Sermon for Sunday, April 26 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector. Please see PDF version for attributions.
It two of our readings important things happen “offstage,” before the readings, and they provide the context. In the gospel, a man born blind is given sight. In the lesson from Acts, a lame man is healed. Occasion for joy, right? Both are life-changing healings. Both of them cause trouble. What’s up with that? Why does the restoration of life and health raise the unwanted attention and ire of the powers-that-be?
In our first reading from Acts, Peter and John heal a man who is “lame from birth.” whom they meet as he is begging for alms at the entrance to the temple. Peter looks at him, and says “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Peter raises him, his feet and ankles are made strong. He stands and begins to walk, and he enters the temple with Peter and John, praising God. All the people recognize him as the one who used to beg, and “were filled with wonder and amazement.”
Before all the people, Peter ascribes this healing power to Jesus. We heard that passage last week. This gets Peter in trouble with the authorities and they arrest Peter and John. The next day all the big guns gather, the religious authorities. Picture them, all lined up there. They make Peter and John stand in the middle, and interrogate them. “By what power and by what name did you do this?”
Peter explains that the man was healed in the name of Jesus, and that the power comes from Jesus.
Then he 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.”
And there you have the kind of sentence that people go to war for. That sentence – and the passage from John 14:6 – are the two verses that have been most often cited as prooftext for Christian claims of exclusivity. It has been read as: if you don’t believe in Jesus [if you don’t have the right ideas about Jesus] you are going to hell after you die.
Putting Peter in context
This is so not what Peter is saying. Context is everything.
We recall Peter was a Jew, and he is speaking to the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He is not speaking to the Council of World Religions, or to Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims.
Peter is “addressing the authorities in his own religious tradition. He is defending himself within his own family of faith.” Peter is aware of — and is not denying — his own complicity with the Roman Empire when he denied Jesus after Jesus was seized by Roman soldiers. He appeals to the authorities as a fellow Israelite who knows Roman oppression and their struggles to live faithful to God within it. He understands fear and denial. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” he is speaking of the life-giving freedom, and the power of love and healing found in relationship with Jesus.
“There is salvation in no one else,” says Peter.
This is the crux of the matter. How do you understand “salvation”?
The word translated “Salvation” or “saved” more closely means “rescue from danger” or “heal.” It is a this-world, this-life thing: healing, wholeness, and well-being. This is about life, not what happens after we die.
Peter is better understood as saying to his own religious family “we cannot be made whole by putting our faith and trust in human systems or in our own strengths and abilities separate from God.” Peter is speaking to people who know this. They just aren’t living it. They are afraid, and they are falling back on power structures. We make a choice about what we put our trust in. And who we stand with. And how we hold the powers that be accountable for how power structures treat those in need.
I imagine the situation Peter is confronting to be something like this. Imagine you are having a cup of coffee with a friend who is a fellow Christian. And you tell her that you are serving food at Emmanuel Dining Room. And she looks at you with reservation and says that her church provides food and clothing to people who need them, provided they “come to Jesus” by which she means they express right belief and practice right worship as she knows it. Neither Jesus nor Peter put such preconditions on healing, feeding, or welcoming another. If we are going to be followers of Jesus, I submit, neither should we.
What Peter is talking about, and what Jesus means when he says in John 14:6 “no one comes to the Father except through me” is relationship with God, which is made manifest in Jesus.
One of the biggest and most tragic misunderstanding of Jesus is what we think Jesus means when he is self referential, as in “through me” and “I am…” We tend to read those statements from the standpoint of th ego, the small, separate self, because that is the way we view ourselves. We read Jesus as talking about the separate self when that’s the way we see ourselves in the world. It’s a small, low reading, and when it leads to hatred it’s just plain wrong. We take on that separate identity and we go to war as we declare and defend that my God is better than your God.
Jesus isn’t speaking egoically. In order to see this we have to grasp that our own level of consciousness needs to evolve. To “lay down one’s life” is to see through our own beautiful, glorious, unique, broken, flawed particularity, to our deep self which is union with God and all creation. Anglican tradition helps us see this though it’s “three-legged stool” method that uses scripture, tradition and experience in conversation with each other.
Scripture by itself is going to be understood through the level of consciousness of the person hearing it and interpreting it. Just as we know that we read some things at an earlier time, and then later we come to understand on a deeper level. Scripture opens up as we become informed by deeper levels of consciousness.
Tradition refers to our creedal tradition, especially the incarnation. The deep truth of the incarnation is that Jesus reveals and manifests the divine union of creation with God. Jesus lives his life as an example of divine union, revealing divine union, bringing people into the fold, the fold of divine love and care and total presence. He lives out of this total sense of divine union all the way to the cross. Even there, he does not hold himself apart.
Third, we come to know and trust our own experience — we see and know and feel that we are in union with God. We feel it in our hearts, we recognize it. We get glimpses. We help each other to see these for what they are, the ultimate divine reality behind what we know from our senses.
Divine union looks and acts like abundance
OK, so this sounds like a big load. Abstract. Or impossible. How do I go about transforming my consciousness?
Actually today’s readings show us the way. They make it practical, and show us things we already intuit. The Gospel shows us what divine union looks like. 1 John tells us how to practice it. Acts shows us how the early church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, understood it. Psalm 23 tells us what it feels like.
First of all, if you see someone who is healed, made whole, and your theology causes you to question the rightness of it, as the religious authorities do in both lessons today, it is a signal that you’re on the wrong track. You can hear Peter’s incredulity. “Someone was healed, and you arrest us?” Religious ideas that are based in fear, that incite us to hate each other, that “scatter us” as today’s gospel reading references, that are not in the direction of abundant life, are not about divine union. They go in the wrong direction.
Divine union favors the health of the other over sickness. It favors life over death. It looks like love in action. It does not look like seeing a brother or sister in need, having the means to help and choosing to do nothing. It looks like care. It feels like a table being set in the midst of those who would trouble me with fear, and God feeding me and saying “do not be afraid.” It feels like the restoration of my soul and my cup running over in gratitude. It feels like dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. We can’t necessarily think our way though this, but we know it in our hearts.
This is what the icon of the good shepherd is all about. Love and care. A model for how to treat each other. It is the language of relationship, oneness, and deep connection. Note that no one is excluded. One flock, one shepherd. Not one fold, not one enclosure. There are many folds. Jesus’ invitation to know and be known is radically inclusive, as he models with his life. People hear Jesus’ voice in many ways and languages. We have no business closing the gate to anyone.
Here’s the thing: Jesus is known through us. God works through our agency. Yours and mine. More than getting our theology right, our ritual right, knowing our metaphors or doctrine or creeds or memorizing bible passages, or being of the right “fold” – which, I submit, matters way more to us than it does to Jesus – Jesus wants us to know we are children of God and needs us to care, to care about each other and for each other. The person at the soup kitchen, the person behind the checkout counter, the person we’d just as soon avoid. God only knows what that person is carrying. God may need you, you especially to be the instrument of God’s peace. You may be the only hands of Jesus that person sees. We live that way, and more and more we get glimpses. That is the divine union that we proclaim, and by the grace of God, we live out in our lives, and we too are made whole. AMEN.