Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
There’s a saying amongst pastors that Confirmation students ask the best questions. Where as older adults might hesitate to ask certain questions for fear of being perceived as rude, inappropriate, or making others uncomfortable. Confirmation students often lack any such filter, so they just blurt out the first thought that inevitability pops into their head. So this morning I wish to begin our sermon by answering one of the best Confirmation questions, it’s a question that probably all of us have wondered about at some time in our life.
The question to consider this morning is “If believing in Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, then what happens to a man living on an island in the South Pacific that never has encountered any missionaries, nor even heard Jesus’ name. Would God be so mean and unfair as to condemn someone for all eternity for either bad luck or ignorance”?
I think before answering this question, we need to consider the concept of God’s fairness. What should be stated is that Heaven is the unfair outcome, whereas Hell is the fair outcome. If I were to die in a car accident this afternoon, death would not be an unfair result, hell would not be an unfair result, what would be unfair would be God’s forgiveness, what would be unfair is to be a recipient of God’s promises of eternal life.
We speak of salvation by grace, salvation by what is unmerited or undeserved for this reason. So the question about the South Pacific Islander’s eternal destination is not a question about God’s fairness, but rather a question about God’s nature.
So does God save the man born in the middle of nowhere who has never heard the Gospel? I think the first thing to point out is that God ultimately wants to save all people and come to knowledge of the truth.-1 Timothy 2:4
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son”-John 3:16
We remember that Christ came not to condemn the world, but rather Christ came to save and redeem the world. Christ wept at the awfulness of sin as he witnessed his friend Lazarus’ death. We are continually reminded throughout the scriptures that God can save the non-believer through any means that he chooses.
In the Book of Acts, God saves Cornelius a religious man who had never heard of Jesus Christ by choosing to make him the first gentile to convert to Christianity.
In the Book of Joshua, God worked through the prostitute Rahab who limited knowledge of him or the scriptures, yet was later referred to in the Book of Hebrews as a person of great faith.
God poured out his grace upon the Syrian Army commander Namaan, even as he lived in and served a nation that was openly hostile towards his ways.
So we must be continually brought back to the nature of God’s mercy being poured out upon the most unexpected of people.
I think what we must ultimately come back to when considering the fate of the unevangelized is Jesus’ emphasis on the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Jesus said to “Bring the Gospel forth to all nations."
The Disciples then proceeded to risk their life and reputation for spreading the Gospel. If Christ’s earliest and closest of followers didn’t believe that sharing their faith mattered for the sake of heaven/hell then, their actions would make no sense.
For whether God might grant mercy to all people at some point in time, I can’t say. We reflect on this question of the South Pacific Islander, who never heard the Gospel in many of the same ways as we reflect upon the question of unbaptized babies. I think it’s best to point towards the nature of the God that we do have. The God who proclaimed to an unbaptized Thief hanging alongside him “Today you will be with me in Paradise”
We can very rarely answer with any certainty questions regarding anyone’s salvation, all we can do is take comfort in the God that we have, the God that went forth to the Cross. While I believe that people cannot receive salvation apart from the Gospel of Christ, what I can’t say with any certainty is how far his Gospel can reach. I believe that the potential reach of the Gospel goes way beyond my own prejudices and biases. I wake up every morning giving thanks that the fate of humanity is not governed by my own whims and wishes, but rather by God’s mercy and grace.
I ultimately don’t consider myself to be a Universalist (one who believes that everyone is automatically saved) not because I have any certainty whether it is so. I have trouble with universalism because it says that Word and Sacrament don’t matter. Universalism makes the Death of Jesus into an unnecessary event. Universalism also doesn’t speak to why Christ’s closest followers were so were to risk their lives in the Church’s earliest days.
One of these stories from the Church’s earliest days comes to us this morning from the Book of Acts the 17th Chapter in the story of Paul preaching at Mars Hill. There is a very large church in Seattle called “Mars Hill” because when they started out their whole mission was reaching the unchurched and religiously unaffiliated of the Pacific Northwest. Our story for today is perhaps the Bible’s greatest tale of evangelism.
Our story for today begins a few verses before our lesson. The Apostle Paul is out walking through the streets of Athens where he is disturbed by all that he sees. Paul sees religious idols everywhere that he walked. Paul could have easily given up, and figured it was all a lost cause. Paul could have gone back to his home and been much more comfortable than trying to engage strangers in a foreign culture.
Paul instead decided to engage with the people of Athens and deal with the inevitable consequences. Paul’s first stop was the Agora, where Paul debated academics. Most of the people rejected Paul that he encountered, but some were willing to give him a second chance. Leading to our lesson for today where Paul speaks at Mars Hill. What makes Paul’s speech, so remarkable is his approach to the people of Athens, Paul doesn’t seek to lash out at them rather Paul commends them for their pursuit of religious truth. Paul was willing to engage the people of Athens, where they were at, not where Paul hoped they should be.
Let me tell a story, I know a lady named Janie. Janie’s a kind, sweet, old lady who seems to love everyone that she encounters. Janie’s getting up there in years; she has to have oxygen and walking is quite difficult without losing breath. Janie has four children and nine grandchildren. Janie overtime started to realize that she wasn’t seeing her grandchildren as much as they moved away, or got tied up with school. Janie noticed that her phone calls were being returned way after the fact. So Janie at seventy some years old decided that she was going to learn how to send text messages on her cell-phone to communicate with people better.
What I admire about Janie so much is that she is terrible at text-messaging. When I worked as a substitute teacher I would see kids that could send message after message keeping their phones inside their pockets the entire time. Some kids can text 30-40 words a minute with ease, whereas for Janie every letter that she types into the phone time. Janie trying to identify a letter on her phone might look like a bird trying to find a worm on the ground. The reason Janie learned text messaging is because she believes that it’s important for her to stay connected. The thing that I admire so much about Janie is she reaches out, even when it involves doing something uncomfortable for her because she knows the cost of it all is of infinite worth.
Janie teaches us something important about evangelism that evangelism isn’t ultimately about being a great mind. Evangelism is instead the act of becoming.
Janie reminds me of Paul at Athens. Paul knew the Athenians were lost in the wilderness in their pursuit of spiritual truth. Paul didn’t view the Athenians as his enemies; Paul rather viewed them as fellow travelers in pursuit of trying to figure life out. Paul sees that the Athenians had built an altar to an “unknown god," so Paul takes what was unknown to seek to make it known.
Paul made it known that the God he worships has so much power that he raised a man to life who had been in the tomb for three days.
“People who inspire others are those who see invisible bridges at the end of dead-end streets”- Charles Swindoll.
Some rejected Paul's message to the people of Athens on that day, yet Paul also gained willing ears wanting to hear more.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”-Acts 17:32
There are two types of churches out there. There are churches that are just seeking to survive. Churches whose sole focus takes place inside their walls: budgets, numbers, and traditions. Churches whose focus is on sorting through power struggles and appeasing their own members. The second types of church are churches that are seeking to thrive. Churches that seek to reach the community, churches that seek out new relationships, and churches that seek out new ways of reaching people.
People of Sychar years of declining membership have beaten us down, old age has beaten us down, conflict has been us down, yet none of these things is our future. I have hope because I see joy on people’s face as kids go down the aisle to collect the well offering. I have hope because I see visitors welcomed as friends. I have hope because we understand that our existence is much bigger than ourselves, we define ourselves as a faith community by the forgiveness of sins.
I was having dinner with a friend a while back down in Duluth. This friend had grown up in a real religious home, yet over the years has drifted away from the church. The one thing though he couldn’t escape from Christianity is the beauty of forgiveness. Hearing that your sins have been declared clean from someone who believes it is a message that will not replicate through any other human community which people claim can replace the church.
For in the words of Thomas Edison, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Too often we have the wrong idea about increasing church membership. We merely think we need to invite someone to church. We say “come to our church, I’ll maybe see you there.” “If I’m feeling particularly outgoing that day, I might even wave at you and send you well-wishes.” When what we need to do is not invite people to church, but rather bringing people to church. Bringing people to church goes beyond offering rides. Bringing people to church involves taking people into your lives no matter their personality quirks. Bringing people to church involves taking people in the midst of both their joys and sorrows. Bringing people to church involves a promise to be a support system for someone through thick and thin.
Paul went forth to Athens with great risk; Paul dared to proclaim salvation in a God whose name no one had ever heard. People had been put to death previously for doing what Paul was doing. We risk something different; we risk losing the church we know and the church that many of us love. Nothing stays the same forever. People come; people go, and people come to believe that their needs are best met elsewhere. These challenges are normal. What instead defines us is a message that is bigger than any one individual. So Blurt It Out! Sychar Lutheran is not museum for the saints; Sychar Lutheran is rather the hospital for sinners. Sychar Lutheran is the place which promises you that you do not go through life alone. Sychar Lutheran like Athens is the place that God will never give up on. Amen
 Acts 10
 Joshua 2
 Hebrews 11:31
 2 Kings 5:1-14
 Luke 23:43
 Acts 17:16-21
 Acts 17:17-18
 Acts 17:23
 Acts 17:31