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Philip Gulley was the keynote speaker at the National Disciples Men’s gathering several years ago in Kentucky. Gulley is a 43-year-old Indiana Quaker minister, trained in a Disciples of Christ seminary, and is a nationally known humorist and storyteller. He tells about the day he was “saved” at the age of 14. He was told if he didn’t believe the right things about Jesus and join the One True Church–which, coincidentally, was the church he attended–he would go to hell, and he didn’t want that to happen. Besides, he said, “I knew if I said ‘yes’ I would get $20 from my grandmother. So, I believed.” Some people believe that salvation works like some sort of litmus test:

*Have you been baptized? Oh, then you’re safe.

*Are you a member of a church? That’s good.

*Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven? Whew.

*Have you been born again? Excellent.

*Are you a Bible believing Christian? Then you’re going to heaven!

According to some, the New Testament is quite clear: Jesus is the one and only way to God. He is the only begotten son of the Father (John 1: 14) and the only name by which we might be saved (Acts 4:12). The gospel of John says it explicitly: No one comes to the Father except through the Son (John 14:6). According to others, however, this conception of God is a misreading of the Biblical texts. They ask, How could a God who loves us more than a parent loves a child not want to bless all with eternal life? It was Jesus himself who said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16). Consider Matt. 7: 7-11 where we are told that God gives us everything we ask. Or the story of the prodigal son, when the father welcomes the errant son back and gives him the best clothes, a ring, and a feast. Some say that Christianity is only one among many ways God works in the world.

This is the last in the series “How to Be an Open-minded Christian without Losing Your Faith”, following a book written by Jan Linn. And I think this is his best work and cuts to the heart of what it means to be open-minded but still stand for something. Linn says that there are some things open-minded Christians can believe about other religions:

1. That a little knowledge can go a long way.

2. That fear is no match for divine love.

3. And that being open-minded also means being openhearted.

We’ll explore each of these separately. Jesus said that he did not come to judge others who do not follow his teachings, but that the teachings themselves would serve as judge. (John 12: 47-48). I’ve heard people over the years say that that meant people who didn’t believe in Jesus were going straight to hell–do not pass go, do not collect $200.

But what about those of us who say we believe in Jesus but don’t follow his teachings? Shouldn’t we apply the scripture to ourselves? If Jesus didn’t come to judge others who do not follow his teachings, why would we? You see, the more we know about what Jesus said and did, the less likely we will be to condemn those who are of other faith traditions. Remember Jesus in Samaria speaking to a person of a different race, religion, gender and moral character. He did not condemn her or even judge her. When we run across people of different races, religions, or moral character, do we follow Jesus’ example?

Jan Linn suggests that a little knowledge about Jesus can go a long way toward being open-minded about other religions. If we study about our own faith, we may discover that Jesus himself was not one to judge. He challenged the legalism of Judaism, spoke against religious hypocrisy and loveless piety and openly defied exclusivism that gave people the right to define God in absolute terms. The closer we get to Jesus, the less fear we will have about people of other faiths. It is fear that lies at the root of exclusivism. Many Christians fear the validity of other faith traditions because such validity would challenge the core of what we have been taught to believe. Sometimes, it seems, our faith depends on the invalidity of other religions. How can I be right if they’re right too?

That’s when we forget that Jesus taught that people are more important than rules. You see, grace is based on God’s actions, not our response. And God’s grace, as revealed in Jesus could be as large and encompassing as God chooses it to be. In fact, the gospel of John says, “God so loved the world….” It doesn’t specify the western world or the Christian world.

Isn’t it more important for Christians to focus on our new lives in our faith than whether God’s grace extends to others? Shouldn’t we take time to discover our own beliefs and relish our tradition instead of knocking the traditions of others? Couldn’t we spend our entire lifetimes discovering what it means to follow Jesus and basking in God’s incredible grace instead of complaining about whether God is going to give a little grace to others? Jan Linn says that open-minded Christians can believe that our fear is no match for God’s love. In fact, he says, if there are people who trust themselves to God without understanding or believing in what God has done in Jesus, he suspects Jesus would be the first to welcome them into the kingdom.

The apostle Paul tells us that the whole point of Jesus coming to earth was to tear down the walls between people. Our scripture lesson today points to the purpose of Jesus’ ministry and to the nature of grace. Read Eph. 2: 1-10.

Salvation is a gift from God, not something we earn by jumping through hoops or saying the right prayer. We talk a lot about Christians having free will; but we don’t talk as much about God having free will. And what we know from the Bible is that God loves all persons and bestows grace without our earning it. When the Bible talks about salvation, it does not dwell much on how one is saved, or even on what salvation means. Rather, the Bible declares that salvation has occurred. God has acted on our behalf--it is a given, a fact,  presented in both the Old and New Testaments.

The final point is that open-minded Christians need to be openhearted. God’s heart is bigger than most of us understand. The temptation to draw circles that limit rather than include is always present. But Jesus was one who included others often thought to be the ones who should be left out. For open-minded Christians the lesson in his actions is to leave the circles to God and focus on loving Jesus ourselves. Edwin Markham wrote one of my favorite poems:

“He drew a circle that shut me out. Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that brought him in.” These ideas redefine what evangelism is, then. It is witnessing to our own commitment to Jesus, (not trying to sell our religion or our church or trying to convert people), but speaking of the change in our own lives and what our faith means to us. The great commission is a call to teach others about Jesus. We can do that be demonstrating an attitude of tolerance and understanding toward other faiths, just as Jesus did. Rather than a compromise, this is a powerful witness to the kind of person discipleship has made of us.

Let us be true, faithful and committed to the search for truth and meaning, and to the journeys of those around us, appreciating what each can offer. Let us practice true acceptance and inclusion, as our Savior, Jesus, did.


Resources Utilized:

 “The Disciples Magazine”. April, 2004 issue, various articles.

Linn, Jan G. “How to Be an Open-minded Christian without Losing Your Faith”.

St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002.