Mission Impossible

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

I have always been a “front row” kind of person. I wish it was because I am so dedicated to the things that I learn, but most of it is because I know that if I sit in the back, I’ll get distracted and stop paying attention. So when I was in college, I sat in the front row of all my Religious Studies classes, dutifully taking notes, and tucking it all away for the future.

In one such class titled “Hindu Traditions,” I was sitting in the front row listening to my practicing Hindu professor talk about how important his faith was to himself and to his family. And he was in the middle of a lecture when the girl sitting directly behind me raised her hand. When she coughed for our professors attention I turned over my shoulder and saw that she was proudly and prominently wearing a “Campus Crusade for Christ” teeshirt, and kept stretching her hand higher and higher as if that would get our professor’s attention. Reluctantly, he stopped lecturing and motioned for her to speak.

She said, “Dr. Mittal – If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you believe in Jesus to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and his nostrils flared before he blurted out, “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you foolish young Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, every worried about what Jesus was really saying, once questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were all going. Jesus’ response? “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, the truth, and life, rather, he is all of these things. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God.

From the beginning of the church, this statement, this claim, has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace, you can only find it through Jesus Christ – hence the strong and persistent push for evangelism over the last 2,000 years. Which makes sense considering the fact that one of the last things Jesus ever said to his disciples was, “Go into the world baptizing all people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The tradition of the church is one that staunchly affirms that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, outside the church, there is no salvation. To experience the forgiving pardon of the Lord, to be taught the ways of the faith, to engage in acts of kindness and mercy, is entirely dependent of the existence and proclamation of the church. 

I can remember feeling so uncomfortable in the front row as my professor attempted to clam his demeanor. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or draw out the exact type of reaction that took place. But what if she was being genuine? What if she really was concerned about his salvation?

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Prayer

There are anecdotes about famous people that are just so good that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. Think of George Washington and the cherry tree. Did he really chop down the cherry tree as a child? Does that matter more than the lesson of telling the truth?

There are a lot of stories about Karl Barth, the dialectical theological of the 20th century who greatly upended, in the best ways, my theological understanding, many of which probably aren’t true. Like the time a student pridefully declared he had read everything Barth wrote to which Barth replied, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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So, whether its true or not, people used to push Barth about his universalist tendencies – the idea that, in the end, God saves all regardless. In his work he dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s work, death, and resurrection, but Barth never outright claims whether or not he believes it.

And, the story goes that a young student pushed and pushed Barth to respond to the claim of his universalism, to which Barth replied, “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. This year alone has seen publications in the arena of theology both in support of universalism and against it. With the world becoming more diverse with every passing day, with different understanding of Christianity cropping up all over the world, the church is left with a question: “How big is the all of Christ died for all?”

We might think of the passage read today, and in particular Christ gathering up all things in him both in heaven and on earth. 

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God – every single individual having been molded from God’s divinity and given life through the Spirit regardless of later religious affiliations.

We might even think of the myriad examples from Christ’s ministry where he came for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. How he regularly shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the marginalized. How Jesus cared not one bit about their own morality or motivations, but simply declared, “I have come to set you free.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then God’s mercy and love and grace truly knows no bounds. God’s power is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to the entirety of creation!

The work of Christ then becomes the lens through which we see the beginning and end of all things, the One whose arms were still outstretched even on the cross, and how all are caught up in the cosmic victory over sin and death.

When Barth responded to the young man with his quip about a crowded heaven, he did so by avoiding the real question but still addressing the kind of hope made manifest in Christ – a hope that all Christians should have. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. All of us.

With all wisdom and insight Jesus has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Amen. 

In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Prayer

During my final year of seminary I served as one of the on-call chaplains at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay at the hospital for 24 hour periods attending to the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that would inevitably occur during our shifts. 

One night, after sitting with yet another family reeling in the wake of a loved one’s death, after holding hands with a woman who was just handed her final diagnosis, after pacing outside a room working up the courage to say the right words in a prayer, I found myself in the chapel. 

It was a tiny room, barely labeled, off one of the main hallways. It contained numerous religious pamphlets, an assortments of hymns and sacred texts, and toward the back there was a makeshift altar with a lined notebook that anyone could write a prayer in. Whenever I had a free moment during my shift, I would head to that space, flip through the notebook, and lift up the prayers that I found. 

But I mostly went to the chapel to get away from the rest of the hospital.

Every once in a while I would enter the chapel, expecting to find it empty as it often was, but instead I would find a Muslim doctor praying on the ground in the corner. We would always politely nod to one another but then continue on in our respective religious duties. But that night, the night where I felt completely overwhelmed and exhausted, everything changed.

I was standing up at the altar, praying over the notebook, while he prayed in the corner. We both were speaking at a tone barely above a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. 

I felt him wrap his arm around my shoulder and he said, “Lets do it together this time.”

Without discussing the details, without making a plan, without debating our theological differences, we both began to pray, arm in arm, for the people we were serving.

I don’t know how long we prayed, I don’t even remember what we said, but when it was all over we hugged and then we went our separate ways.

Without a doubt, the existence of, and interaction with, other religious groups is perhaps the most significant challenge and opportunity for the church today. Moreover, with the rise of so-called the New Atheists and the Nones (those with no religious affiliation), we have entered to a confounding mosaic in which we are challenged to address those who do not believe and those who do believe and those who believe differently than us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths when they die? How can we relate to people of different religious persuasions? I’m not sure.

We can pick up the Bible and finds all sorts of answers – answers that include all or close out some or leave us with something in between. One of the great paradoxes of the church is that we affirm how there is no salvation outside the church and that through Christ all have been saved. 

Only God knows what will happen in the end, but until we meet our end, perhaps it is best for us to live by some of Jesus’ most challenging words: Love one another. Not love other Christians or love the people in the pews, but love one another. 

In my own life, God has used a great number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to follow Jesus. But at the same time, what we do in this place, what we do as a church, has saved me time and time again.

What has been revealed for us through Jesus, is that God desires us to be in relationship with others. This implies a willingness to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, people with no beliefs at all, and the people who are sitting right next to us in church. 

We are called to love one another.

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, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may. Amen. 

Questions: In the End… – Sermon on John 14.5-6, 1 Timothy 2.1-4, and John 13.34

(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)

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.

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.

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.

 

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…

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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. 

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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.

Amen.

 

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.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

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

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.