Our scripture readings this morning all touch on different aspects of the issue of Discipleship.
In Acts 16, we see Paul and his team of co-workers responding to Paul’s vision that they are to minister in Macedonia. Once they arrive there, we see a woman in turn responding to Paul’s evangelism. She establishes a church within her own home; a church that Paul’s Epistles tell us supported him and his ministry for the rest of his life. Yes, Paul, Silas and Timothy were all Disciples. But, so was Lydia and so were those who succeeded her in the Church at Phillippi, and so are we.
Our reading from the end of the Book of Revelation is John’s penultimate vision of New Jerusalem: descending from Heaven, unifying Heaven and Earth. We will finally see the face of God; forever free from any curse or sin.
Paul’s dream, his work, and ours, are all part of preparing for the New Jerusalem; which is the goal of our Discipleship: the vision in the Book of Revelation is of what will be made manifest when our work, as disciples working together to build the Kingdom of God here on earth, is complete.
But, Literalists tend to see this passage, and the Book of Revelation as a whole, as a declaration of how everyone must become a Christian, and that those who refuse that call will perish. (Meaning us too, since we do not interpret the Bible in the same way they do.) For many of them, the Book of Revelation is an affirmation that there is one and only one true faith, and that it is theirs. It saddens me how those who believe there is a very narrow path to salvation are often equally certain they are one of the few who have actually found it.
But, did Jesus actually teach this? Is it a helpful interpretation of scripture?
The belief of many that Christianity is the one and only path to salvation is rooted in Jesus’ words in John 14:6: “6I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
So, yes: on the surface it appears that we can only come to be with our Lord God in Heaven if we follow Jesus, and only Jesus.
But, Jesus is talking about relationship here, not about a place, not about Heaven, not about the end times. In the very next sentence, he says “If you know me, you will know my father also.” And just a couple of verses earlier in the same dialog, he says “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” The focus of his words in John 14 are that we are always welcome in the House of the Father – as Jesus phrased it, by which he meant being in relationship with Christ and with our God in Heaven. Jesus’ return to God made it possible for us to enter into the relationship with God that we’ve been seeking all along. But, there are still many other rooms – meaning other types of relationships – that one can have with God. This revelation is found throughout the New Testament, and throughout the Old Testament too.
It is clearly seen in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We know that many or perhaps most Jews of the time viewed Samaritans as apostates: a people who worshipped a polluted and therefore evil version of the ancient faith. And yet Jesus clearly taught, in this parable and elsewhere, that one’s faith does not have to conform to the expectations of any human agency or standard.
What matters is our own relationship with God and how we live out that relationship; not our subservience to those who claim that they alone know the one true path we must follow. Such claims stand Jesus’ teaching in John 14:6 on its head, since they are now setting themselves up as the only way to salvation, in place of Jesus.
Consider the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. He was commander of the army of the Kingdom of Aram, and came to the Prophet Elisha seeking healing from leprosy, despite knowing nothing about the God of Israel, and having complete disdain for the Jews. They in turn saw him as an enemy and oppressor. And yet, Elisha healed him – despite his being a pagan.
In Luke 4, Jesus himself talks of how the Lord showed favor to Naaman; and also, through Elijah, to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon – she was also a pagan. So, Jesus is very clear here: God’s grace and love are not limited to those who are of the faith of Abraham.
We should also remember the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15: a “half breed.” She was a woman who was probably not fully accepted within any of the cultures or religions of her time and place. And yet, Jesus recognizes that her faith is just as worthy as any Jew’s: membership within any particular tribe, nation or faith provides no advantage in terms of God’s favor.
And, the majority of the controversies in the New Testament’s Book of Acts and Epistles are over how to deal with those who believe but are not Jewish: or who do not strictly observe Judaic Law, if they observe it at all; people who may have no ties with Judaism whatsoever.
The most significant result of this early controversy within the church is found in Acts 15, where the Gentiles living in Antioch and elsewhere in Asia Minor are told only to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication.” No other conditions are given. So, there is no one right way to believe in Jesus, or in God for that matter, and there are few if any fixed rules as to what you must believe to be a “real Christian.”
As I see it, our faith is for each of us like a language. It is a language that helps us explore and express our relationship with the Eternal. Everyone has such a language, whether we are a Christian, or a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Sikh, or a Shamanist, or an Atheist, or whether we (as our Australian Aboriginal cousins do) walk in the Dreaming.
Our Faith is the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal. Our own faith language is Christianity, or at least a particular dialect of the many faith languages that are spoken within the Family of Christ.
And, when meeting speakers of languages like German, Spanish, Tagalog or Warlpiri, we do not condemn such people for not speaking English. (I hope.) Instead, we recognize that their language is an integral part of who they are, how they view the world, how they relate to the culture in which they were born and in which they probably still live. Their language helps define who they are and their place in this world that we share with them.
Similarly, our faith gives structure to our own understanding of who we are and where we stand in relationship to the issues of eternity. It answers questions like “Why are we here?” and “Where do we go when we die?” It is the language we use to explore Eternity. It shapes our views of the Divine, shapes our relationship with it, and shapes how we communicate our beliefs with others.
Therefore, every Faith has value and is valid. (Well, within reason!) Every faith can provide us with a new or enhanced perspective that helps us more fully understand our own faith and how we relate to eternity; and they help us better appreciate our place within that mansion, relative to the many other rooms that Jesus spoke of. So, I believe that God wants us to seek to learn about the faiths of others, so that we can more fully appreciate where they stand, and because doing so enriches our understanding and appreciation of our own faith.
Our faiths are the sum of the millennias-long legacy of thought and belief that has been passed down to us. But sadly, we often do not appreciate that legacy, or even think about it. We often do not think-through the implications of what we believe; whether a particular belief that we have is relevant any more, and so must change; or how our beliefs impact, or are viewed-by, others.
This is where I’m heading in all of this: at the core of the concept and calling of discipleship is the idea of learning – always learning. Learning more about one’s faith, about oneself, and about the many, many wonderful ways that God’s love is expressed in us, in the lives and faiths of those with whom we share God’s Creation, and in Creation itself. We learn that God’s Love is around us and within us all the time.
Paul and Luke’s journey to Macedonia was just as much about their learning about a land and people they’d never seen as it was about preaching the Gospel. The encounter with Lydia taught them a new way of spreading the Gospel; expanding their horizons of what was possible and what they were called to do. “Saving“ a rich merchantwoman from Hellfire and Damnation was not the point.
Discipleship is not about us gathering the uninitiated at our feet and then teaching them the essentials of what they must believe to be “Good Christians.” No! It is a journey of discovery, of walking with others, of growing with them as they grow: journeying together as we each help the other in deepening our faith, and our appreciation of the Divine.
Discipleship is the road we take to find our own room within the House of the Father – a House that has many rooms; a house that exists within the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, the place from which all evil and death and sickness and pain have been forever banished, and we where will someday join with people of all nations and faiths, to walk in the eternal and unfailing light and grace of the Divine.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, May 1, 2016.
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)