This reflection is for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/22/2018.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells his faithful disciples what so many Christians DO NOT want to hear, namely, that Jesus may have someone else “on the side!” Yikes! “But…but…I thought you only had eyes for me, Jesus!”
I distinctly remember having lunch with some amazingly faithful, generous, and kind, Christian friends who with the greatest of confidence said, “If a person has not accepted Jesus into their heart, they cannot be saved. They are in Hell.” He did admit that he was sorry to say it, but that it was absolutely true. But this view is inconsistent with Jesus’ actions and outlook as he ministered, and exactly the opposite of what we hear Jesus say today, and what the Church teaches.
Today Jesus tells His disciples, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (JN 10:16) What?! Scandalous! Who are these “other sheep” that MY LORD also loves?
Well, certainly in Jesus’ day this would have meant the gentiles–or non-Jews–and this inclusivity became the cause of much division within the apostolic Church! In fact, the admittance of the gentiles is settled in Acts 15:28 and the rest of the book of Acts as well as the rest of the Scripture, right up to the book of Revelation shows the great struggle with how to be a Jewish-Gentile Christian community in light of the Holy Spirit’s guidance toward greater inclusivity.
Every part of Jesus’ ministry challenges the status quo with regard to who is blessed and who is not. Jesus always invited others to “put out into the deep” so the catch might be more abundant–and it always is with God. Jesus came that the whole of humanity might have life through him–that none should be lost.
But what to make of Peter’s seemingly narrow statement to the leaders of the people and elders, wherein he proclaims they must know that, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Many Christian communities take these Scripture verses and use them to advance an agenda of exclusivity quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus DOES make it clear, and so we believe, that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that none go to the father except through he (JN 14:6), and Peter makes it clear that there is no salvation apart from Jesus.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches how these verses can be reconciled with what we heard today, and it has to do with the grace and mercy of God for all His children, by whatever name they call Him, and in whatever way they understand Him.
The Church teaches both the necessity of baptism for salvation, AND that there is more than one way to receive the grace of baptism–even without receiving Christian baptism itself. In the Catechism, paragraph 1257 on The Necessity of Baptism, she writes, “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation…The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”
The last line is crucial, as it allows for God to be God. It recognizes that God has indeed provided a way in baptism for the salvation of souls, but ultimately, God can save souls anywhere and anytime, through any means God chooses, in ways known only to Himself and the one(s) to whom it has been revealed! We don’t know of any–but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have any!
The following two paragraphs, 1258 and 1259 speak of what is commonly called, baptism of desire. The first is by blood, where one was martyred for their faith in Jesus even before being brought into the community for baptism, and the second, the baptism of desire, whereby a person desired baptism but for whatever reason (ignorance, location, scandal, etc.) is prevented from receiving it.
In both cases, we recognize God’s greatness and the tragedy of human limitation that kept that person from entering the waters. And the teaching goes that the grace of baptism that is normally received with water can be applied to that person in light of their desire for it. God will not be denied those who seek Him.
And finally, probably the most difficult for many, the following paragraph opens the door of grace wide for all the rest who have not been baptized nor desired baptism explicitly at all. It’s worth noting here in its entirety.
C.C.C. 1260 “‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”
The Church’s teaching admits of the great impediments and limits to human understanding and to the abundant mercy and generosity of our Father-who desires that none should be lost. Jesus, the good shepherd, lays down his life for all his sheep–those we know of and those we do not.
Sadly, I fear far too many Christians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide who gets to go to Heaven and who is in Hell. Time, I believe, that would be better spent on showing love, forgiveness, and mercy to those in need. It’s not our job to decide who doesn’t meet the criteria and is in hell. Incidentally, the church admits of none by name who are in hell, but only that hell does indeed exist for those who knowingly and freely reject God and His love (C.C.C. 1035). For my part, I hope no one is in hell at all and that beyond this earthly life they discover the God of mercy, repent, and believe.
So as it turns out, you and I may have to share our Lord with those that we don’t even know about! How exciting! I can’t wait to get to heaven to meet all the rest of my brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus calls us to love–that’s it. Not to condemn, judge, or speculate, but to love. Not a bad gig. I’ll try to love more tomorrow than I was able to today, and God can be God.
Easter Blessings, Stephen