The Dignity of Difference - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Dignity of Difference

John 1:29-36

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29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

30 This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me.

31 And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.

32 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.

33 And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.

34 And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.

35 Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples;

36 And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!

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I wonder if you have any Jewish or Muslim friends whether you have ever talked to them about what they believe. Possibly not, because there is a general assumption that it's best to steer clear of religion because somehow we're all in competition with each other and it'll only lead to arguments and awkwardness. The tenets of faith are seen to be exclusive, and the same goes for Christianity.

In the Gospel reading this morning from John, when John the Baptist sees Jesus and greets him, he doesn't say, here is the preacher from Nazareth, or this man will sort out our economic problems, or here is an amazing wonder-worker. He says 'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.' It is an extraordinary global spiritual claim that through Jesus the entire world's spiritual needs have been taken care of. Jesus is the way to God and the way to salvation. John makes Jesus himself say as much: I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.' Christianity is the only way. And that is how we have seen ourselves ever since - The Way, The Truth, The Life.

The trouble is that all monotheistic faiths claim to possess absolute truth. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all claim that they are the one path to salvation. The Jews not only are the keepers of God's Law but they are his chosen people. Christians proclaim that the only way to be saved is through faith in Jesus Christ. Muslims have to believe that the Koran is the word of God, Mohammad the Last Prophet, and that God's Laws must be implemented to avoid the fires of hell.

Those competing truths mean that if I am right, you must be wrong. If really care for the truth, I must convert you to my view, if necessary by force. This attitude is responsible for much of the inter-religious strife around the world, and sectarian violence within the Muslim world.

The trouble with this absolutist viewpoint is that we live in a pluralised, globalised world, where cultures rub up against each other and the idea of one single overarching construction of truth seems simplistic and unworkable. But at the same time we want to hold on to the particular insights, truths, that we feel our understanding of God gives to us, within the Christian tradition, say. We want to treasure our own tradition and not reduce religion to a pick and miss, anything goes mishmash of ideas and beliefs.

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs has suggested a way by which we can cope with the plurality of our modern world. In his book The Dignity of Difference he quotes a parable told by a Jewish mystic.

Imagine, he said, two people who spend their lives transporting stones. One carries bags of diamonds. The other hauls sacks of rocks. Each is now asked to take a consignment of rubies. Which of the two understands what he is now to carry? The man who is used to diamonds knows that stones can be precious, even those that are not diamonds. But the man who has carried only rocks thinks of stones as a mere burden. They have weight but not worth. Rubies are beyond his comprehension.
So it is, he said, with faith. If we cherish our own, that we will understand the value of others. We may regard ours as a diamond and another faith as a ruby, but we know that both are precious stones. But if faith is a mere burden, not only will we not value ours. Neither will we value the faith of someone else. We will see both as equally useless. True tolerance, he implied, comes not from the absence of faith but from its living presence. Understanding the particularity of what matters to us is the best way of coming to appreciate what matters to others.

And Jonathan Sachs writes that the way forward for religion is to drop the old recipe that 'faith is supremely important and therefore all people must have the one true faith, and replace it with 'faith is supremely important and therefore every person must be allowed to live by the faith which is true for him.'

So rejoice in the Christian faith which we proclaim in this church, and into which Lucy has been baptised. Cherish it and make it your own - it is your own inheritance of faith. But remember too John Donne's words -'no man is an island', and rejoice in the world-enhancing dignity of difference as we cherish our own faith and learn to value the faith of others. Amen.

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