First Presbyterian Church Greensboro, North Carolina September 22, 2013

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1 If I Could Ask God One Question 3. God, what about my Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim friends. or is Jesus the only way? John 14:1-6, Matthew 7:21, John 10:16, Romans 11:1-2, 5-6, Sid Batts First Presbyterian Church Greensboro, North Carolina September 22, 2013 God, what about my Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim friends.or is Jesus the only way. You addressed this question to God in various ways, but the one that grabbed me as straightforward and heartfelt was, God, will I see my Jewish friends in heaven? This is one of the big questions that we all ask and wonder about. It comes in various forms: Is Salvation only for those who follow or believe in Jesus? What about people in the other religions? What about salvation and those who have not heard about Jesus, or who have only heard a little bit and the part they heard was a poor portrayal? What about people born before the time of Jesus or those who have some mental incapacity and are unable to understand? What about a child who dies early? Is there a difference, in God s mind, between how God sees the gift of salvation to a child born of Christian parents who are members of First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, and a child born in Istanbul to Muslim parents, or a child born in Tel Aviv to Jewish parents, a child born in New Delhi to Hindu parents, a child born in Bangkok to Buddhist parents a child born in Mumbai to Sikh parents? In some ways the question is a theological question about salvation; and in some ways it is about pluralism and what it means to be a Christian in a world where two thirds of the population is not Christian? Some of you have said to me that you think I am courageous for taking on these big questions. But these are your questions and the truth is, as I have said, you don t have to agree with where I come out. But in my mind, what is the church, if it is not a place where we can consider the big questions of our day, the questions that we want to be able to wrestle with through the lens of faith.

2 2 So what about salvation for those outside of the Christian faith, and what about pluralism? Let s start with pluralism. I There are thousands of religions in the world and more than one hundred religions with at least a million followers. Christianity is the largest of the world s religions with over two billion people, which is about one third of the religious population. Christianity is followed by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all who have more than a billion members. The rest of the world s major religions have followers in the millions, not billions, and include Sikhs, Shintos, Jews, Baha i s, Taoists and a dozen others. And, there are a billion people who fall into the category of atheists, non-religious, or agnostics. Pluralism, in the religious context, might be understood as some combination of tolerance, understanding and coexisting. In a world where religious conflicts are the source of much of humanity s sin and misery, we know that making the world a better place and a more peaceful place, means embracing pluralism. Right? The sad history of violence between people of differing faiths points to this reality, demonstrated by the Crusades, the Irish troubles, the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, radical Islamic Jihadists, Somalia and Ethiopia, Pakistan and India, and Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. In the past century, Presbyterians have been among the leaders for ecumenism, working with other Christian churches, fostering dialogue among faith traditions, working as partners on humanitarian projects with those who have different beliefs and embracing a pluralism that seeks to affirm the dignity of other religions. We can be sinfully proud of this gene in our Presbyterian DNA. But we sometimes believe that embracing pluralism is to also believe that all religions are the same or similar All religions teach the same thing, All religions are true, All religions have a similar concept of God, And that all religions teach a similar approach to living that can be summed up by the Golden Rule. In other words, if you take all the religions of the world and combine them, they say basically the same thing.

3 3 And as much as I would like for that to be true, and as politically correct as that is, it is intellectually dishonest to say that all religions are basically the same. It is intellectually honest to say some religious views and practices are false and harmful. I mean, we could not say David Koresh or Jim Jones or Warren Jeffs have religious parity with Mother Teresa or Mohandas Gandhi. Right? And religions that teach that women are inferior and should be treated that way, or that life itself is a divinely ordered unequal caste system that you are born into and can never escape from, is false and harmful. So to say that all religions teach the same thing is dishonest. In the other great religions we find Multitudes of gods and goddesses, That there is no God, God is powerful but unknowable, A man can have multiple wives, Salvation is accomplished through a God-consciousness, The purpose of life is to avoid suffering and gain enlightenment, Reincarnation is a part of the divine purpose, Human beings are pure by nature and can keep evil away through purification rituals, and that a person s soul can attain perfect divinity. You get the point. This is to say, that if we embrace pluralism, (and I think we should) we are not saying that all religions are the same. This, of course, does not give us any license to treat people of other faiths with anything but absolute love and respect.the kind that our Christ taught us to have for all people. And, it doesn t mean that we can t learn some things, some spiritual things, from each one of the other religions. Salvation. Will I see my Jewish friends in heaven.or is Jesus the only way? A couple of years ago, USA Today reported that a survey among Presbyterians revealed that One third of us believe that only followers of Jesus can be saved, One third of us strongly disagree with that, And one third of us are not sure. What do you believe? II

4 4 As in all issues we want to first be guided by what scripture says. The scripture that is most often studied when the question of Jesus, salvation and other religions is asked comes from John s gospel. This beloved scripture is often heard at funerals and for good reason. Jesus is speaking to his disciples and says hopeful, comforting words: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father s house there are many rooms and dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going. Then Thomas says 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. I am the way No one comes to the Father except through me. So what is Jesus Way? Well, if I am hearing the gospels correctly, The way of Jesus is to love God and neighbor. The way is defined for us in the story of the Good Samaritan as helping those in need. The way is shown to us in the parable of the Prodigal Son where forgiveness is demonstrated by the Father s abundant grace. The way is made clear when Jesus held a child in his arms and said, Unless you become as a child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. The way is seen in how Jesus embraced Zacchaeus, a sinful man despised as a tax collector, whom Jesus called out of a tree and Zacchaeus told Jesus he would pay back those he had cheated. Jesus said, Salvation has come to this house. The way of Jesus is the way of humility; Those who humble themselves will be exalted, he said. Those who are last shall be first. The way is expressed when Jesus says: Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father Then in another place in John s gospel, Jesus likens himself to a shepherd. I am the good shepherd, he says. And then he says, I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. What does that mean?

5 5 Then Paul, that first theologian of the church, speaks of the fate of the Jews in his letter to the Romans. Read chapter 11 where Paul says things like: Has God rejected his people? By no means. A hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. That sounds to me like Paul believed the Jews would be included. So what does that say about people of faith in other religions? What I find myself concerned about is less for people of strong faith who are Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, or Mormon but people of no faith who may identify themselves as Christians but who have no spiritual life, depth, or commitment. To me that s more concerning than people who love and serve God. Who practice their faith, but whose tradition is not Christian. III In the end, what we Presbyterians say is that any declaration we might make about who is in and who is out is out of line, theologically unsound and assumes the role that only our Sovereign God can fill. Salvation is up to God. Period. Will we see our Jewish friends in heaven? Karl Barth, the great Reformed theologian of the last century said, The Christian hopes that everyone will make it in the end. C. S. Lewis, the astute British thinker said, Only atheists must believe everyone else has it wrong. Even Billy Graham, when asked if he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people says, Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won t. I believe the love of God is absolute. He loves everybody regardless of what label they have. For me, I go back to the John passage where Jesus says, In my Father s house are many rooms. Many rooms. Because for me, God is not a small God.but a magnanimous God, a generous, compassionate and merciful God. I know that because I see the character and the heart of God in Jesus Christ. When I think of the various circumstances and the un-level playing field that describes where

6 6 people are, peoples differing life circumstances and our exposure to God or Christ. Relative to one another, I have to believe that God grades on a curve. That curve I would call grace. And what that means in the end, none of us can be sure of. But no judge could be more gracious than our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life.

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