message, are the essence of the gospel. That is what we must share with the world.
We may feel that telling the Christian story implies a negative attitude toward other religions. On the contrary, I think we show our respect for persons of other faiths by engaging in serious dialogue with them. We want to share our story with them, and we also want to hear their stories. We do not become less Christian by listening respectfully to our Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu neighbors, and they do not lose their religious identities by listening respectfully to us
Religion, even the Christian religion, can be used as an excuse for violence. We must never condone, much less perpetrate, that kind of violence. On the contrary, I want us to be people of the good news, people of the gospel, and at the same time, cherish, respect, and love people of other faiths and make common cause with them whenever possible.