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.”
When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.
During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that 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 cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”
The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “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, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.
Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.
It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.
After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.
But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.
Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”
Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”
The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith.
For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.
We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.
We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.
We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.
We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.
God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting.
Nine members of the church were killed.
The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.
He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”
So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.
A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”
So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.
There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.
And we wept.
And then we prayed some more.
How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today.
Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.
So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.
We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices.
And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church.
What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.
This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.
What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.
Therefore, in the great and somewhat 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 even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?
Without all doubt we may.
And perhaps we must. Amen.