Sunday, April 25, 2021

Is Jesus the ONLY way?

Acts 4.5-12 and John 10.1-10

To watch this sermon, please click here:

Believe it or not, we have now laboured and suffered together, you and I, for a little over 6 years.  (I took up this post in February 2015).  I acknowledge that you have done most of the suffering!  I’m quite certain that most of what I’ve said in that time, from this pulpit, has filtered only into your subconscious.  But there is one mantra which I have repeated SO many times, that I hope you’ve all got it by now.  It’s my mantra about how to read the Bible.  I call it the ‘three Cs’ of Bible reading.  So, let’s see if I’m right.  Tell me…what are the Three Cs of Bible reading?  Context.  Context.  Context.

My message has been that when we tackle any portion of Scripture, we must bear three contexts in mind.  The first is the context of the original story.  The second is the context of the writer of the story – sometimes decades, sometimes centuries later.  The third and final context is our context.  What is going on in our world, in our lives, that is affected by this story?

Today we are confronted by two very bold claims, made by St Peter, on trial before the Jewish Leaders, and then by Jesus, as recorded in John.  These are bold claims of exclusivity for the Christian faith. 

In our first reading, from Acts 4, Peter 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’.  Then, in our Gospel reading, Jesus warns the Pharisees that he is the only ‘gate for the sheep’, and that anyone who enters into the sheepfold (that is, the Kingdom of Heaven) by any other route is a ‘thief and a robber’.

These are bold claims indeed.  But before we rush to condemn the believers of all other religions to eternal damnation, let’s use our tool of the Three Cs.

The context for both Peter and Jesus was a context of Roman military occupation.  Augustus Caesar (who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth) believed that he literally had come from heaven to earth.  Caesar claimed that he was the son of God incarnate on earth. He used skilful propaganda to spread his message. Sound-bites like: “Caesar is Lord!” and “There is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar.” He also had a 12-day celebration of his birth called the “Advent of Caesar.” You could even give him offerings so that your sins could be forgiven. He was, according to his own propaganda, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Do you recognise these phrases?  I’m sure you do.  These were political catchphrases of the day which Jesus and his disciples deliberately subverted, to spread the message that the true Kingdom of God would be nothing like the militaristic, greedy and violent rule of Rome.  Both Jesus, and then Peter, were making a political statement, as well as a spiritual one.

By the time that the Scriptures recording those events were being written down, Rome’s violent rule had progressed even to the tearing down of the Temple (in the year 70) and to the violent destruction of Jerusalem itself.  The Jews had been scattered across the known world, forced into becoming refugees – at situation which would last until the 20th century.  The context of the writers of these Scriptures was therefore even more political than those of the speakers they recorded.  They wrote to offer hope to the persecuted and frightened followers of Jesus of Nazareth, that their faith was not in vain.  They wanted to encourage them to hold fast, even against the terror and power of Rome.

And what about our context?  Well, many of the same brutal forces which propelled the Roman Emperors are still in operation today.  Violence is still used as a means of imposing the will of the powerful.  Political slogans are still lapped up enthusiastically by the unthinking popular crowd.  Consumerism is a stronger force then it ever was for Rome.  Not only do we import luxury goods from foreign lands, just as the Romans did, we also want those goods to be made as cheaply as possible, driving millions of low-paid workers into slave-like conditions. 

So, we are wise if we understand Jesus’ claim to being the only gateway of salvation to be at least partly a political claim.  But what about its spiritual dimensions?  Is Jesus saying that his gate is the only way to heaven, as well?

In his context, he probably was.  His ‘Kingdom of God’ stood in direct opposition to the other dominant religious ideas of his day.  Judaism had become corrupt, and bound by life-choking legalism, and wasteful animal sacrifice.  Rome’s claim that the Emperor was the path to spiritual salvation (as well as economic salvation) was clearly nonsense.  None of the other religious ideas of the time were free from notions of legalism, control by powerful elites, and animal (or even human) sacrifice.  Jesus was providing the only path to God, in his context, which didn’t employ violence or greed and corruption at the heart of their method.

But, reading these Scriptures into our context, can we really state with confidence that Jesus would condemn to hell the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, or the Dali Lama?  Would he condemn any number of other peace-loving, violence-rejecting, consumerism-fighting, resource-sharing, enlightenment-seeking religious people of our day, of our context?   After a life-time of reading and studying his words, I honestly can’t believe that he would.

I am a Christian largely because I was born into a Christian family, in a nominally Christian country.  But if I’d been born in Tibet, or India, or Mecca, the spirit of God would have undoubtedly reached out to me through other gates, other paths. I would have been drawn towards other religions which honour the same core principles of the Kingdom of God – peace, selflessness, love, forgiveness, and respect for all creation. 

For me, Jesus Christ remains the greatest, clearest and most noble expression of what a spirit-filled life looks like.  He is the author and perfecter of my faith.  I’m glad and honoured to own the title of being a Christ-ian.  But, like you I hope, I also understand the context of the Scriptures we’ve inherited, the context in which they were written, and the context in which we read them.  Such an understanding means that I must take the claims of exclusivity with the pinch of salt which I believe all thinking Christians must also do.


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