Sermons

PastorEric-2Sunday's Sermon - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. 

There Is No Exclusivity in Christ, Sermon for 5th Easter, “A,” Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, May 18, 2014


Today’s passage is loaded. On the one hand, it contains some of the most comforting words in all of Scripture. Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for
you?” I have read these words many times graveside to people who were saying good bye to a loved one.

These beautiful words from the lips of Jesus can help take some sting out of suffering. Jesus promises to go before us and prepare a place for us in God’s eternal
kingdom. His assurance calms some of our anxiety about the death of our loved one and plants in our soul a seed of hope that there is another dimension to
existence, a spiritual realm where we can enjoy everlasting life. These words can help us survive the deep valley of suffering and despair.

However, there are other words in this text that can make many of us uneasy. According to John, Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Many people believe that these words should be understood in the narrow sense to declare that only Christians will be welcomed into God’s kingdom. Everyone
else? Sorry, you are all going to hell!

I want to be very clear about this so-often misinterpreted text – Jesus is not saying that only Christians will be welcomed into God’s kingdom. That would be
impossible, of course, since Jesus lived his entire life on this earth as a Jew.
But, more importantly, such thinking is both hateful and wrong. It has helped spark the blood-letting of the Crusades and helped pave the road to the Holocaust.

And, more recently, some Christians have latched onto these words to justify their intolerance of other faiths. The extremes are folks like Florida pastor Terry Jones
who burned the Koran and the recently-deceased Kansas Baptist pastor Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Homosexuals” campaign (only he didn’t use the word
“homosexuals”).

Of course, most of the Christian intolerance based on these words is less dramatic, but it is no less harmful. I will always remember introducing my good friend,
Anuttama Dasa, an international leader of the Krishna sect of Hinduism, the monotheistic, one god, sect of Hinduism, to Edward (not his real name), a leader in
another Lutheran church body, not the ELCA. Afterwards, Edward told me that my friend Anuttama was clearly a very fine person, but was also going to hell! I
really didn’t know how to respond to this hateful statement and, to this day, regret that I didn’t respond with some words about how hateful Edward’s statement
was.

Some people of faith – especially some Christians, Jews, Muslims and, more recently, some Hindus in India – are prone to believe that their religion is the only true
one. Extreme Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists justify violence and terrorism. Extreme Christian fundamentalists call on the U.S. government to declare war on
Muslims. Ultra orthodox Jews declare that only they are God’s chosen people.

Too often some people of faith boast, “God is on our side! Only people who believe as we do are right.”

How many people today keep their distance from religion because they think it requires them to be intolerant of other beliefs and to have contempt for people from
other faiths?

I believe that one of the reasons the Christian church is shrinking in the USA can be traced to the misuse of this passage. Younger adults do not and will not
identify with any faith that would keep 2/3 of the world’s population out of heaven. That would be a heaven they would not want to occupy. Neither would I.

Let me state this clearly: I believe that Christ is the best revelation of God – Christ is the way for me. I will preach and try to live Christ as savior and guide until
my last earthly day. But I also will try to remember that it is very easy to slip into the mindset that God acts only in ways that are especially beneficial to me. That
is not how God acts. And, it is clearly God’s task, not ours, to determine who enters God’s kingdom.

When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” it sounds exclusive, open only to Jesus’ branch of Judaism. But, there are other passages
where Jesus strikes a very different tone. Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd and his followers are sheep and then adds, “I have other
sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16)

In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, we find a story about a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. His first response to her is to say that his
ministry is directed only at his people, the Jews. Yet, after she begs for help, Jesus heals her daughter and tells the woman that she possesses great faith, despite
the fact that she is a Canaanite.

And of course there is Matthew’s dramatic scene of the last judgment in which Jesus separates those to be included in God’s kingdom from those who will not. His
basis for separating them never mentions what people believe. He says those who will enter God’s kingdom are the ones who “fed the hungry, clothed the
naked, cared for the ill and visited those in prison.”

And, it is vital that we remember the context of today’s passage what was happening when Jesus said these words. It is part of Jesus’ farewell speech to his closest
followers, a few hours before Jesus is captured and put to death. He is not conducting a seminar on the legitimacy of other faiths. Nowhere does Jesus show any
knowledge of Hinduism. Islam would not emerge for 600 years. Jesus is not judging other faith traditions; he is comforting his closest friends and encouraging
them to remain faithful to his mission after he’s gone.

Jesus immersed himself in God. He studied and lived the Jewish Scriptures. Jesus is “the way” not in the sense that only people who believe in him will be saved,
but in the sense that he is a model. He shows us a life that is totally committed to God. It is a life filled by God’s love, God’s wisdom and God’s desire for justice.
Jesus calls on us to also be filled with God’s love and wisdom and desire for justice. That is Jesus’ way.

Christ is the way for me, but I do not believe that God is limited to only one way of reaching people. It makes sense that God would provide different paths for
people to follow.

Again, let me be clear: This does not mean that any path will do or that every faith is the same. Following Christ leads me to respect people of other faiths, but
following Christ also leads me to question any path that promotes injustice or fails to highlight compassion.

The great German theologian Karl Barth said it better than I can: Barth was lecturing to a group of students at Princeton Theological Seminary. One student asked
him, "Sir, don’t you think that God has revealed himself in other religions and not only in Christianity?” Barth’s answer stunned the crowd. "No,” Barth answered,
“God has not revealed himself in any religion, including Christianity. God has revealed himself in his Son."
God has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ. And, Jesus says this in verse 12 of today’s gospel lesson: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will
also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

Jesus challenges us to accomplish amazing things. He challenges us to outdo him in acts of compassion and works of justice. That is quite a challenge. Our works
do not save us, Jesus does, but our works are our response to God’s love in Christ Jesus.

Jesus challenges us to be his hands and feet in this world and to carry on his mission. He challenges us to break into people’s lives by loving them as he would.

Perhaps this is best summed up in Micah 6, chapter 8: “What does the Lord require of you - do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” That
is how we “come to the Father” in this life and the next.

Amen.

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California

 


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