(Instead of a typical ~15 minute sermon from the pulpit, I broke the following sermon up into 3 homilies. I preached the first from the pulpit, the second from the lectern, and the third from the middle)
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
1 Timothy 2.1-4
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.
Today we conclude our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, faith, and the church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Over the last two weeks we have looked at what it means to be “saved” and how the Old and New Testaments relate to one another. Today we are talking about other faiths and how they relate to Christianity. So, here we go…
John 14.5-6: Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
For nearly an entire semester I sat in the front row for my class on “Hindu Traditions” at JMU. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, and habits. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject and as we came to the conclusion of the class, I was thankful for his ability to open my eyes to the wonders of a great religion.
It was during our last class session that Dr. Mittal asked if there were anything remaining questions before the Final Exam. A few hands raised, mostly questions about the actual exam; Would it be multiple choice? Would it contain essays? But, one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade for Christ” sweater, asked a question that I’ll never forget: “If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”
The room was silent.
Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and flare his nostrils. “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class!”
The disciple Thomas, ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying, questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were going. And Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, truth, and life; rather, he is all of these. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.
From the beginning of the church, this statement has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace in your life, you can only find it through Jesus Christ; hence the strong push for evangelism over the last 2 millennia. Not only did Jesus command the disciples to go to all the nations baptizing everyone in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but we have been steeped in our tradition that affirms salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.
In the first few centuries the church agreed that outside of the church, there is no salvation. In order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you had to be taught the ways of the church, engage in acts of kindness and mercy, and be baptized in order to find your identity within the body of Christ. Even with the rise of other religions, and the interaction between them and Christianity, we affirm that the only way to God is through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class because of what my fellow student had said to Dr. Mittal. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or illicit some sort of reaction from him. However, perhaps she was being remarkably genuine, concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would continue on a path that would separate him from God.
After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ.
1 Timothy 2.1-4: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.”
Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century (who I have mentioned a number of times from the pulpit) was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and publications there are examples where he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. He dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Once, after a series of lectures, a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you a universalist? Do you believe that everyone will go to heaven?” Barth probably crossed his arms and thought deeply about his response. After contemplating the implications of what he was about to say, Barth answered the young theologian: “That is a great question. Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”
The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. Our world is becoming more and more diverse, with differing understandings of Christianity springing up all over the world. Was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross only for those who believe in him, or was it for all of creation?
We might think of the often quoted John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or the number of instances in scripture where individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, and the unnamed centurion who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son” at the moment Christ died on the cross) who played remarkable roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.
We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God. Every individual has been molded from God’s image and given life through the Spirit regardless of their religious affiliation.
We might think of examples from Christ’s ministry where he did not come for the religious elite, but for the last, the least, and the lost. Jesus shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the outcasts. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to comes, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, then God’s mercy truly knows no bounds. God’s love is so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to all creation. God’s love has been poured out through Christ’s death and resurrection onto the church, and to everyone outside of the church. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and everyone in between have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory over death.
In Barth’s response to the young theologian, he deliberately avoided answering the specific question, yet he embodied the kind of hope that all Christians should have; that God’s love is so powerful that he came to die for us, while we were yet sinners; that God’s mercy is so strong that nothing will ever separate us from God; and that God’s grace is so abundant that heaven will be crowded.
After all, “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.” Amen.
John 13.34: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”
During my final year of seminary I served as an on-call chaplain at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay on the hospital property for 24 hours attending the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that occurred throughout our shift. One night, after sitting with numerous families who had just learned that someone had died, after talking with patients just diagnosed with inoperable cancer, after pacing up and down the sterile halls for hours, I found myself in the chapel. A tiny room, no bigger than our narthex, it contained numerous religious materials, a piano, an altar, and a notebook for prayers. Whenever I had a moment I would stop in and pray the prayers out loud, and most of the time it was empty. It became a place of solace for me, a space where I could remove myself from the chaos of the hospital.
Burning Bush in Duke Hospital’s Chapel
Every once and awhile I would encounter a Muslim praying on his knees in the corner. We would always politely nod toward one another and continue on with our religious responsibilities. But that night, the night that felt like it would never end, everything changed.
I was standing at the altar, while my companion prayed in the corner, we both spoke in a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all of the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. “Let us pray together” he said. And without discussing the details, without organizing our thoughts, without debating the theological differences and implications, we both began to pray, shoulder to shoulder, for the people we were serving. When our prayers naturally came to their conclusion, we met eye to eye, nodded, and went on our separate ways.
In compiling all of the questions for this sermon series, “What happens to people of other faiths?” appeared more than any other. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, the most significant challenge to, and opportunity for, the Christian church today. Moreover, the rise of atheism further complicates the picture into a varied mosaic whereby the church is challenged to address both those who do not believe and those who do believe, but who believe differently from us.
So, what happens to people of other faiths? I don’t know. We can take Jesus words from John, or other affirmations from scripture and receive very different answers. One of the struggles with being a Christian is that we have to paradoxically affirm both responses, that salvation can only come through the church, and that through Christ all have been saved. “What happens to people of other faiths?” is an interesting question, but in the end, God is the only one who holds the answer. However, a question that strikes at our hearts today is: “How do we relate to people of other faiths?”
Jesus commands all of us to love one another, this is the new commandment. If there is any command from Jesus to obey in our lives regarding other faiths it is this: love one another. In my own life God has used a number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to be a discipleship of Jesus Christ: questions from my secular friends about why I believe, the love expressed by indigenous Mayan women in the highlands of Guatemala, one of the Muslim doctors at Duke Hospital who met me in the depth of suffering for prayer.
What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desire us to be in relationship with others. This means that we have to be willing to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, and people with no beliefs at all. We are called to love one another just as God has loved us. We are not here just to minister to other Christians, but to the whole world. We are called to seek justice and mercy in the world for ALL who are oppressed regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, and religious affiliation.
And so, in the great adapted words of John Wesley: Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, though we may not have the same opinion about the role that Jesus plays in the cosmic victory over death, may we not love alike?
Without all doubt, we may. Amen.