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 Jerusalem...in 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 http://www.amazon.co.uk/ 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'.