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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Access to Heaven
Date/time/service: Sunday 27th September Trinity16 Evensong
Passage of scripture: Ezekiel 37.15-end & 1 John 2.22-end
Imagine arriving in heaven and seeing all sorts of different people, including some wearing Hijabs and others wearing turbans! I once suggested this might happen in a sermon I preached at a Cambridge College and it caused a bit of a stir. Part of my rationale for suggesting this might happen was the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan in which the stranger, the ‘other’ is the one who truly loves his neighbour. Everyone listening to the story when Jesus told it would have expected the priest or the Levite to be the hero, but Jesus made a Samaritan, a foreigner, the real ‘good neighbour’. The chaplain of the college received complaints about this sermon from a cohort of students who clearly read the bible differently to me and focussed on verses like this,
Acts 16.31where the Apostles are asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’
Romans 10.9 if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
The problem with this as far as I can see is that the Samaritan in Jesus’ story did not know that ‘Jesus is Lord’ but he did the right thing, he loved his neighbour. I know he is a fictional character, made up by Jesus for the sake of a good story, but if he were a real person would he really be excluded from heaven because he never said ‘Jesus is Lord’?
I thought of this when pondering our second reading this evening from the first letter of John. John is writing to people who are being subject to false teachers, he tells his friends to stick with the original true teaching they heard, presumably from him. Our passage today concluded with these words ‘If you know that he (Jesus) is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.’ You may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him!
I have thought about this a lot and as ever it comes down to two things – how we read scripture and how do we think about Jesus. Idealistic and enthusiastic students and old liberal clergy like me can argue endlessly about who is saved by trading verses from scripture and no satisfactory conclusion will be reached until the Day of Judgement arrives. The more interesting thing to explore is to reflect on who Jesus is ……. of course we believe that Jesus is a historical figure from Nazareth in Palestine who lived at the beginning of the first century. But we also believe that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity who, in the glorious community of the Trinity, has been part of creation since the very beginning. The apostle John does not begin his gospel with the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, he starts it with these words about the birth of creation … ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God …..’
Perhaps one of the most interesting passages of scripture to look at as we consider who Jesus was and is, is John 14. This is the passage in which Jesus says to his disciples, in verse 6, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ When Jesus said ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ did he mean, ‘no one comes to the Father except those who are able to say ‘Jesus of Nazareth is Lord’ or did he mean, ‘no one comes to the Father except those who follow the way of love I have walked, believe in the truth I embody and live the life of love I live’? We don’t know the answer to this question but my reading of scripture leads me to think that both those who say ‘Jesus of Nazareth is Lord’ and those who live in the way, the truth and the life of the second person of the Trinity will ultimately be gathered into God’s eternal embrace.
I don’t think Jesus came to form an exclusive group of followers, he came that all people may have life and have it abundantly (John 10.10). We should never try to lock Jesus into our particular theology, or our favourite church, or in to our own limited world view. People once tried to lock Jesus in a tomb and we all know what happened next!
Yes, we do believe in the name of Jesus. Yes, we do profess Jesus as Lord, and we can and should do this with energy and enthusiasm, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that believing and saying these things is the only way. Jesus is more than the historical person from Nazareth who lived like us, on earth, in linear time over 2,000 years ago. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, who swept over the waters at the beginning of creation, the eternal Word who brought all things into being and continues to be the source of all that is creative today and as such, is not to be confined by us in any neat theology or dogma. We should delight in God, the Son, wherever, and in whoever, we see creative work being done. Jesus came to include not to exclude so let us rejoice that ‘everyone who does right has been born of him.’ Including some who wear Hijabs and some who wear turbans.
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