Pastor Tom Sorenson
April 28, 2002
Let us pray: "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen"
A while ago I heard some Christian faith healer being interviewed by Larry King. I think his name was Benny Hin. He claimed to be able to heal illness by invoking the name of Jesus Christ. I guess he has quite a following in certain Christian circles. It appears indeed that he has healed people with his touch and his prayer. Faith healing is not a big part of my own personal spirituality, but I don't doubt that true faith healing happens. It has been reported in so many cases, and in so many faith traditions, that I accept the fact that there is something to it.
What bothered me about this guy Larry King was interviewing was not that he claimed to do faith healing, but rather that he was loudly proclaiming that faith healing comes only through belief in Jesus Christ. Larry King asked him what he thought about the claims of people from other faith traditions that they too performed faith healings. The faith healer said with a perfectly straight face: Any supposed faith healing not done in the name of Jesus Christ is in fact the work of the devil intended not actually to heal but to mislead people and draw them away from the one true faith, that is, from Christianity.
This man was expressing a radical Christian exclusivism. In this view, there are only two ways in the world: the way of Jesus Christ and the way of Satan. To Christian exclusivists, salvation comes only from Jesus Christ and (which is the key point) must be won explicitly in the name of Jesus Christ. Belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the only true faith. Everything else is a snare and a delusion. Everything else is the work of the devil. All other faith traditions are simply false and lead not to salvation but to damnation.
That's the credo of the Christian exclusivist. It is widespread in the larger Christian church today. Most of our Fundamentalist co-religionists adhere to it rigidly, and have no trouble proclaiming it with supreme confidence. Recently a group of conservative Presbyterians declared the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA "apostate," that is fallen away from the true faith, because the General Assembly refused to adopt a statement about salvation coming only from Christ that was exclusivist in the extreme. Christian exclusivism is all around us.
Unfortunately, Christian exclusivism finds ready support in numerous passages in the Gospel of John. John is the favorite Gospel of the exclusivists. The passage we just heard contains a famous line that seems indeed to say that knowing Jesus is the only way to know God. The author of the Gospel has Jesus say: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Sure sounds exclusivist, doesn't it? Other passages in John sound if anything even more exclusivist. There is, for example, John 3:18, which reads: "Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." John is a very exclusivist Gospel. There's no doubt about that; and its author clearly intended it to be.
Now, I too believe that salvation is found in the Christian faith, that the way of Jesus is the true way. I know that Christian faith is true faith because I have the testimony of Scripture and of the saints of the Christian tradition over the last two thousand years and because, and this is at least equally important, I have experienced its saving power in my own life. When people like this Christian faith healer say Christianity is true faith, they are right. And still, I can't choke down the notion that everyone else is simply wrong, that there is no truth in other faith traditions, that only Christians are saved. I suspect, although I don't know, that many of you may have the same problem. So let me try to suggest some ways of thinking about the issue that may help all us, whether we are exclusivist in our thinking or not, think about the issue more clearly.
There are at least two problems for me with the notion that Christianity is the only way to God. First of all, it doesn't square with my understanding of God. Why would a God who loves all of humanity, all of creation, reveal truth to only some people? Why would God's only truth become the primary religion only in one little corner of the world, Europe, while for centuries the rest of the world foundered in spiritual ignorance? Why would God permit the creation of so many other faith traditions that have meant and still mean so much to so many people if there was only one way to the truth? The God that I know and worship wouldn't.
My other problem with Christian exclusivism is that it is inconsistent with human experience. True faith is reflected is lives of honesty, generosity, and spirituality. Jesus said "by your fruits you shall know them." If only Christianity is true faith, then how do we explain the fact that so many people of every faith tradition we know of, and even many people who follow no faith tradition, lead such lives? I've known, and I'm sure you've known, people from other faith traditions who are undeniably such good, faithful people. In my life this refers mostly to Jewish people; but it's also true of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and even atheist people. No, it just doesn't make sense to say that all those who do not expressly follow Jesus as the Way, are lost.
And yet there it is, in a book we proclaim to be Holy Scripture. "No one comes to the Father except through me." What are we to make of that? Well, one place to start is with history. The Gospel of John was written late in the first century CE. It was written in and for a group of Jewish Christians that was, in the words of one commentator, "undergoing a painful separation from the Jewish society to which its members had belonged." 1 They were, in fact, being thrown out of the synagogues precisely because of their proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The author of this Gospel was hurt and angry, and that hurt and anger is reflected, I believe, in the claim he repeatedly puts in Jesus' mouth that those who do not follow Jesus, i.e., the synagogue authorities who were throwing his people out, are lost. It may matter to some of you that the consensus among scholars is that Jesus did not actually say "no one comes to the Father except through me." That exclusivist thread in the Gospel of John represents not God's truth nor Jesus' own belief, but an anger that we might understand but of which we as the Church can only seek to repent.
And still, there it is, in a book we claim to be Holy Scripture. For some of us, perhaps, it cannot be that easily dismissed on the grounds of the historical analysis I just gave. So let me give another one that comes at the problem from a different angle. A very devout, spiritual Hindu was asked once about Jesus' statement in the Gospel of John that he was "the way, the truth, and the life." This devout Hindu replied: "This statement is absolutely true." Not what you'd expect from a devout follower of one of the world's other great religious traditions that does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior. He explained his statement this way. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life." To understand that statement you have to ask: What is the way that Jesus is? To find the answers to those questions we have to look at everything he stood for, everything he said and did. He stood for the Kingdom of God, for love, peace, nonviolent resistance to evil, the acceptance of all people, especially the marginalized and those whom the world scorns and rejects. He taught us to live life focused on God and on God's people and not on ourselves. He taught us that God accepts us as we are and forgives our sins. He taught us that the religious life is not about mechanical adherence to some new kind of moral law but about doing the will of God in loving service to one another. Those things, and not simply crying Lord, Lord, are the way, the truth, and the life that Jesus is. And that way, that truth, and that life are absolutely true not just for Christians but for all people. That's why people of all religious traditions can affirm this claim that John attributes to Jesus, because all the great religious traditions teach the same thing in these regards. All people of faith, or even just people of good faith, can and often do affirm all or at least most of those things.
But do you see the way our anonymous Hindu friend has twisted things from the conventional Christian understanding? So many of us take Jesus' statement to mean that the only way to find God is to proclaim our allegiance to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We take it to mean that we must affirm our belief not in the sacredness of the way Jesus taught us to live but in his person, his name even, regardless of how we then live our lives. Our Hindu friend had a far more profound insight into Jesus' meaning than so many Christians. He saw, as so many of us do not, that Jesus' way is anything but exclusivist. Rather, if we understand it properly, it opens us to see that knowledge of God and of God's will for all people is open to all people of whatever religious tradition and that God's truth can be found in many different places, expressed in many different images and metaphors. That's almost certainly not what the author of the Gospel of John meant. It is almost certainly closer to what Jesus meant throughout his life and ministry.
Does that mean that all religions are equal and that it doesn't matter which one we follow? Well, yes and no. It means that we cannot use Christianity to deny the truths of other faiths. There is no warrant in true Christianity for saying to the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, or the Buddhist that because we have Jesus we have the truth and you do not. That claim, made so consistently and so vociferously by the Church through the centuries, is nothing but spiritual arrogance that reduces our faith to idolatry by making God's infinite truth identical with our finite truth. Yet it does not diminish the truth of the Christian faith for us. We know that Christianity is true. We know that it brings us salvation, gives our lives meaning, helps us through the dark times, comforts us in our grief, gives us strength for the day and hope for eternal life. We have all those things through Jesus Christ, who is indeed the way, the truth, and the life. He is our Lord and Savior. His way is the way for everyone, whether they know him personally or not. What matters is not that we proclaim our allegiance to him, although here in the Christian church we certainly do that. What really matters is that we follow the way, the truth, and the life that he is. He said that those who do the will of God are his family. He showed and taught us what that will is. It's not that it doesn't please God when we proclaim Jesus our Lord and Savior. I am convinced that it does. But our proclamation is hollow if it does not lead us to live the way Jesus would have us live. And, I am convinced, a life lived that way is pleasing to God even if it does not include a profession of Christian faith. We are called to follow a way, a truth, and a life. Jesus is that way, that truth, and that life for us and for everyone.
Let us pray: God, you gave us your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life. Save us from thinking that that means only professing faith in him rather than trying to follow his way, know his truth, and live his life. Open use to see your face in all who seek to follow Christ's way, whether or not they call themselves Christians. Open us to see the workings of your grace in the lives of all people everywhere. Save us from the spiritual arrogance that reduces the profound truth of the Christian faith to idolatry. Make us true followers of Jesus, who is indeed the way, the truth, and the life for us and for all people. Amen.