Can Only One Religion Be True?
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
January 3, 2016
Ephesians 4: 1-7 (CEB)
Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. 2Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, 3and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. 4You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. 5There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
7God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.
We begin today a new sermon series called “Without a Doubt: Serious Answers to Tough Questions.” During the five Sundays of January, we will tackle a tough question about the Christian faith. The purpose of this series is two-fold. First, it is my goal that as we work through these questions, you will glean information that will help you answer questions about faith that others ask you. Secondly, I hope that wrestling with these questions will quell the doubts and questions that many (including us) have about the Christian faith.
I want to admit to you all up front that I am scared about this series. It is challenging for me, and I already know I will say things that will be challenging to each of you. I was talking through my sermon plan with Ken a couple of weeks ago. I was seeking his advice and presented him with two questions I was trying to choose between for one of the sermons. I asked him, “Would you do that question or the other question?” His answer, “I wouldn’t touch that series with a ten-foot pole!” I understand his hesitation, but I also feel that at times it is important for us to face head-on the challenging issues of our faith because it is when we deal with our doubts and our questions that we grow as disciples of Christ. So here we are. Considering the tough questions about our faith that we often ignore.
We begin today with the question, “Can only one religion be true?” As we consider the answer to this question, we will focus around the meaning of religion, and also the Wesleyan understanding of grace. But first, I want to share a couple of stories with you.
Many, many years ago there was a man who was shipwrecked and ended up marooned on a deserted island in a very remote part of the Pacific. The man was able to salvage enough equipment from his boat that he could survive off the resources of the island. He was able to fish and hunt, and he even built himself a home. For several years the man lived like this, alone on the island. Finally, one day he caught the attention of a passing ship. The boat made its way toward the island, and several crew members boarded a john boat and came ashore. When they got on the island and greeted the man, they of course had many questions. How long had he been there? How had he survived? The man decided the best way to explain to them how he had been living on this island for the past many years was to give his rescuers a tour. So he showed them his fishing tools, his bow and arrows, the treehouse where he slept, and so on. Finally, the group came upon two nearly identical-looking shelters. One of the crew members asked, “What are these?” And the man, pointing to the building on the right said, “That’s my church.” Another crew member now asked the obvious question, “What’s the building on the left?” “Oh,” said the man, “that’s the church I used to go to.”
I share that story with you in order to make the point that the religion we follow is at least to some degree a practice of our own making. Let me share another story. Though somewhat similar to the first story, this one is actually real. When I was growing up, sometime in my late high school and college years, there was a question that my friends and I often discussed around the lunch table. It went something like this: “If a person was marooned on a deserted island, all by himself, without a Bible, and that person had no knowledge of God or Christ, could the person be saved?” One answer to that question is: “No, because the only way to be saved is to profess belief in Jesus Christ and to accept him as your Lord and Savior.” This is the answer that many faithful Christians would give. But I have to admit that I personally always struggled with that answer. Because, I felt, if a person, through no fault of his own, has never been exposed to the good news of Jesus Christ, would he really be unequivocally excluded from God’s salvation? I find that hard to believe. God is greater than that, is he not? God is capable of working outside the normal human constructs. Think of Paul on the Damascus Road. Paul, who had been actively persecuting Christians, was struck blind with a vision of God in Christ Jesus. It was the beginning of the rest of his life; a life spent spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and planting new Christian churches all around the Roman Empire. Even Paul’s stubborn, persecuting ways didn’t prevent God from saving Paul.
I share those stories with you in order to say this: religion is to a great extent a human construct, and God will do God’s work beyond all of our own human ways and even limitations. And religion is one of those limitations. So let’s talk a bit about religion. Mirriam-Webster defines religion as both “a belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power,” and “a particular system of faith and worship.” One scholar meshes those two definitions and offers this one: Religion is “a cultural system that provides answers and practices relating human beings to a perception of ultimate reality.” I like this definition because it includes the fact that, at least to some extent, culture influences religion. Think about it this way: in Asia, meditative religions like Zen and Buddhism predominate; in India it is Hinduism, in the Middle East Islam, and in the Western world, Christianity. And though each of these religions are vastly different, there are some commonalities like belief in a God or gods, belief in some form of life after death, the importance of worship, and a moral code. Similarly, choosing to follow a religion is an act of faith, a decision to live our lives according to a set of beliefs. By the same token, choosing no religion is also an act of faith.
So where does that leave us? Can only one religion be true? Though many religions share at least some commonalities, ultimately the “truths” of various religions are mutually exclusive. By simple logic, it can’t be both true that there is one God and there are many gods. In the same way, when believers die, will they be resurrected to a new life in heaven, or will they be reincarnated to live again here on earth? And if believers do indeed go to heaven, will they find Jesus Christ sitting at the right had of God the Father, or learn that Muhammad had it right? Is the Bible, properly interpreted, the correct way to understand God, or should we study and learn the sutras of Buddhism? You begin to see that it’s basically impossible to adhere to many religions at once. Indeed, there are some who try and do this, the Baha’i faith is a good example, but even that takes different parts of many religions and melds them together into a distinct, coherent belief system that could be considered a religion in and of itself. Each of these options presents a faith choice, and they cannot ALL be right. If we think about religious questions deeply enough, we realize that there can only be one true religion. For me, for most or all of us here, that is the Christian faith.
Yet, even as we seek to faithfully follow Christ, I think we all realize that the claim to ultimate truth can be so problematic. Look at all the conflict between religious groups both historically and presently. Right now, ISIS is causing major problems, but there has been so much persecution and war in the name of religion, and even within Christianity itself. The Catholics say the Baptists are heretics. The Baptists say the Catholics are heretics. Even that guy living by himself on the island built himself another church because the first one wasn’t working for him. We don’t want to perpetuate the violence and ill-will! So how are we to view other religions and the people who follow them?
In Emmanuel, God came to be with us on this earth so that we humans could know of God’s deep love for his whole creation. And when Jesus Christ hung on the cross and died, it was so that the whole world might be saved through God’s love. This was an act of God’s immense grace, reaching out for all of humanity, even when we are not aware of it. John Wesley called this “prevenient grace,” the grace of God that goes before us. In the letter to the Ephesians that we heard earlier, the writer says, “Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.”
Through the gracious, sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the cross, God seeks to draw all humanity together as one—united by our love for God and God’s love for us. Christ makes salvation possible for all people, and when it comes to other religions, what we have to understand is that the God who is “over all, through all, and in all,” works in mysterious ways to bring people to salvation through Christ.
John Wesley once said that God will judge us according to how we use the grace we have been given. We should look for the ways that God’s grace is at work in each person’s life, those who follow other faiths, and even those who adhere to no religion. There are good people who believe in and follow other religions, and we should treat them with love, respect, and curiosity. We can know that God’s grace is at work within them and they may have things to teach us about God and how to live a good life. As we seek to grow in our knowledge of God and to be faithful followers of Christ, we need to allow for the possibility that God might be at work in the life of a Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist in ways that we can’t even imagine, seeking to reveal God’s love to each person through the Messiah. And when we see God’s grace moving in this world, we should name it and we should celebrate it because that is God’s good news too!
So imagine you’re doing whatever it is you usually do, relaxing in a coffee shop, playing Bridge with some friends, exercising at the gym, and suddenly your non-Christian friend says, “Okay, I don’t want a long, complicated answer, but tell me this: When there are so many different religions, how can you believe that only Christianity is true?”
“You might say something like this: ‘I believe Christianity is true. I know that believing it is an act of faith, but picking any religion is an act of faith…I respect other religions, and I’m sure God can work through [other religions in ways I don’t understand], but I’ve experienced God’s presence through Jesus and I can’t deny it. We all choose something, and I’ve chosen to follow Jesus.’”
May each of us be faithful, gracious followers of Christ. Let us pray.