Is Believing in Jesus Exclusive?
In the Scripture lesson from the lectionary (the suggested reading for the day,) we heard the exciting story of Paul and Silas in Philippi. The story is rich in sermon material. There are many sub plots which lend themselves to provocative sermons. For example, we could talk about mental illness. Is there are any relationship between mental illness and demon possession? Actually, it doesnít say that the slave girl was mentally ill. She possessed powers that enabled her to tell fortunes, and she bugged Paul and Silas. She followed them for days, shouting. Paul finally got tired of this screaming woman following him, and commanded the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus. Paul and Silas were thrown into jail for healing her, because she lost her power. This made her pimps angry because she was no longer profitable. Actually, I have been asked to preach about demon possession. Iím still working on that one; when it is ready, you will be the first to know!
Another sub plot which makes the story ripe for preaching is the baptism of the jailer. Paul baptized him and his entire family. One would think that his family included children so this example is often used when making the case for infant baptism.
Another sermon could be preached on prison behavior! While in jail Paul and Silas sang and prayed into the wee hours of the morning. When you are thrown into jail, what do you do? I wonder how many modern prisons would tolerate hymn singing and loud praying at midnight!
Or, I might preach on earthquake behavior. When the big one comes, what will you be caught doing? Paul and Silas were singing and praying. Then the earthquake struck, knocking down walls, freeing prisoners. But Paul and Silas did not escape. The jailer was so relieved, he became a believer. Before the earthquake, they sang and prayed. After the earthquake, they preached. The jailer asked, "How can I be saved?" Paul told him, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved."
The sermon I have decided to preach from this exciting story is about Jesus. The jailer found God, which we call salvation, by believing in Jesus. Is believing in Jesus exclusive? What about other religions? Are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons all going to hell?
A popular theology today goes like this, (youíve probably heard it), "There are many roads that lead to heaven. Christianity is one of the roads. As long as you believe in God and live a good life, one religion is as good as another." Have you heard that bit of syncretism? This theology melts all religions down into inoffensive mush. I doubt if the other religions are too thrilled with the mush. The Bible certainly isnít.
The first commandment resounds, "You shall have no other gods before me." Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father but by me." Christians claim that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. We know God, identify God, define God, understand God, and relate to God because of and through Jesus. We pray to God through Jesus. We pray to God in Jesusí name. So, is believing in Jesus exclusive? What about the other religions?
My answer is that what we experience in and through Jesus is revelatory of the one, true God. We can trust our experience of Jesus. We can trust that when we believe in Jesus, we will be saved. We will be put in touch with the Creator. We will enter into relationship with the one, true God.
But, Christ is larger than the human Jesus. The gospel of John begins by stating that the Word which was with God at Creation became flesh and dwelt in our midst in the person, Jesus. But, surely the Word and energy of creation cannot be completely contained in the human person, Jesus.
Nor can Jesus be contained within the movement that carries his name. Jesus is far bigger than European and American Christianity. Even in Jesusí day, the movement was bigger than the twelve disciples. On one occasion, the disciples were jealous and complaining about other people healing. Jesus replied, "I have other sheep than this flock." Not even the disciples could monopolize Jesus. Not even they had the right to limit Jesus, and exclude others because they didnít belong to their organization!
And, surely, Jesus is far larger than our experience of him. Trying to limit Jesus to our experience, trying to limit Jesus to Protestantism, trying to limit Jesus to ecumenical international Christianity, is like trying to limit the ocean to the San Francisco Bay. Do not those who play on the beach in Tahiti experience the same ocean you do when you go to Rio Del Mar?
Are we so arrogant to presume that we can take Jesus, put him in a box with the name "Christian" on it, and conclude that no one gets to God except through our way, our beliefs, and our experience? God works however and wherever and whenever in order to achieve a just, caring, and peaceful world for everyone. Even in the United States, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, God often has had to work outside churches and synagogues. Organized, institutional religion is sometimes the last to respond, the last to wake up.
Because the churches and the medical profession were hopeless failures in treating alcoholism, God had to go outside the church to minister to alcoholics, and raise up Bill W. to found Alcoholics Anonymous which, ironically, is based on biblical principles. How dare we Christians presume to have a monopoly on Jesus! There have been times, including our own time, when the Christian Church has hardly carried the banner leading the parade for social change.
Jesus cannot be limited to our experience. Yet, the God we experience through the Jesus the church has known is the one, true God. The limited experience we have is valid! Through Jesus, we are saved. So, what is our relationship to other religions?
We who believe in Jesus are not called to judge other religions, nor condemn them, nor act as if ours is superior or better. On the contrary, there is much we can learn from other religions. The Eastern religions can teach us about prayer and meditation. Native American religions can teach us how to care for the earth. I must admit, however, I do have some reservations about the present Iranian version of Islam! Our role is to witness. We are called to witness, not to judge. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, all we know is our experience. All you know is what you know; yet it is amazing how opinionated some people get about things they know nothing about!
What you are called to do is share your experience. Because you care about people, you want to share with them how belief in Jesus has helped you. Donít say to them, "My faith is better than yours." Donít say, "You need to believe in Jesus." Donít say, "You should go to church." But, rather, say, "Let me tell you what my faith has done in my life."
This is strange language for mainline church members! We are not accustomed to talking publicly about our faith. That is sad. How many people could benefit by your experience! How many people need to hear a word of love, a word of compassion, a word of hope, a word about Jesus! Your children need to hear what Jesus means to you. At the roundtable meeting yesterday, we talked about the lost generation. Missing in churches across the country are people in their 30s and 40s. If all the children of our church members were here this morning, we would have to bring in chairs. Do your children know what your faith means to you? Your fellow workers need to hear what Jesus means to you. Your grandchildren need to hear what Jesus means to you. Your parents need to hear. You donít have to stuff it down their throats, but you are called to witness.
What does Jesus mean to you? Rather than worrying about which religion is better than the others, look into your own heart and ask what your faith means to you. What would your life be like without Jesus and the church? We canít separate Jesus from the church. The church is the body of Christ on this earth now. All we know about Jesus is through the church. The church gave us the Bible, and through the Bible, we learn about Jesus. Through the lives of church people, we experience Jesus.
Let me share with you briefly this morning what Jesus means to me. I cannot imagine my life without Jesus. I cannot imagine where I would be this morning without Jesus and the church. Because I believe in Jesus, I am loved. I am wanted. I am blessed abundantly, beyond measure. I have the most amazing wife. She can organize, recruit, paint, and make delicious cinnamon rolls, all of which she did yesterday for the painting bee in the Childrenís Center. My boys are incomparable. My church is exemplary. I work with a superior staff, and the laypersons of this church are the best. I am blessed. I am loved. Truly, Jesus loves me. Because I believe in Jesus, I am needed. I am called. I am led. I have a job to do, and it is an important ministry. I give my life to Jesus to do with as he will. I have several theme songs I have sung to myself through the years. One favorite is:
Iíll go where you want me to go, dear Lord, Oíer land or on the sea. Iíll do what you want me to do, dear Lord. Iíll be what you want me to be.
And when I fail, when I mess up, when I make an error in judgment, or put my foot in my mouth, Jesus forgives me. I am forgiven, given second chances--third, fourth, seventy times seven. God is so patient. I like the King James word: long suffering. God is long suffering.
Because I am loved, needed, led, and forgiven, I cope relatively well with the daily stress of life. It must be in the atmosphere, but life everywhere seems to be filled with stress. No less true in the church. I often feel tired, stressed out, and inadequate. Is this job too much for me? Is this church too much for me? But, then the Holy Spirit pokes me, usually in the person of my wife who says, "Hey, shape up. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Donít you dare move me!" And, Jesus says to me, "Hey, did you forget? Believe in me. Trust in me, and you will be saved. Youíll make it!" Thatís the promise.
Because of my experience, I commend Jesus to you. Not that I am better than you, or that my religion is better than yours. I do not judge. Jesus is far bigger than my limited experience for me to judge you and your faith. But, confidently, because of my experience, I can tell you, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved."
I invite you this morning to share your faith. At least once this week, tell someone about your faith. Look for the right time and place, and share what Jesus means to you.
ã 1989 Douglas I. Norris