Sunday, April 22, 2018

Salvation through Jesus (a sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter on Acts 3 & 4)

Today’s reading from Acts contains a verse which some people will have found so disturbing that they probably didn’t hear anything else that was read after it. In Acts 4:12 Peter, speaking about Jesus, says “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”.

Many people, listening to that verse, think it means “When we die, unless we have made a decision to accept Jesus, we will not go to heaven”. Apparently God has made a totally arbitrary decision to ignore all the good Muslims and Jews and Buddhists out there, and to focus instead on whether a person believes in Jesus or not. Understandably, in these days when we’d all like people of different religions to get along better with each other,  some people don’t see that as a positive message.

I actually find it quite surprising that people would interpret this verse in this way - for two reasons. First, if you take this passage in the context of the total story of Acts 3 and 4 the issue of dying and going to heaven is not mentioned at all. The word ‘heaven’ is mentioned three times in this story, but in two of them it just means ‘the sky’, and in the third one it’s the place God will send Jesus from– in what we nowadays usually refer to as ‘the second coming’ – when the time of universal restoration finally comes.

The second reason I find this interpretation surprising is the way we hear the word ‘saved’ or ‘salvation’. Again, we’ve got a long history of interpreting that to mean ‘saved from going to hell’. But that’s not the most common meaning of it in the Bible. In the Old Testament the word ‘salvation’ is almost always used in a military sense – it means ‘to be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us’, as Zechariah says in Luke 1:71. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt – they’re under the thumb of an enemy far too powerful for them – but God rescues them miraculously and leads them to freedom, and they give thanks for his salvation.

In the Gospels the word is often translated as ‘healed’ or ‘made well’. For instance, in Luke 17 Jesus heals ten lepers, but only one comes back to thank him. Jesus says to the man “Get up and go on your way; your  faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). It’s the same word root in the original language as ‘be saved’ in our passage for today. And of course in our passage the immediate context is healing; in Acts 4:9 Peter says “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…”, and the word used in the original Greek for ‘healed’is the same as ‘saved’. So we could translate 4:9 as ‘how this man has been saved’. In other words, the kind of salvation most immediately in view in this passage is healing, not dying and going to heaven.

Okay – before we go any further, let’s remind ourselves of the big picture, because our reading gave us only a part of it. This story takes place not long after the day of Pentecost. There’s great excitement in Jerusalem; the disciples are claiming that Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Holy Spirit has come, thousands of people have become believers, and there’s a real sense of the presence of the risen Jesus in the disciple community, even though he can’t be seen.

One day Peter and John go up to the temple for the daily prayer service. They enter by a gate called the Beautiful Gate, and sitting there is a man who has been lame from birth; he’s shouting out, asking people for money. Peter says to him “I have no silver and gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). He takes his hand and helps him up, and the man’s feet and ankles are strengthened and he starts walking and jumping and praising God.

All the people see the man, and they recognize him, and they’re full of awe and amazement.  A crowd gathers, and Peter immediately speaks to them. He makes it quite clear that this is not due to any power of their own. No, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has glorified his servant Jesus – the one they had rejected. They had asked for a murderer to be released to them and killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead. The resurrection proves that Jesus is not only the true Messiah – he’s also the true prophet Moses promised, the one God would send to speak to the people on his behalf. It’s in the name of this Jesus – the true prophet, the true Messiah - that this man has been healed. So Peter invites the people to repent and turn to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and what he delightfully calls ‘times of refreshing’ from God.

At this point the Temple authorities arrive and promptly arrest Peter and John, ‘much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead’ (4:2). The next day they haul them up before the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council, including Caiaphas the high priest and Annas his father-in-law – the very same council that a few weeks before had condemned Jesus to death. The Council asks them by what power or authority they have done this deed - by which they mean ‘Who do you think you are, preaching and healing our peoplein our Temple?’ Peter replies again that “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10). “There is salvation…” (deliverance, healing) “…in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12).

The next verse is interesting: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus’ (4:13). But the man who had been healed was standing before them too – no one could deny that fact – and so all they could do was let Peter and John off with a strict warning – “No more preaching in the name of Jesus!” But Peter replied immediately, “You must judge whether it’s right for us to obey you rather than God. As for us, we can’t stop talking about what we’ve seen and heard”. After they were released they went back to the other disciples, and they all prayed to God to give them boldness to preach the Gospel, while he kept on doing signs and wonders in the name of Jesus. The answer they received was a repeat of Pentecost – the house was shaken as if by a violent wind and ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (4:31).

So what’s going on in this story?

Firstly, let’s be clear: for Luke, this story is a continuation of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. This healing of a lame man was exactlythe kind of thing that Jesus had done. And Peter had done it in the waythat Jesus did it! He hadn’t prayed to God that the man would be healed. Rather, in what appears to be perfect trust in God, he’d simply commanded the man in the name of Jesus to rise up and walk, and then lifted him to his feet. And the man had been healed, and everyone who saw it was ‘filled with wonder and amazement’.

The people would have seen the connection right away. “That prophet from Nazareth who we crucified a few weeks ago – he used to do this kind of thing, didn’t he? Now his followers are doing it in his name!” The leaders make the same connection in 4:13: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed…’ (there’s that word again!) ‘…and recognized them as companions of Jesus’. This is the power of the resurrection of Jesus: this band of ordinary, uneducated followers of Jesus continues to do and say things that remind people of what Jesus himself had said and done.

We have to be careful about applying this to our own situation today, because, quite frankly, very few Christians seem to have been given the power to do what Peter did: to speak a word of declaration in the name of Jesus, which instantly heals a person who has been lame from birth. We do hear of these things from time to time, but they are rare. But if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then it is absolutely essential that the life of the Christian community – the Church – reminds people of the life of Jesus. The love of Jesus needs to be tangible among us, so that people can see it in concrete ways. As John says in his first letter: ‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’ (1 John 4:12).

Is this true for the Church today? To be frank again, there are a lot of things done in the name of Jesus today that seem totally contrary to the teaching and example of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, Christians have blessed weapons of war. In the name of Jesus, Christians have given support to authoritarian governments – whose leaders live in power and luxury and do all they can to keep the poor in their place. In the name of Jesus, Christians have taken children away from their parents, stripped them of their language and culture and tried to remake them in their own image.

So what would it take in our Christian community here, for people on the outside to see the things we do together, and be amazed, and recognize us as companions of Jesus? Well, you might be surprised to know that this is already happening. People are already commenting on the practical love that happens here in this community. But let’s press on, and never tire of asking ourselves the question “What can we do to be more like Jesus? How do we put the two great commandments into practice – loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves – so that people have a sense that Jesus is alive, and present among us?

I’ll tell you one of the answers to that question: The Jesus of the gospels is constantly spreading the good news of the kingdom of God and calling people to believe in him. And this is what Peter and John were doing in this story. Having healed the lame man in the name of Jesus, they then told the crowd boldly that Jesus was alive and was the true anointed king sent by God to bring salvation to everyone. So if we want to be like Jesus, we will also be spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God and inviting others to put their faith in him and follow him.

Note that this is not about spreading a religious system. The Temple was a very elaborate religious system, built at huge expense by Herod the Great. Every day at the Temple prayers and sacrifices were offered. Sinners came to receive forgiveness for their sins. People came to pray for God’s help. Money changers changed the unclean Roman and Greek coins into good Jewish money so that sacrificial animals could be bought. Priests and scribes instructed the people in the name of God. It was a splendid system and no doubt Annas and Caiaphas were proud of it.

Except for this: outside this temple, at the Beautiful Gate, a beggar had been sitting for a lifetime, and the religious system had been unable to help him. Religious systems are like that: over time, they tend to take on a life of their own, entirely separate from the power and love of God. And then along comes a prophet, a rabble-rouser, a person who claims God has spoken to them. Do the leaders like this? They do not! This man is threatening their authority! He’s misleading the people! We must do away with him! Nevertheless, it’s this man, not the leaders, who seems to be able to heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind, and make the lame walk.

So spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God isn’t about spreading the Anglican brand name. It’s not about ‘my God is better than your God’. It’s about the one shining fact that the New Testament proclaims from start to finish: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

This is not about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell – we can leave that issue in the hands of a just and loving God. It’s about the fact that the same God who has spoken to everyone in every age through wise teachers and prophets has chosen at one point in history to come among us as one of us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So if we want to see the face of God and hear the word of God most clearly, it’s to Jesus that we must come.

Note: the word of God that we hear from Jesus will not always be a comfortable word for his followers! In one place in the gospels Jesus warns his disciples that because they have heard his teaching and come to know God’s will, the consequences for them if they don’t put it into practice will be much more severe. In other words, as C.S. Lewis once put it, ‘Christians are playing for higher stakes!’ And let’s not forget that in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, there were surprises about who turned out to be a sheep and who turned out to be a goat.

So as followers of Jesus we need to be content to leave the issue of people’s eternal destiny in the hands of a just and loving God. But as followers of Jesus, we’re also called to be obedient to his command that we share the good news of the Kingdom at every possible opportunity and invite people to become his disciples. Through him the salvation – the forgiveness, the healing, the deliverance – of God is poured out on all people. Like Peter and John, we get to be part of that amazing story. And two thousand years later, we’re still doing it, because we believe that Jesus is alive and that in his name everyone can receive salvation, and wholeness, and life in all its fulness.

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