Today we have the second installment of a two-part message, “Is Jesus the Only Way to Know God?” Copies of both parts are available in the narthex and on St. Paul’s website.
The topic has generated a lot of conversation, and that’s what I had hoped for. I wanted to lead you beyond simplistic, narrow clichés to more critical, broad thinking about your own faith and your relationship with people of other faiths and no faith. The most consistent comment I have heard is that a good many of you have always felt an awkwardness about this topic. On the one hand, you don’t want to apologize for your deeply held faith in Jesus Christ, and on the other hand you don’t want to come across as intolerant toward differently believing folks, in an air of superiority. Perhaps then when the topic of religion comes up between you and that person of a different faith, you deflect, change the subject, or, if you can’t disengage, you cut the discussion off with, “Well, all I know is that the Bible says I’m right and you’re wrong.” Awkward, right?
It’s kinda like when you have buttoned your shirt or your blouse one button off. You get it all buttoned up and there is an uncomfortable feeling about it and you realize your mistake. Tug at it, tuck it all you want, it’s going to stay awkward and uncomfortable until you what? That’s right: until you unbutton it and start over. For some of you, to grow into a more mature faith and practice around the question “Is Jesus the Only Way to Know God?”, it’s going to require that you unbutton some long held aspects of your beliefs and start over. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with these messages – to help you unbutton and start over. Get it right from the beginning, and everything else falls into place and no more awkwardness.
Once you’ve unbuttoned and your mind and spirit are open, we begin to button again. The first button, the place to begin is your own faith in Jesus Christ. “Is Jesus the Only Way?” is the wrong place to begin. The place to begin is “Who is Jesus to you?” If your faith is real, if there is a real relationship there, it’s the only place for you to begin. It’s the only place you can begin if it’s real. Note I said “relationship”. Theology never saved anyone. Correct doctrine never gave anyone the abundant life that Jesus said he came to give us. Jesus is not a test to be passed but a relationship and a life to be lived and shared. If you are not engaged with Christ in a living relationship of abundance and joy, if you are not sharing out of that joy and abundance with others, then it really doesn’t matter how you answer the question, “Is Jesus the Only Way?” But when it’s real, we can do no other than share what we have with others. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all…” You share it, but always in a way that is consistent with the character and example of Christ – never with arrogance or superiority, always as a servant, always putting the other first, always with genuine positive regard.
The second button is this: you let God take care of the results. We don’t save anyone. That’s God’s doing. God alone works this miracle of faith in human hearts. We are to expose others to Christ. And then we trust in the power of the Gospel that it will accomplish its purposes. God says in Isaiah 55:10-11 that, like the snow and the rain water the earth and produce the crops, his Word is sent forth and will not return to him empty, but accomplish that for which he purposed it. Trust the power of the Living Word, Jesus, to do what God wills to accomplish. It is the consistent witness of our scriptures that God says, “Don’t worry about the results. I’ve got this. You express the faith and the relationship and I will take care of the rest.”
The next button: It’s the “Our God is BIG” button. God is on a mission to break open the fullness of his mercy demonstrated in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus and draw all people into that love. And God just will not be confined by our narrow definitions. The ways God seeks to accomplish this mission is multifaceted and beyond our imaginations.
God is already at work where people believe differently, where people have not acknowledged Jesus as God’s Messiah. As I said last week, neither Christianity nor the Bible say that every other religion is completely wrong. In Romans, Paul writes,
The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of God’s divine being. Romans 1:19-20 (The Message)
The Bible teaches that many people in many places have responded to the glimmer of the Creator God shining through creation. And many have organized their religions to pursue it.
And further on in Romans, Paul asserts that God has given all human beings a conscience that points toward God and God’s law:
When Gentile outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. Romans 2:14-15 (The Message)
And listen to Jesus in John’s gospel: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. John 10:14-16
And there is this: in Galatians 5, Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit of God. These are the fruits, the evidence that God’s Spirit is present: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Have you ever known these fruits to be present among people who do not know Jesus as their Savior? Of course you have. God is BIG. God is there. Acknowledge it. Step into those situations and name the God who is present, and when the time is right, speak into those situations the name that is above all names.
Is this blowing your mind? Good. Let’s blow it a little more. In Romans 11 Paul wrestles with the problem that his own people, the Jews, have rejected their Messiah. He is speaking to Gentile believers. “Has Israel stumbled so badly as to be beyond recovery? Has God rejected them forever? By no means! Their hardness of heart has led to the gospel being extended to the nations and the inclusion of many. Their loss has meant riches for you Gentiles. How much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” Over and over again he warns these Gentile believers, “Don’t be arrogant. Don’t consider yourselves superior over the Jews because you have accepted Christ and they have not.” And then he speaks of a great mystery. “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in then, in the same way, all Israel will be saved. And they will be saved just as you Gentiles have been saved, by the mercy of God shown in Jesus Christ.”
Wow! I can’t tell you I know exactly how God is going to accomplish this. Paul didn’t know – he has to resort to “IT’S A MYSTERY.” Just don’t limit God, tie God down to narrow doctrines and theology or bumper sticker Christianity. I don’t know how God is going to do it, but I do know that God is relentless in mercy, roaming this planet singing, “Give me land lots of land under starry skies above. DON’T FENCE ME IN!”
And the final button, at least for today, we’ll call “My Faith Story” button. We all have a story to tell. In two weeks our confirmands will tell theirs. How do we know we are right in acknowledging Jesus as the way the truth and the life? This may sound strange to your ears, but I would have to say that we cannot know in any ultimate sense – not until we die. Only one person came back from the dead to tell the world the final truth, and he didn’t go to the seats of power to show himself, didn’t reveal the truth to Pontius Pilate and remove all doubt. He went to his own disciples. And ever since, following him has been a matter of faith. Not certain knowledge, but faith. And faith can never finally be proved. It can only be shared. So, when someone asks me, “How do you know you are right?”, I humbly, with the mind of a servant, tell my story, the only truth I know, the truth I have believed since my 11th year.
I was 10, going on 11when Ruth and Harry Smith knocked on our door one evening and invited my family to church. We were not a church going family. Oh, I had heard of a God, from a fire-breathing missionary in my earlier years in South America. My only take away was that there was someone named God and he was really mad at people like me. But then, a knock on our door. The next Sunday, my parents dropped me off at First Lutheran, Longview, Texas, and said, “We’ll pick you up later.”
And from that first day I fell in love with Christ and with his Church. Today I answer to the name Christian because Ruth and Harry lived the Gospel story before my eyes in such a way that I soon came to see that this was my story and Christian was my name and Christ was my salvation. All around them was an atmosphere of welcoming grace. It didn’t matter who you were or what you have done or what you believed or if you believed nothing at all, Ruth and Harry were going to love you with the same love they had experienced in Christ. They started where you were, not where they were. They trusted so entirely in the transforming power of that love that they just kept showing up with it.
And they let God take care of the results.
You get the buttons right and everything else will fall into place.