(Play Love Wins clip) When Rob Bell, a pastor from Grand Rapids, launched his book Love Wins, he also launched a firestorm of debate. Perhaps it’s because Bell touched on a touchy subject—the tolerance of Christianity. The dictionary defines tolerance as “the willingness to accept beliefs different from your own.” So, Bell provocatively asked, is God a tolerant God? Is Christianity a tolerant religion? Would Christ have stuck a Coexist bumper sticker on his Palm Sunday donkey? Did he accept the Ghandi who didn’t accept him as God’s Son? Did he believe most people are going to hell forever and ever? If Jesus were walking the earth today, what would he say?
That’s a vital question for Christians today because religious differences are a Monday morning reality. We live next to Muslims, work with Mormons, barbeque with atheists, and go to the funerals of people who didn’t worship Jesus. Most of them are good people. So, should a Christian tolerate them? Would Christ have “coexisted” with them? If so, what does that look like?
Thankfully, Christ answered that question…often. The Gospel of John is packed with Jesus’ interactions with people of other religions. In today’s text, Jesus is smack dab in the middle of a conversation with the Pharisees, a group of very religious, very devout, very sincere, very moral men who didn’t agree with what Jesus’ taught.
Listen to Jesus’ response—“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” To teach us about tolerance, Jesus takes us to the sheep pen (show pic). Ancient sheep pens were simply open air holding stalls for the flocks. Four walls made of sticks or stones with a small entrance in the front. That meant there was only one way in and one way out—the gate. Now, technically, there were other ways you could get into the sheep pen. You could jump the fence, but why would you if you were the shepherd? The only people who snuck in were those who were up to no good. Like back when you snuck out your bedroom window to meet you know who at the park. You didn’t walk past your parents and use the front door because you were up to no good! But not the shepherd.
Verse 2—“2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” The shepherd went through the gate and called his flock with his familiar voice. Some pens were so big that multiple shepherds left their flocks there. But when one shepherd called, only his sheep would trot through the gateSheep couldn’t ace the ACT, but they were smart enough to remember the voice of the one who had fed them, cared for them, loved them, protected them, saved them and knew them by name.
Jesus paused. And the Pharisees said, “Huh? Gates and thieves and shepherds and sheep? I thought we were talking about religion?” Verse 6—“6Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.” So, Jesus connected the dots and drew an incredibly intolerant picture.
“7Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’” Wait. The gate?! Is Jesus saying he is the one and only legitimate way to God’s flock? What does that mean about us? “8All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.” Wait. Thieves and robbers?! Is Jesus saying because we don’t believe in him we aren’t shepherds, but thieves? “9I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” Wait. Through me?! Is Jesus saying the only way to be saved is through him? Is he claiming the only way to find pasture, food for your soul, is by coming through him? What does that mean about our religion? “10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Wait. Kill and destroy?! Is Jesus saying our teaching kills and his gives life? That can’t be what he’s saying!
But, of course, that was exactly what Jesus was saying. He told them again and again, “very truly”, that God was absolutely, unequivocally, terribly intolerant of any religion that did not agree with Jesus. Old J.C. was not very P.C. And his audience knew it. As soon as Jesus stopped talking, John says, “At these words…many of [the Jews] said, ‘He is demon-possessed and raving mad.’” They couldn’t tolerate a teacher who was so intolerant.
Last year, on a bus ride to Chicago, I met Robin. Robin was very religious and very kind to me and my pastor friend, Nate. But when she started to talk about what Jesus was like, we both felt a touch uncomfortable. Robin said that Jesus himself was very tolerant of other perspectives and faiths, that he would accept many paths to God. “But what about John 14:6?” I asked her. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Her reply? “You pastors should know the Greek of the New Testament doesn’t mean ‘the way’, but ‘a way.’” She was right. We do know Greek. And the Greek is just as clear as the English. But it was impossible for her to think of Jesus as so incredibly intolerant.
For those of us who swim in the cultural currents of modern America, it’s hard to think of Jesus as so narrow-minded. But, love him or hate him, you can’t honestly hear his voice and believe anything he stood for anything else. Here’s just a taste of what else intolerant Jesus said to the Pharisees. “You do not have the love of God in your hearts,” (5:42). “You will die in your sins,” (8:21). “You do not belong to God,” (8:47). “You belong to your father, the devil,” (8:44). Ouch! Your mom and Satan got together one night and guess who came out? You! But do you know the worst one? “16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…but whoever does not believe stands condemned already,” (3:16,18). Jesus could coexist with other religions on earth, but he was absolutely clear that without him they would not coexist with God in heaven. The road to God is narrow, he sighed, and only few will find it.
Jesus is in no way suggesting a lack of love for non-Christians. Christ loves the world and Christians should, too. Christians should be the best neighbors their non-Christian neighbors have ever had. We should shovel Muslim driveways, laugh with Jewish children, have Hindus over for dinner, defend doubters’ reputations, bring meals for Buddhists with newborn babies, bring Kleenex to witches whose loved ones die.. But, when it comes to God, Christians are to be radically intolerant of other beliefs. Just like Jesus.
Happy Mother’s Day! What a warm and fuzzy teaching, right? It’s not easy to say this, to not be a coward for Christ. To think about our Buddhist and Jewish and Muslim and Mormon and moral friends and to say simply what Jesus said, “You need Jesus. There is no other way, no other gate, no other voice that can save you. What you worship now is not God. It’s an idol and can’t help you.” No, that’s not easy. Maybe that’s why some surveys suggest up to 2/3rds of young, self-professing Christians say, “Jesus is just one of many ways to God.” They insist Jesus is much more tolerant than Jesus himself claimed.
But, could it be true that intolerance and love aren’t mutually exclusive? Is it possible that being incredibly compassionate and staunchly unaccepting actually go hand-in-hand? It is not only possible, but completely logical. And to prove it I’d like to introduce you to our first-ever Eastside game show! It’s called, “Intolerant Mom!” (Play intro music) I need a mother to help me out today. (Get volunteer) Let’s welcome _______________. Well, here’s how our game works. I’m going to show you a picture of something your child might do and you tell us if you would tolerate it. Ready? (Show three pictures and get reactions.) So, you wouldn’t tolerate it any of that? That means you’re our big winner! Put your hands together for an intolerant mom!
Listen—That didn’t bother you, did it? If it’s true that some foods, some situations, some places are so dangerous for our body that a loving mother won’t tolerate them, is it at all possible that some teachings, some beliefs, some opinions, some teachers are so dangerous for our soul that a loving Father won’t tolerate them either? Could it be true that Jesus is so exclusive, so intolerant because he loves you? Yes! Jesus wouldn’t budge with his beliefs is because he loves you. Here’s why? Because every religion besides Jesus tells you that you have to save you.
In Christian-ese, we call that “work righteousness”, the idea that if you work hard enough, you can be right with God. You can be righteous. But it won’t work. Because what’s right to God is doing right all the time. What’s right is never lying to your parents, even if you know they’ll be mad. What’s right is listening to people you don’t agree with without interrupting. What’s right is being grateful for what God has given instead of complaining about what he hasn’t. What’s right is praying for your annoying coworkers, not venting about them. What’s right is agreeing with Jesus even if people label you, not keeping your faith to yourself just so they don’t. Yet, every religion—every one!—from the Pharisaism to Judaism to Buddhism to Hinduism to generic Moralism all tells you that you can save you. You can work hard enough to be righteous. Jesus knows you can’t. And so he won’t smile and wave as you walk down that road. He will wave his intolerant hands and shout his offensive message. “This will destroy you!”
Instead he said, “9I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” Through Jesus, we are saved. Delivered. From God’s anger. From the treadmill of making it up to God. From the pressure to be good enough today to make up for the bad of yesterday. From wondering if God loves me today. Through Jesus, we find pasture. The green grass called grace. To know I am loved today not because of what I did, but because my good shepherd laid down his life for me. To know I am safe from my past today not because I’ve build big enough walls with my works, but because my gate is Jesus and nothing can get past him. Through Jesus, we have life, life to the full. We have life even through we’ve been bad, dropped the ball, disappointed others, disappointed ourselves. Through Jesus, the work is done and those who believe are already right with God! Because Jesus wouldn’t tolerate losing you, he laid down his life.
That’s the voice of Jesus. We listen to it. You might say I’m a Christian because I was raised that way. Perhaps true, but I’ve learned enough to know this—No one else’s God will take me. If I believed the Koran, I would have to stack all my sins on a scale and pray Allah would forget about most of them. If I believed the Book of Mormon, I would have to hope Heavenly Father would look past my “good works” done with an inward desire to be praised. If I were a moralistic American, I would beg the stories and pictures of my past would never go viral or I would be the next Donald Sterling. I don’t listen to those voices. Because I hear a voice that sounds so much sweeter. It knows my name. It says, “Mike, it is finished. I love you. You’re mine. I am the gate. Through me, everything is good with God.” I, we, won’t tolerate any voice less beautiful than that.