Wrestling with Questions about Faith- Week 2 Sermon Series

got questions

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” –Hebrews 11:1

  1. Will people of other religions go to heaven?
  2. What is grace?  Was there grace before Jesus?
  3. How do we know if we have enough faith?
  4. How do we reconcile faith and science?
  5. Why do some people have extreme faith experiences and others simply have a “tug of heart”?

What is faith…really?  We read in scripture that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  We see Jesus scolding his disciples for their lack of faith, but then see that if we only have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can do amazing things.  Faith is something that we believe, but it is also an action that we take that undergirds our entire lives in the things we say and do.  Faith in God, according to theologian Paul Tillich, is one’s ultimate concern- that thing that should consume our entire being and what we should build our lives around.  Faith is taking risks, believing in something for which we do not have proof.  Faith in God is a mystery, but one that we continue to seek out and discover for ourselves.  Faith takes time, courage, and willingness to venture into the unknown.  Faith offers encouragement, support, healing, grace, and love.

Of course, when we talk about faith, we don’t just talk about the Christian faith.  There are hundreds, thousands, millions of faith communities around the world.  We just wrapped up our 6 week study on Christianity and world religions where we learned about other religions, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism (source: Christianity and World Religions, Adam Hamilton).  We wrestled with questions that we all ask ourselves- why are there so many religions?  Which one is actually the “correct” one?  How should Christians view other religions?  How is God at work in other religions?  What is the fate of those who earnestly pursue God through other faiths?  And finally, will people of other religions go to heaven?  To begin to address this question, it’s important that we know some facts and figures about people of faith in our world.  According to the most recent data, there are around 6 billion people in the world.  Of these people, 2 billion (or 1/3) are Christians.  There are 1.3 billion (or 1/5) people that are Muslim.  There are about 900 million Hindus, 360 million Buddhists, and 14 million Jews.  Altogether, people of faith make up about 4.5 billion of the world’s population.  So when we break this down, we learn that 2/3rds of the world’s population are not Christians, but followers of other religions.  They, too, seek God and seek truth, just as we do.

There are several views that help us look at this issue of salvation for non-Christians.  One is the pluralist perspective, which says that all religions are equally valid paths to the divine or ultimate truth.  Someone who holds this view might say, “Your truth is true for you, and my truth is true for me.”  Then there is the exclusivist perspective, which says that all who do not accept Jesus Christ are condemned to hell.  This view basically holds then that 2/3 of the world’s population will not experience salvation.  To me, this view does not give us a valid picture of our God who has compassion on a broken world, the God who is love, the God who seeks out and saves the lost.  This view also does not take into account the realities of the culture and context into which people are born.  If a child is born into a culture that is almost 100% Muslim or Hindu, then it is very likely that he or she will be brought up into that faith, just as many of us were born into a predominantly Christian context.  The inclusivist perspective says that God is at work among all persons in all places, even when there is no Christian witness.  The inclusivist perspective also holds that Jesus is the most complete picture of God and God made flesh.  “They are not saying that all religions are equally valid paths or that all their teachings are true, rather they believe that God examines the hearts of people of other faiths, that God sees their true faith, and was the case with Abraham, that God credits this faith to them as righteousness (Adam Hamilton).”  In other words, God extends grace.  I will leave it up to you to decide which of these views makes the most sense to you personally.

Another issue we run into is that many Christians use the text from John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” to say that people of other religions are excluded from salvation.  But, rather than a threat or condemnation, I see this statement as an invitation to God’s grace.  Perhaps at the hour of death, all will pass through Jesus- those who are of other religions, those who are not capable of this life of fully understanding the gospel message due to language barriers, culture, or even those who are mentally handicapped or infants who only live a few days or moments in this world.  God’s grace is that which goes before us before we even know about it or understand it completely.  God’s grace is such that the outpouring of love from Jesus on the cross is more than enough to extend to all persons in all places in all stages of life.  We read in one of the key texts of the Christian faith, John 3:16-17, that God so loved the world that He came to save the world, not to condemn it!  That is the God we love and serve.  That is a God I can believe in.  Will people of other faiths get into heaven?  I believe so, but I cannot answer that with certainty.  If you still struggle with this question, then I hope you will find peace and hope in God’s grace, and know that at the end of the day, it is God alone who offers salvation to those of other faiths.  All we can do is extend a hand, a kind word, a conversation about love.  We can show them grace.  We can show them Christ.

And what about grace?  What is it?  Was there grace before Christ came into the world?  First and foremost, grace is a gift from God that we do nothing to deserve.  Grace is that unfailing and unconditional love offered freely to each of us without price.  Grace is that which goes before us, seeking, reaching, calling us into relationship with God.  John Wesley, father of Methodism, spelled out 3 different kinds of grace for us: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.  Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us in our lives before we even acknowledge it for ourselves.  It is that love of God that actively seeks each of us, stirring up the desire within ourselves to know God and be in relationship with God.  This gift is a free gift offered to each of us- we do not have to plead or beg for God’s love, because it is always right in front of us, ready for the taking!  Justifying grace is the grace that is present when we acknowledge God’s work in our lives and confess that we can do nothing apart from God’s gift of grace- it is a grace that produces joy, forgiveness, pardon- it is this grace that gives us the experience of assurance that God loves us and when the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are indeed children of God.  It is also a grace that encourages repentance- a time of turning around and following God’s path.  And finally, sanctifying grace is the grace that guides us on a path where we are continually being transformed and renewed into the person that God intends for us to be.  Salvation is not a one-time experience or commitment, but something that is an ongoing process and experience of our relationship with God and how we live out our lives of faith.  It is a continual process of learning, giving, and in a sense, breathing back to God what God has already breathed into us.  Sanctifying grace is that which guides us on to being the most whole, most pure persons we can be as we pursue the God who first pursued us.

Now that I’ve hopefully given you a good idea of what grace is, we will address this question: Was there grace present in the world before Jesus and his death on the cross?  My answer?  Yes, and here is why: we read the stories of Abraham, Moses, Miriam, King David, Esther who stood up for her people and persevered through her faith- none of these persons were perfect- some were far from it- yet God used them for miraculous and wondrous things, and when we read some of Paul’s letters, we see that those in the Hebrew scriptures had God present and working alongside them all along.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he talks about this in great length, answering this very question- on what basis are we accepted by God and extended God’s grace?  He uses Abraham as an example- that Abraham believed God and entered into covenant with God, not through the law, but through faith.  Paul explains it in this way: “What are we to say was gained by Abraham our ancestor according to the flesh?  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the scripture say?  Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness,” (Romans 4:1-6).  He goes on to ask if this righteousness from God was present before or after the covenant of circumcision, and the answer is that this righteousness, this grace, was present before Abraham entered into the covenant.  Therefore, circumcision was merely a sign and a seal of the righteousness of God that had been received.  That is grace, that is mercy, that is reason to celebrate God’s gifts, even before Jesus walked the earth.  Just as we celebrate baptism today as a sign and seal of God’s grace rather than receiving grace through baptism itself, so we read in the Hebrew scriptures signs and seals of God’s grace already working and present even before Christ.  When God became flesh through Jesus and walked among us, that was, in fact, the ultimate sign and seal of the grace already present, already working, already as a gift waiting to be received by many.

We are now going to shift gears a little and address the question of faith and science- can you believe in both God and science?  Absolutely!  Let’s look at the creation stories in Genesis to get an idea of what I mean.  (Source: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian? By Martin Thielen) Some Christians take the view of “scientific creationism,” which insists that there should be an extremely literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 to explain how and why God created.  Some people that hold this view believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and rejects the scientific view that fossils are were formed over millions of years.  Scientific creationists argue that evolution is a myth and an enemy of faith.  This view has many major problems, both scientific and biblical.  First, it denies just about every branch of modern science (including physics, chemistry, geology, anthropology, genetics, and biology).  Second, this view has a biblical problem because the Bible is not intended to be a science book and was written in an age before modern science.  Genesis was not written to give a scientific explanation of creation.  Hear this: “Genesis doesn’t try to teach us how God created, but that God created.”  Did you know that Genesis has, in fact, two very different creation stories?  The two accounts do not and cannot agree with each other. In one account, man and woman are created last, and the other says that they were created first.  So what’s the scoop on this?  It’s simply that the Bible is not primarily concerned with telling a scientific creation story, but it does care about theology, God, faith, meaning, love, justice, ethics, and hope.  Scripture does not make us choose between the facts of modern science and faith- this is an unnecessary choice to make.

But if you choose to continue to wrestle with faith and science, consider the “theistic evolution” view, which affirms, along with science, that the world was created through some kind of evolutionary process that began with God and is guided along by God.  “This position claims that God created the universe, but did so through the process of evolution.”  This view is the main view held by scientists who are people of faith.  This position was also the position of Pope John Paul II and is the position of most mainline Christian denominations.  I think that this view is the closest we can come to reconciling faith and science, and it makes sense without having to have all of the answers.  This view acknowledges God as a creator in some way, while taking into account the realities of modern science in our world today.

And finally, how do we know if we have enough faith?  Going back to the words of Jesus, if we have faith even as small as a mustard seed, it is enough.  Going back to the gift of grace, it is by the grace of God that we grow in our faith as long as we are intentional about seeking the God who first sought each of us.  We know we have enough faith when we simply ask God to be present in our lives and guide our thoughts, words, and actions.  We know we have enough faith when we continue to learn, grow, and seek understanding of the knowledge and presence of God at work in our lives.  We know we have enough faith because we show up here each week to open ourselves to the experience of God’s presence and we are willing to be vulnerable enough to let God shape and mold us into the best versions of ourselves.  We know we have enough faith when we take action to make the world a better place.

We all experience faith in our own way.  Some people have big moments that transformed their lives, or they have without a doubt seen or heard God and they are never the same.  Some of us experience faith as the still, small voice, maybe even a whisper from God, not just in one moment, but a series of moments over time.  Some of us experience faith as a series of doors that have been opened or small moments where we have felt God’s presence.  There is no right or wrong way to experience faith- whether it is an extreme moment or simply a tug of the heart- either way, faith experiences are the moments when we recognize that God, through the Holy Spirit, is bearing witness with our human spirit that we are, in fact, loved and cherished children of God.  If we remain open to God’s presence, I would venture to say that God will come to us in a variety of ways in a variety of places throughout our lifetimes.  Some moments will be extreme, some moments will be a whisper on the soul, some will be gradual.  But God is there, seeking, reaching, calling out to each of us to experience faith as we are meant to experience it.

So there you have it- all the answers to your questions about faith (just kidding!)  We have covered a lot this morning, but there is still so much to be discovered and so much more to wrestle with about faith, faith and science, grace and how we experience God in our daily lives.  May we continue to wrestle with these important questions.  May we continue to experience God each in our own way.  May we open our hearts to the grace of God that is already at work within each of us as we continue the journey together.  Amen.

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