It’s possible that the room full of mostly-retired women didn’t realize that what was happening was the stuff of changing the world. It’s possible they thought it was just an ordinary conversation that happens at monthly Presbyterian Women gatherings. But, during the course of that conversation, something shifted, like that indescribable change in the air whispering that autumn approaches. You see, these women were talking about something that really matters: salvation and interfaith dialogue. But even more important than the subject matter was the way in which they engaged in this discussion. Each woman brought a particular understanding of their Christian faith into that room, an understanding no doubt shaped and honed by those who came before them, by scripture, and by their own experiences. And each woman left (including the woman writing this particular blog post) with that understanding a bit more nuanced, a bit less stark, and a bit more blurred into overlapping with the understanding of their sister next to them. Yes, something happened last night. Something that could have easily been overlooked (because we all of us extraordinary children of God are quite good at playing up our ordinary-ness).
The question that began such a paradigm shift was this: How do we understand our salvation through Jesus Christ in relationship to people of other faiths, particularly Jews and Muslims?
I was invited to share my thoughts and, as a preacher-type is wont to do, I did. I said things that could have made people question their minister’s commitment to Jesus Christ, but this was a context of trust and patience, and these sisters of mine heard me out. I said that Jesus gave us an awful lot of work to do, all summed up in those two commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. I said that the business of salvation is God’s business, not ours. And I said that this doesn’t mean we don’t have an urgency to our particular calling as people of Christian faith. We are called to be a witness to what loving God through Jesus Christ and neighbor looks like. Whether I know the destination of someone’s soul after this life doesn’t change that calling to be a witness, nor is such knowledge my motivation. If I am truly the Christ follower I hope to be, I should be a witness, period. Without agenda. Without cleverly disguised enticements to get people to “accept Jesus.” Jesus has accepted me, and I have an awful lot of work to do in showing how that acceptance changes things. So, I really can trust God to do the saving work that was never mine to do anyway. And if I trust God to do that work, I am able to have authentic and respectful dialogue with my sisters and brothers who follow other paths than mine. Their path is not a threat to mine. My path is not a threat to theirs. But perhaps like A River Runs Through It, a favorite story of mine, says, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
These wonderful women raised some intriguing insights here:
“But what about Jesus saying in our Bible that he’s THE way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him?”
“Doesn’t your perspective water down our Christian faith?”
These were helpful thoughts, and led to a rich discussion. Jesus is my salvation. I know this to be true in the way that a child knows the sound of their mother’s voice from across a crowded room, or a blade of grass knows to grow towards the sun. But I also feel that it matters how I hold onto that truth, and how I present that truth to the world. I can best explain this through a story of my experience in college (which I told to a few of those women last night).
College is, for many young adults, a time to test and trace the boundaries of identity. Often, such exercise in self awareness takes the form of rebellion. As it was for me. It’s only that my collegiate rebellion took a different form than many: I didn’t party. I didn’t question authority. What I did do was…become radically evangelical. You might even say militantly evangelical. I became a part of a Christian women’s organization and, in that time of great personal and spiritual formation, I found myself constantly fed a heavy diet of heaven and hell. Where’s your soul going? Do you really know? And how about that person next to you in class…never mind if you know their name or not…have you found out where their soul is going? Because it’s ALL ON YOU. If you don’t tell them about Jesus, no one will. And if no one does, they don’t go to heaven, simple as that.
It was at this time that I remember a discussion with my parents (who raised me in the Presbyterian Church (USA)) in which I tried to ascertain the moment they “really became” Christians, if at all. A good friend was in crisis and turned to me, and I told her to “just pray more and trust God.” I didn’t open up to her, or invite her to open up to me, or show her how God might be with her. You see, that’s the thing about this sort of militant evangelicalism: you don’t need to know a person to get their soul saved. You don’t need to know that they feel life isn’t really worth living, or that they’re struggling with addiction or fear they’ll always be alone. You just need to get them that golden ticket to the sweet-bye-and-bye, and that’s all God expects of you.
Except for that teensy, complicated commandment bit: love God. Love neighbor. Loving God doesn’t just mean claiming Jesus like a winning lottery ticket. it means giving all of my life to all of Jesus’ work in this world. It means exposing those parts of myself I’d rather hide, yes to God’s judgment, but also to God’s grace. Ah, yes, grace. That’s what was missing in my rebelliously militant evangelical days. During that same time, I went to a Presbyterian church (incidentally, the one I’d been baptized in) and the preacher said this in his sermon:
“What if some people know Jesus by another name?”
Huh. (*Insert great inner turmoil and spiritual crisis.*)
I suddenly realized why it was I chose (and God chose, I’d say) for this Presbyterian gal to stay Presbyterian.
Grace matters. It matters that God practices, yes, practices, again and again, compassion and forgiveness, not because people have made an impatient God try salvation in all sorts of ways, but because saving is who God is, and what God does.
Sovereignty matters. It matters that God can choose to save in any way God would like, and doesn’t much need my help in the matter.
Being a witness matters. It matters that, if I’m really following this Jesus as I say I am, my whole life is a witness to that reality. I shouldn’t need to convince the person next to me to pick Jesus like some politician vying for re-election. I should be so incarnate in the life of the people God puts in my path that they begin to suspect God is with and for them, too. I can be a militantly evangelical person and keep people at a distance (I was). But I can’t really be a compassionate evangelical (yes, I am reclaiming that word), who admits that I’m never as good as I’d like to be at this love-God-love-neighbor business, and keep people are arm’s length.
I think it matters that we people of a Christian flavor claim salvation in Jesus Christ. But I think it matters just as much how we make that claim, and how we leave room for the grace of God to work however God chooses to work in the lives of others. Which is why that conversation of women in a classroom last night had the power to change the world. In talking about how we share our faith, we find that what we hold so tightly to is not, in fact, threatened by what someone else holds tightly to. We find that hearing the story of another does not diminish our own, but strengthens our own identity and witness. And we find that there is an urgency to being a witness, not because salvation for eternal life is up to us, but because people need to be saved right here, right now: saved from isolation and irrelevance, saved from poverty and injustice, saved from hatred and despair. The saving work of eternity is in God’s hands, as it ever should be. But the saving work of loving God and neighbor fully is ours, with the Spirit’s help. And it is urgent.