Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Unable Not to Speak

Acts 4:5-12; Mk. 4:1-9[1]

The Christian message is one that ought to be shouted from the rooftops: God loves us all unconditionally, accepts us all unreservedly, and is working to transform us all completely. Unfortunately, in practice this maximally inclusive message has been turned into something rigidly exclusive. Which is why, I think, that most of us would rather be shot that have to actually say anything about our faith to another human being. We’re very comfortable with being “a sign in and for the world” of the “new beginning for human life” that has occurred in Jesus Christ.[2] But not when it comes to our calling “to tell the good news of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.”[3]

Our lesson from Acts for today serves as a kind of double edge regarding our verbal witness. On the one hand, after being thrown in jail for speaking about Jesus’ death and resurrection, it seems that the Apostles can’t wait to speak their message to the very ones who had Jesus killed in the first place. And after being threatened with further punishments they responded by saying to the Jewish leaders, “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) and by praying for God to enable them to “speak your word with all boldness” (4:28). So far so good—courageous testimony that inspires us to go and do likewise.

But when you look at what Peter says to them, the problem of exclusion comes up. The crux of his message to the Jewish leaders is this: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Now, on the surface of things, that sounds pretty exclusive. In fact, it may sound downright offensive. That’s where our problem lies—not that we don’t want to share our life with others, but that we are embarrassed by some of the ways the Gospel has been put out there. Hence, we’d much rather do the whole “living as signs of the new reality” thing than have to actually speak about our faith to anyone, anywhere!

But let’s not forget what is going on here—Peter is under arrest for having healed a man in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. The very ones who were responsible for Jesus’ death are the ones who arrested Peter. And they are insisting that he not do any more healing or speaking in the name of Jesus. In response, Peter is explaining why he “cannot keep from speaking”—because he has experienced the salvation that God has given in the name of Jesus.[4] Peter wasn’t even thinking about other world religions at the time. It doesn’t sound all that bad when you put it that way. Unfortunately, over the years, what started out as a defense speech delivered to authorities trying to suppress the witness of the early church to the resurrection of Jesus has turned into an exclusive view of the Christian faith as the only, absolute, final truth.

When I hear people speaking about the Christian faith in those ways, it sickens me. In my mind, nothing that we fallible human beings think or say or believe can ever be absolute and final. I think finality is too absolute for us fallen human beings.[5] And if our premise is that God is really the maker of heaven and earth and Jesus is really the Savior of the world then it has to be the whole world that benefits and not just a small portion of it, or else the premise is a sham.[6]

There are some implications, however, that we should be clear about. Peter is convinced that Jesus is not just another wonder-working rabbi. Peter is convinced that Jesus is unique as the “author of life” and the one who brings God’s “universal restoration” to pass. But there’s a difference between uniqueness and finality.[7] The point of Peter’s witness to Jesus is to affirm that there truly is salvation in the name of Jesus—which is what his opponents were disputing. He wants to insist that it is in Jesus’ name that God is making all things new, not in Peter’s name, or Moses’ name, or Caiaphas’ name.[8] It seems to me that is a conviction we can hold while respecting the faiths of others around us.[9]

So, what can we learn from the early church about actually speaking our faith? We must lay aside our embarrassment about the fact that the inclusive Gospel of Scripture has been turned into an exclusive-sounding ideology. The message of acceptance, of new life, of hope in and through Jesus Christ is one that needs to be heard in the midst of all the other messages out there. We don’t have to speak it in such a way that we rule out those other messages in an arrogant way. Notice that even as Peter is speaking fairly boldly to his interrogators, he rather politely says they are the ones to judge whether he should obey God or them (Acts 4:19)! We can speak our faith, listening respectfully to others, while holding to our conviction that there is something unique about Jesus Christ. When we do so, then perhaps we too will be unable not to speak.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/3/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200.

[3] Book of Order, G-3.0300.

[4] William Willimon, Acts, 49.

[5] Cf. John Hick, “A Pluralist View,” in Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, ed., Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, 50; cf. also Willimon, Acts, 98. Cf. similarly, Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 118-111.

[6] See Hick, “A Pluralist View” 38-39. Cf. also Clark Pinnock, “An Inclusivist View” in Four Views, 98.

[7] Cf. Alistair McGrath, “A Particularist View: A Post-Enlightenment Approach,” in Four Views, 163-170; cf. similarly, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Witnessing to the Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles,” Word and World 22 (Summer 2002): 238-45. It seems to me that without this Christianity is ultimately emptied of meaning! I think John Hick makes this error in “Christology in an Age of Religious Pluralism,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 4-9. On this issue, see further J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 150-163.

[8] Cf. Julia Ching, “No Other Name?,” Japanese Journal of Theological Studies 12:260-61. She suggests that Peter was simply “spelling out the meaning of the saying: ‘Yahweh saves.’”

[9] Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Man Who Belongs to the Whole World,” The Christian Century (Sept. 25, 1985): 830, says it this way: “The universality of Jesus … does not establish itself in the world through the obliteration of whatever elements of light and truth have already been granted to the nations of the world.” Cf. also Moltmann, The Church in the Power, 161, where he points out that this is the way to “testify to God’s openness” toward all humankind, as well as “God’s passion” and “God’s vulnerability.”

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