I say the following in this sermon: “The message of the gospel, in a nutshell, is this: we human beings are in much worse shape than we would dare to imagine; yet God loves us more than we could ever dare to hope or dream!” Because of that love, God solves our problem through his atoning death on the cross. People need to hear and receive this message. If we ourselves have received it, are we willing to do all we can so that others may as well? If not, why not?
Sermon Text: John 4:31-42
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college near Chicago, made unwelcome national headlines recently for suspending a history professor. The professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, said that for Lent, even though she’s a Christian, she is going to wear the the hijab, the traditional Muslim head and shoulder covering for women, in solidarity with Muslims who feel persecuted by Western countries like ours. “After all,” she said, “we all worship the same God.”
And that was the statement that got her in trouble. We all worship the same God. Since this idea violated the college’s statement of faith, which Dr. Hawkins signed, the administration suspended her. And based on the overwhelming criticism that Wheaton’s administration received, it must be the case that many people in the U.S. and around the world agree with Dr. Hawkins that we Christians and Muslims do worship the same God.
And why should that surprise us?
Several years ago, there was a TV show called Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter. It was like a raunchy version of Touched by an Angel. In the show, a redneck angel named Earl is sent from heaven to save the lives of people who are otherwise hell-bent on destroying themselves. One of these people is a prisoner on death row named Leon. Earl the angel meets with Leon in his prison cell regularly—and Earl gives Leon encouragement and hope. In one episode, however, we learn that Leon has been cheating on his angel. Leon’s been meeting with a Muslim imam and reading the Koran—behind Earl’s back. Leon has decided to convert to Islam. Earl finds out about it and seems angry and hurt. He challenges Leon to go ahead and convert to Islam if that’s what he wants to do. In order to convert to Islam, all you do is say a couple of sentences of a Muslim creed.
Before saying these words, Leon says, “Well, I guess this is it. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.” And then Leon makes his Muslim profession of faith.
And guess what? Earl is still sitting there. He greets Leon with an Arabic greeting. Leon looks confused. “Why are you still here? Aren’t you a Christian angel?” Earl laughs: “Humans! You get so hung up on all these religious differences. They all lead to the same place, you know?”
They all lead to the same place, you know?
And of course the writers of this TV show were simply reflecting what most people in our culture believe: that it doesn’t really matter whether you follow Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or Brahma, or Moses—just so long as you’re sincere. If you’re sincere—and you’re a “good person,” whatever that means—you’ll be saved. After all, these different religions are paths to the same place, to the same heaven, to the same God.
Yet in John chapter 4, please notice that Jesus teaches us a very different message: Let’s suppose for a moment that Jesus were asked a question similar to the one that Dr. Hawkins has been asked: “Do Jews and Samaritans worship the same God?” How would he answer? The relationship between Samaritans and Jews was much closer, theologically, than the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Samaritans believed in the God revealed in the first five books of the Bible—they accepted these first five books as holy scripture even if they rejected all the other books of the Old Testament.
But in spite of the similarity between the two religions, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in last week’s scripture, in verse 22, “You worship what you do not know, we”—meaning Jews—“we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”
So Jesus himself believes in and teaches this deeply countercultural, deeply unpopular message: There are not multiple paths to God. There is exactly one way to God and Jesus tells us what it is in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I know this bothers some Christians—including even some of you, I’m sure. Nearly the worst sin we can commit in today’s culture, after all, is to not be inclusive of everyone. Inclusiveness is the buzzword. Yet at the heart of the Christian message is something deeply exclusive: Christ is the only way to be saved!
And we worry that it’s unfair that God has provided only one way.
Yet if we understand the plight that all of us human beings face, which is… That left to our own devices our sins have separated us from a holy God; that our sins have made us enemies of God, as Paul says; and we are helpless to do anything to save ourselves… If we understand the depth of our problem, and we understand the costliness of the solution to that problem—which is… that God needed to come into this world himself through his Son Jesus to live, to suffer, and to die—in order to pay the penalty for our sins that we ourselves couldn’t afford to pay… If we understand all that, then we ought not to wonder why there’s only one way to the Father, and one way to salvation, and one way to eternal life, and one way to heaven; instead we ought to get on our knees and thank God and praise God that there’s any way at all! That God made a way for us, at the cost of his very life on the cross, that God saved us through the death of his Son Jesus Christ!
The message of the gospel, in a nutshell, is this: we human being are in much worse shape than we would dare to imagine; yet God loves us more than we could ever dare to hope or dream!
Do we believe it? Do you believe that? If so, can I get an Amen?
Because the flip side of the belief that God has provided one way for us to be saved, and Jesus Christ is that way, is the belief that there are eternal consequences for those who fail to take hold of the “life preserver,” as we talked about last week, that God is graciously throwing each one of us: If we fail to receive God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, we will go to hell. I’m well aware that a significant portion of United Methodist clergy, among many other preachers, don’t talk about or emphasize hell anymore—many don’t believe in it at all, despite the fact that Jesus himself, more than anyone else in scripture, talked about hell. Preached about hell.
But as United Methodist theologian Jerry Walls rightly points out,
[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of personal fulfillment in this life.
He goes on to say that if we redefine salvation to mean something other than salvation from hell, then there’s no way Christianity can avoid being “trivialized.”
I agree with him. We can open our hearts, and open our minds, and open our doors all we want: the world beyond the walls of our church is telling us that they’d rather stay in bed, or spend more time with their families, or go the Crossfit gym. And who can blame them for staying away from church—when the church has communicated to them that, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not they accept Jesus Christ as Savior and follow him as Lord?
I say that as someone who believes strongly that only a personal relationship Christ can truly fulfill us. That he answers the deepest longings of our hearts. That the more we surrender our lives to him, the happier we’ll be. But it begins, it begins, it begins with our decision to receive this gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ. Look at verse 36: Christ’s mission, his highest priority, is to gather fruit for eternal life. That’s what Christ came to give us!
That’s why I appreciated the words of celebrity magician and illusionist Penn Jillette on this very subject. Jillette is one-half of the magician duo Penn and Teller, and he’s an outspoken atheist. But… several years ago, he posted a video on his video blog about his recent experience with a Christian businessman who talked to him after a show and gave him the gift of a Bible. And you can watch the video—Jillette was deeply touched by this gift; tears were welling up in his eyes as he told this story.
Jillette is not a Christian yet, but he deeply appreciates Christians who share their faith, who witness to their faith—or proselytize, as he says, which means we try to convince others to give their lives to Christ. In fact, Jillette said that he doesn’t respect Christians who don’t share their faith with others. “I don’t respect it at all,” he said. He continued:
If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, uh, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize them? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that!
Powerful words! Although I wonder if it’s not so much that we hate other people not to share Christ with them so much as we don’t really believe Christ’s many warnings about judgment and hell.
Now I get that we have a lot of questions about judgment and hell. What about those who’ve never heard? What about those who haven’t had the same opportunities to hear as we have? We’re worried that God won’t be fair. And I get that. We don’t have the answers to these questions. Is there an opportunity for people to respond to the gospel even after they die? The Bible doesn’t tell us. But as pastor Tim Keller points out, the fact that a four-year-old child doesn’t understand many of the reasons why his parents tell him to do something is no excuse for that child not to trust and obey what his parents tell him to do! And the same with us! What we know for sure is that we have this time to do whatever we can to convince people of the truth of the gospel—in fact, Jesus commands us to do so. And sharing the gospel should be our highest priority—as a church, as individuals.
[parents and children. Most important thing we can do! Can we pray? Jennifer Garner.]
And why wouldn’t we want to preach the Good News, or share the Good News, or invite people to hear the Good News, or do what we see the Samaritan woman do in this chapter of John’s gospel, which is share a personal testimony about how Christ has been Good News for her; or pray that people we know and love could experience this Good News. Why wouldn’t we want to do this—if we ourselves have truly experienced this Good News ourselves. Again, the Samaritan woman left her water jar at the well because she was so anxious to go share this Good News with others! “Come and see this man… Come and experience him! Come and see for yourself! This is the greatest thing ever!”
It just doesn’t make sense for us not to want to share this Good News!
Apple Computer has been America’s “most valuable corporation” for so long that it’s hard to imagine a day when their products weren’t everywhere—and weren’t necessarily beloved by the masses. But I remember those days because since 1989, I have been one of those loyal Apple fans—back in the day when people would think that you were nuts for buying a Mac. “They’re going to be out of business in six months!” people used to tell me. Anyway, back then—back in the late-’80s and early-’90s—some of Apple’s many fans were literally called “evangelists,” because they would go to large computer stores and places like Best Buy and try to convince prospective computer buyers to consider buying a Mac—because they’re so much better than Windows machines or what used to be called “IBM-compatibles.” And these Apple evangelists would do this for free—without taking a salary or a commission—because they believed in the product so much!
That seems crazy, doesn’t it?
Maybe these so-called evangelists didn’t have much of a life—but they were so eager to share the good news that they had experienced from their computers, they couldn’t hold it in, they couldn’t keep it to themselves!
Do I have to point out the obvious and ask why “Apple evangelists” were more excited about “converting” others to their gospel than we Christians usually are to ours?
As we see in today’s scripture, Jesus hungered to do the will of his Father and accomplish his work, which was to offer people eternal life. And he wants us who follow him to have that same strong desire.
Notice in verse 42, after the woman goes to her townspeople and shares the Good News with them, they come to Jesus and experience Jesus themselves. And then they say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” Now, first… they’re not putting down the woman or her testimony; that was a necessary part of their coming to faith in Jesus. But they understood that simply hearing about Jesus, learning about Jesus, even being convinced intellectually that he was an amazing and remarkable person… these things weren’t enough; they needed to experience Jesus firsthand.
We can’t be secondhand Christians. We can’t be saved simply because of someone else’s testimony. We can’t be saved because our grandparents are saved, or because our parents are saved, or because we come from a Christian family, or because we grew up in a Christian household, or because we live in the buckle of the Bible belt of a predominantly Christian country, or because we believe this set of facts about who Jesus is and what he did for us. No, we can only saved through a personal encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ!
Have you had that encounter? Because see, if you don’t share this strong desire to see other people’s hearts and lives transformed by the Good News of Jesus Christ, then it’s worth asking if you’ve ever truly received the gift of salvation in the first place!
We can’t make other people receive the gospel. All any of us can really do is the same thing that we see this woman do in today’s scripture: invite people to “come and see,” to come and experience, our Lord Jesus Christ. And let the Holy Spirit do the rest!
But we have to invite! Look around the pews! Are we as a church being faithful in inviting others? “Look around,” Jesus says, “the fields are white for harvest!” And so he’s saying to us today: “Step outside of Hampton United Methodist Church. Look around… the fields are white for harvest.”
 Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.