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May the words of my mouth and the meditations in our hearts, be pleasing to the God who loves us more than we can ask for, imagine, or deserve.  Alleluia, Christ has risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

On one recent morning, I found myself in the midst of a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving to God for my life and the so many wonderful blessings I have received. In that moment of quiet consciousness, I was struck by the wonderful look of obvious and  pure adoration and affection on the face of my kitty cat Jasper.  I felt the sense of emotional well-being at the soft rumbling of his purrs, and I found myself thinking about how the love and affection of a simple animal like a pet cat or dog can speak of the wonder and pure nature of innocent love. In his own unique way, Jasper offers me the love he has received from God. That thought was nothing new or unusual or infrequent, mind you, but maybe, for me, it could be a justification for my way of thinking in a slightly new way.  After all, if you read the Bible often, (which is a very good idea, I think) you maybe have noticed that the very first creatures that God ever made were not human beings at all. In fact, the first living things that God created were not creatures, but were what we call vegetation and plants.

The first creation account given in the book of Genesis divided the process of creation into seven days:

#1 On the first day, God created the light
#2 On the second day, God created he sky
#3 On the third day, God created the earth, the seas,                                                                                                        and all vegetation
#4 On the fourth day, God created the sun and the moon
#5 On the fifth day, God created the animals of the air and of the sea
#6 On the sixth day, God created the land animals and human beings
#7 On the seventh day, God named it the Sabbath day, and God rested.

Now if you ask me if I think the story is literally true in all of it’s scientific detail and the actual order of events, I would have to say, well, no. But it is not a story meant to tell us about scientific truth. Like many stories that can tell us truths that are important to our understanding of the meaning of life, the creation story is an allegory in which the truth is presented in a figurative way that will help us to understand life in its deeper meanings. The most important literal truth conveyed in this story lies in the words, “In the beginning, God…”

I found myself thinking about the animal life that God has created, with its loves, affections, joys, sorrows, pleasures, curiosities, disappointments, interests, longings and emotions. It seems to me that in animal life God has given each the talents, skill, or ability to do something for which God has given them their sustenance and purpose.

I pondered if perhaps humankind is the biological and spiritual Altima of it all with the God/Man Jesus being the Maxima. I do know that those times during which I feel the privilege of being allowed into the nearer emotional and spiritual presence of another person or creature, I experience a feeling.

A feeling that I can only describe as something that seems to me to be a comforting part, an essential piece of the blessing of God’s creational love.

” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man, standing before you in good health, {is doing so} by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God has raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; {he} has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Now, I believe with all my heart that those words of Peter are literally true, but I also believe that all too often, they have been misunderstood or misused.  Some forms of Christian leadership which claim to be the truth try to make our faith as something exclusive or exclusionary. Can we really imagine a loving father rejecting a loving child if for some reason the child does not know or remember or has never been told his father’s real name? Can we really imagine a loving mother rejecting one of her children because that child has been taught a name that is not her mother’s real name? Oh yes, I do believe that Jesus is the only Name under heaven by which we must be saved.

But is it absolutely the truth that we must always actually know and be able to utter or recall the name Jesus to gain entrance into God’s Presence? Must we know the password to be “saved”?

Because I am a Christian in the priestly ministry, I have often been asked the following question, and I pray that my answer may be right and acceptable: “What about someone who has never heard about Jesus Christ or who has never met a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, or for some reason has never been told about his saving grace or who has never been persuaded by a convincing witness into accepting faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

The noted American evangelist Billy Graham once said, “I used to play God but I can’t do that any longer.  I used to believe that pagans in far-off countries were lost and were going to hell—if they did not have the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that.”

Within the realms of Christian thought, I think I have noticed and identified three serious approaches concerning the issue of eternal salvation. With my apology to all the really learned Christian theologians, of which I am not, let me try very briefly to name and explain what I think I see.

The first approach I would call Exclusion or Exclusionism.

These are those who think and teach that only those who know who Jesus is and who proclaim him as their God or at least their Lord and their Savior, will enter the gates of Heaven. Everyone else is excluded. No exceptions. I have known some clergy who are bent on pestering a dying patient to say the magic words, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” as they lay dying. If that is something a dying person wants to do as an act of faith, I think that might be a wonderful thing if the dying person means it and says it willingly, but I don’t think I could approve the judgments of hell being pronounced over a person about to meet his or her loving Creator.

At the other end of the extreme I would say is Universalism. Generally speaking, these people believe in varying things and ways, but basically they seem to believe that all well-meaning people are going to receive a heavenly finality. “If there is one.”

And then thirdly, there is what some Christians call Inclusivity or Inclusivism. To me, the person Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind. Although himself a practicing Hindu, Gandhi’s embracing of other faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam serve to put him and those who are like him in  a category that might be thought of as in a state of God’s final approval. I did not always agree with everything that Billy Graham said, but when he said, “I believe that there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God—through nature, for instance—and plenty of other opportunities, therefore, of saying ’yes’ to God.”

With that, I find myself in full agreement with The Reverend Graham.

Many interpretations of the Bible as they are believed to be understood by many inclusive Christians, state that God – partially – can be experienced and found in other religions and/or other disciplines such as science for example, but they still also hold that – at the same time – to fully experience the deepest and most intimate relationship with God it is necessary to find and unite with the reality and person of Jesus Christ and not only with the reality of some nameless universal spirit. At the same time, it is clear, that to fully be in relationship with God it is also necessary to accept the inclusive and universal nature of the Christ and of God as a whole, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Where does all of this leave us? In many places today is called Good Shepherd Sunday. Our image of ourselves as Christ’s sheep lies deep within in the essence of the Christian faith.

Sheep are not known for their intelligence and ability to remain together as a group. That is why, in order to remain safe and productive and useful, they must be brought together in herds. Some people, even some committed Christians, have found it rather insulting that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are compared to sheep. One of the talents that some sheep do have is that some are intelligent enough to learn to recognize their shepherd’s voice.

For us wanna-be followers of Jesus Christ, for those of us who really want to be or become or remain members of his flock, one of the main turning points available to us lies in seeking a growth and depth for our own spiritual lives. This begs for an availability of quiet, peaceful times and times of quiet, spiritual  listening for that small, still voice. Oh yes, it is helpful that there be times of active prayer, service and collegial activity.

Many begin their renewed or first intentional spiritual journeys by asking the question, “Does Jesus hear our voice when we call him?”  That is a relevant and serious question. But even more importantly it is even better if we develop the habit of asking, “Do we/I hear Jesus’ voice?” Do we hear His voice when he calls us. Are we to be considered his sheep because he hears our voice, or is it more important that we hear His voice? Well, both questions are relevant and important, but real success comes when the latter outweighs the first.

I am going to close by sharing just a few of the scriptural words that speak to me as someone who seeks and perhaps sometimes finds his place in the flock of the Good Shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.  He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord has risen indeed. Alleluia!