As we move toward the end of Lent and into the Christian Holy Week, Christians become conscious of the peculiarity of our religion. In order to appreciate the peculiarity of our faith, we would do well to see how it relates to some other religions, and ask about the importance of religious difference. This is part of the Lenten discipline of coming to terms with who we are.
The passage from Jeremiah is the famous prediction of a new covenant, written on people’s hearts and minds so that they do not have to learn it. Christians have long construed that text to refer to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. That can’t be quite right, however, because the Christian New Covenant still has to be learned; we preachers would be out of business if that were not so. Moreover, Jeremiah was not thinking about Christianity as a new religion at all, rather about a reform in the religion of the House of Israel, as he said. The New Covenant Jeremiah promises will be internal to people’s hearts and minds, and their iniquities will be forgiven. This is a prophecy of great hope, something that Jeremiah did not deliver all that often. Should Christians accept this prophecy, respect it as applying to Judaism, not directly to Christianity, and allow it as somehow parallel to our own sense of Covenant? Good question.
The passage from Hebrews is even more startling when it comes to how Christianity relates to other religions. One of the main themes of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus Christ is the one who leads us into the presence and glory of God. The background is the conception in ancient Israelite religion that human beings need to be pure and holy in order to approach God. When people break one of the Covenant strictures, becoming unclean or unholy, the priests can make sacrifices for them; the people provide the animal or grain to be sacrificed. Priests themselves need to be pure and holy in order to enter into God’s presence in the tent or temple. The book of Hebrews understands Jesus Christ to be both the sacrificial animal and the sacrificing priest, a very non-Jewish recurrence to human sacrifice. His death on the cross was a sacrifice powerful enough to redeem the whole world. And his role as priest is to bring all his followers into God’s presence. Hebrew’s metaphor for Christ, the double role of priest and sacrifice, comes from the Jewish Levitical understanding of the role of sacrifice rituals. How astonishing it is, then, that Hebrews says that Jesus Christ is a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek was a Canaanite priest and king of Salem, later called Jerusalem, who blessed Abraham in the name of the Canaanite God Most High, who is maker of heaven and earth. Later Melchizedek’s God Most High would be identified with Abraham’s God Yahweh, but at the time, according to Genesis 14, Abraham accepted the Canaanite blessing. Now the author of Hebrews could have identified the priesthood of Jesus with that of Aaron, brother of Moses, or of Levi, the head of the house of Israelite priests. The point of identifying Jesus Christ with Melchizedek is that Jesus represents a priesthood more general than that of Israel, a priesthood inclusive of Gentiles, even the accursed Canaanites against whom the cult of Yahweh contended for centuries. Jesus is a priest of all people, even in recognition of the fact that people have different religions, for instance the Canaanite High God worship and the Abrahamic worship of Yahweh.
Our gospel from John begins with some Greeks wanting to meet Jesus. They go to Philip and Andrew, disciples with Greek names, who make the introduction. We have no reason to think that Philip and Andrew were not Jewish—they certainly went along with Jesus’ talk about his relation to the worship of the God of Israel. But Philip and Andrew were open to the Greeks, and so was Jesus. In Palestine at that time Jews and Samaritans, Greeks, Romans, and many other people lived together, often with blurred ethnic and religious distinctions. Although Jesus himself focused mainly on addressing Jews and Jewish worship, he also healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman and the beloved slave-boy of a Roman centurion, without requiring either to become Jewish. Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman is recorded in which he tells her, respecting the Samaritan worship of God on a mountain versus the Jewish worship of God in Jerusalem, that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” Though he gives priority to Judaism, Jesus says in effect that true spiritual worship transcends the differences between religions.
So the question is, what is true spiritual worship? What is the true spiritual worship that transcends religions without annulling them? When the Greeks, representing non-Jewish religions, come to see him, Jesus tells them that now he himself will be glorified. He says his glorification means that he must die, by being lifted up on the cross. Crucifixion does not seem like glory, to the eyes of the world. But to Christians, Jesus’ crucifixion is indeed glory. How can this be?
Last week, our gospel was from the third chapter of John, in which he said that the metaphor of Jesus being lifted up in crucifixion is like Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness so that the Israelites could be healed from the sickness of snakebites. In our text for today, the lifting up of Jesus heals all people, not only the descendents of Moses’ people. Like Melchizedek, Jesus is a priest for all people who brings all to God. Like Jeremiah’s New Covenant, Jesus’ saving work accomplishes worship in spirit and in truth, not in external observance. What is that saving work? John is very clear about this: it is the establishment of loving communities of friends who love God and one another. Both of these things are accomplished in some way by loving Jesus, and accepting God’s love in Jesus, and Jesus’ own love. What could be lovelier than the man Jesus, accepting crucifixion for our sins?
What a silly question! Who could think of a crucifixion as lovely? Gruenwald’s famous picture of the crucifixion is probably right about its gruesome gore. The actual crucifixion must have been horrible! John, of course, does not mean the crucifixion merely as an historical event but rather the interpreted crucifixion, the crucifixion by which God so loved the world that we have eternal life. In the interpreted crucifixion, Jesus is lifted up as the one, the love for whom can cure our sinful blindness. In the interpreted crucifixion we learn the extent of divine love. In the interpreted crucifixion we see the teacher who brings us to love, which is the content of eternal life. In the interpreted crucifixion we see Jesus drawing all people to himself, regardless of their religion.
Interpreted in John’s gospel, Jesus saw himself as presenting the way of love of God and neighbor that redeems all humankind from the blindness that keeps us from realizing the full healing love of God. This was not a new religion for him, but rather a transcendent way of love that brings worship in spirit and in truth to any religion, first the religion of Israel and then all the others. But how could Jesus’ way be passed on except by being made into yet another religion? How could the interpreted, meaningful, life and crucifixion of Jesus be made effective beyond his immediate disciples, without becoming yet another religious cult?
So now we have a paradox. On the one hand Christianity is a religion with all the cultic peculiarities we are going to celebrate as we move to Easter, including the Eucharist today. On the other hand Christianity is not exclusive of those other religions, but rather a way compatible with them that fosters the profound love of God and neighbor that Jesus taught. In this latter sense Christianity sees Jesus not as a Christian priest but as a universal priest, like Melchizedek. Of course, other religions might not see Jesus this way—not even all Christians do. And other religions might have many things of religious import to contribute that are not found in Christianity, from which we should learn.
Our faith lives with this paradox. We cannot say that Christianity should deconstruct and let the other religions do it, for they might miss Jesus’ point about trans-religious spirituality. We cannot say that Christianity is the only true religion, existing alongside others, because its own cultic activities can lose the very worship in spirit and in truth that Jesus taught. We must live with the tension, never condemning another religion, as Jesus never did, and never failing to be faithful to the peculiarities of Christianity in which Jesus is glorified as the crucified one, lifted up to bring us all to God in love.