No Other Name
A sermon on Acts 4: 5-12, 1 John 3: 16-24 & John 10: 11-18 by Nathan Nettleton, 11 May 2003
The message that salvation is exclusively in the hands of the risen Christ may be unfashionable, but it is the only message of salvation we have to offer.
There is a set of light bulb jokes doing the rounds, giving answers for different Christian traditions. No doubt some of you have seen it, perhaps even in an email from Garry this past week.
How many Roman Catholics does it take to change a light bulb? None, with all those candles they never notice the light bulbs go out.
How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb? Ten, one to change the light bulb and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.
How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? None, God has predestined the light bulbs to go on and off and their appointed times.
How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Three, one to change the light bulb, one to mix the cocktails, and one to reminisce about how much better the old light bulb was.
How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? At least 16, one to change the light bulb and the rest to form three committees: one to determine whether there is a biblical warrant for light bulbs, one to ensure that church lighting policies do not violate the autonomy of local congregation, and one to decide who will bring the potato salad.
And then there is the response which is sometimes ascribed to the Unitarians, or sometimes here in Australia to the Uniting Church, but in which quite a few of us can probably recognise ourselves, or some of the churches weve been involved with:
We choose not to make a statement either in favour of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs won't work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.
We live in a pluralistic age, surrounded by adherents of many faiths. We value cultural and religious tolerance and seek to respect and affirm the value of other religions. And we increasingly shaped by a post-modern mindset, which makes us suspicious of any claim to exclusive truth and ready to accept that any and every pathway of salvation is valid for its own subculture and for those who share its particular frame of reference. That is to say that every one sees truth and the way of salvation from their own perfectly valid point of view, and no one version of the story is any more universal than any other.
In the last five years, our congregation has embraced a style of worship that is self-consciously modelled on the patterns of the church of the early centuries. That in turn has been leading us to increasingly model more of the shape of our congregational life on the patterns from that same era, and our recent experience of the Lenten School of Discipleship was one of the more obvious examples of that. Those journeys inevitably expose us to more and more of the thinking and preaching of that era, and to wanting the witness of the Apostolic era to critique and shape our own witness. It is not about slavish, mindless subservience to the past, but it is about maintaining the conversation and ensuring that we remain solidly grounded in the traditions passed down from the Apostles, which of course include the scriptures.
I dont know about you, but one of the points at which I squirm most uncomfortably with those traditions is in their apparent claims of exclusivity for the Christian faith. When I hear Peter say in tonights reading from the Acts of the Apostles, There is salvation in no one else but Jesus Christ, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved, Im feeling embarrassed and Im wanting to look for a loophole. Can you relate to that too?
Christian history tells some appalling tales of violent arrogance, where the Church sought to justify its rampant imperialism on the grounds that it was a benevolent act to bring everyone on earth into relationship with the one and only source of Gods grace and salvation. And because to our eyes such an obvious contradiction between message and means is unthinkable, and because so many other religions clearly contain much that is true and healthy and life-giving, we are anxious to disassociate ourselves from the arrogant exclusivism of the past. Im probably not alone in sometimes wondering whether perhaps some other religion, such as Buddhism which is the only major religion that has never had a serious war waged in its name, might actually have a better claim than Christianity to being the way of life and peace and hope for the world. Does that thought cross any of your minds too?
I think I have probably stood up here in the past and preached on the validity of other religious faiths and said that I thought salvation may well be found within them. If I havent said it in a sermon, I have certainly said it in discussion with some of you. But tonight I find myself in the paradoxical position of wanting to say that while I am still open to those possibilities, I want to repent of having preached them. You see, it is not my place to preach my own opinions or wishful speculations as though they were gospel. My job is to preach the faith handed down from the Apostles. And whether I like it or not, the tradition we have received, and the tradition we are to preach, does not speculate on whether salvation might be found apart from an expressed commitment to Jesus Christ. The briefest possible summary of tradition we have received is offered in the words we heard from the Apostle John tonight, that Gods command is that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.
In Peters speech, we heard him quote the line from Psalm 118 that is the verse from the Hebrew scriptures most often quoted in the New Testament when he says that Jesus is the stone that was rejected by the builders and has now become the cornerstone; the cornerstone, the thing on which everything else hangs, on which everything else depends. Jesus Christ, he says, is the crucial truth at the centre of all truth, and without him nothing else will stand. When Jesus was executed, God raised him up, and now it is in and through Jesus that death and evil and sin are defeated, and it is in his glorious return that they will be ultimately eradicated from the earth, an then every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. This is the tradition we have received from the Apostles.
In the past, in my efforts to find some wriggle room here, Ive often appealed to tonights gospel reading where we hear Jesus say, I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. I have speculated that Jesus is saying that if people are responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and living with love, integrity and good faith, then even though they do not identify with Christianity, they can belong to Jesus and thus find salvation in him. Now given what I know of the grace of God, I will not be the least bit surprised if on the day of judgment that proves to be true, but if I am to be ruthlessly honest about it, when John wrote down this saying, it was probably understood to mean just that Jesus had followers outside of the flock of Israel as well as inside. Going further than that may not make me a heretic, but it is speculation and it takes me outside the tradition of faith passed down from the Apostles. And the great paradox is, that no matter how well intentioned my speculations were, they ultimately result in greater arrogance than simply living with the received tradition.
You see, when we stick to proclaiming and living out the tradition we have received, we speak only of what we know, and we preach only that which has proved to be life-giving and sanctifying down through the ages in the community of Christs followers. We are not disparaging or disputing the faith traditions of others, we are simply living and proclaiming our own, and offering to share with the world that which has proved redemptive and nourishing to us. To begin theorising about how God views and treats those of other faiths requires us to not only begin to sit in judgment on the value of pathways we have not travelled, which when you think about it is presumptuous enough, but it also puts us in the position of telling God how to be God. We may not quite be saying that our ways and thoughts are higher than Gods, but we would at least be saying that our ways are higher than what the Apostles have told us of Gods.
Our exclusive proclamation of Jesus as the way of salvation and the one who rises above sin and death and overthrows their power is not incompatible with a profound humility before the claims of the worlds other religions. We are not sitting in judgment on their teachings. We are not refusing to listen to what they have to say about the problems facing our world as a whole. We are not condemning their adherents to eternal damnation. What we are doing is boldly and unapologetically owning the tradition we have received and the tradition within which we have found our own salvation and life, and we are confidently offering the fruits of that faith to any who will hear. To do less would be to keep silent about where we have found bread when others may be hungering.
Whether or not there is salvation apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ is none of our business. It is Gods business alone. We are all welcome to our opinions and speculations, but lets be clear that that is all they are. Our business is to follow and to share the news of the one path of salvation which we do know, the one path which we have been taught and which we have experienced. The one and only way of salvation which we ourselves know, and the one and only way which we have any authority to speak about, is offered in the name of Jesus, and in no other name.
This is the faith we have received from the Apostles, the faith of the church, the faith we now stand to declare....