Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tongues of Fire and Rushing Heavenly Winds

Acts Chapter 2: The Coming of the Holy Spirit

The story of the day of Pentecost is one of those Bible stories which has the power to either inspire or perplex us...depending on what we believe about it.

For some Christians, it is the literal story of how God supernaturally intervened in the life of the early Christians; putting tongues of fire on their heads, and giving them an amazing, supernatural gift of being able to speak in other languages. Read at face value, it appears to be an outpouring of the Spirit of God, in the first of a series of dramatic signs and wonders.

Do you find yourself inspired by this story? Do you take it as evidence that the next time you are speaking to someone with another language - and you want to share the Gospel - that you can rely on God to suddenly give you the other person's language in which to speak?

Hmm...difficult isn't it? Because, of course, the reality is that I'd be surprised if anyone here really expects that to happen. It would certainly be a useful gift. If it was really available to us, then all the hard work of the Bible Society, translating the Bible into other langauages, would no longer be necessary. Before being sent off to foreign lands, missionaries would no longer have to spend two or three years of their life learning the language of the country to which they are going. Think what time would be saved!

Um...but, that's not how things happen, is it? That's not our experience of God, today, here and now. Of course, its entirely possible that this was a 'once in a world-history' opportunity - what theologians sometimes call a 'dispensation'. Perhaps God poured out this new gift just a sign that the language barrier erected at the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11) would one day be torn down in the new Kingdom of God. But, I wonder whether a closer look at the text might give us a different perspective...

The first thing we should notice about this text is who wrote it. It was written by Luke, whom scholars agree was one of the last writers to put down on paper the stories about Jesus and the early days of the church. As such, he was writing many years after the events in question - and only a small portion of his writing contains his own personal experience (he seems to have accompanied Paul on some of his journeys). Most of what he wrote down were stories that had been told to him by other people...stories of amazing events which he didn't witness himself. And like 'the one that got away', we know what can happen to 'big fish stories'...

Scholars also agree that one of Luke's primary purposes in writing both his Gospel, and the Acts of the Apostles, was to show non-Jews that Jesus' message was meant for the whole world...not just the nation of Israel. So it should come as no surprise to read Luke's account of the day of Pentecost - and of how so many people from so many nations were present in Jerusalem. He even lists the different nations. But strangely, he puts the list in the voice of the crowd itself. The crowd says "We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites etc..." before going on to list all the different nationalities there. We certainly shouldn't read this part of the text as if it were a verbatim transcript of exactly what was said. Rather, Luke is using a story-teller's device ...he is getting across to the reader two essential parts of his story in one. First, that there were many nations present. Second that they were amazed at what they were seeing. But for dramatic effect, he weaves these two elements together, and puts them into the common voice of the crowd.

So, we can see from this that Luke is a story-teller... a dramatist, with a gift for making a story come alive. And that might make us wonder. What about the rest of this story? Can we be certain that what Luke describes...all these tongues of flame, this rushing sound from heaven, these multiple gifts of foreign language...can we be sure that this really happened exactly as Luke describes?

Well, I suggest to you that the evidence points us to a different conclusion. What evidence? Well, mainly...the evidence that Luke is quite obviously a great story-teller. He often throws rich theological ideas into his stories - as if those ideas had came out, fully formed, on the lips of the speaker. Take for example the glorious Song of Mary - the Magnificat - supposedly spoken by Mary immediately after the Angel (another story-teller's tool!) has given her the news of her pregnancy. No-one really expects that a teenage peasant woman who had never been to school (because school, then, was for boys only) would have been able to instantly compose and recite this rich theological lecture on the Kingdom of God, just off the cuff. No, it's a story telling device...a way of using story to point us to a much deeper truth than the story itself. In the case of the Magnificat, it's a story of God putting down the mighty from their seats, and exhalting the humble and meek...the story of God's heart for the poor and he meek, rather than the rich and the powerful. But what about Luke's other story of tongues of fire and rushing heavenly winds?

It's fun to speculate on the reality behind the story. Perhaps what really happened was something rather more like this ...

Chapter one of Luke's story tells us that the Disciples and a number of other believers - totalling about 120 people - were huddled together, for a number of days, awaiting the promised Holy Spirit. One can imagine the sort of conversations that would have gone on in such a situation. "What did Jesus mean? What is the Holy Spirit? When is He going to come? What will it be like? And, crucially, "What did Jesus say about the Spirit when he was with us?"

The conversation would have gone back and forth, over these days...each one remembering something of what Jesus had taught about the Spirit. Things like when he told them that he had to leave, in order for the Spirit to come. Things like the time when Jesus said that the Spirit was already in them (John 14.17 - "he remains with you and is in you"). They would have remembered that Jesus promised them that when the Spirit came, they would know that "I am in my Father and you are in me, just as I am in you" (John 14.19). They would perhaps also have remembered that Jesus, according to John's Gospel, had already given them the Holy Spirit, by symbolically breathing on them (John 20.22).

Perhaps as they contemplated these events, they came to the realisation that the Spirit of God was already in them and with them. Perhaps they I suggest we need to realise...that the Spirit of God is not some external force from Heaven, but is, instead, the very essence of our humanity. He is the "ground of our being" as the theologian Paul Tillich puts it. He is the life-force that the story of Genesis tells us was breathed into the nostrils of humanity. He is the energy of the universe, contained within the frail vessels of human bodies - bodies which St Paul called 'temples of the Holy Spirit' (1 Cor 6.9). All that was needed for the Spirit to 'come' was for this realisation to dawn in the minds of the Disciples and other believers.

It took them some time...many days...a wrestling with what Jesus had taught them (after all, they had often proved themselves to be a bit slow on the uptake of spiritual things!). But, eventually, I suggest...they got it. Suddenly, the light came on.

Wait a minute...'the light came on'. That sounds a bit like saying there was a light bulb over their you see in the cartoons when someone gets an idea. Maybe a tongue of fire? But, eventually, I suggest...they got it. Suddenly 'whoosh' hit them.

Wait a minute..." hit them." That sounds a bit like a rushing wind, doesn't it? Maybe the sound of a rushing wind from heaven?

I'm not being very subtle, am I?! But can you see what I'm suggesting? I'm suggesting that there is good scriptural evidence to demonstrate that this Pentecost story doesn't need to be read at face-value, as some sort of long distant supernatural event. Instead, this story can become OUR story too...

We too have the potential to realise that we are also temples of the Holy Spirit. We too have the potential for the light to dawn that we are already connected to the Divine Spirit of the Universe...that He already dwells in us. We too have the potential to realise that we are gods (with a small g), as Jesus himself pointed out in John 10.34. We are semi-divine beings, sparks from the divine flint, kindled with the atoms of earth to become walking, talking, Temples of the Holy Spirit. We too have the potential to realise that the purpose of the Spirit is to lead us into all truth (John 14.26) - the truth that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1.27)...the truth that, as St Paul said, we...all reflect the Lord's glory, [and] are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3.18).

There is much more that we could discuss about this. For example, we could think about all that stuff in Luke's story about the gift of speaking in other languages. But we've run out of time. You'll have to just continue this process of thinking about the story on your own. Let me just conclude with this thought...

I believe, and I hope I have argued, that the story of Pentecost need not perplex us. It need not lead us into wondering why we don't have the same gifts and abilities that are described in what, I believe, is a very poetic relating of a rather more ordinary event. Instead, the story - understood properly - has the power to inspire us. It can inspire us to see ourselves in a new light...a new tongue of fire. It can inspire us to realise just how connected to God we already are - and how connected to our neighbours, and friends, and our local community we all are. It can inspire us to go forth from today's service, as those first disciples went forth from their upper joyfully declare the Good News of the Gospel...the Good News that God loves us, and God wants us to become more and more complete, more and more like him, more and more the men and women he created us to be.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

He has put down the mighty from their seats...?

Luke 1: 46-55 "The Magnificat": Preached at St Mark's, on the 17th of May 09 - at the baptism of Oscar Carruthers-Clark

We've been living through really difficult times lately, haven't we? There have been wars going on all around the planet - Sri Lanka, the Congo, Iraq, and of course Afghanistan. In a thousand cities, we've seen small acts of violence too: even on our own streets in Portsmouth, we've seen a number of examples of citizens getting their heads kicked in by roaming bands of feral teenagers.

We've also been living through the collapse of our banking system - with something like half of the UK's banks being brought into public ownership. And we've heard about the massive, obscene, bonuses paid to senior bank officials who presided over these collapses.

And now, we've got the MP's expenses row - proof of what we've often suspected; that some members of parliament have got their snouts in the trough. What no-one seems to have noticed, incidentally, is that the information that is still being published every day by the Telegraph was itself obtained illegally - by the Telegraph purchasing a stolen document. And, it seems, no-one seems to notice that many of the public who are now so outraged by these MPs are, themselves, quite capable of fiddling a tax return here, or stealing a little paper or pens from their offices.

So its all around us, isn't it? Violence, war, greed, fraud and theft. It would be very tempting to think that the end of the world must be nigh. Perhaps I'll make myself up one of those sandwich boards, and walk up and down North End high street, with "The End is Nigh" on my back!

It might be even more challenging to ask ourselves what kind of world we are bringing the next generation of human beings into. What about little Oscar, here to be baptised? A world of violence, war, greed, fraud and theft - to say nothing of global warming. Are we doing the right thing by bringing children into this kind of world? Is the human world, as we know it, about to end - burnt up in the fire of its own greed and corruption and violence? there another story? As we heard just now, in the Bible reading, when Mary received the news that she was to bring God's saviour into the world, her immediate response was to sing a song. In her song, she goes on to sing about the wonderful things that the Lord has done, and will do, to the proud, and the arrogant, and the mighty.

She says, "He has stretched out his mighty arm, and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands."

Mary's song gives us an entirely different perspective on the world - God's perspective. She sings of a God who deals with the proud and the greedy and the powerful. Interestingly, she sings in the past tense - she is singing about what God has already done, as well as looking to the future.

And well she might...

The Hebrew Scriptures - what we call the Old Testament - are a story about exactly how God deals with the proud and the mighty. The story starts with Adam and Eve, who were too proud to listen to a very simple command... 'don't touch' - and decided that they knew better than God. The result - they are thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Next comes the story of the Flood, in which God decides to wipe from the face of the earth all those whose hearts had become devoted to wickedness. Moving on, there comes the Tower of Babel - built by a people who wanted to reach the stars, to become like God... who are then cast down, and confused by God. These are ancient legends - ancient stories designed to make us reflect on our own lives, our own attitudes.

Sometime later, in somewhat more reliable part of Jewish history, we find a story of the Israelites, who have been enslaved by the Egyptians - forced into slave labour to build the cities and pyramids of Egypt. God hears the cry of the oppressed, and leads his people to freedom in the promised land. But only a few generations later, we find that the 'oppressed' have become the 'oppressor'. The Bible tells us how King David's son Solomon used slaves to build his own palace and a temple for the Lord. Once again, no-one seems to have learned the lessons of God. The slave becomes the slave-owner. The oppressed becomes the oppressor.

Prophets consistently warned the leaders of Israel that what they were doing was contrary to God's ways. They cried out in vain for justice, and generosity - the sharing of resources, help for the poor, welcome for the stranger. But the mighty leaders of Israel would not listen. And so, another great 'tearing down of the mighty from their seats' took place. Around 500 years before Jesus, the leaders of Israel were carried off into slavery again - to Babylon (in modern-day Iraq). It's from that period of history that we get the song 'By the rivers of Babylon' - made famous by 'Boney M'. Its a song of lament - a song of wailing and sadness. "By the rivers of Babylon we and wept when we remembered Zion" (the name of the mountain on which Jerusalem is built). "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" (see Psalm 137).

Eventually, their punishment over, God permits the descendants of those Jewish leaders to return home. But almost immediately, they show that they have not yet learned the lessons of God. They set about building strong walls, and then, in a horrific act of racist 'ethnic cleansing', the leaders, Nehemiah and Ezra, set about telling all Jews who have married foreign wives, that they must divorce them, and send them back to their tribes.

By the time of Jesus, the time when Mary sings her song, the Jewish people are under yet more punishment for not learning the ways of God. Along the way they have been occupied by Assyrians, and Greeks - and now its the Romans. Jesus arrives in the middle of Roman occupation - the occupation by a country which wants to force its ways of doing things onto another people. Sound familiar?

Over and over again, the Bible teaches us that God will not tolerate the proud and the mighty. Time and time again he 'puts down the mighty from their seats, and exalts the humble and meek'. We see the same pattern in more recent history. Napoleon - conqueror of Europe, self proclaimed Emperor...lived out his days in exile on a small island. Hitler, murderer of Jews, conqueror of Europe, shot himself in a bunker in Berlin. Saddam Hussein, mass murderer of Kurds, despotic dictator with palaces all over Iraq, hanged by a rope. "He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted the humble and meek". (Luke 1:52)

Are we seeing something similar going on today? Mighty banks have collapsed. The corruption of some MPs have been laid bare. The mighty are certainly being humbled. This seems to be a cyclical element of history... the mighty rise, come to power, become corrupt, and fall. There's an old saying that "evil sows the seeds of its own destruction" - and perhaps that is what is going on. Another saying comes from Jesus: 'a house built on sand, will collapse'. Certainly those mighty banking houses have collapsed. And even the mighty houses of parliament will not escape unchanged from the current scandal.

But there is another way. There is an alternative... an alternative that God has called humanity to throughout its history... an alternative that humankind has steadfastly ignored. In the words of the ancient prophet Micah: "[God] has showed you O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8).

Jesus picked up on this theme. The new Son of David - an entirely different son than Solomon had been - saw that acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God were the very essence of God's plan for the world. Imagining a judgment day, when evil-doers would be separated from the people of God, Jesus commends those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, gave clothes to the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. (see Matthew 25:31-46)

Just imagine the esteem that bankers could be held in if their profits were used to feed the hungry, instead of lining their pockets. Just imagine the respect we would have for the House of Commons if all MPs acted as some indeed do..only claiming expenses for the real costs of representing us. Just imagine what the world would be like if teenagers who kick people's heads in were taught from an early age the power of love.

That, ultimately, is what we are inviting Oscar into today. In a few moments (yes, I've nearly finished!) Oscar's parents and godparents are going to be invited, on his behalf, to reject evil and all that obstructs God's love. They will be invited to repent of ways of living that separate us from God and one another. They will be invited to recognise Christ as Master - committing themselves to following his simple rules of Love. In short, they will be invited to induct Oscar into a new story, our Story, His Story. A story of mighty powers being overturned, and a story in which the humble and meek are lifted up, the hungry fed, and the rich sent empty away. It's an alternative vision of the world - a Godly vision. It's a way of living that embraces truth, and justice, and generosity and, in short, life. It's a way of live that is built on the solid rock of God's promises - not the shifting sands of consumerism and materialism.

It is, finally, a story about legacies. What legacy will those corrupt bankers and MPs and history's dictators leave behind them? What legacy will each of us leave behind. Do we want to be remembered for being self-centered, money-grabbing consumers... or do we want to be remembered for being people whose lives were filled up with the generosity of God. Do we want to be remembered for what we got, or what we gave? Do we want to be remembered for the people we ignored, or the people we helped? Because that is the Way of Christ. By yielding to the violence, and then overcoming it through the Resurrection - Jesus showed us that God's way will ultimately triumph. The mighty will be put down from their seat. Generosity will overcome greed. Life will overcome death.

Jesus himself was baptised - symbolically using water as a sign of washing away all the world's accretions, and of setting out on the Way of God. And now, we are going to invite Oscar to make the same journey - through baptism, we are going to invite him to come with us on the Way of Jesus, the way of God.

So, let's do it...!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Living on the Vine

John 15: 1-8

This Gospel reading is one of those perfect metaphors that Jesus sometimes used. It's a simple image, isn't it? He is the vine. We are the branches. The simple instruction is that in order to be fruitful as people, we need to remain connected to him.

But, there's a warning in this metaphor too. "No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine" (Vs 4). "Apart from me you can do nothing" (Vs 5). "If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up and thrown into the fire and burned" (Vs 6). Is this a warning about the fires of hell? Perhaps it is. But we must always be careful of pressing metaphors too far. What Jesus is certainly saying is that unless we remain 'in him', then we will wither and die. Spiritually, of course.

So, very simply, Jesus gives us an invitation. It's an invitation to remain connected to him, drawing from his life-force in the same way that individual branches draw life from the main stem of the vine. It's an invitation to a life that is greater than a single life - greater than a life that you or I could live on our own. Instead, it's a life which is larger, more fruitful, more expanded - because it is a life lived with Jesus at the core, and with his life-force flowing through us.

In another chapter of John's Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says this about his followers: "I have come that they may have life to the full" (John 10:10). Jesus was very much about life. He wanted his followers to understand that being connected with him, and to him, was not a burden in any way. In Matthew's Gospel, chapter 11, he says this: "Come to me, all who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28). Jesus wants his followers to know that by drawing on him, by connecting to him, by giving him our problems and our hang-ups and our burdens...that he has the capacity to not only deal with the problems, but to give us 'life to the full'.

Which is all wonderful stuff. But I wonder if there are some of us who are thinking 'that's all very well...but I don't feel very connected to Jesus'. If that's you, if you are sitting there thinking 'I get the theory, but it doesn't mean anything to me personally...I can't seem to make the connection', then let me tell you something. You are not on your own. It's a common complaint. Let me tell you, as a Pastor, there are an awful lot of people out there who walk around with a big happy Christian smile on their face, talking about having a personal relationship with Jesus, who secretly are struggling, struggling, just like me and you, to actually make the theory a reality. And, if you will let me, I'd like to tell you why I think that is...

Let me ask you to think for a moment. Let's do a little word-association. If I say the word "God" to you - what image comes to your mind? For some people, it's an image of an old man, up in the clouds - looking down on us. It's the sort of image that Da Vinci painted in the Sistine Chapel - the God with the long white beard. For others, God is a sort of bigger version of their Father - a loving heavenly version of their earthly Dad. For others, he's the God on the Mountain - the God of Moses, who carves out commandments in stone, and hands them down for us to follow or ignore. For others, God is a sort of Santa Claus figure - someone who dishes out presents to good people, and who punishes the bad. Let me tell you - none of these images of God gets even close!

You see, I think, for most people, their God is too small. It's probably the church's fault. We have probably been guilty of reducing God to a sort of 'heavenly headmaster' - ready to give out prizes at the end of term, or to expell the naughty child from the school. As a church throughout the ages we have spent rather too much time begging for mercy, and asking for forgiveness, and not nearly enough time embracing the Life of the Vine.

God is SO MUCH MORE than any kind of Big Daddy in the sky. God is the source of all life. He is the energy that gives the universe motion. He is the breath that gives us life, the light that shines inside our eyes. He is the feeling, deep inside, the spark that burns to form a flame. He is the rising of the sun, the dawn of every brand new day. He is living rock, the joy in every heart. He is the light of the nations; the author of all life.

I'm going to ask you to try something now - a little meditation. While you stay seated, where you are, let me invite you to close your eyes. Now, bring your thoughts inward for a moment. Become aware of your body. Become aware of your breath, breathing in and out, in and out. Take a deep breath, hold it for a moment...and then exhale....and as you do, imagine the breath of everyone here, intermingling, mixing together, flowing together with each other.

Now, imagine the doors of this building opening they will do at the end of this service. Your breath, mingled with everyone else's, now passes out into the street. Your breath, and everyone else's passes into North End. It is picked up by others. For a moment, they share the same oxygen molecules that you had within you, but which were not burned up. For a moment, they share your life.

God's a little bit like that. (You can open your eyes now). The wonderful story of Genesis paints a picture of God breathing his life into the nostrils of Adam. Let's hear the wonder of those words again: "the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being". (Gen 2:7) God shares his life with us. he gives us his life. He is our life. He is the force which sustains us. We are connected to him, whether we like it or not just as we are connected, physically, to this world.

I wonder, have you ever pondered your connection to the planet? Just think, again, for a moment. Think how dependent each of us is to the planet on which we live. The molecules and atoms of the planet pass in and out of us all the time, every day. With every breath we take, molecules flow in and out...sustaining us. With every morsel of food we eat, molecules flow through us, sustaining us. We are utterly, utterly, dependent on the world. The world is us. And we are the world. If we left the earth, and stepped out of our spaceship into space, we would die instantly. We need everything that the earth can give us, just to stay alive. Whether we like it or not.

God is a bit like that. God undergirds us, and over-hangs us. He is at our core, and at our edges. God is in all things, and is yet greater than all things - whether we like it or not. Perhaps that is what Jesus was pointing to in John 10:34, when he quoted Psalm 82, verse 6: "you are gods". In so far as God who created us remains part of us, at the core of us, there is sense in which we are, in fact, God. God is so much intertwined and intermingled with us - our physical and spiritual selves - that there is only one things left for us to do...

Either we can embrace the Oneness of God, and allow ourselves to be caught up in the things of God, and the life of God. Or we can stubbornly delude ourselves that we are little independent beings, capable of living life on our own.

Because that's the great delusion. That's the root of all human misery - to somehow delude ourselves that we are autonomous, that we are individuals, whose behaviour and choices don't matter. And that our behaviour and choices don't have an impact on the world, or the people, around us.

The message of the Gospel is clear: if we want to live life to the full, if we want our lives are to have meaning and purpose, if we want our lives to be filled up with the beauty, and the majesty and the power of God, then we need to draw from the source. We need to open our eyes to the reality of God all around us. We need, I suggest, to stop visualising God as some kind of bigger version of ourselves, or our father - some kind of heavenly headmaster. Instead, we are invited to become alert to the God who is in us, and with us, and through us, and over us, and under us, and around us. We need, I suggest, to look for the signs of God, among the things of God. We need to embrace the beauty of God, wherever we find the smile of a baby, or the beauty of a sunrise, or friendly word to a stranger. We need to see ourselves as beautiful human beings, creations of God, perhaps even parts of God, certainly filled with God - and learn to discover how to embrace the God who is within us all. Love, generosity, self-sacrifice...all these things increase our sense of who we are in God, as branches of the Vine. Love, generosity, self-sacrifice are the fruits of the Vine. But we need to understand that any act of cruelty, any act of spite, any act of self-centered individualism works to dimmish us - and begins the process of killing our branch of the Vine.

Let's conclude, having thought these thoughts, by listening to Jesus' words, once again (from verse 5): "I am the Vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit; [but] apart from me, you can do nothing."


Saturday, May 2, 2009

At the name of Jesus...?

Acts 4:5-12

Today's sermon carries a health warning. Not a warning about the Swine Flu Pandemic...but a warning that this sermon might just make your brain ache! I hope you'll be able to follow my line of reasoning - but just in case you can't, I'm making copies of it available at the back of church this morning - as well as publishing it on my website.

But first, to lull you into a false sense of security, here's a little story to set the scene...

Have you heard the story of the man who, having died, was being shown around heaven by St Peter? Peter showed the man a group of Baptists, praising God with a rock and roll band in full swing. In another corner of heaven, Methodists were listening to a beautifully crafted sermon. Over in another corner, a group of Buddhists were sitting in silent contemplation of God, while in another part of heaven, some Muslims were chanting 'Allah Akbar!' - "God is great". In another area, a group of Roman Catholics could hardly be seen for the huge cloud of incense surrounding them. All these groups could hear and see one another - and there was an interesting flow of other people, moving between them - experiencing what each group had to offer by way of worshipping God for eternity.

Then the man noticed a great high wall - stretching off into the distance. He turned to St Peter and asked, "Whoever is behind that wall?". St Peter replied, "Sshh! Not so loud! That's a special enclosure for the Anglicans. You see, they think they are the only ones here!"

Today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a challenge to ponder. At the end of his address to the 'Sanhedrin', Peter makes this somewhat startling claim: "There is salvation in no-one else [than Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4: 12). It's an apparent claim to exclusivity, isn't it? It's a claim which, if we take it at face value, seems to imply that Jesus is the only way to salvation. It reminds us of Jesus' own claim, in chapter 14 of John's Gospel, that he is "the way the truth and the life" and that "no-one comes to the Father except by me" (John 14:6).

More than that, its a claim that has been used by Christians throughout the ages to attempt to dominate, and in some cases even kill those who claim to have something else to say about God, and about how we can be saved. If we take this statement at face value, it might lead us to insisting that unless our neighbours bow down to the name of Jesus, they will all be consigned to hell!

But. But. As I've tried to help you see over the last year, no verse of the Bible should be read in isolation. It is very dangerous to start quoting individual verses as a basis for an entire belief system - an entire theological dogma. The biggest problem is that any other person who has even a half-decent knowledge of scripture can quickly confound us with verses which appear to contradict our position.

Take this claim of exclusivity - this claim that only people who believe in Jesus can be saved - as an example. Before we can take it at face value, we have got to put alongside it some other quotations - quotations which seem, at first, to contradict it.

There are, for example, the words of Paul, writing to the Colossians: "God was pleased...through him [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Colossians 1:19-20). Notice what Paul is saying here: God has reconciled all things to himself, through Jesus. The phrase 'all things', surely includes 'all people'.

Then, from the Hebrew Bible - the so-called 'Old Testament' - comes the passage from the prophet Joel, which Peter himself quoted on the day of Pentecost: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh" (Joel 2:28). There is the claim at the beginning of John's Gospel that "God so loved the world" (notice...that's the whole world, not just part of it) "that he gave his only begotten son". There is the claim, again of St Paul, that "just as all people die because of their union with Adam, in the same way all will be raised to life because of their union with Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:22).

So - to quote St Peter - "what then shall we do, brothers?" (and sisters!). What are we to make of these apparent contradictions in the Bible? Can it be that we have to make a choice between believing (on the one hand) that Jesus is the only way to God, and (on the other hand) that all people will be saved? (That, by the way, is the theological theory called 'universalism').

Historically, this has been a tension among the people of God for thousands of years. At the time of the return from Exile, for example, Nehemiah and the prophet Ezra were so convinced that God would only save the nation of Israel, that they gathered all the people together in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah and Ezra had been part of the ruling elite of Israel, whose ancestors had been carried off as slaves into Babylon. But there were a whole pile of ordinary Israelites who had not been carried away - they had stayed, and attempted to live their lives under Babylonian rule, still in Jerusalem. But while doing so, many of them had married people who were not Jews. They had inter-married with Canaanites and Babylonians and all sorts of other local tribes. Nehemiah and Ezra were incensed at this. They believed that God was only interested in saving the people of Israel. And so, at this great gathering of the people, in the rebuilt City, Ezra and Nehemiah insisted that the people who had married foreign wives, and therefore had half-foreign children, should now divorce their wives and, (I quote), send them away. As a result, a mass divorce was forced on the common people.

But while this was happening - at the very same time in fact - other prophets, like Haggai and Zechariah and a prophet known only as the Third Isaiah, are preaching a very different understanding. Their words are also recorded for us, in the same Bible that records the story of Nehemiah and Ezra. Zechariah, for example, says, "The LORD Almighty says 'The time is coming when people from great cities will come to those days, ten foreigners will come to one Jew and say, 'We want to share in your destiny, because we have heard that God is with you'. (Zech.8:20-23, compressed).

There are many other quotes I could give you - but you'll have to do your own homework on that! Can you see what I'm getting at? There is a real tension going on here - a tension that has been recorded and handed down to us by our ancestors through Scripture. On the one hand, there are those who claim that God is the god of Israel only. On the other hand, there is the start of an understanding that God wants to save the whole world.

So, coming back to Peter...and comparing his words with the other New Testament quotes I've already given you...we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. Is belief in Jesus the only way to live forever?

I am going to take an unusual and risky step now. I'm going to recommend a book to you. It's a risky step because this particular book is causing a maelstrom of theological debate - and there will be people who will label me a heretic just for recommending it to you. Such people, I'm afraid, are those who believe that they have understood God so well that any idea which deviates from their idea of God is simply not worth engaging with. They are the same kind of thinkers who have led 'purges' of heresy throughout the history of the church. They are those who imagine that the Bible arrived out of heaven, dictated by God - rather than being (as I believe it to be) a historical record of human beings' struggle to understand just something of the amazing, mind-blowing, nature of God.

It is a little book called "The Shack" which has now sold well over a million copies around the world...and if you haven't read it yet, you really should. (Website note: to buy your own copy, just go to and search for 'The Shack'). "The Shack" tells the story of a man who goes through the awful and painful experience of having a child abducted. But then, he encounters God in the very same Shack in which his daughter is believed to have been killed - and ultimately finds healing and release from the awfulness of what life has thrown at him. During the process of healing, God is revealed to the man in some very surprising ways - including the idea that God the Father can, at times, be manifest as a mother-figure; indeed, a big, friendly, motherly black woman, called 'Papa'.

One of the themes of the book, and one which is causing a great deal of consternation in theological circles, is the question of whether Jesus is the only way to salvation. I'm going to read you a passage from the Shack, which illustrates some of the depth of this debate. The passage comes at the end of a long conversation between the man, whose name is Mack, and Jesus...

"Again Jesus stopped [and said], 'Those who love me come from every system that exists. They are Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.'

'Does that mean,' asked Mack, 'that all roads will lead to you?'

'Not at all,' smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the [work]shop. 'Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.'"
(p. 182)

This is a topic that has exercised many great theological minds. CS Lewis, for example, in his seminal book 'Mere Christianity' said this:

"Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in him? But the truth is that God has not told us what his arrangements about other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ. [What] we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him" (Mere Christianity, 65, emphasis mine).

In that one passage, CS Lewis sums up the nub of this entire issue for me. He basically calls us to a theological humility about the question of whether people of other religions, or people who have never heard of Jesus, can be saved. In doing so, I think that he reflects the very ambiguity that exists in Scripture itself. As a Christian, he holds on - as do I - to the notion that Jesus is the best, most perfect expression of God who has ever lived. 'Son of God' is just one of the phrases which attempts to get a handle on that notion. Lewis maintains the Christian view that it is only through Jesus that all people can be saved. But he leaves open the possibility that beyond this life, God is big enough to be able to offer eternal life to every human being - though still through Jesus.

I think the ambiguity of Scripture gives us plenty of space to believe a radical thought. I think it is entirely possible that any person who has spent their life in search of Truth and Goodness - through whatever religion - will one day, after death, encounter the person of God through Jesus; and that such a person will easily fall to their knees in front of Jesus - recognising him for who he is - and allowing themselves to be led into eternal life by him. As we sang in our opening hymn, quoting the words of Paul to the Philippians, "at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow" (Phil 2:10)

So where does all this theological musing leave us?

Firstly, it implies that we ourselves have Scriptural authority for being humble about our interpretations of Scripture. Jesus himself taught us that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). I'm inclined to think that meekness about the way we read Scripture is a key part of that humility. If, as I think it is, the Bible is one of many records of humanity's search for God - then we would do well to listen, humbly, to what others have discovered about our enigmatic, barely glimpsed, Father in Heaven.

On latest estimates, there are a 2.1 billion Christians in the world. But there are 1.5 billion Muslims too. And 900 million Hindus. And 376 million Buddhists. (See this link for more statistics). Perhaps each of us have understood something worth sharing with the others?

Secondly, this humility should leave us free to celebrate God, and the glorious things of God, with any person who devotes themselves to the discovery and worship of Truth. It means that we need to spend much less energy trying to persuade people that Jesus is the only way to the Father (as fundamentally true as I personally believe that statement is). Instead, it gives us space to co-operate with all people of faith, and all people of goodwill, in building a better world; in playing our part in bringing about the Kingdom of God 'on earth as it is in heaven'.