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.
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
Rev. Peter Faass
The book of Acts is a history of the early Church and offers some of the Bible’s most vivid stories. In Acts, Peter’s vision of a four-cornered sheet coming down from heaven (filled with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air”) is the among the most fascinating. We might wonder what overly spicy meal Peter dined on prior to his dream.
While we may view this story as a tad bizarre, within it is the Gospel’s essential core message: A heavenly voice tells Peter to eat what he sees on the sheet. The revelation is so profound for Peter that it causes a radical paradigm shift in the theology of the early Church proclaiming God’s love – a love that Jesus proclaimed through his words and actions during his earthly ministry.
Peter was at Simon the Tanner’s home in the city of Joppa, just south of modern day Tel Aviv, when he had his vision. “ ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat,’” the voice told Peter. Peter calls the voice “Lord,” indicating that it is Jesus speaking.
“But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'”
As we read about this exchange, remember that the early Church was comprised almost exclusively of Jews who recognized that Jesus as Messiah was a fulfillment to their Judaism. These Jewish Christians observed the Law of Moses, which included kosher laws about food, and male circumcision, an outward symbol of the Abrahamic Covenant. Early Church leaders felt that it was also necessary for Gentile converts to adhere to the Mosaic Law. The early Church essentially considered itself a Jewish sect. Keeping kosher law that was not a terribly difficult task. Sure, no more pork roast or cheeseburgers, but hey, the brisket and the noodle kugel were nice compensation. But when it came to adult males being circumcised, that posed a significantly more challenging obstacle.
We know this was a significant obstacle because of a group of people called God-fearers who are frequently mentioned in the Christian Testament. God-fearers were Gentiles who honored the monotheistic God of the Hebrews, attended synagogue services, and even financially supported Jewish life. Ultimately, they couldn’t bring themselves to fully convert to Judaism because of the circumcision requirement.
It is the home of the God-fearer and Roman Centurion named Cornelius that the Spirit compels Peter to go to after his vision of the critter-filled sheet. In Acts (chapter 10, verse 22), Cornelius is “an up-right and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.” So while he was a Gentile and Roman solider, he was also seen as a mensch – a person of integrity and honor - in the Jewish community.
Peter goes to Cornelius’ house to baptize the Roman and have a meal with his family. This is big news, as it doesn’t say Cornelius was also to be circumcised. By dining with and baptizing Cornelius, Peter has violated the two major tenants of the early Jewish Christian church:
Peter is roundly criticized for these behaviors by “the circumcised.” These are the core members of the Church, who by their circumcision are Jews before being Christian. Under fire, Peter uses his vision of the descending, critter-filled sheet to explain the circumcision-less baptism of Cornelius and to justify his table sharing with Gentiles.
Does baptism erase those distinctions between Jew and Gentile? Does it replace the adherence to the Law? The answer is clearly no.
In the vision, God annuls those distinctions prior to baptism. Even though the Lord/Jesus told Peter to eat the food before him, Peter responded that he could not since the Law prohibited such cuisine. Based on God’s original creative authority and acts, God trumps tradition and Torah instruction: The voice reminds Peter that we cannot make profane or unclean what God has created clean. This refers to the Genesis Creation story where at the end of each day we are told, “And God saw that it was good.” Therefore, it was all good before the law and institutional religion made it bad.
Peter understands God’s disruption of his sleep and his biased thinking as the Spirit teaching him not to make distinctions “between us and them.” As he explains to those infuriated by his behaviors at Cornelius’ home, “The Spirit told me to go . . . and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
With this phrase, we understand this vision goes beyond dietary laws; it is about human relationships. In this vision, God is correcting our faulty theological anthropology; our pernicious human tendency of putting our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric above God and His will for Creation.
This is why this story contains the core message of the Gospel. It distills the message of Jesus in John’s Gospel “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
As we sing in that wonderful hymn, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no north or south” there is also no more “them and us.” In him there is just us, all together. We are children created in the image of a loving God and bound together into one body; the body of One God sent into the world so that we might live and live abundantly.
Of course there is reality. When it comes to our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric today. I think Charles Dickens captures our era well:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
We have made significant progress in our efforts to eradicate “them and us” in our society: an African-American president, marriage equality, women justices on the Supreme Court. But we also find that with each step we take toward erasing those distinctions, the more others in opposition rise to resist and reinforce those distinctions. That is why it is the best and the worst of times. Evil is so bewildered and terrified by the message of the Gospel coming to fruition that it is fighting back with all it has in its power – and it’s pretty ugly stuff.
Witness the current controversy over transgendered access to public restrooms in North Carolina. Legislators who passed this pernicious law requiring people to use restrooms based on their birth gender are people who see the “thems” of the world as “unclean” based on perceived differences. It also signifies a belief in their own superiority. They are passionate that if the “us” and “them” get too close, live too close, or interact too much, they risk becoming contaminated and “unclean.” Their belief is constructed upon differentiating themselves from others, instead of upon who we are in God.
Witness a fear of “them” so insidious in segments of our society that Southwest Airlines saw fit to eject a man from a flight a few weeks ago because he was speaking Arabic!
These are only two examples in a society rife with them. Notice the tenor of our current political campaign and the racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia and homophobia oozing from many segments. Sisters and brothers, the Gospel calls us to a different standard.
An “us and them” mentality should haunt our human sensibilities if we want to experience and benefit from our common humanity. We need to always be on alert to check our biases and stereotypes. God says it is imperative that we engage with others different from ourselves at a deeper level. This will not happen when “us” compels we keep our distance from “them.”
The only way we end making distinctions between “them” and “us” is by learning to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on human relationships. Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, white privilege and other biased behaviors and thinking are not Godly; they are motivated by fear of the other – not love. God shows no favoritism for one human being other another.
Let us never forget: We are all good in God’s eyes despite the fact that laws and institutional religion have made so many of us in “thems” who are unclean, and therefore bad.
Hearing the Spirit’s voice, let us passionately “make no distinction between them and us” and recognize the goodness of every person from every family, language, race and nation.