Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
I admit to some confusion over Jesus’ words this morning. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” I’m not entirely clear on what he means. Who are these other sheep? How can they listen to his voice but not already belong to this fold? This passage makes me think of another one in John, where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” (John 14:2). And earlier, where he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) All of these passages together seem to say that Jesus is looking beyond the circle of Jews in Israel, and possibly even beyond the community of Christians for whom the Gospel of John was written. These passages together seem to say that God intends to bring all people, including non-Christian-believers, into God’s presence. Universal salvation.
Except... except that in the same Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And in the verses right before our reading for today, Jesus says that he is the gate to the sheepfold and that “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:7,1) And in Acts, we just heard Peter say, filled with the Holy Spirit, “There is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given by mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) All of these passages together seem to say the opposite, that Jesus is concerned only with Christian believers, and that those who do not profess Jesus as their Saviour are judged and condemned and either cast out or left behind when the time comes. Not-so-universal salvation.
Now, for a long time in the church, the contradiction didn’t really bother too many people. Before globalization was a word, in places where everyone was Christian except for a small minority that everybody ignored anyway, people didn’t give much thought to “heathens,” as they called them. A few good-hearted people worried about the souls of those in faraway countries but, by-and-large, Christians could live their entire lives without meeting anyone of a different religion. Martin Luther, for instance, never met a Muslim (or Turk, as he called them), even though he had quite a number of opinions about them. He certainly wasn’t in any distress about the possibility that God might not welcome them into God’s presence when they die.
This is not the case anymore. At least not for us, who live in Calgary. The reality is that many of us care deeply about people who are not Christian: family members, dear friends, good neighbours, co-workers. We love people who may have once been Christian but no longer consider themselves such, or are avowed atheists, or practicing agnostics, or active members of other faiths. These people who do not belong to our fold, or to any fold at all, are people we hold close in our hearts, and so it can cause deep distress to think that when they die, God will keep them out. In fact, just on Thursday, I saw a newsclip on CNN of a little six-year-old named Emanuele who had a chance to ask Pope Francis a question, and Emanuele’s father was an atheist and had just recently died, and Emanuele, with deep concern, asked the Pope if his father was in heaven with God.
This question of what happens to non-Christians can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant. It is something we as Christians must struggle with, because the struggle tells us not only who we are as a human family, but also who this God is whom we worship. It forces us to examine what we really believe about this God whom we say is love and this Christ whom we say brings life. It pushes us to ask ourselves if we really do trust this God in whose name we gather.
The church-at-large. around the world and through history, has three different responses to this question. I cant tell you which one is “right.” It is not given to us to know in this lifetime anything for certain––as Paul says, we see through a glass darkly. But as we look at these three responses, I encourage you to ask yourselves, “Which one makes me feel closer to God? Which one makes me trust God more? Which one makes me feel God’s love for me more?” These are the questions that always guide us, because they direct us to the heart of faith.
So, the first response, which has been the church’s historical response, is that all people must accept Jesus Christ as Lord in order to receive life. Essentially, only the baptized get to be with God after they die. This understanding is at the heart of missionary efforts, as Christians go out into the world to introduce Jesus to non-Christians. And I don’t want to be cynical about missionaries, even though in the past, they have too often worked hand-in-hand with governments to support colonialism. I believe that missionaries are truly motivated by concern and love for non-Christians. They do really want these “sheep that do not belong to this fold,” to be found and restored to the one flock under Jesus Christ. In the end, though, they firmly believe that only Christians are saved. If you love someone who is not Christian, you need to work at converting them, otherwise you will be separated forever when you die.
The second response, much more common today, is the extreme opposite, and it is that God saves everyone, without question. God made everyone, God loves everyone, and so God saves everyone. And I like this––I like that it emphasizes God’s love for the world. I want this to be true, except it’s not. At least it’s not for Christians. Our Christian belief states, without doubt or compromise, that God loves us through Jesus Christ. Christ is essential to God’s love for us. Christ’s death and resurrection are an indispensable part of God’s relationship with us. If not, if God is able to save us all without Christ, then everything about us as Christians is pointless. It’s great for those we love who aren’t Christians––not so good for us.
The third response is not particularly new, it’s just not particularly wide-spread. And that is that God saves everyone through Christ––that Christ is indeed the way, the truth, and the life––but that each individual’s acceptance, or even awareness, of that truth is irrelevant. Essentially, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, was a once-and-for-all cosmic event that affected all of time from the Big Bang to whatever happens at the end, and redeems all of existence from every single person on our tiny earth to whatever alien life might be present on the very borders of our universe. And that this salvation that God has accomplished through Christ is so final and so ultimate that not even our ignorance of it or doubts about it or refusal to believe in it or our belief in something else entirely can change the reality that it has happened. Out of deepest love for all of Creation, God has saved us through Christ, and those we love who aren’t Christian. It’s done. Nothing can change what God has already done through Christ.
So how do we know which of these three understanding is the “right” one? As I said earlier, which is the one that leads you to trust God more? This is not a rhetorical question––the right one is whichever one draws you closer in love and trust to God. Which is the one that allows you to entrust those you love to God’s care? That reassures you of God’s love for you through Christ? We know that God’s basic orientation towards all of Creation is one of goodness and love and abiding care. Scripture tells us this over and over again. God wishes us all to be saved. God wishes us all to be cared for by a shepherd who would lay down his life for us. God wishes us all to have light and life in the midst of darkness and death. God delivers us all from evil. All of these truths can be asserted without doubt. And so all we can do is trust in God’s love for us, and in God’s love for those we love. And this is the truest act of faith and the worship of Christ––to trust completely in the God who sent him, the God who saves through him, and to commend those we love to God’s care.
So, Emanuele, the little six-year-old who asked Pope Francis if his father, an atheist, was in heaven now? When Pope Francis heard his question, he called him forward and hugged him close, and then said to everyone there, “Do you think that God could leave him far from him? Do you think this?” And then he said, “God has a dad’s heart.” God has a dad’s heart. We know that our hearts are full of love for those in our lives who aren’t Christian; God’s heart even more so. God loves the ones we love even more than we do, for God made them, and Christ died for them. And so we can trust Jesus when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” and when Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, “There is salvation in no other name but Jesus.” Both can be true, through the grace and love of God through Christ that passes all understanding. Thanks be to God. Amen.