First Reading 1 John 3:16-24
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 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? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
In the first sermons of this series we’ve tried to address some of the particular practices that have given evangelism a bad name, especially within the liberal protestant tradition. Some evangelists can be just downright rude in their efforts to share good news. And if that seems counterintuitive to you, well … that’s probably because it is. When we use that which is inherently good to threaten or shame people, we do damage not only to the people, but also to the goodness.
… I’ve got to be careful how I state that—the goodness of the gospel is not at risk … but if we set out to articulate the gospel using all of the right words, but do so employing tactics that are abusive or arrogant, then in the end, what we have presented will not have been the gospel—the good news—but something else entirely.
So we’ve tried to identify some of these psuedo-evangelistic tactics that are inappropriate to the task of proclaiming good news, and to replace them with an approach to evangelism that seeks to embody the good news it proclaims in its encounter with the other.
For many Christians, if we fix the approach we will have fixed evangelism, and effectively retrieved it from the Jerry Falwells of the world, and hooray for that. Last week’s sermon could have concluded the series, as far as we’re concerned.
But for others of us, there is a deeper, more fundamental question to be asked of this idea—that Christian faith is necessarily an evangelistic faith. It can be posed in any number of ways, but most simply the question goes something like this: Why should Christians assume that people who adhere to other faith traditions or to no faith tradition need to become Christian in the first place? Isn’t it a bit arrogant to insist that our personal experience of God and God’s activity within history—that the Christian experience—is the only sufficient experience of God a person can have?
Theologians in modern times refer to this as the question of finality: in a consciously pluralistic society, can we continue to hold onto Jesus as the sole and final arbiter of Truth/Salvation/Humanity/Divinity? Or has this historically Christian claim become untenable, dragging any justification for Christian evangelism down with it?
One especially sticky challenge arises from what appear to be exclusive claims made in the New Testament: “I Am the way, the truth and the life;” Jesus says, “no one comes to the father except through me” (Jn. 14:6)… Or the apostle Paul’s If/Then statement: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
And finally, our passage for this morning, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” To hear it in context, we’ll start from verse 5 of chapter four, reading through verse 12. Now, with humble hearts, let us listen for the Word of God.
Second Reading Acts 4:5-12
5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, 9 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, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”*
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
Sermon On Finality
On Wednesday night in the Bethany Presbyterian Church Social Hall, four presentations were given by people of four different faiths—Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews in one place, each sharing their personal story and how their faith has helped to create that story. It was a lovely gathering and a testament to the ability of religious people to transcend their religious difference and share in their human commonalities and unity. And part of what allowed it to be such a lovely event, I imagine, was that no one felt the need to label anyone else a heathen, or an infidel, nor to convert anyone else to their religious tradition. No one quoted from Acts 4:12, that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus, and no one quoted from the Quran, that “whoever desires other than Islam as religion - never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.”
In such a setting, even the most committed, orthodox of religious people know that quoting these passages would be in poor taste. Had the setting been different—had it been an academic conference, or interfaith discussion concerning the relative compatibility of various religious faith traditions, then sure.
But in a setting created for the purpose of bringing diverse people together in unity and celebration of difference, mostly we all know better.
Just as certain biblical passages would be inappropriate to read at a wedding or at a funeral, certain passages are inappropriate to read at an interfaith storytelling event. And so on Wednesday night, we didn’t read Acts 4.
We read it this morning, however, because the Christian who wants to engage in interfaith relationships still has to grapple with the existence of these passages within our sacred scriptures. What is Peter saying here about the ultimate destiny of our new Muslim friends, the Imdads, or his own Jewish friends and family? What about our Buddhist neighbors, or the Sikh doctor who saved our child’s life, none of whom put ultimate trust in Jesus for salvation?
Most American Christians associate the word “salvation” with going to heaven, and the text says that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus. In popular evangelical discourse, salvation is kind of like a get out of hell/get into heaven free card.
But that is not how Peter uses the word here. The background is, Peter and John are being questioned because they have miraculously healed a disabled man, and the important religious people don’t like that their spiritual authority has been threatened by these wacko fisherman!
So they have the apostles arrested, and ask, who gave you permission to heal that man. By what authority did you do this?
Methodist pastor and scholar Will Willimon comments, “Rulers generally assume that they control the instruments and symbols of authority and power, so they are shocked when power appears to be emanating from ones so lowly—so uncredentialed—as Peter and John.”
But Peter is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and so he responds:
If you’re wondering how this man was healed by such as us,
let me be very clear that it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
The Greek word translated ‘healed’ there is sozo.
As he gets to the crescendo of his speech, Peter proclaims that there is salvation—soteria—in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be … sozo—translated in most English bibles as saved, but as we just pointed out, the word has already been used unambiguously in the passage to mean healed of an ailment or made whole.
Jesus, in this passage, is the power by which diseased and fragmented life is healed and made whole within history. Whether he is also the get out of hell/into heaven free card is simply not addressed in Peter’s speech. So when people make the passage about souls going to Heaven—about eternity—they are reading something into the text, which is not explicitly there.
Peter may very well have meant to suggest ultimate healing, ultimate wholeness as well—it is likely he did. But the modern fundamentalist/evangelical fixation on heaven and hell as eternal reward or punishment has been used to distract us in these conversations from the more obvious intention of the biblical text.
Plato and Socrates believe that disembodied souls go to heaven when the body dies … the New Testament does not. It values the created body—which is why Jesus’ body is resurrected, rather than his soul or spirit ascending to heaven, leaving the body behind. We must be careful not to read Platonic ideas about the afterlife onto the New Testament texts about Salvation.
Even with our biblical context securely intact, however, we are still left with an exclusive statement: There is healing/wholeness in no one else. For there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be made whole.
The point that Peter makes here is that in rejecting and destroying Jesus of Nazareth, the religious leaders and governmental authorities had rejected the Christ of God—the means of God’s salvation both within and beyond history. For Christians, salvation—whether we mean by it earthly healing, heavenly wholeness, or both—is inseparable from Christ, because Christ is inseparable from God, and God is the only one who saves. But it is not limited to Christ. Salvation is inseparable from Christ, but it is not limited to Christ, because the God who saves is not exhausted by Christ—God the Father saves in creating something from nothing—order from chaos, and in raising Jesus from the death to new life, and all this is done by the saving power of God the Holy Spirit. We cannot say that Christians are the only ones who receive God’s salvation, because Christ is not the only member of the Trinity who saves, but all members of the Trinity save. Wherever the Spirit is active, salvation is established, both within and beyond history. Christians recognize that the Spirit is the Spirit of God, by recognizing Her as the Spirit of Christ, but Her activity does not need to be baptized by the church in order to be effective as the activity of God.
And so when Mahatma Ghandi leads the Indian people in non-violent resistance to the oppressive powers—which happened to be Christian powers in that case—Christians like Martin Luther King Jr. can and do recognize the saving presence and activity—the evangelistic presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in that movement, even if Christ’s presence is not manifested within it by church or sacrament.
And recognizing the presence and activity of God in that movement, the Baptist minister does not set out to baptize Ghandi, but to learn from him; to celebrate and share in the salvation already present in Ghandi’s life and legacy—to join him in proclaiming the good news that suffering is redemptive; that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice; that violence cannot drive out violence and hate cannot drive out hate, but love—love saves.
For King, Christ is undoubtedly the source and fulfillment of this Truth, but he also recognizes that what Christ has made true is true no matter the attribution given.
So too, when the Gathering or Bethany Presbyterian Church hosts interfaith dialogues, or welcome refugee families of a different religious faith, it’s not it order to save our religiously diverse neighbors' souls by eventually getting them baptized into the church—though that may on occasion happen. But it is to save all our souls by recognizing together where and how the God who saves is already active in the world, and collectively joining God there, that with one voice we may proclaim what we embody—God has finally made all creation one. That’s what I call good news. Amen.