The Name of
Jesus Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-16
It is sometimes said, especially by those who are sceptical about the
Christian faith, that the Bible contradicts itself and so is unreliable.
Whether it really does or not is a whole sermon in itself. However our
two readings today provide us with one example where that may seem to
be true at first sight. In Acts 4:12 Peter says that there is no other
name under heaven by which mortals may be saved. But in John 10:16 Jesus
says that he has other sheep, not of this fold, whom he will bring and
they will listen to his voice.
I want to look at these two verses especially in the light of interfaith
questions. Here are some that come to mind immediately: Is Jesus the only
way to salvation? What about other faiths or even those who’ve never
even heard the name of Jesus? To say there is no other means of salvation
may sound arrogant and exclusive. What do we make of that? On the other
hand, should we not be faithful to Christ and not water down Christianity
by allowing other faiths to be true? Then there are the wider questions:
how do faiths relate to each other anyway? How can we think rationally
and reasonably about these issues? These and other questions like them
are more important these days because of the kind of world in which we
live. We are a global village and people of different faiths live side
by side in many communities. Even the UK Home Office thinks it is a priority
and has launched its “Side by Side and Face to Face” initiative
to support community cohesion.
Let us take a closer look at these two readings. How you handle or interpret
texts is very important. The temptation is to use a verse as a so-called
“proof text”. They can be put forward like soundbites or slogans
that are supposed to finish all debate and demand our unquestioned obedience.
The trouble is, as a tutor of mine put it in theological college: “A
text taken out of its context can become a pre-text.” In other words,
you have to remember the reason for and setting of a particular Bible
verse. If you forget the “scenery” out of which you’ve
plucked it, it can end up not meaning what it was originally meant to
be there for. Any one verse relates to the verses around it and you have
to understand its context in order to get a better understanding of it.
Many things can help point you in the right direction if you keep them
all in mind.
If a ship
is coming into port after dark, the navigator will look for the guiding
lights on the shore. These lights are lined up behind each other and only
when they are all lined up from the viewpoint of the boat can that vessel
be guided safely into the harbour. The more lights, the better the chance
of a safe straight line home. Just the same way, when seeking to understand
a verse in the Bible the more “guiding lights” you can find,
the better your understanding can be. “Guiding lights” in
understanding a text are: the culture of the time; the reason for the
story or argument; what the language or words might have meant at the
time; who said them; what the background history is; what experts and
commentators have said about it.
If two seem to contradict each other it is even more obvious that you
can’t hang a whole doctrine on one of them. With the two texts we’re
looking at you can’t use either of them to argue for Christian exclusivism
(that Christ is the only way and all other religions are wrong); or that
all religions somehow are right. Let’s look a little more closely
at each text and find some guiding lights.
other name”. The context of these words is a legal challenge in
a religious court. Peter is being asked what authority he had for performing
a healing in the temple. His response is that he did it by the name of
Jesus, the only name given for salvation. We need to remember that Peter
was in front of the same court that condemned Jesus to death and from
which Peter had shrunk into the shadows and denied the name of Jesus.
Now he is bold and confident. The authorities were upset because of the
challenge to their power. It was not a debate about different religions
but a question of authority. By Jesus’ death, Peter declares, salvation
comes and he is the key in the building that is Israel. “You have
rejected the very one by whose name you could be saved!” he says
courageously. It is not really about comparing whether or not other religions
are valid, it is a direct response to the challenge of threatened authorities.
sheep”. The gospel of John was written with non-Jews in mind. Gentiles
who were fond of deep thinking and thoughtful ways of describing spiritual
things would have been attracted to John’s way of telling the story
of Jesus. It would be a help for them to realise that they are the “other
sheep” who may also belong to Jesus’ flock. The context of
this passage is, interestingly enough, not too dissimilar from the Acts
passage. The religious authorities are reacting strongly to Jesus’
healing of a blind man. Jesus is a challenge to their power – or
so they think. Jesus defends himself by saying he is in fact the Good
Shepherd who lays down his life in sacrifice. “Other sheep”
though, are not forced to accept Jesus’ Lordship, but are attracted
by his self-sacrifice.
I would like to finish with a story which I have found in William Barclay,
a great preacher and Bible scholar.
Egerton Young was the first missionary to the Red Indians. In Saskatchewan
he went out and told them of the love of God. To the Indians it was like
a new revelation. When the missionary had told his message, an old chief
said: “When you spoke of the great Spirit just now, did I hear you
say,' Our Father '?” “Yes," said Egerton Young. “That
is very new and sweet to me," said the chief. “We never thought
of the great Spirit as Father. We heard him in the thunder; we saw him
in the lightning, the tempest and the blizzard, and we were afraid. So
when you tell us that the great Spirit is our Father that is very beautiful
to us." The old man paused, and then he went on, as a glimpse of
glory suddenly shone on him. “Missionary, did you say that the Great
Spirit is your Father?” “Yes," said the missionary. “And,"
said the chief, “did you say that he is the Indians' Father?”
said the old chief, like a man on whom a dawn of joy had burst, “you
and I are brothers!"
I think what
this helps us to see is that we have to hold together two things. On one
hand we must be loyal to the name of Jesus; we belong to the Good Shepherd.
On the other hand it is not for us to condemn “other sheep”
as being misguided or outside God’s good purposes. In some ways
the two texts we’ve been looking at hold these two things together
in the one Christian scripture. Therefore, so must we.
© Rev Paul Smith