“That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Luke 9:18-26)

CoexistChances are, you’ve seen this bumper sticker before.  The word is “coexist,” spelled with the various symbols that compose our spiritual landscape.  On the surface, its message is admirable: we shouldn’t let our differences lead to violence or hostility.  But I suspect there’s another, underlying message: that we shouldn’t let our differences matter at all.  I mean really—aren’t all religions basically the same?  Who could be so arrogant to suggest that their view of God is the only correct one?

The word for this is pluralism.  Leslie Newbigin, author and former missionary to India, says that pluralism comes in two flavors.  “Descriptive pluralism” means that multiple religions can exist peacefully in the same society—a freedom that even our own Constitution protects.  But “prescriptive pluralism” says that all religions are equally valid and therefore must be embraced by everyone.  You know: coexist.

The irony is that this simply won’t work.  If you believe that all religions are equally valid and that they should coexist, think about what you’re really saying: “My approach to religion is superior to your approach to religion.”  So even if you try to accommodate every view, you will always be at odds with those who don’t embrace your way of thinking.

Perhaps you’ve heard it this way: a group of blind men encounter an elephant.  One of them feels its trunk and says, “It must be like a snake.”  Another touches its leg and says, “It must be like a tree.”  A third holds its tail and says, “It must be like a rope.”  The moral?  All religions can only describe a portion of the truth—it would be arrogant to claim that you’re right.  I just have one question: What’s an elephant?  Leslie Newbigin observes that the story is always told from the perspective of someone who sees the whole elephant.  Meaning, the person telling the story is actually aware of the truth and looks down on those who only see parts of it.

Jesus’ earliest followers lived in a world of many different cultures—primarily seen in the collision of the Romans and the Jews.  There were also many different perspectives on just who exactly Jesus was.  In Luke 9, we find Jesus discussing this confusion with His followers.

Luke 9:18-26

Peter Declares That Jesus Is the Messiah

18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”

19 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”

20 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”

The parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke tell us that this conversation took place in a region known as Caeserea Philippi.  At first glance, the region would have looked like an ideal vacation spot.  But behind the lush trees and waterfalls was a series of small caves where people worshipped various Roman gods—most notably one named “Pan,” the god of fear.  So it was in a pluralistic setting that Peter declares the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Then the conversation takes a surprising turn.  In many ways, this was the turning point for Jesus’ ministry:

21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Have you ever wondered what makes Christianity so unique among other religions?  There are actually many reasons, but what I find most fascinating is that Christianity is the only religion that can be proven wrong.  Think about it: nearly every major religion is built on the founder’s subjective experience.  Muhammad had a vision from God.  Buddha experienced personal enlightenment.  An angel appeared to Joseph Smith.  Experience can be neither proven nor disproven.  If I told you that God appeared to me in a dream, you’d have no way of knowing if I was lying, delusional, or the real thing.

What if instead I told you that my brother died and then came back to life?  That changes everything.  That’s a claim that can be proven wrong.  All the evidence you’d need to silence me would lie at the bottom of the grave.  If you found my brother’s body, it’s all over.  The early Church claimed that Jesus rose from the dead, and anchored itself not in subjective experience but objective history.  Christianity’s most crucial claim was also its most fragile.  All that Rome needed to do to silence the early Christians was to show them Jesus’ body.  The astonishing thing is that no one ever did.

What does that mean for us?

23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

The gospel promises that a crown of thorns will always precede a crown of glory.  We live with the awareness of suffering as well as the certainty of consolation.  Religious traditions tell us that our purpose is found in self-improvement and self-righteousness.  Only Jesus tells us that our purpose is found in self-sacrifice.  Live for self, Jesus says, and you’ll only be ashamed of life’s truest purpose.  Live for God, and you’ll experience life like never before.  Our world is one of both diversity and hostility.  Now, more than ever, we need men and women who carry their cross with both confidence and courage.