Believing in the universality of salvation

Father John A. Kiley

Jewish history was rarely a glorious enterprise. The Jews knew some triumphs under David; they experienced some splendor during Solomon’s tenure; a brief freedom was earned by the Maccabees. But most Jewish centuries were eras of struggle. Released from Egyptian slavery through Moses and Aaron, and then led into the Promised Land by Joshua, it was centuries before King David finally united all twelve tribes of Israel around the capital city of Jerusalem. During this time slaughter of native peoples under the Biblical ban was the Divinely authorized rule. Mixing with the enemy was forbidden during the era of settlement. Then, alas, occupation by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar was followed by a more benign occupation by the Persians during King Cyrus’ reign only to be succeeded then by Greek rule under the almost world-wide dominance of Alexander the Great which eventually became Roman rule under the Caesars. Jewish history did not promote much love of enemies.

Considering this brief outline of Jewish history, it is little wonder that the Jews of Jesus Christ’s time and the Jews of the first Christian era had little appreciation of the universality of salvation ushered into world history through the ministry of Jesus Christ and the early Church. In this coming Sunday’s first reading from Acts, the Jewish audience of Paul and Barnabas are enraged when the apostles quote Isaiah on God’s intentions to redeem all peoples: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.* The Jewish leaders “…incited the women of prominence who were worshipers and the leading men of the city, stirring up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelling them from their territory.” There would be no talk of redeeming the Gentiles in that neighborhood!

In spite of such resistance from Jewish religious leaders, the Christian belief in the universality of salvation blossomed within early Church practice as the magnanimous words of St. John in the second reading from the book of Revelation broadly declare: “I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.”

Not only in the Book of Revelation but especially in his Gospel account, St. John shows himself to be keenly aware of the Christian belief in the universality of salvation and also of the practical problems this teaching presented within the Jewish/Greek environment in which the early Church was getting its start. Recall for a moment the struggle St. Paul had to convince many Jewish converts to Christianity that their Greek fellow converts did not have to practice the old Mosaic Law. A New Dispensation was replacing the Old Law. This news was tough for some old time Jews. Recall also the dilemma of the early Church in ministering equitably to Jewish and Greek widows. The order of deacons was established precisely to heal this international divide!

Although Jesus himself preached largely to Jewish audiences, St. John in his Gospel account frequently envisions a worldwide flock of redeemed sheep gathered around their redeeming shepherd. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, St. John records Jesus’ words, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” Going back just a few verses, Jesus had boldly stated, “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.” Jesus had truly come to save all peoples, Jew and Greek, natives and foreigners, sheep and goats. No one receptive to Christ’s message is excluded from the Kingdom of God. Just to be sure, Jesus adds these insistent words, “The Father and I are one,” meaning that the heavenly Father and his earthly Son are in agreement saving all. Redeeming all peoples is no crack-pot idea from Jesus alone. Christ has Divine authority for his call to all peoples to join his flock, his kingdom, his church.

Christians today bear witness to the wideness of God’s mercy not only by the Church’s worldwide missions but also by their own personal openness to every brother and sister in need.