“Tolerance” and “inclusivity” are principles of high value in our modern society. Likewise, one of the most common critiques of Christianity these days is its perceived lack of tolerance and inclusivity. When we take a look at Luke 13, however, we find a picture of Jesus that illustrates, yes, his shockingly exclusive commitment to God, but also the shockingly inclusive nature of his relationships. When we examine Jesus’ actions and words, we find that what he offers — and therefore what Christianity offers — goes far beyond tolerance. It is a radical love extended to all, as all have sinned and are in need of rescue. Watch this sermon as we consider the inclusive hope of the gospel.

  • View Sermon Transcript

    Download sermon transcript icon Download .pdf

    As I have been suggesting, in the past people might have struggled to believe the claims of the Christian faith, but generally speaking, many people believed that Christianity was a positive benefit to society. That may no longer be the case, because there's an increasing number of people who believe that Christianity is harmful. And therefore, the first question that a skeptic might ask today is not so much “Is Christianity true?” but “Is Christianity good?” That changes things quite a bit for someone like me, because now in addition to trying to help you see that Christianity is true, I also have to help show why it is good — so good that you should want it to be true

    For that reason, we have been engaging in a new sermon series in which we are considering some of the common contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in order to see whether Christianity is in fact good for you and good for the world. We began by considering the question, “Is Christianity Escapist?” Is it nothing more than an escapist fantasy? Last week, we considered the question, “Is Christianity Irrational?” Today I'd like us to take a look at the question, “Is Christianity Intolerant?” and in order to do that, I'd like us to look at an episode from the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus makes some rather exclusive claims, to see what we might be able to learn about tolerance under three headings. Let's consider 1) the premise of tolerance, 2) the problem with tolerance, and 3) the practice of tolerance

    22Jesus went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” 

    And he said to them, 24“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 

    28In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

    The Premise Of Tolerance

    First, let's consider the premise of tolerance. At the beginning of this passage, someone comes up to Jesus and asks the question that we'd all like to know: “Will those who are saved be few?” Come on Jesus, give us a number. Who is going to enter into the kingdom of God? Is God going to save everyone or only some? Will those who are saved be many or few? But Jesus refuses to speculate. He doesn't offer numbers or figures or statistics. He doesn't satisfy our curiosity. As is often the case, when someone tries to engage Jesus in a theological debate about them — whoever they may be — Jesus turns it around and makes it personal. He issues a personal challenge to you. “I'm not going to debate you about them. I'm going to tell you, you strive to enter by the narrow door.” Here Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a house that is open to any and all for a great big feast. But the only way into this house is through a narrow door, and there's only one. You have to squeeze through in order to enter. But once the party starts, the door will be shut, and then it will be too late to come in. The message is for you — whoever you may be — you must strive to enter by the narrow door while there is still time. 

    This is one of the major issues that people have with Christianity. Jesus is making exclusive claims. He is saying that there is only one door into the kingdom of God, and it's a narrow one. That is the very definition of what it means to be narrow-minded. Here's the challenge. Many people say that the problem with religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is that major traditional faiths make exclusive truth claims, and that's not good for society. If you believe that your religion provides you with the truth about God or about spiritual reality, and that the way in which you connect to God or experience salvation or achieve a higher state of being is by living out that truth, then it's easy to feel superior to people who hold differing views, and it's easy to start to separate yourself from those who you don't consider to be as devout or as committed or as pure as you are. 

    How should we respond to that? For starters, let's just admit to our shame, that many of us who call ourselves Christians have at times in the past been guilty of disdaining people, mistreating people, perhaps excluding, marginalizing, or even oppressing people because of their beliefs or the lack thereof. If that's the case, then we need to acknowledge our wrong. We need to confess our sin. We need to ask for forgiveness from God and from others, and we need to seek to make amends wherever we can and to change our ways to not do it again. 

    At the same time, I'd like to suggest that exclusive claims to truth do not necessarily lead to intolerance. It all depends quite a bit on what exactly those truth claims are. In our world today, people would say it's arrogant, it's presumptuous, it's dangerous to think that there's only one way to God because if you think that your way is right, and others are wrong then that's what leads to, if not arrogance and pride, bigotry and violence. What we need, therefore, is tolerance and acceptance. That's the only thing that will lead to peace, even in the midst — and especially in the midst — of our deepest differences. 

    This belief in tolerance became very popular during the Enlightenment, especially following the wars of religion that ravaged Europe during the 16th, the 17th, and the early part of the 18th centuries. Let me tell you a story. In 1779, the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing wrote a play called “Nathan The Wise.” This play takes place in Jerusalem in the 12th century, during a ceasefire in the midst of the Third Crusade. Lessing heightens the tension between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam through the main characters in the play, which include a Christian knight, a wise Jewish man named Nathan, and the sultan who's ruling over Jerusalem at the time named ​​Saladin. These three men are not only friends, but they are also indebted to one another for acts of love and generosity. 

    At one point, the sultan seeks to test Nathan's famous wisdom by asking him the question, “Which is the true religion?” Nathan responds by telling the Parable of the Ring, and it goes like this. Once upon a time, there was a man who received a magical opal ring, and the magical power of this ring was such that whoever wore that ring would be pleasing, beloved in the eyes of both God and human beings. From generation to generation, whoever possessed this ring would pass it on to his son. It was passed down from father to son, father to son. The only catch was that a father had to give it to his favorite son, his most beloved son, regardless of birth order. Eventually the ring came down to a father who had three sons, and he loved them all equally. So in his pious weakness, he promised to give the ring to all three. So what is a father to do? 

    As he approaches the end of his life, he has two exact replicas of the original ring made. They're so precise that not even he could tell the difference between the replicas and the original. As he's on his deathbed, he gives each of his three sons one of these rings. But after he's dead, his sons begin to quarrel with one another over which one is the true ring, so they seek out the advice of a wise judge. The judge tells them that it will be absolutely impossible for them to ever know which ring is real. In fact, he says it's very likely that the original ring was also destroyed. It's possible that all three rings are replicas; not one is true. But if that's the case, what should they do? His advice is, “Let each one of you believe that his own is the real ring. The only way that you will ever find out if it's real is if you live in such a way that the ring's power could be proven true.” In other words, live in a way that is pleasing to both God and human beings, and you will prove the truth of your ring’s genuineness. So this is how the wise judge puts it: 

    “‘Let each of you rival the others only in uncorrupted love, free from prejudice. Let each of you strive to show the power of his ring’s stone [his religion]. Come to the aid of this power in gentleness, with heartfelt tolerance, in charity, with sincerest submission to God. And if the virtues of the ring continue to show themselves among your children's children, after a thousand, thousand years, appear before this judgment seat—a greater one than I shall sit upon it, and decide.’ So spoke the modest judge.”

    You can see why this play was an instant success. As one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, Lessing is saying that each one of us is influenced by our own culture and tradition and background. We'll never be able to tell which religion is true, so the best thing that we can do is put aside all these debates about truth and instead prove the genuineness of our religion through love. Or to put it another way, the test of each religion's truth will be its ability to generate love. You can see the appeal to the story. What I'm trying to do today is to put Christianity in the weakest possible position when it comes to this charge of being intolerant. I think that the Parable of the Ring is perhaps the most powerful argument against exclusive truth claims. “Since we'll never be able to tell which religion is true, or if any of them are true, the best we can do is learn to tolerate one another. That is the only thing that will ultimately lead to peace.”

    The Problem With Tolerance

    What I want to show you as we turn from the premise of tolerance to the problem with tolerance is that tolerance is actually not so simple. It's a little bit more complicated than we might have thought at first. Let me try to surface some of these problems by considering 1) the nature of tolerance, 2) the basis of tolerance, and 3) the goal of tolerance

    The Nature Of Tolerance

    The basic idea is that we should tolerate one another, meaning that we should put up with one another's differences. The underlying reason why many people think that we should put up with one another's differences is because we assume that all beliefs are socially conditioned on the one hand, and they are equally valid on the other. I think there are some problems with those assumptions. 

    Socially Conditioned

    First, we assume that we don't need to take religious claims all that seriously because they're socially conditioned. Alvin Plantinga is a well known philosopher who was raised in a Dutch-Christian family in Western Michigan. As a professor, you can imagine that over the years he had many students coming to him from places like New York City. They would say things like this to Plantinga: “The only reason why you're a Christian is because you were born in a Christian family in Michigan. But if you had been born in Morocco, rather than Michigan, you would be a Muslim rather than a Christian, and that is why I am an agnostic.” In other words, whatever you believe is simply a byproduct of where you were born. Being a good philosopher, Plantinga would often respond by saying, “If you were born in Morocco rather than New York City, then you would be a Muslim rather than an agnostic,” which goes to show, while it's true that the fact of where you were born impacts what it is that you believe, it doesn't give anyone a free pass when it comes to the pursuit of truth. It also doesn't take into account the fact that millions of people have converted from one view to another. It's not necessarily true that all of our religious beliefs are socially conditioned. 

    Equally Valid

    Secondly, sometimes people say that tolerance operates on the principle that all religious claims are equally valid. That's why we should put up with one another's differences. But actually, no one really thinks that's true. There have been religions that have required child sacrifice or holy war. There are other religions that have forbid anyone from ever taking a human life. It's just not true that all religious claims are equally valid. Stephen Prothero, who is a scholar of religion and teaches at Boston University, thinks that it's actually condescending to say that all religions believe basically the same thing or that the differences among them are inessential or inconsequential. No serious Christian, Muslim, or Jew would ever agree with that, that the differences among us are inessential or inconsequential. Prothero was once interviewed, and he said this: 

    “Clearly there are differences across religions, [but] that is not the question. The question is whether those differences matter, whether those differences are – as many say – inessential or inconsequential. 

    What always happens when people want to push the great religions into one box, into one mountaintop, rather than many mountaintops, is you come up with your own ad hoc idea of what the mountaintop is. Oops, it just happens to be my vision of what religion should be. Maybe it is that ultimately there is one God, who maybe sounds and talks and walks a lot like Jesus. Or maybe it is a mystical experience which just happens to be the piece of religion that you value. Or maybe it is compassion which just happens to be your particular preoccupation with what the religion should be doing. But in any case it is you.

    But how did you get to decide what all the major religions should really be about?”

    Why do we assume that all religions are equally valid? We don't make that kind of assumption in any other area of life like education or politics or economics. Let's imagine, for example, that we could get Adam Smith and Karl Marx together in one room. Let's say we got Smith, the father of capitalism, and Marx, the father of communism, to sit down with one another. Let's say we sat them down, and we said, “There's a lot of conflict in the world, because people disagree about capitalism and communism. It would be a lot easier, we could all get along if you would just acknowledge that underneath the sort of superficial differences between you two, you, Smith, and you, Marx, are basically saying the same thing because you're both talking about economics. We don't do this in any other area of life. We only do it when it comes to religion. The point is that the religions are not all the same. They're not all saying the same thing. And therefore they can't all be right. There's no way around the idea that some religions may be better than others. And therefore, it's up to us to do the work of discernment and to evaluate them. That's the first problem. There's a problem with the very nature of tolerance as we conceive of it.

    The Basis Of Tolerance

    Secondly, there's a problem with the basis of tolerance, and that brings me back to the Parable of the Ring. As I said, this is by far one of the best arguments against making exclusive truth claims. “Since we can never tell which religion is true, we should give up the debate about truth and test each religion by love.” That's persuasive, is it not? But there are a couple little problems there, too. Who decided that love should be the test of truth? The fact of the matter is that there is no generic understanding of what love is or who deserves it. Our very understanding of love more often than not comes from our religious traditions, so how do we understand love and who deserves love? Are we supposed to love merely our family? Our own people? What kind of love do we owe to a neighbor or to someone who does us good? Do we owe love to strangers, to people who have nothing to do with us, for all intents and purposes? Are we ever required to love an enemy? 

    The very idea of love is informed by our religious traditions, which shows us that the concept of tolerance doesn't come to us out of thin air, but rather tolerance requires a foundation. Tolerance, as it's conceived in our modern world, is grounded in the idea that every human being possesses not just dignity and value but equal dignity and value. And therefore all of us have a duty, a moral obligation, a responsibility to treat other people with respect, no matter how different or offensive their ideas may be. But where did we get the idea that every human being has an intrinsic right to be treated in accordance with their worth? That did not come out of thin air. No, that is something that came to us through a Christian vision. That is a decidedly Christian claim. Who decided that love should be the test of truth? Christianity tells us that God does not just show love, demonstrate love, reveal love, but God is love. Love, therefore, forms the very center of the universe, and that is why we should test truth by love. That is not something that you merely get from working the ground up, but rather that’s something that comes to us through our Christian past. 

    The Goal Of Tolerance

    Finally, that brings me to the goal. What's the ultimate goal of tolerance? There's not just a problem with the nature of tolerance or the basis of tolerance but with the very goal. Tolerance is good as far as it goes, it just doesn't go very far. What is it that we ultimately want? The goal is not to be tolerated but to be understood, to be accepted, to be respected, to be loved despite who we are, or what we've done, or what we might believe. Imagine, for example, if on my wedding day, I stood up at the front of the church, and I said, “I Jason, take you Ashley, to be my wedded wife, and I promise to tolerate you from this day forward.” You would think to yourself, “Wow, this marriage is not off to a good start. That is a very unhealthy relationship.” 

    Earlier this week, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi here in the city reached out to me and asked to get together for a cup of coffee. What was the point of us meeting? “Hey, let's get together and figure out how to tolerate one another.” No, the goal was to build a relationship. What we need is something far more than tolerance. What we want is love. And love requires pursuing truth together. 

    The Practice Of Tolerance

    There are a lot of problems with our enlightenment conception of tolerance. It's much more complicated than we might have thought at first. The question is, how can we learn to practice true tolerance in a world that is marked by such deep differences? For that, I'd like to come back to Jesus. Let's consider 1) Jesus' relationships, 2) Jesus' words, and 3) Jesus' actions

    Jesus’ Relationships

    There is absolutely no question that Jesus made outrageously shocking, exclusive claims. For example, Jesus said that there is one God and that there is no way to that God except through him. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” You don't get much more exclusive than that. 

    Jesus was shockingly exclusive in his commitment to God yet shockingly inclusive in all of his relationships. Jesus was famous for hanging out with all the wrong kinds of people. Jesus developed relationships not only with beggars and the blind or lepers and the lame but with prostitutes and pagans, with Centurion soldiers and infamous sinners, along with zealots, who were first century terrorists, and tax collectors, who were first century mob bosses. 

    Most of us are lax in our commitment to God but rather exclusive when it comes to our relationships. We'll believe just about anything about God, but we're going to be very picky, very selective about who we will form relationships with. But Jesus was exclusive in his commitment to the truth, exclusive in his commitment to God, and yet wildly inclusive in his relationships, wildly inclusive in the ones to whom he showed love. 

    Why do you think that was? Do you think it was because Jesus was just unintelligent? Was Jesus an inconsistent thinker? Or could it be that the exclusive truth that Jesus claimed explains the inclusive love that he showed? If you don't have friends like Jesus did, perhaps that suggests that you don't have faith like Jesus did. 

    Jesus’ Words

    That brings me to Jesus' words. Exclusive claims to truth do not necessarily lead to intolerance. It all depends on what those claims are. What exactly did Jesus teach? In a word, Jesus taught grace. Jesus said we human beings are so far gone that there is absolutely no deed we could do, no right we could observe, no prayer we could pray, no tear we could shed that could ever make us right with God or with one another again. We are far too gone. We can't do it. But he can, and by his grace, he does. Jesus has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. Jesus lived the life we should have lived. Jesus died the death that we deserve to die. That's why Jesus said repeatedly that he has not come for those who think that they are righteous but rather those who know that they are not. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. 

    Think of the implications of that. If you think that you are saved by believing the right things or doing the right things or performing the right things or obeying the right things, then yes, it's true that it would be easy to feel superior and arrogant and to assume that you're better than others. But Christianity says that Christians are not saved by believing the truth, obeying the truth, or performing the truth. Rather Christians are saved by admitting the truth. “I am lost, and I need to be rescued.” Do you see that very teaching undercuts the religious pride that leads to intolerance, because every single Christian without exception is a sinner saved by grace. If there's hope for me, then it means that there's hope for absolutely anyone. Jesus' very teaching doesn't leave us a leg to stand on in order to look down on anyone else. 

    Jesus’ Actions

    Finally, that brings me to Jesus' actions. Many people think that the primary problem in the world today is religious extremism. A little faith, a little religion, a little spirituality, that's okay, as long as you don't get too carried away and take it too seriously. I'm sure that's probably especially true right now in the midst of the conflict that's taking place in the Middle East. A little religion is okay, as long as you don't take it too far. 

    The average New Yorker, therefore, assumes that the more religion you have the more violence, but the less religion you have the less violence. But of course, that's too simplistic, because the decisive factor is not the degree of your commitment but rather the object of your commitment. What is it that you're committed to? The Yale theologian Miroslav Volf once argued that if Christianity in particular is ever used to mistreat, to marginalize, or to oppress other people, then what you need is not less Christianity but more. What we need is not a thinned out version of Christianity but rather a thick Christianity. We need a deeper, fuller commitment to the real thing. And why is that? Because, he says, at the center of Christianity — not at the margins, at the center of the Christian faith — lie important resources for creating and sustaining a culture of peace. 

    What is at the heart of the Christian faith? Not at the margins. I'm not talking about what's in the footnotes or in the appendix. What's at the very heart of the Christian faith? When you turn to the center of Christianity, you don't find holy war; you find a man willingly going to a cross in order to die for his enemies. Jesus did not take a sword in his hand; Jesus took a spear in his side. Jesus’ dying words were, “Father, forgive them, because they just don't know what they're doing.” Those words apply to them as much as they apply to us. At the very heart, at the very center of Christianity, we find deep resources for creating and sustaining a culture of peace. The more committed you are to the very heart, the very center of the Christian faith, the more tolerant you will become. 

    Let me sum up and conclude with an invitation. Jesus was outrageously shocking in his exclusive claims, and yet Jesus was outrageously shocking in his inclusive relationships. Jesus' exclusive teaching is that we are all desperately lost, and we need to be rescued. We can't be our own savior by believing or doing the right things. No, we need to be saved by Jesus, and that instills humility within us rather than pride. Jesus’ exclusive actions took him to the cross where he willingly gave up his life, not only for us but also for all those who have hurt and offended him. Therefore, the cross promotes self-sacrifice and peace rather than self-assertion and hostility. 

    That's why Jesus presents himself in this passage from Luke as the narrow door. There's no other way into the Kingdom of God because no one else has done, no one else could do what Jesus has done uniquely. Understandably, we may be concerned about those who remain on the outside of the door. But as C.S. Lewis said, the most unreasonable thing to do in response is for you to remain on the outside. No, you must strive to enter through the narrow door. How do you do that? By admitting the truth that you need to be rescued. The more that we embrace this exclusive teaching of Jesus, the more we will exhibit Jesus' inclusive love. 

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father, we acknowledge that we live in a world that is being ripped apart by religious violence, but help us to see that the answer to the problem is not less Christianity but more. Not a thinned out version of the Christian faith, but a thick, robust one — a deeper commitment to the real thing. Help us to consider Jesus' radically inclusive love. His radically exclusive teaching that undercuts the pride and arrogance that leads to intolerance. And his radically unique actions by going to the cross to die for his enemies, which prepares us to be people who sacrifice ourselves in pursuit of peace rather than insisting on our way in the relationships we have with others. We pray that you would transform us by this truth and make us people of love. We ask in Jesus' name. Amen.