The world has changed. We used to go our whole lives without really meeting or getting to know a person of another religion and it was easy to condemn those who were not like us. But the world shrunk and now we have Muslim doctors, Hindu yoga instructors, Wiccan cousins and Jewish neighbors. We have met our neighbors who are different and we have realized they are a lot like us -- a lot like Jesus always said.
When Jesus was asked about how to go to heaven by the smart guy Jesus answered, "what does the law say?" the smart guy said, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus said, "you got it."
Smart guy says, "but who is my neighbor?" in other words - who do I really have to be nice too? are there people that I can be mean to and not worry about getting into heaven? Are there "get out of kindness free" cards out there?
Jesus, as he is prone to do, answers the question with a story. And the story would have had a lot more impact in Jesus' day because they knew who Samaritans are. Samaritans are to Jews backwards cousins who butcher the faith with just plain wrong ideas - like worshipping on the mountain instead of in the Temple. Samaritans were dangerous, prone to lead a good Jew astray. They were evil, refusing to do what God so clearly said to do. Samaritans were avoided by good Jews at all costs.
But Jesus goes and makes the Samaritan the hero of the story. Jesus!
Good religious people pass by a guy in need and the Samaritan takes care of him -- who did good?
Smart guy has to admit (but he won't say the word "Samaritan") the one who showed mercy to the hurt man is the one who did good. Jesus says - go and be like him.
What?? Go be like the Samaritan?!?!
If this story was told today with similar religious tension the story would go something like this:
A guy pulls over to pick up a hitchhiker on Hwy 71 south of Spencer. The hitchhiker car jacks the guy, beats him up and leaves him on the side of the road. A car comes by and the Catholic priest on his way to meet Pope Francis notices the guy but doesn't want to be late to meet this amazing Pope and drives on by. Another car comes by and its a United Methodist District Superintendent on his way to the Imagine No Malaria fundraiser. She sees the guy on the side of the road but can't stop or she'll miss the chance to help so many in Africa so she passes by. A Muslim guy who works in the meat packing plant in Storm Lake is driving by, he stops and puts the guy in his car and takes the hurt man to the nearest hospital where he gives the check-in desk his own credit card for expenses.
Who should we be like?
Who would God be proud of?
Who would God welcome into heaven with the words, "well done, good and faithful servant"?
Christianity has always had a variety of thought on the question "do non-Christians go to heaven?" and there are three main answers.
1. Christian Exclusivism – Must be Christian to go to heaven, no exceptions. Most people who believe this put a large emphasis on having Jesus as your personal Savior and believer's baptism. Taken to the logical conclusion not only people who are not Christian are going to hell, but babies, Mentally handicapped, and those who never heard about Jesus. The problem with this perspective is that the focus is on human understanding and the evangelist rather than God's grace and Jesus' redeeming work on the cross. It requires that we understand and accept fully Jesus' sacrifice -- and really, do any of us fully understand?
Christian Universalism – Jesus saves all and everyone goes to heaven no matter what. This is a very tempting, feel good kind of theology that basically brings everyone into the game. But there is a problem with this as well - does not allow for free will. God does not make us come to Him/Her. God invites us and calls to us but God will not make us. Universalism means people will be in heaven whether they want to or not - and some honestly will not want to be there.
Christian Inclusivism -- Jesus died to save the world, and all who earnestly seek faith, seek to love God and neighbor will be saved. Not because they believed correctly or because they did good but because they lived in faith, whatever faith they could find, and that faith was lived in their lives. This allows both for free will and for an inclusive theology that welcomes all who seek. And while this might sound radical, it is actually a common position in the 2000 years of Christian history.
CS Lewis wrote in his classic book Mere Christianity, "We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.” (Page 65) In other words the work of salvation is through Christ alone, but that does not mean that people have to get it completely right for Christ to save them.
Billy Graham, the father of modern evangelism said in an interview with Robert Schuller May 31, 1997:
"And that's what God is doing today, He's calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they've been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don't have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they're going to be with us in heaven."
So when you meet your neighbor who is Jewish, who is Muslim, who is Hindu, who doesn't know what they are - don't think to yourself "oh my they are going to hell". Think instead of how God loves them and wants you to love them too.
So why do evangelism at all? Why try to share the message of Jesus?
Because it is good news. It is good news that God loves us so much that taking a body on earth lived with us and shows us (even through death) that we are precious and beloved.
Jesus shows us what it truly is to be human: kind, generous, humble, loving, patient and self-controlled.
Jesus shows us what it truly is that God wants for us: joy, peace, love, grace, and renewal.
I preach Jesus not because I worry about hell, but because I know life is better with Jesus in my life today. And I believe that Jesus can make life better for all of us when we follow his lead and love God and love our neighbors.