In John Bunyans Pilgrims Progress, a man called Christian, weary of life in the aptly named City of Destruction, leaves behind his family and friends and sets out towards the Celestial city.
He has a major handicap in his travelling, and that is the huge amount of baggage which he carries on his shoulders. It is uncomfortable and restricts his movements, and Christian longs to be free of this burden.
The road he has to take is walled in on both sides. The wall is called Salvation. The burdened Christian could only run up this road with great difficulty because of the load he carried. Eventually he gets to a hill, where stands on the top a cross. At the bottom of the hill lies an empty tomb.
Bunyan writes "I saw in my dream, that just as Christian drew level with the cross, so the burden broke free from his shoulders, and fell off his back. It tumbled down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb. There it fell in, and I never saw it again."
As Christian stood with tears running down his cheeks, three angels arrived to announce "Your sins have been forgiven"
When the angels left him, Christian began to sing
"So far did I come loaded up with sin;
Nor could anything ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came here: what a place is this!
Must here be the beginning for my bliss?
Must here the chains that tied it to me crack?
Blessed cross, blessed tomb, blessed rather be
The man who here was put to shame for me."
There are many sayings of Jesus recorded in the four gospels, and Christians over the years have come to know, love and feel comfortable in the hearing of them. But theres one sentance in todays reading which, if we stop and think about it for a moment appears so black and white that we might be tempted just to rush over and ignore it.
"I am the way and the truth and the life," says Jesus in Johns gospel. "NO-ONE comes to the Father except through me!"
"No-one comes to the Father except through me" declares Jesus. Do we accept that as a true interpretation of Jesus words? Well, Im not qualified to argue any different, and if we start saying things like "Im sure he didnt mean it quite as starkely as that" then we might as well say the same of every other saying of our Lord.
But I dont see any problem, you might think. As a Christian Ive accepted that Jesus is Lord, and Ive done my best to follow his teaching.
What about those that havent? What about the athiest, the sincere agnostic, the Buddist, Hindu, Moslem, New Ageist and all those through the ages who have worshipped strange and sometimes local or tribal gods. Do you see the implication of the statement Jesus made?
If no-one can come to the Father except through Christ, then are we saying that heaven is a closed door for everyone who has failed to make a personal commitment accepting Jesus as Saviour.
What about Mrs Jones down the road, who has faithfully looked after her ailing husband for the last twenty years, devoting herself to ensuring his comfort and every need are met.
Shell get her reward in heaven, we say. But is that what Jesus is saying?
Or the Moslem scholar who has spent a lifetime studying and memorising the sacred text, and lives his life as a good follower of Islam.
Oh, but you say, thats Gods problem not mine. Everyone will be judged, and God who is a loving God will decide who does and who doesnt get through the gate. Its not for us to waste time on conjecture.
And thats very true. We shall all be judged, and no doubt there will be more than a few calling themselves Christians who will sweating when St Peter opens the gates. And yes, to a certain extent it is Gods problem not ours.
But in a world which seems to be saying that it doesnt really matter what you believe as long as you are sincere about it- in a world where Bishops feel free to admit that they dont really believe all that stuff about virgin birth, rising from the dead, and heaven, and are happy enough in their faith to preach this in the pulpit - in a world where multi-faith services are held, incorporating Christian , Moslem and Hindu prayers - I think its at least worth considering what Jesus might have meant in those few words.
Is Heaven a closed shop then, open only to those with a fully paid up membership card?
Is everyone else on the escalator down to the basement?
Does this fit in with our picture of God?
If we think of him as a God of judgement, which he certainly is, then I suppose it may. If we think of him as a God of Love, which he certainly is, then I suppose it doesnt.
So where does that leave us?
Are all other religions totally wrong? Are they moral?. Can they save you?. Can Christians learn from them? Should Christians practice things in them?
Now is probably not the place to start comparing religions. Suffice to say that there are certain truths contained within most faiths, and more than a little morality. Buddist teaching on the importance of silence and meditation, and Islam on submission to God deserve our repect and investigation. We must seek truth where it can be found, as all Truth (with a capital T) comes from God.
Let me make an attempt at a rather simplistic explanation, which may or may not be theologically correct, but which I find very helpful. It goes something like this......
Man has been created in Gods image. Are we agreed so far?
But God is love, truth, justice, peace and all those wonderful qualities which we read about in the pages of our bible. Therefore within man must be the blueprint of these qualities, the divine likeness.
All our good and healthy aspirations are reflections of that blueprint, and through it God wants nothing more than to draw us to Him and help us to become the whole person that He always intended. He is not only interested in our souls, he also wants us whole in body, mind and spirit - fully human, as we were created to be.
If we believe in mans aspirations, in mans desire to better himself, to build a just and united world, to live more fully, then we believe in the Father who creates in love.
Mans aspirations are the same throughout the world, though expressed and lived in different ways. They exist in the heart of every man, regardless of race, class, age or religeon. They all have the same source, all belong to the same blueprint, and all give us a glimpse of Gods love at work in the world.
No one knows of anyone who is not included in Jesus conquering love.
All men of good will who rise above themselves for the sake of an ideal - and forget themselves for the sake of their brother, all such men are working with Jesus Christ and for him.
In this way, a non-believer who takes these aspirations seriously, who rises above himself and works for the betterment of society, also works within the plan of the Father. And this is true even if the non-believer has no idea, or a false idea, of where these aspirations come from.
The reason is, that just as there are not several kinds of love, neither is there more than one way of giving oneself. To give oneself to ones brother is always the same as giving oneself to Jesus Christ, and in him, to God.
We shouldnt be shocked when, on the construction site of life we see non-Christians and athiests among our fellow workers suppassing us in generosity and self-denial for the sake of our brothers. We should be delighted. We should therefore encourage someone who works for others, and when we join him in that work, we are actually causing him to enter into the mystery of Christ; we are putting him on the road to an encounter with Jesus; we are perhaps even making it possible for him one day to make a conscious response to love.
God does not make distinctions between men. From the good to the bad, all without exception have been loved from all eternity. All have been "carried", with their sins, their sufferings, their struggles, their whole lives, to the cross.
When Jesus died on the cross, did he die for the Jews only?, the disciples only?
Jesus was sacrificed on the cross for the sins all men ALL MEN regardless of race, creed, colour, morals or religeon.
There was no other way for the Father to draw men back to him, no other way of salvation
Acts 4:12 "There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
In that one supreme act, Jesus has enabled all men - and women - to enter into a right and loving relationship with their creator. There was no other way because mans nature is such that we could never manage it on our own - a legacy of the garden of Eden. - This was God demonstrating his love for mankind in a way that we can only struggle to comprehend.
And yet, and here I tread on thin ice, is there a sense in which it is not absolutely necessary that someone know Jesus clearly, on this earth? For we heard in Matthew that man will be judged by his treatment of his brothers, even if that man is unaware that in dealing with his brothers he is dealing with Christ himself
Could this be used as an excuse for believing that there is little difference in the eyes of God between a Christian and a non-Christian?
If all men are loved, and all are included in the sacrificial death of Jesus, then what separates a Christian from a non-Christian?
It is in the response to that divine love
Gods love does not force itself upon unwilling man. A lover cannot demand that his love be returned. But when the loved one freely returns love, then there is a true relationship of love - a giving and a taking.
Man cannot fulfill himself unless he responds with love to Jesus love. The same is true for the world; it cant reach its full development unless man uses love at each step of its construction.
The Christian knows that the Father has always loved. He believes it because he has met the risen Lord Jesus who has revealed it to him.
There are non-Christians who have said "Yes!" to Gods love, speaking their answer through their lives, even if they dont know where the question comes from. But they are like workmen who, forgetting themselves, build a solid and beautiful house, without knowing for whom, and at whose order, they build it. Jesus will judge them according to that work and its value, according to how much heart theyve put into their work.
In this manner, in some mysterious way Jesus accepts the yes of those who offer it to him in a roundabout way; he accepts it even if the one who offers it, being blind, does not see the face and hands of the one who accepts it in order to give it, in turn, to his Father.
But can we, as Christians, bear the blindness of our brother if it were possible to cure him? His life can be useful, and beautiful, but can never be whole.
We are responsible for our brothers and sisters. "Woe to me if I do not preach Jesus Christ", cried St Paul.
God the father is always looking for his children. He revealed himself in Jesus Christ, but Jesus, although still living amongst men, is not always percieved. Christians need to commit their lives to God so that through us, Jesuss love may be revealed.
Such is the urgency of our task of mission in a world which seems unsure as to what it should believe, or picks and chooses from a rag-bag of faiths. We should not be too ready to condemn a person for what they believe, but reveal to them that what they believe, although perhaps good in some aspects, is not the whole Truth. We should follow the example of St Paul who, when faced with an Athens full of idols could say - and here I paraphrase -
"Men of Athens! Its great to see how religeous you are, and what an amazing collection of idols you worship. I even found one with the inscription To an unknown god. Let me share something with you -You know the one you are worshipping as unknown? Well, Im going to tell you all about him..."
Although there may be many tracks up the mountainside, there is only one which reaches the summit, only one which brings us into the presence of the Father. Are we as travellers on that mountain going to stand by and watch others following sheep paths which lead only to dead ends, or are we going to point them back onto the path which takes them to where they really would like to go?
Finally, yes it is Gods problem, not ours, to deal with those who have yet to accept Jesus as Saviour, but how can they know if they have never been told, either through words or through seeing Gods love at work in our lives.
As St Nicholas is reported as saying "Preach the gospel... and if you have to, use words."