When I was in High School, my choir teacher was very fond of a specific joke that he loved to tell to all the new incoming students. With apologies to my paraphrasing of his comedic talents, it went something like this.

“There once was a man who died and ascended to the pearly gates of Heaven. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by Saint Peter himself, who offered to give a tour of the man’s new home. Peter took the man through a large set of doors into a great hall with rooms lining both sides. As the two walked down the hallway, Peter pointed to a room on their left and said, ‘This is the room that contains all the Pentecostals.’ The man looked through a small window in the door and saw people jumping, dancing and praising joyously. On the other side of the hall, Peter pointed to another room and said, ‘All the Methodists gather in this room.’ The man looked through that door’s window and saw a group of people holding a book study, chairs in a circle, listening intently to a speaker. This same routine continued as Peter pointed out the room for Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians. Peter then turned to the man and motioned that they should be very quiet as they round the corner up ahead. As the two tip toed around the corner, there was another door in front of them. The man peered in the window of the door and saw a group of people sitting silently, hands folded in their laps, staring ahead. The curious man, in a whisper, asked Peter why they had to be so quiet around this room. Peter smiled and said, ‘Those are the Presbyterians. They think they are all alone up here.’”

My choir teacher would always give me a good wink when he delivered his punch line to the class. He knew I was a good sport. In the years since, I have heard this joke told different ways, with the group of people who “think they are up there all alone” being different denominations. It is always told in good fun, and one thing about this joke never changed though in the multiple ways that I heard it told. The groups of people who occupied the various rooms in Heaven were always members of denominations of the Christian faith. People hearing the joke were almost always also members of a Christian denomination. Some of the humor in the story, I suspect, is that there is no real shock for the group that thinks they are alone to learn that another Christian denomination might be up there with them. Sure, the denominations all have differences in creeds and traditions, but the core tenant of the Christian faith, the belief in Christ as savior, exists in all of the groups. What if however, this joke were told with rooms in Heaven that contained Jewish people? What if there were Hindu and Buddhist rooms? What if Peter showed the man a room full of Muslim people first? Would the joke still ring with humor to Christians who heard it, or would it somehow become less funny? How would our room full of Presbyterians react to finding out that not only were we not the only ones up there, but that we shared eternal salvation with people who didn’t believe that Jesus was the only way in?

We have spent this summer working through a series on Understanding our Bible. Learning about the major themes in Scripture, about who wrote different books, for what audience, and how we might interpret and use these sacred stories in our lives. This twist on the joke makes us ask ourselves, how is it exactly, that we view the truth claims of our faith versus the truth claims of other faiths? How do we understand Scripture in a pluralistic world? We read Bible verses to our children that say Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to God except through Him. We read confessional statements in our Sunday services in which we claim belief in a Christ who is the only son of God, who died and rose again, and who will come to judge the living and the dead. How would we feel, having learned and taught these things, if we found out that others with no belief in the singular salvation of Jesus Christ were in the room next to us in Heaven? What if they were even in the same room with us?

In asking this question today, it is not my intent to give you an answer and try to make all of us walk out of here on the same page. Something that so many of us treasure about this faith community is that we are not told exactly what to believe, instead we read, we pray, we learn and have conversations in the midst of our God who alone in Lord of our conscious. Instead, today, I hope to raise some questions, and give some tools, so that we can all continue to grow in our faith together. And as we grow, that we might be mindful about our sisters and brothers living all around us who are also made in the image of the divine, just like we are.

There is no singular answer to how to view other faith traditions among Christians. Some of us have a hard time accepting other people’s beliefs, while some find it easier to make room for other beliefs, without having them affect their own. The Christian church has wrestled with the validity of other religions for centuries. Author and Theologian Paul Knitter notes that questions that Christians face when trying to understand their own beliefs in relation to beliefs of those around them constitutes a discipline called “theology of religions”. Dr. Knitter taught at Xavier University for many years, and I was lucky enough to take a class with him on Theology of Religions in seminary a few summers ago. His work lays out four models for the major theological positions on the relation of Christianity to other religions. It will serve us well to take some time this morning to learn a bit about these models, and in which position we might find the most amount of personal comfort, for indeed there are strengths and weaknesses found in each model.

Knitter calls the first model that he identifies, The Replacement Model. In this model, other religions do not hold valid truth claims about salvation, but rather will need to have their beliefs replaced by the Christian model of salvation, namely salvation through Christ alone. There are nuances in this model, about the degree to which replacement needs to happen. Some argue for a total replacement of all other faiths with Christianity, while others try to soften this stance, saying there may be some redeeming things about other religions, but in the end people of those faiths will need to accept Jesus to obtain God’s salvation. It is often stated that this need will become a desire when the person of another faith is exposed to the true love and message of Jesus. This is a popular model among evangelical and non-denominational religions in our current culture. It is a model that is rooted in a literal reading of scripture, and a centrality of that scripture to the understanding of Christianity as superior to any other faith. The upside of this stance is that it makes truth and faith claims pretty easy, pretty black and white. For those seeking succinct, direct answers to questions of faith, this can be appealing. The danger here is in the assertion that we as Christians are privy to the entirety of God’s salvation, and we alone can lay claim to the method for receiving it, leaves no room for any salvific truth to be found among the other religions. It also places a limit upon God. Saying that God will not, and possibly cannot, save those who do not believe in Jesus puts God in a box. It restricts the claim of John 3:8, that “The wind (Spirit) blows wherever it pleases.”

The exclusivity of this first model led some in the church to propose a second model, which Knitter calls The Fulfillment Model. This model accepts that God may indeed be present in other religions, but that those religions will be enhanced upon exposure to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus will fulfill these other religions, thereby enabling salvation. The model does not necessitate that people of other faiths convert to Christianity, but that in their encounter with Jesus, they will be forever changed. Because of their exposure to the gospel, they will become better Muslims, or better Hindus, or better Buddhists. This model does a better job of making room for truth claims in other religions. It does however still ring with an air of superiority and exclusivity over other faiths. God might indeed be present in your faith, but you still need our faith to find the fulfillment of God’s salvation. Critics of this model would argue if we are called to be in community and dialogue with our neighbors of different faiths, it becomes a less than authentic dialogue if we believe ourselves to be on a higher level, theologically, than they might be.

Knitter named his third model the Mutality Model. The Mutuality Model tries to establish an even playing field. While believing that people of other religions can be changed by hearing the Gospel of Jesus, we must be open to the fact that we too could be changed by hearing their stories and coming into contact with their faith. Not only can other religions be fulfilled by Christianity, but Christianity can also be fulfilled through conversations with other religions! Mutualists remind us that God is universal, and therefore truth about God can be found all around us. Limiting ourselves to one religion, to one line of thinking about that universal God, would mean we miss out on what the Spirit is doing in other places. The image of one mountain that we are all climbing, but perhaps on different paths to the top is a metaphor often associated with this theological line of thinking. Critics of this model are quick to point out that the particularity of God’s love, incarnate in Jesus, is easily lost in this model. That we “water down Jesus” when we remove the singularity of the salvation found through Christ, which is a teaching that can be found in our central scriptures and creeds.

Knitter names the final model that he describes as The Acceptance Model. This model claims that there are many true religions, and that is just how it is. Revisiting our mountain metaphor, scholars that prefer this acceptance model would point out that it is elitist to assume that everyone is climbing our same mountain! They would perhaps argue that a more accurate metaphor might be many different mountains with many different paths. This allows for the differences in religions to remain, and for none to be superior to the others. Theologian S. Mark Heim describes a Christian mountain that “will not be higher than any of the others, for each will be high enough for those who dwell on it to be fully satisfied on it. But from the lookout on the Christian mountain, one will be able to see and understand just how the diverse peaks of this heavenly skyline give expression to the diversity of divine life and to the diversity of God’s relations with God’s creatures.” (Knitter 2002, location 4866) This model asserts that to really love ones neighbor, we must love the neighbor’s otherness. The concerns expressed over this model would include relativism, as was the case with The Mutuality Model, in the possible lessening of the importance of Jesus Christ.

I would guess that all of us in this room today find ourselves on a different part of the spectrum across these four models. Even our denomination as a whole takes a nuanced approach to guiding people on the subject. The official “Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states, “PCUSA at all levels will be open to and will seek opportunities for respectful dialogue and mutual relationships with entities and persons from other religions’ traditions. It does this in the faith that the church of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a sign and means of God’s intention for the wholeness of all humankind and all creation.” (PCUSA, 2014) The fact that it states the church of Jesus Christ is a sign and means and not the sign and means probably is a clue toward where they hope to direct us as a body of faith. After all, for every exclusivist sounding Bible passage, “no one comes to the Father except through me”, we do also find passages like our scripture this morning from the Gospel of Luke, “Prepare the way of the Lord, that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Which is a quotation from Jewish Scripture by the way!

This theological exercise, this intellectual thinking, seems to be a comfortable place for most of us adults here at Knox. We like to read more about the subject. We like to hear discussions about differing view points. We have thoughtful sermons, and well crafted Adult Education presentations that allow us to wrestle with the questions involved. What I find most interesting around this subject however, is the different level of urgency that our youth have when approaching their own Theology of Religions. From my experience with them, this is not a subject that they want to just sit back and reflect upon, it is an urgent topic of critical importance to them. This generation of young people has grown up with access to people from all walks of life, and from all around the world. They have best friends who are of varying religious backgrounds, or sometimes, no religious background at all. For them to see authenticity in the church, and to allow themselves to think about almost any other subject around their faith, they first need to know where we as a church stand on the issue of acceptance for the people that they love. Without a clear answer to this subject, they find us elusive at best, and certainly dissingenuous when we fail to fully love our neighbors, differences and all. Isn’t this what Jesus, himself, calls us to do? We have no problem saying that we should love each other, but how much do we truly love our neighbors, if we believe inside that their core faith tradition will lead them away from the almighty loving Creator?

This past week, Knox was the host for a day to an Interreligious group of youth called Kids 4 Peace. This group seeks to connect youth from different religions and backgrounds and empowers them to be agents of change in the world. I was lucky enough to be with them and to witness them work together, laugh together, learn together, and share about their lives and faith, and what it means to each of them. I was tasked with leading a learning portion of the day about Christianity, and I decided that to start, I was not going to do the talking, but asked them to tell me what Christianity meant to them. What questions did they have about the faith. What experiences did they have with other Christians. As you might guess, their answers were varied. Many wondered about Christmas and Easter. Some asked what was so special about this table in our churches. As we walked around this building, one youth asked me why some in our religion were so filled with hate for people in their religion. It breaks your heart to hear a kid ask that about your faith tradition, which is supposed to be rooted in love. It was also healing to be able to tell that youth that I was sorry for their experience, and that is not at all what Jesus taught us to be like. We still have a lot of learning to do as followers of Jesus. As we try to grow by reading our holy scriptures, by praying in ways common to our tradition, by meeting together with those who believe like we do, I hope that we can continue to add more time with those who are different from ourselves. Who have some experiences of God that we have yet to experience. Who will work with us toward common justice and peace in our world. Who through their own beliefs, will help us to become better Christians ourselves. Not that we would give up any of our own beliefs, but that we might understand them more fully. I was reminded of this while watching those youth interact this week. May they continue to teach us how to be a true community of our diverse God of Love.

Thanks be to Our God, Amen.