August 20, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Is Christianity the Only Way?
Over 4 ½ years ago we did a series called Questions Alexa Can’t Answer in which we probed some of the tough theological questions of faith. Today we start a similar series. The key difference is these topics come from you. They are the questions about faith and God you hear from friends, your children, family members which you said you would like help in knowing how to answer.
The aim of this series is not to give you answers, it’s to help you answer, which means we are invited to wrestle with these questions ourselves and think about our own faith and what we believe and why. The strongest, most lasting faith is one that hasn’t just been handed answers and told ‘you must believe this,’ but that has developed through struggle and searching. So, in this series we are going to think, and question and consider what you believe.
We begin with a question that is a good follow up to our Faith in the Real World service last week, “Is Christianity the Only Way?”
First of all, its helpful to point out that Christianity is not the only religion that wrestles with being the one, true religion. Other religions profess to be the only way. Some years ago I performed a wedding for a United Methodist and a Muslim. Both families were very devout in their faith. The couple celebrated both a Muslim and Christian ceremony. At the reception I had two conversations within just a couple minutes. First, the grandfather of the groom, a Muslim who did not speak English, came up to me with the groom to interpret. He asked with a very concerned look on his face if I had prayed over the couple in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Which I had. I explained what that meant to me and the grandson interpreted. I think he added a little bit to what I said, because the grandfather seemed to ease up, but he walked away a little weary-eyed.
Then, just minutes later, the grandmother of the bride, a United Methodist from the deep south said to me in a very southern drawl, “Well, you just hope that this might bring some to Jesus.”
If the need of religion is to draw people into our religion, we will probably face some challenging moments and may even miss the point of faith.
But that brings up a second point about this question, “Is Christianity the Only Way?” When it comes to the right way, not even Christians can agree. There are more than 45,000 Christian denominations in the world. I remember serving a church in the rural parts of the Appalachian Mountains surrounded by some very fundamental Christians
there. A person asked me one time in a totally honest way, “Tell me about Catholicism. Are Catholics even Christian?”
There were some churches in those parts that openly preached that Methodists would not go to heaven because we weren’t true Christians. So when it comes to whether Christianity is the only way, for some that question is way too broad.
Its like the joke about the guy who goes to heaven and St Peter leads him to his denominational room. They first walk by a room with a lot of people and incense and bells. St. Peter says, “Those are the Catholics.” Another room was filled with people having a party. St. Peter says, “Those are the Episcopalians.” Another room has a man lecturing and people taking notes. “Those are the Baptists.” Then they tip toe around a room and St. Peter motions to be quiet. Once they are past he says, “Those are the Methodists. They think they’re the only ones here.”
Now there are a lot of versions to that joke and people usually place different groups in that last category depending on who they think is the most self-righteous. Even among Christians we get divided over who is in and who’s not. Of course, we have to recognize that this question is above our pay grade. We don’t determine who goes to heaven; who is accepted by God. That is God’s and God’s alone. But God does call us to be faithful, and what we think about this question impacts what we believe about our responsibility to share faith with others. So let’s assume that all who welcome Christ as their Savior and access to God are in. Does that mean we are the only ones who are in? Is Christianity the only way?
One of the key verses of scripture in the Gospels that is the reason many people believe Christianity is the only way, is John 14:6 where Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus words seem unequivocal. He clearly assumes the role of being the only way to God that leads to truth and life. New Testament professor Dr. Gail O’Day says, “These words affirm that Jesus is the tangible presence of God in the world and that God the Father can be known only through that tangible incarnate presence.”
But then Dr. O’Day continues and recognizes what becomes a disconnection in this belief. She says, “The very clarity and decisiveness of (this) conviction here have turned these words into a weapon with which to bludgeon one’s opponents into theological submission…they are taken as a rallying cry of Christian triumphalism, proof positive that Christians have the corner on God and that people of any and all faiths are condemned.”(New Interpreter’s Bible, John, p743)
Such belief has fueled events like the crusades and the holocaust, some of the darkest moments in human history. How can Christians take something Jesus said and turn it into actions that in no way reflect the way Jesus lived?
Perhaps it will help to look a little closer at John 14:6.
First, let’s remember that Jesus’ words were for those most loyal to him. He is talking to the disciples preparing them for his death. He is not addressing a large audience and certainly not a gathering of mixed religions. He is talking to those who have committed their lives to him. He is seeking to bolster faith in him because in just a matter of hours they will be tempted to question that faith. After Jesus’ death they will be tempted to believe he was not who he said he was. So Jesus makes clear that in him they have access to God. Their faith is legitimate.
And remember too, that John is the only Gospel to record these words. The Gospel was written around 90-100AD when Christians were undergoing extreme persecution in the Roman Empire. John himself wrote the Gospel while imprisoned. Perhaps John included these words to encourage people in his time tempted to give up on their faith. That’s important to understand in interpreting these words.
Then the second thing to note is Jesus described himself as the Way to God, and I believe this is key to understanding this verse. Jesus didn’t offer the disciples a doctrine or proposition. In telling them he was going to the Father and that they knew the way, Thomas asked, “How can we know the way?” Jesus said, “I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life.” The key word is Way. Jesus is the way to Truth and Life. He is the way to God.
In other words, his life is the way. To those who commit to following him, to living in his way, they experience access and connection to God’s power and presence in their lives. Jesus doesn’t say a religion or just using his name is the way to God. In fact, in place Jesus said the opposite. “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 in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Jesus is less interested in our creeds as he is our deeds. He invites people into his way of life.
But this still doesn’t resolve Jesus’ words, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Does Jesus mean that only those who believe in Him and seek to live his way of life will be in heaven?
To help you determine what your answer is, let me offer three possible responses. My friend Adam Hamilton in several of his writings on this topic identifies these three responses that have historically been offered. One is called Exclusivism: which is the idea that only those who acknowledge faith in Christ are fully accepted by God into heaven. Now a true Christian exclusivist who seeks to live the way of Jesus would never condone violence or coercion of others, but they would believe that their claim is reason to share faith and convince people of the need to be Christian. The emphasis is on right belief.
To the opposite of this is Universalism: the belief that all people who love God regardless go to heaven. Extreme universalists even believe that there is no hell and so everyone goes to heaven. That raises the question if hell is even a real place and would a loving God send people there, but you will have to come back in two weeks when we deal with that question! For now we leave it with the idea that good, loving people go to heaven, so that all religions get there.
Some who believe this say things like, “We all believe the same thing.” When I hear someone say that I know something about them. They haven’t spent much time studying religion. We don’t all believe the same thing.
Last fall Rabbi Brett Krichiver invited me to speak at their weekly Shabbat service at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation as part of a series where people of different faiths spoke about what repentance means in their tradition. I explained how repentance for Methodists was part of John Wesley’s larger understanding of the work of grace in our lives. When I finished Brett thanked me then turned to his congregation and said, “Rob spoke about something that is not so familiar to us Jews and we frankly have a hard time with: grace.” So while not condemning each other, Rabbi Brett clearly recognized we don’t believe the same things.
Now before I mention the third understanding, let me say that there are things about exclusivism and universalism I find both attractive and unattractive. I like the clarity of exclusivism. I like the motivation it gives me to share faith with others. And I like the compassion and understanding of universalism. Being a good person and showing acceptance of others beliefs are positive values.
But what I struggle with about both of these views is the emphasis on human action. Exclusivists place high value on what we believe. Our believing the right things are what get us into heaven. And for universalists its about our behavior. Our being good and loving and kind. And that is not the Gospel. The Gospel is about grace. It is about the benevolent, saving action of God on our behalf without our even asking for it.
Now I know that our acceptance of that gift is important. God gives us the choice to accept or reject. But too much emphasis on our believing what that means begins to turn the gift into a merited reward.
So go back to the statement, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” What does “me” mean? It means the life of Jesus, what he came to accomplish, his saving work. And since God is the author of that gift, then God can appropriate Jesus’ saving action as God chooses. Perhaps to an infant who died before being baptized. God’s saving action through Jesus Christ can be imparted to that child. Perhaps to a person who never made a public profession of faith, but because God knows the heart of a person, that saving action can include him or her. Perhaps even to people of other faiths, who though they don’t outwardly believe in Jesus may live lives that reflect Christ as well as any Christian. God’s saving work may include them too.
This is the view of Christian Inclusivism. This doesn’t mean belief in Christ doesn’t matter and all roads lead to the same place. Inclusivism believes salvation is offered specifically through Christ, through his life, through his saving work, but God can appropriate that work to whomever God chooses. There are many Christian leaders in history who have believed in this idea of Christian Inclusivism including John Wesley, C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham just to name a few. And you can probably tell by now that this is a position I hold.
This view holds open the possibility that some people may never know the name of Jesus and yet believe in him.
There’s a story about Helen Keller who was blind and deaf and couldn’t communicate until Anne Sullivan taught her. At some point in her adolescence her family became concerned that she have some kind of religious instruction, so they invited the famous preacher Philip Brooks who wrote the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to come and teach her about Jesus with Anne Sullivan translating. At some point a big smile broke out across her face and she communicated, “Oh I know Him. I just never knew his name.”
Christ must always be bigger than religion.
In C.S. Lewis’ final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia called The Last Battle, there is a character named Emesh who has worshipped a false god named Tash. Standing before the great lion, Aslan, who is a Christ-figure through the stories, Emesh shakes with fear expecting to be struck down. Instead he hears the voice of Aslan say, “All the service thou hast done to Tash, I accept as service done to me.”
What if Christ is like that? What if Christ’s way is bigger and broader and more gracious than we can imagine? As Rob Bell says in his book Love Wins: “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every particle of creation.” (p155)
Is Christianity the only way? It’s an important question, one that every Christian should wrestle with, because it makes us ask, “What do I believe about Jesus? Who is Jesus to me? Why did he come? And what difference has He made in my life and can make in our world? Why is Jesus important?”
Let me close by going back to that idea of Way. Jesus said “I am the Way…” What is saving, what is healing, what is life changing is not the name of Jesus. It’s not a belief. It is when we make his way our way. Or rather, when we welcome Him into our way, when we let Him have total direction of our way.
For when we do that we find that he takes away our sin and gives us a whole new life to live, just as Al Unser Jr talked about two weeks ago. It means we find Jesus as a connection to God’s peace and guidance in our lives. It means we feel overwhelmingly loved and cherished and valued.
Have you ever known that? Have you ever made his Way your Way? Has it been a while since you felt these things. Have you found your faith and self-worth and the awareness of God’s presence in your life falling a bit flat lately?