Who do Christians think they are? How do we know we are right? Can every other religion be wrong? These questions are being asked of Christians a great deal today. In today’s climate, discussion of religion ranges from peaceful dialogue to outright hostility. So these questions may come at us out of respectful curiosity or they may come “in your face”. Christians need to have an idea about how to respond.
Can Jesus really by the ONLY way to know God? Aren’t all religions basically the same? We’re all trying to get to the same place, aren’t we? In my life there has never been a time when people were more interested in the teachings of other religions as now. And, I don’t know of a time when it has been as critically important that we seek to understand other religions and dialogue clearly with adherents of those faiths. I agree with the sentiment of the138 Muslim leaders and scholars who, in great humility and wisdom, have written to leaders of the Christian Church around the world, calling for peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity. Denouncing all forms of violence in the name of religion and citing our common ground in the “love God and love neighbor” commandment, they write: “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace … The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.” (“A Common Word Between Us and You” – http://www.acommonword.com)
I offer today the first installment of a 2 part message: “Is Jesus the Only Way?” I ask that you listen with an open heart and an engaged mind. Copies of these messages are available at the visitor center in the narthex and are being posted on our website under “Sermons”.
Let’s get right to it. “Is Jesus the only way to know God?”
Of course, the historical Church has always said, “Yes – a person’s only full access to God is through Jesus Christ.” The Church has sited scriptures like
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to
the Father except through me” John 14:6
Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else besides Jesus, for there is
no other Name under heaven by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12
There are assertions in the scriptures of other religions that are seemingly as exclusive. Religions by nature make certain claims, call their adherents to embrace specific tenets. And as soon as you have done that, you draw a line, and some are on one side of that line and some are on the other. In spite of a popular sentiment, all religions are not alike.
You’ve heard it – “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you believe – we’re all trying to get to the same place. Basically, any religion will get you there.” It’s not true. It’s like saying, “All Asians look alike.” I am insulted by such comments – so are my friends who are serious practitioners of other faiths. It is not complimentary. What it really says is, “It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to because religion isn’t all that important anyway.”
There are similarities among the religions: Jews, Muslims, and Christians all call Abraham “Father”. We three are monotheistic. We believe in one God. Christians and Jews believe that you can know God personally.
There are differences. In Buddhism, there is no god at all, only a path of enlightenment to reach nirvana – the elimination of all desire. Hindus believe that God isn’t personal or knowable; God is abstract. The Hindu seeks moral perfection through thousands and thousands of reincarnations. The Jew believes he achieves the right relationship with God by turning to God and living a moral life. The Christian believes that she cannot achieve moral perfection, but is forgiven and accepted by God who died on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ. Good works flow out of gratitude to God.
You see that there are differences, contradictions even. It can’t be all or many ways. Therefore, the Church has always concluded that Christianity is narrow, yet true.
But I ask you, when Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”, and when Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else besides Jesus”, were they wanting to exclude or include? Did they say those words so that some could feel superior to others? As soon as we become exclusive or superior, when we allow differences to destroy our love, we are no longer of Christ. And listen, unless you are sharing your faith, in a manner consistent with the expansive and inclusive love shown by Christ, what difference does it make how you answer the question IS JESUS THE ONLY WAY? It remains theory, theology, a reason to feel superior. If you are not extending the love of the Christ you now to another, then there is none of the right relationship God wants you to have with others and that God wants to have with all people. Our interest in the question is only genuine and God-pleasing when we are building relationships with people—not shying away from talking about faith issues – and doing so in ways that offer genuine respect for others.
I hope we are not people who are intolerant and judgmental of the beliefs of others who disagree with us. I hope we are not anti-intellectual, being unwilling to engage in the hard work of honest discussions and relationship-building with others who have questions about our faith.
Get this straight, my friends. The narrowness of Christianity vanishes as soon as you have stated it. It then becomes the most expansive and inclusive religion in the world. When you get this right, then you begin to look at non-Christians not as problems to be solved but as people to embrace in love. Our obligation as followers of Christ is not to impose him on others. We are not to force him on other people. We are not to point out the superiority of Christianity over other religions. And we are never given the directive to save anyone. We don’t save anyone. That’s God’s doing. We are to expose others to Christ. When we speak we should sound like Jesus. When we act, we should do those things Jesus would do. The reason many have rejected Christianity is not because they have encountered and rejected the real Jesus, but because they have encountered too many Christians who are harshly opinionated and unloving.
Is every other religion wrong? First of all, neither Christianity nor the Bible says 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 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
One of the most admired missionary thinkers of the 20th century was Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, who for 40 years served the church of South India. He spoke of God at work in many converts from other religions. “[There is] an element of continuity which is confirmed in the experience of many who have become converts to Christianity from other religions. Even though this conversion involves a radical discontinuity, yet there is often the strong conviction afterwards that it was the living and true God who was dealing with them in the days of their pre-Christian wrestlings.” Here is another highly respected Christian leader declaring that not every religion is completely wrong. That glimmer of the Creator, that deep within hunger for God is in all people and is our place to begin for speaking to others of God’s fullest expression in Jesus Christ.
Our God is big, and just will not be confined by our narrow definitions. God is on a mission to break open the fullness of his love demonstrated in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus and draw all people into that love. Jesus said,
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
Our God is BIG!!!! God is always working in places and with people beyond our imagining. God is relentless. We might stay hunkered down in our narrowness, but it won’t stop God.
Is Jesus the only way? As one who for 55 years has had a relationship with a living God through Jesus Christ, I am compelled to answer “Yes”. As I was writing this message, I saw in my mind me standing at the foot of Good Friday’s cross. I was looking up at a dying Jesus and saying, “Nice gesture, Jesus. Very moving. But, you know there are other ways to know God, don’t you?” I cannot describe to you the pain that came with that vision. My faith and trust in the living Lord of my life will not let me make peace with it.
Jesus is the only way to know the God who became knowable. Jesus is the only way to know the God who embraced a fallen world and forgave its sin and restored its humanity. Jesus is the only way to know the God who accomplished what we could not, and then says, “Forgiven. You can begin again.”
The basic premise of most world religions is, “Do these works—follow this way of life—and you will gain favor with God.” Christianity is 180 degrees opposite. It says there are no works you can do to achieve salvation. Just trust God, ask for forgiveness, and it’s yours for free.
Most world religions say, “Do.” Christianity says, “Done”.
If you believe that is good news, don’t keep it to yourself.
To be continued. Amen