Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18
The Rev. Peter Faass
Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation. Generally, salvation is saving of the soul from sin and its consequences. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter, speaking of Jesus, states that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
This and similar statements in scripture, have led many Christians to believe that only those who believe in Jesus will be saved, and those who do not believe in him are condemned to some version of eternal damnation. Within Christianity, there are many different doctrines about salvation and most are rooted in human precepts. Ask a Roman Catholic and you get one version of salvation. Ask a Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or an Evangelical, and you get something quite different. Ask an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian or a Lutheran, and you will get three more understandings of that it means to be saved.
Because of narrow – dare I say, myopic – interpretations of scripture, combined with our selfish human needs to exert control and dominance, salvation theories abound. We have seen centuries of distrust, hatred, prejudice, exclusion and even violence committed by various Christians against one another because of that.
When a nation adopts one particular expression of Christianity as its official “state religion,” look out. Historically, believers who do not belong to that state religion will be marginalized, suffer persecution, and even die. Salvation only comes to those who are adherents of the right, or “true” faith. Everyone else gets persecuted and a grisly ticket to the grave. We only need to look at the history of our own Anglican faith to see this. A lot of Catholic and Protestant blood were spilled in religious struggle during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
Maltreatment of people who supposedly believe wrongly and are therefore beyond salvation pertains to other religions as well. In many nations where Islam is the official religion, Christians and Jews are marginalized, persecuted and even threatened with death. In the Middle East, in both Israel and the surrounding Arab nations of Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, Christianity as an indigenous religion is in danger of extinction because it has been so marginalized and persecuted by the greater cultures. It is estimated that in another generation, the only Christians living in Israel/Palestine will be those maintaining holy sites.
I believe most of us struggle with this kind of exclusivist idea of salvation, whether it’s Christian or otherwise. We in Northeast Ohio live in a multi-religious, multi-cultural melting pot. We encounter people from across the Christian religious spectrum and of other faiths every day. In the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, we live amidst one of the largest concentrations of Jewish people in the country. We have growing populations of Buddhists, Hindus and people from other faiths. And then there are the Nones, those people who profess no identifiable religious affiliation. Who among us doesn’t have Jewish, Catholic, Mormon or atheist colleagues, neighbors, friends or family members? A few of us may not. Who doesn’t like, admire, or love these folks who form a part of the fabric of our lives?
Which of us believes that these family, friends and neighbors from other denominations or faiths or no faith, and who don’t believe our particular doctrines about Jesus, are not saved and are going to burn in hell?
Thank goodness! Sadly though, many do.
One of the roots of these exclusivist Christian ways to salvation is found in the mistranslation of a passage in today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
In the late fourth century when St. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek into Latin (a tome known as the Vulgate Bible), he changed the word flock (as in “one flock”) to fold. His Bible read there will be one fold and one shepherd. This mistranslation became the scriptural warrant the Roman Catholic Church embraces. The Roman Catholic Church believes that since there is only one fold, there is only one Church (the Catholic Church), and there is no salvation beyond it.
Christians of all flavors have been using this one fold, one shepherd plumb line for centuries to determine their guideline for salvation. Of course, their particular expression of the faith is the one and only true fold. And if you’re not in that fold, you’re not saved. The problems with this are that:
When Jesus tell us, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd,” it undermines all those exclusivist soteriologies. That statement is unambiguous in its radical inclusivity. It resoundingly says to those who adhere to exclusive soteriologies, No!
Uniformity isn’t promised in this passage – unity is. The distinction goes beyond words, depending on a wide and important truth. It is not unity of fold which is regarded as being necessary for salvation, but unity of flock. There will be many folds in many nations and ages throughout the world.
For all Christians, there will be one true Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and all these differing folds shall, through living in unity with Him, make one vast flock. That is the route to salvation.
Let me push the envelope here: I think this goes beyond just Christianity and the Church. The vast flock will embrace all people who hear Jesus’ voice in all the various iterations that God has made that voice known in human life and cultures. The voice of the Christian Church won’t exclusively lead to salvation, much of which is rooted in human doctrines and precepts. Rather, it is rooted in hearing Jesus’ voice through the Gospel and beyond.
This means those who will be saved are people who hear and heed his words.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:6-9)
Those who will find salvation are those who hear and heed his voice when he says, ‘Truly I tell you, whenever you [took care and loved] one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, who were (hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, sick, lonely) you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Those who will find true salvation hear and heed his voice when Jesus tells us, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) By hearing and heeding these words, the world can be one flock and find God’s peace.
There was a Christian missionary in Canada who was working amongst the indigenous Indian peoples in Saskatchewan. I have updated the nouns to be inclusive.
When the missionary was telling the native peoples about the love of God, an elderly chief said to him, “When you spoke of the Great Spirit just now, did I hear you call God “Our Mother - Father?” Yes, said the missionary. “This is very new and sweet to me,” said the chief. “We never thought of the Great Spirit as mother-father. We do know the Spirit as thunder, lightning, rain and various creatures of the forest, but never as mother-father, as a parent. This new understanding is very comforting to us, because if God is our mother-father and if God is your mother-father, then our people are all sisters and brothers.”
My sisters and brothers, this is salvation.
The Rev. Peter Faass
Many of you know I take issue with the way lectionary compilers edit the scripture. The passage from Acts begins by saying, “Peter addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”
It begs the question, “made who walk?”
As we are in Easter season, my first inclination was to think that Peter and his companions were accused of making Jesus walk, of somehow resuscitated Jesus. This of course would’ve implied that Jesus was not dead. There was no shortage of people in those post-Easter days – like in our own day - working to undermine the authenticity of the Resurrection, so this fits with that pattern. But the one referred to as walking was not Jesus.
The lectionary compilers significantly omitted part of the story. In the preceding verses, Peter and his companion John entered the Jerusalem Temple and encountered “a man lame from birth.”
“People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3: 2-8)
Those who witnessed this healing were astonished. Peter explains that he and John haven’t done this healing. God of the Hebrew people, through Jesus, has empowered the disciples to perform acts of healing. Peter delivers a campaign speech to convince people not only of Jesus’ resurrection, but that he is the one, true Messiah of God.
This riles the religious authorities. “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So, they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.” (Acts 4:1-4)
The next day, the disciples are put on trial. Peter again speaks eloquently in witness to Jesus’ Messiahship. The previously lame man, now healed, shows up as a witness and it pulls the rug from underneath the religious authorities’ claim that the faith Peter and John proclaim in Jesus is a sham.
“[The authorities] ordered [Peter and John] to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened.”
This story is a first century version of George Orwell’s 1984. In 2018, we see this with governmental and political manipulation of the news media to control and silence news that threatens those in power.
In 1984, the authorities (known as the Inner Party) persecute individualism, independent thinking and any message dissenting from the official party line, which are regarded as "thought crimes." Currently, we have experienced this type of control over dissent by certain political leaders and operatives who label independent thought and thinking as being fake news, which to them is a thought crime.
This is what the authorities who arrest Peter and John are attempting to do; label the message of salvation being preached as a thought crime and fake news. It is a blatant attempt to control a message that threatens them and to prevent others from hearing it. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection, his being the Messiah, and the power he has given to his disciples are labeled fake news by the authorities. The Good News is powerful, and threatens those in power and their ability to control people.
How often do professed Christians, either actively or passively proclaim that the Good News is fake news? How about those alleged Christians who turn a blind eye when political or religious leaders they support commit adultery, lie, cheat, steal, abuse, and in other ways mock the message of Jesus? How about those alleged Christians who continue to enthusiastically support these leaders who are unrepentant and unremorseful about their behaviors? What these folks are actually saying is that the Good News is fake news, because the Good News proclaims that the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes and the New Commandment matter and are essential to a good and holy life. They are critical to being an authentic disciple of Jesus.
How about Christians who believe that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, people of color, and immigrants from Africa, Asia and Central and South America (basically anyone not white and Christian) are inferior human beings from worthless countries and cultures? They are declaring is that the Good News is fake news. In the reign of God Jesus proclaims, we are called to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
What about those who profess to follow Jesus believe that Christmas and Easter are just sweet children’s holidays and are best celebrated with trees, carols, Santa Claus, bunnies, eggs and candy? When we believe this, we are declaring that the Good News is fake news. The Good News proclaims that the Incarnation of God in Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus from the grave profoundly express a God who loves us more than we can imagine. Those two mighty acts of love are able to redeem all the sin-sick brokenness of the world, and to bring new life to all creation.
How often do our words and deeds proclaim the Good News as fake news?
When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he affirms his authenticity by letting them touch his wounds and by eating real food. But his presence is validated by his words, “Peace be with you.” His message of peace calms their fears, eases their doubts, and gives them the strength and courage to proclaim without ambiguity the Good News is real and proclaims the truth.
Jesus tells them to go and be witnesses to these things that they have seen and heard to the world. My sisters and brothers, that is our task.
Like Peter and John, we are confronted daily by those who would try to sell the world fake news and engage in thought control because they fear and are threatened by God’s truth through Jesus. Like Jesus, Peter and John we are called to speak truth to the manipulative and malicious powers and principalities of the world that want to engage in undermining and destroying the truth of the Good News.
We do so confident that with God’s love, “we cannot” as Peter and John tell their accusers, “keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” in the life-giving Resurrection of Jesus our Savior. We must persist in witnessing this truth. We do so because we know that truth will set us free.
The Rev. Peter Faass
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
It’s an odd year my friends. It’s an odd year. We preachers have been confronted with two book-ended dilemmas for Lent and Easter in 2018:
As I noted in my Ash Wednesday sermon, we preachers have, with great angst, wrestled over whether to address the calendar oddities of these secular celebrations falling on Christian Holy Days, or to just ignore them all together. As I confronted my fears head-on on Ash Wednesday and spoke of Valentine’s Day, I feel compelled to do so again on Easter and speak about April Fool’s Day.
According to Wikipedia,” April Fools' Day, (sometimes called All Fools' Day) is an annual celebration in some European and Western countries commemorated on April 1 by playing practical jokes and spreading hoaxes. The jokes and their victims are called April fools. People playing April Fool jokes often expose their prank by shouting "April Fool" at the unfortunate victim(s). Some newspapers, magazines and other published media report fake stories, which are usually explained the next day or below the news section in smaller letters. Although popular since the 19th century, the day is not a public holiday in any country.”
I’m not really big on playing pranks, but I do like having fun with words and double entendres, and which limericks do well. In the spirit of April Fool’s Day, here’s an Easter limerick written by Christopher Brunelle:
“Here’s the question that Eastertide begs
Is it all about candy and eggs?
No, the point to be praised
Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs." 
As [the women]’ entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.'
"No, the point to be praised
Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs.”
Days prior to the discovery of the empty tomb on that first Good Friday, as Jesus’ beaten and bloodied body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb, it appeared to all who were involved (both Jesus’s followers and his adversaries) that death had won the victory. For his followers all hope was gone. This man whom they called Messiah, who had given them such hope as he proclaimed radical love for all people and a way of life so different, so full of hope from what the world had ever known, was dead. Despair, gloom and abject fear hung like a shroud over the remnant of Jesus’s disciples, who barricaded themselves behind locked doors in the upper room or had fled for their lives into the countryside.
Death, on the other hand, was doing a dance of joy as it once again celebrated that it had the last laugh in human life. As it danced, Death reveled in what it believed was the ultimate truth: that it and its minions of despair, cynicism, hopelessness, and fear were always the eventual victors in all things.
On that first Easter morn, this incomprehensible event of the empty tomb and the resurrection announced by the angel: “He has been raised. He is not here.”
In this very moment of the angel’s announcement at the empty tomb, Easter and April Fool’s Day meet. Based on this meeting I would postulate that the resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the greatest April Fool’s joke in the history of the world, a joke played by God on death itself. “Hey Death, “Easter proclaims, “You thought you won the battle? April Fool’s! Gotcha, the joke’s on you. He has been raised, he is not here! So much for your dancing that victory jig.”
As the second verse of that great Easter hymn, “The strife is o’er” proclaims, “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed.”
In the face of Death’s apparent victory of hopelessness, despair, and fear, God brings new life. April Fool’s, Death! Love and life win! Oh, what a grand prank that is!
Are you familiar with the BBC show Call the Midwife? This period drama series focuses on a group of nurse midwives working in London’s East End of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This midwifery is a ministry of an order of Anglican nuns, (yes, Anglican nuns!) from the order of St. John the Divine, which was founded in 1849 as a nursing order. The program’s were comprised of life-professed nuns and lay women. Their home is St. Nonnatus House in the Poplar district of East London. By the way, Nonnatus is a saint from Catalonia in Spain. His name refers to his birth by Caesarean section, his mother having died while giving birth to him.
I love Call the Midwife for a number of reasons, especially the outstanding acting, character development and plot lines. This is not your run-of-the mill treacly British costume melodrama (although I like those too). The program depicts the day-to-day lives of the midwives and their neighbors in Poplar. The plot lines poignantly and honestly portray real-life situations: still-birth, thalidomide babies, pregnancy termination, infertility, Down’s syndrome, abusive relationships, abandoned mothers and babies, poverty, single motherhood, rape, a father left to care for children after his wife dies in childbirth, violence, serious illness, racism, bigotry, senility, loss of all kinds, and death.
Based on these topics Call the Midwife sounds like a real downer, right? Talk about depressing! “Gee, great way to the end the weekend on Sunday nights on PBS, Peter! What other scintillating recommendations do you have for us this lovely Easter morning?”
Death should be dancing a jig of joy in Call the Midwife as people’s lives are harshly impacted by these painful and heart-rending life-events. Only cynicism, despair and hopelessness can be the end-product of all this human misery, pain, loss and death. But the truth is, Call the Midwife is not a downer and not in the least bit depressing. In fact, Call the Midwife is filled with hope, optimism, joy, and new life. And it so filled because of one reason: Love.
The program’s midwives and other main characters are filled with Christ-like love. Whether all of them would describe it that way or not is not important. What is important is that they are filled with Jesus’ love. Despite the challenges and the burdens they encounter, they always bring gentle, compassionate, non-judgmental and hopeful love to every person they encounter, regardless of the circumstances. More often than not, they bring this radical love when they themselves are heavily burdened. Their faith in the value and dignity of every human being is palpable. They see Christ in all, loving all their neighbors as themselves.They live and breathe resurrection lives.
Like that first Easter morning, it’s as if the plot line of life gets to the point where you believe life is hopelessly irredeemable and where Death is ready to declare the victory. Your fear is so great that you want to go and barricade yourself in a room or flee for the hills. The Nonnatus sisters and midwives then come along and roll away the stone from the grave, shouting to Death, “April Fool’s, love and life win!”
This is exactly what Jesus’ Resurrection does for us.
After the Resurrection, the fear that initially gripped Jesus’ early followers was transformed into absolute and resolute faith that the new commandment that Jesus had given them to love one another as I have loved you, would yield resurrection new life. St. Paul states in his letter to the Romans that they were “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
We need to hold onto this truth in this current climate of apparent hopelessness and despair. There is resurrection life beyond our current dire circumstances regardless of what they may be. Easter guarantees that. No force was an obstacle to the disciples proclaiming this good news of Jesus’ love to give new life. And neither is there for us.
Call the Midwife models how the early disciples came to lead their lives with wanton love and how they gained new life in the midst of the worst that death could ever throw at them. Call the Midwife reminds us that when we live resurrection lives of love, resurrection happens.
My sisters and brothers, live resurrection lives of love. That’s our gift from Jesus this Easter and every day. In that certainty, when death seems to be ready to do a little two-step on us, we can shout “April Fool’s, Death. Life and love win!“
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
 Brunelle, Christopher. The Church Year in Limericks, (MorningStar) Printed in the Christian Century, February 28, 2018, p. 3.