From a Lay Leader's Desk

A series of opinion articles from lay leaders in our synod.


Your Jesus Is Too Small

May 01, 2020

By Renée Wicklund, MNYS Vice-President 

Adapted from a Lenten talk given March 8, 2020 at Church of Our Savior—Lutheran in Manhasset, Long Island.

I still remember those words, which were preached almost 30 years ago by my campus pastor at Syracuse University. “Your Jesus is too small,” he said, admonishing us not to believe that, because we are Christians, we are the only ones entitled to grace. Who are we, he asked, to contend that we can limit where Jesus bestows saving grace? Who are we to say Jesus cannot work through Islam, or Hinduism, or Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Bahá'í?

In this time of social distancing and isolation, I miss my neighbors. I miss variety—in experiences, in personalities, in foods—and I miss a most American of experiences: being surrounded by diverse faiths. Conversation and friendship with persons who practice other faiths offers so much to the committed Christian. I’ve written before that learning to respect other religions helps us love our neighbors, as well as understand our own creed. Now, waving from across the street or through a window to my friends who are not Christian, I’m pondering again the ways, throughout history, we have used faith to separate ourselves from those who worship God differently, or not at all. Was my campus pastor correct when he said we make Jesus too small? 

When he was asked what we must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27.) Love God and love your neighbor. Jesus commanded us to see God in others. Saint Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world, (God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made.” (Romans 1:20.) God made the world’s creatures, which includes our siblings of other faiths. Through them we see God’s eternal power and divine nature. The Holy Spirit, like the wind, “blows where it chooses.” (John 3:8.) 

In his earliest writings, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer pretty much rejected the idea that God could be at work anywhere else than in Protestantism, specifically, Lutheran Protestantism. Later, and especially during the two years he spent in prison, Bonhoeffer matured into a great interfaith theologian, fascinated with the work of Mohandas Gandhi and others. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace that others are just as entitled to as we are.” And in his Letters and Papers From Prison, Bonheoffer wrote, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” We have a duty not to judge others, and instead to consider them equally entitled to grace.

For me, this means that we as Lutherans not only respect persons of other faiths, or even of no faith, but also that we uphold them in their own efforts to grasp eternal truths—regardless of whether those efforts happen in a church, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque, or elsewhere. During the summer, my family’s swimming pool sometimes has a “swim in your clothes” policy. We are friendly with a Muslim family, whose modesty standards prohibit Western-style swimwear, so if they come to enjoy the pool, everyone swims in long shorts and t-shirts. During the winter, my family joins with Jewish friends to celebrate “Christmukkah” (or “Hannumas,” depending on which family is hosting that year). On Christmukkah we celebrate the birth of Jesus and we sing the Hebrew prayers while lighting the menorah. And every spring (except this wretched spring), we celebrate “Eastover” (or “Passter,” again depending on who is hosting). On Eastover, my son tells the story of the ancient Hebrews being freed from enslavement, and a Jewish child tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. My hope is that children raised this way will become adults who despise isolation precisely because it keeps them from assisting their neighbors, whoever those neighbors may be.

Let’s ponder what God tells Abraham:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1.) 

Doesn’t that verse speak to a paradox of right now? The current crisis confines us to our homes—but the crisis also frees our faith from confinement in the church. When this terrible time has ended, let’s hold on to that freedom of faith. Let God send us out in the world, to encounter creation anew, with all the diversity and otherness that it brings. Let’s follow not “small Jesus” but Jesus without limitation, Jesus of all people and all creation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:1-4.) 

When we can safely get back out there, let’s celebrate by loving like we’ve never loved before. All God’s creatures, of every ilk.