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May 15th, 2011

John 10:1-10

Good morning! I hope that this Sunday finds you well. It is good to gather in worship with you, and to celebrate Godís work in the world.

Today weíre looking at a text from John 10 which is rich with metaphor-sheep, shepherds, Gates and gatekeepers, a text that celebrates Jesusí unique role in the world, and one that brings up some big questions about what it means to be Christian, and how we relate to the world around us.

It is that big question Iíd like to focus on first- when I talked with Mary Beth about our service this Sunday, the first thing she asked is if I was going to tackle this text, because she was curious what it means to someone who believes that Buddhists are going to be in heaven.

Itís a fair question, for this John 10 passage is one of the classic texts used by Christians to justify an exclusive answer to the question of salvation. This text, with its image of thieves breaking into the sheepfold to steal the sheep,of everyone who came before Jesus being a robber, bent on destruction, which explicitly states thatJesus is the gateway to salvation has frequently been used to explain that other religions are wrong, and that those people who practice them are not going to heaven.

So lets spend a few minutes this morning on the theology of religions-the question of other faiths from a Christian perspective. As I begin, I want to acknowledge that this is sacred ground. This is a significant topic, and often individuals aredeeply troubled either by orthodox Christian answers to the question, or by pastors straying from the traditional path. I will attempt to speak clearly, honestly, and carefully, but if I step on toes, I apologize, I do not seek to dismiss anyoneís beliefs or trivialize real questions about the nature of God.

What Iíd like to do first this morning is reflect on how different Christian theologians have answered the question of other religions. Iíve got my own thoughts, and Iíll get to them, but I think it is fair to offer a broader spectrum of responses. Iím taking my terms this Sunday from ďIntroducing Theologies of ReligionĒ by Paul Knitter. He outlines three core ways to engage other religions-the replacement model, the fulfillment model, and the mutuality model.

The most traditional Christian understanding of other religions is the replacement model-that is, that Christianity is the right religion-that it accurately reflects Godís will for the world. (I use replacement model because its Knitterís term-I confess I find it a little pejorative). This is the most obvious interpretation of John 10: being Christian-accepting Jesus as Lord and savior- is the only way to be saved. Other religions are wrong to greater and lesser degrees, and are sources of competition with Christianity.The easiest way to remember this is Jesusí claim ďNo one comes to the father except through me.Ē This is certainly the model most commonly accepted by Christians.

But it does make some people uncomfortable, so people have thought about how else they might think about other faiths. Thus,

Model 2-The fulfillment model. The Fulfillment model suggests that other religions may have part of the truth, and that God will (or may) graciously allow good people from other traditions to be welcomed into heaven, but that Christianity is still the faith most closely in line with Godís vision for the world. There are a number of ways that people can think about this. Ethically, you can talk about how many religions teach things that are similar-the Golden rule is part of the many different faith traditions.You could say, if Jesusí teaching is at its core that God is love, than any religion teaches people about love is teaching the right thing-they are teaching about Christ without teaching about Jesus. Paul sort of suggests this in Romans 2:14-15 when he writes ďwhen Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves... They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.Ē In terms of salvation, many theologians who believe in the fulfillment model talk about Jesus as welcoming other religions into heaven-when Jesus says ďwhoever enters through me will be savedĒ in John 10, then, according to this theory, heís saying that he is divine-he is the pathway to salvation-but not necessarily that he will reject everyone who isnít Christian.

Finally, what is probably the furthest from conventional Christian orthodoxy is the mutuality model. The easiest way to talk about this is to think about Paulís comment in Corinthians: for now we see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). Because God is mysterious, no one religion has a monopoly on the truth. Rather, each have something to offer to the human understanding of God and faith, and should be honored as bringing wisdom into the world. At its most radical, this model suggests that all religions are equally valid but different paths to salvation. When people talk about Jesus as the only way to salvation, this tradition would argue with them, interpreting John 10 not as a core part of Godís teaching, but as a necessary theology for a new religion just getting off the ground, marginalized in terms of numbers and power in the Ancient Near East, now a dangerous belief for a global hegemon like the contemporary Christian community.

So those are three broad brush ways that people think about these things. Obviously there are a lot of different ways you can go into detail. For example, if you ask me, I experience a profound path to God in the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and I am excited to invite other people to learn about this salvation story, and Iím happy to defend my ethical positions on things like Godís peaceable kingdom and love for the poor. So thatís all a pretty straightforward replacement perspective. But I acknowledge that lots of other people have chosen different faith stories, and have profound faith experiences of their own in different traditions, and it makes me uncomfortable to say those are illegitimate or unworthy paths to God, or to make judgments as to whether anyone is going to heaven, which is a form of the mutuality model. It gets complicated quickly, which is why I wanted to offer at least some broad outlines of where you might consider resting as you think about your own understandings of the world, what you will believe and teach and practice.

I feel like this is a bit of an unsettled place to end this discussion-to lay out how people where faithful people have come, and to offer my own position without a stronger vision of where God is and what God is doing, but in some ways thatís also where I want to end because I think the unsettledness is real-that the Bible and our lived experience push and pull with one another, and that the Holy Spirit is found in the discussions and understandings and learnings we find in playing with questions of meaning together as a community of faith.

But this question of other religions is not the only thing Iíd like to talk about this morning, because while I do think its fair to have this conversation around this John 10 text, I donít think its fair to the text for that to be the extent of the sermon, because I think that both Jesus and the writer of John were coming from something of a different angle than the interfaith question. Certainly, John has a strong replacement model -Jesus is the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through him, all things are created through him, he is the vine and we are the branches, reading the gospel is very clear that Jesus is the particular revelation of God, the king and Lord of the world, the Messiah who lived, died, and lived again, and this image of thieves breaking in and stealing the sheep certainly is connected to this vision. But in other ways to read this negatively is unfair, because the core question for John is about who Jesus is, not what happens to others. The center of this text is the comparison not between Gentiles or Jews and Christians, but between those who break into the sheep pen and do violence, and those who tend the sheep and bring them abundant life-that is, between those people and things who break us down, and those who build us up.

Jesus was talking to the Pharisees, not to Pagans, in this passage, people who were also within his Jewish community, and Jesus was critiquing their particular interpretation of religious power and constraint and authority. This passage comes right after the story of Jesus healing the man who was born blind, which we studied back in April. In that story, Jesus healed a man who was born blind, and as soon as he was healed, the Pharisees put the man, his parents, and the miracle itself on trial. They saw something amazing, and immediately questioned it and tried to pull it to pieces because it didnít fit into their interpretation of how God really worked.

Jesus rejected this vision of religion. Religion isnít supposed to be about careful rules, about extracting as much wealth as possible from a population. It isnít about fear, or papering over our sins with a veneer of righteousness. The thieves breaking in are not the pantheons of Greek and Roman Gods, but the everyday idolatries of lust for power, and wealth, fear of the outcast, social stigma and religious discrimination. Rather than insisting on power and control, God comes to care for us. The next verse after our passage this morning is this: ďI am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.Ē Jesusí path to God, the gate we are invited to open and go through to find good pasture is not right worship, or right practice, but rather the grace of the sacrificial love that Jesus had for all of us, and that we are called to have for one another.

Looking at this John 10 passage, and Psalm 23, which parallels it, without the baggage of the threat of hell or concerns about universalism, the core message is that Christian faith is about finding the abundant life. The well cared for community, the one who experiences the real good shepherd, is one that experiences good tending, the rod and staff that comfort, still waters and green meadows, a table before enemies in the valley of the shadow of death. It is in a place where we hear a voice in our hearts that compels, invites, opens, promises good things, and we respond, because we know that voice, and hear the promise that comes in John 11-ďI am the resurrection, I am the lifeĒ

Here, I think John gets it exactly right. God is our shepherd, who watches over all people, and guides them to good pastures, and who knows our names and calls us to follow faithfully on the path, to love one another, and to experience divine love all the days of our lives.