"Why There Is Only One Way"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/26/2000
Exodus 20:1-17; I Corinthians 1:18-25
This past week we have been witnesses to the Pope's visit to Jerusalem. He went there with an olive branch and a message of reconciliation. There was no hint that "people must believe like the Roman Catholic Church or be lost." The fact is, we have witnessed just the opposite. There was one dramatic moment when reverently the Pope paused while being interrupted by the Islamic call to prayer. This was a call for Islamic followers to express their faith. And the Pope waited with a spirit of respect.
The question we are going to explore today is: What is this "One Way"? The truth is, there is only one way to be saved from this life, but it may not take place in the manner many of us believe. The Pope's visit is symbolic of a quantum leap toward a vital insight. A brick has been taken out of "the we-they wall" and put into the foundation of a temple that communicates "us." This is a significant departure from the path most world religions have traveled for centuries.
Is this new wave of tolerance for other belief systems diluting the truth? Is the spirit of accommodation accelerating the softening of Christian principles, values, and beliefs? Or, are we honoring the ancient lesson Jesus taught, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself"? These two positions present us with an interesting tension. It is an interesting tension because we cannot have it both ways. How can we love someone if we are convinced that they are wrong and lost? And according to such thinking, they became lost through no fault of their own; they just happened to be born in a culture that supports a belief system quite different from our own.
Our lesson today does not just touch on this theme; the Apostle Paul explores it quite thoroughly. Paul quoted an author who had God say, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and set aside the understanding of the scholars." Then Paul went on to write: "So then, where does that leave the wise? Or the scholars? Or the skillful debaters of this world? God has shown that this world's wisdom is foolishness." Paul continued with these words, "God has made it impossible for people to know him by means of their own wisdom."
Typically we Christians have used Paul's words to show how the thinking of others is wrong, without realizing that Paul's words also apply to our own reasoning and interpretations of Scripture. If salvation is up to God, if salvation is dependent on how God planned it, and if salvation comes from God whose love sends the rain on the just and unjust alike, what are we to think?
In spite of what we think about the process of personal salvation, this "one way to be saved" is not up to us. It is up to God. And God's decision about our eternal nature was made billions of years ago before this planet cooled enough to support life. Read again the first four verses on John's Gospel if you are not clear on the timing of God's creating this plan.
Such a message can be confusing to people, particularly if they have built their lives around doing the right thing, believing the right message and segregating themselves from those who are "wrong." The problem is that Jesus never taught us such things. He asked us to go into the world and love its people. He did not ask us to be in competition. He did not ask us to use words that divide. He did not ask us to use fear-based theology as a means of persuasion. Theology was to be used to heighten our ability to radiate God's presence wherever we are. He asked us to be the leaven for the loaf, not divide the loaf between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
Some years ago, a female minister in our Conference spent a year in Nicaragua. This was a very defining moment for her. The people in the village where she stayed were extremely poor. Each Sunday the men, women, and children would gather for worship in their old battered building. Carol said that the roof leaked during the rainy season but that did not seem to bother the people.
She told story after story of how the Gospel poured forth from the spirit of these people. They never asked questions about who was saved and who was not, or who was right and who was wrong. To them, everyone mattered. Their sense of community was powerful. They spent time praying prayers of thanksgiving and praise for how God had blessed them. After Carol witnessed such faith, she understood that the greatest thing we can do with our lives is to make Heaven visible right where we are.
Carol came back from that experience a changed woman. But she became like a flower that quickly wilted in the sweltering heat of the sun. When she got involved again in Conference politics, the Conference appointment system and the demands of ministry as it was increasingly being defined for her by her lay people, she wilted further. Then when she had to work with people who were resistant to women in the ministry, the stress and pressure became too much. She left the ministry. But she left knowing that in Nicaragua she had been in Heaven.
People who have to debate who is right and who is wrong have missed the point of Jesus' message. They miss the message Jesus was communicating as he was dying. In our lesson today, Paul wrote, "The Jews want miracles for proof, the Greeks look for wisdom. As for us, we proclaim the crucified Christ . . ." What was it that Paul was proclaiming about the crucifixion? Jesus' death is so central to our faith, yet many of us still remain unclear what we are to believe about his experience on the cross.
Jesus had arrived at the point in his life where he could say with total confidence, "Wherever I am, the Kingdom will be present". He did not try to escape his enemies. He did not surrender to feelings of betrayal. He did not try to defend himself before Pilate. He accepted those who beat and spit on him. He did not judge those who jammed the crown of thorns on his head, nor was he angered at those who drove the nails into his hands and feet.
He was already in Heaven even while he was dying. This is what we miss with all the complicated theologies developed through the centuries that have tried to explain what happened on the cross. In essence Jesus prayed, "Even now, my Father, do not hold these actions against them. They simply do not understand. And while they are doing their worst to me, I will show them the Kingdom as I die." What a picture of Heaven! Contrast that with what we experience in our world.
We live in a world where Catholics and Protestants only tolerate each other in Northern Ireland, where a collection of people in our country refer to themselves with pride as "The Christian Right," and where Christians and Muslims employ terrorist tactics to defeat each other in the war- ravaged provinces of former Yugoslavia. How easily believers forget that our mandate from Jesus was to demonstrate to others what it looks like to live in Heaven.
During our Lenten service this past Wednesday, our speaker was Joni Seith who spoke to us about the power of prayer. Joni suffers from a degenerative disease that has made her bones like someone three times her age. All the tendons and muscle tissue are also losing their ability to perform their functions. She had to sit while she spoke to us. By looking at her, one would never know that she lives in constant pain, a pain so strong that on many nights she cannot sleep.
In spite of her physical condition, she radiated such an energetic, peaceful spirit. She was much like the people Carol found in Nicaragua, who were not worried about the decaying condition of their church building. What gave Joni the courage to celebrate life came from the spirit that lived inside her building. And that is what matters when we are communicating what Heaven is like.
One of the interesting qualities about our culture at St. Matthew's is how we get along. There is no undercurrent. There is no "we-they." And yet I dare say that we have people who believe the exact opposite from each other on many issues. Every point and counter point is here. Why is it that the attitude of "I'm right and you're wrong"is not an issue? Why is it that people do not insist that all of us must circle our wagons around a particular point of view before we can worship together?
The new members joining our church family today have experienced this unique quality about us. Such a spirit outcrops all the time. We have surgery and people we do not know send us cards. We are away for awhile and strangers call us and say, "We've missed you." Death removes a loved one from our world and suddenly notes and letters come from everywhere. Breads and pies show up. Perhaps we are housebound following an operation and someone volunteers to take us to our doctor's appointment. How we value each other is far more important than any of our differences!
The secret to understanding why there is only one way to Heaven is to remember that our salvation is totally dependent on God and not on our beliefs about "how" or "why" of God's love. And, secondly, when Jesus said, "Follow me," he was inviting us to live in Heaven right now as he did. Making Heaven visible is our task. Jesus' death on the cross showed us what was possible even under the most horrible of earthly circumstances. He led the way. Can we choose to live as he did everyday? Yes, we can! That is the choice we must make every moment we live. The joy of this church family is that we make that choice together.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, how we long to find the correct road map for life. How often we pray for you to heal our personal crisis or to carry us away from issues that challenge our faith. Yet we know that we have also prayed, "Here am I, Lord. Send me." Enable us to open our eyes so that we understand that we cannot be a candle in the wind, if there is no wind. We cannot be a light in the darkness, if there is no darkness. Lead us, O God, to lift the expectations we have of ourselves. May we welcome challenges as our opportunity to bring a spirit of peace. Strengthen our resolve to be your healing touch, to be your listening ears, and to be the ones who communicate your love. May we learn that we do not walk the earth to receive, but to enable others to find their way. We, too, have come here as ones who serve. During each difficult day, help us remember who your Son called us to be. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and always present God, we thank you for the way you created us. How we wish we could cling only to the attributes of spirit that Jesus taught us were possible. We enjoy living with a spirit that knows laughter and joy, that has refined forgiveness and acceptance, and that has learned to celebrate diversity.
Yet we also live with that part of ourselves that remembers specifics about others when they have not used good judgment, when their words have hurt us, and when they have broken our trust. How quickly we allow others to take up residence in our minds, when we brood, nurse our wounds and allow our desires to strike back to tempt us. We are even aware, O God, of how easy it is for us to remember someone for the one mistake they made in life, as if that deed has the power to overshadow all else. Teach us that such a memory reflects our spirit, not theirs.
As we walk through these Lenten days, help us remember the times Jesus' teachings were challenged and rejected, the times his disciples demonstrated their poverty of spirit, the time when he was betrayed by one of his chosen, the time his best friends abandoned him, and the times he faced injustice. Through all of these experiences, he managed to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and trust you for the outcome of all things. May we learn that he was tested in every way as are we, and yet nothing in his experience was powerful enough to move him away from the Kingdom where he lived. Bless us with such a remembrance of him who taught us to say when we pray . . .