First Thoughts on Year B First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 4

William Loader

Easter 4: 22 April Acts 4:5-12

Not only is Peter claiming before the Jewish authorities, as he had before crowds, that the name (power) of Jesus enabled the lame man to walk, but also that belief in that name is the only way to salvation and wholeness. No other name will do! Luke has Peter make a very exclusive claim. There is no other way. Believe in Christ or miss out on salvation! Perhaps in Luke's day the conflict with leaders of the synagogues had reached a dead end - hopeless! Perhaps he want to show where it all began.

The extreme contrast looks a little less extreme when we realise that the conflict was not over whether to recognise Jesus as God's agent or to believe in another God. There is significant common ground here. For Peter (and many of Luke's readers) and the Jewish authorities shared belief in God, the God, indeed of Israel. They also shared similar understandings of God: that God is good and generous and seeks what is good. The conflict was over whether Jesus was God's authorised agent or not and more particularly over whether Jesus' radical understanding of God was acceptable. In his gospel Luke had portrayed that conflict as one centring around whether the priority Jesus gave to restoring sinners and outcasts was God's priority. Some Jews had said yes. Some Jews had said no. He portrays the authorities as saying no and collaborating in his execution, using accusations that probably derive from Luke's own time: that Christians not only claimed that Jesus was the Christ but also that he was the Son of God.

You've got to recognise that God was in Jesus. That was Peter's argument. To the degree that this meant acceptance that the priority given to love and compassion shown in Jesus reflects God's true nature, many Jews then and now would answer yes. If the issue is ultimately what God is like, then the common ground is extensive. Most Jews, in saying, yes, would reject the view that Jesus had a monopoly on this understanding of God and would accuse Christians of having turned belief in the status of the messenger into the main point rather belief in the message. They would invite Christians to consider making their claim more inclusive, along the lines: only the God of compassion whom Jesus proclaimed can bring true wholeness.

Many Christians would be reluctant to surrender their exclusive claims to the status of the agent, but even so the sides are not so far apart. The other exclusive New Testament text which may be handled similarly is John 14:6, where the author has Jesus declare that he is the only way to the Father. If that means his way of understanding God - loving and compassionate - is the only way to know God, then many could agree who do not wear the Christian label. In the heat of the situation of both Luke's setting and that of the fourth gospel a harder more confrontational contrast seems intended and we have to consider how far we still want to go along with it.

By contrast with such exclusivity, Luke depicts a much more open stance when depicting Paul's stay in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). The speech he composes for Paul in that setting has Paul acknowledge that in their religions the Athenians know God and are his children (17:26-28). They just need to know more. This is a more generous recognition that people have engaged with God in other cultures. Luke sees no need to deny that. God is always bigger than our experiences and our religion's limited understandings. Already in Luke's day Jews (and Christians) had to come to terms with the fact that their world was full of different cultures and religions and they could hardly all be condemned as hopelessly ignorant of God, let alone, damned to hell. Our much broader and extensive exposure to the diverse cultures of the world and to its religions leads us to shrink back from global claims about their inadequacy and from the arrogance which once typified western Christian culture and in some circles still does. Like Luke, we need to be able to recognse God and God's Spirit wherever God's light shines. Light wears no labels. We should be able to reognise it and celebrate wherever it shines.

For some this melts into a kind of loose tolerance which in the name of harmony claims that all religions are the same. All paths lead to God. Informed by the Christian tradition such a stance is intolerable. The name, the power, the love we hail in Jesus and see as the heart of God will be the means whereby we detect the light. It is not any light. It is the light of divine love; and wherever claims are made, whether outside Christianity and within it, which cannot bear the name of Jesus, at least in the sense of reflecting his understanding of God, we must with integrity say, no. There is no salvation, no wholeness, in any other that the one whose name and ministry Jesus represents, whatever label, Christian or non-Christian, it bears. In this spirit we may find ourselves seriously distancing from some claims made about God and some religious movements, including Christian ones, which do not bring wholeness but harm. More importantly, in this spirit we will find ourselves holding hands with bearers of the true light which shone in Jesus, whatever their label or cultural or religious allegiance. This the basis for true ecumenism and the only hope if the world's religions are going to be bearers of peace instead of conflict in our world.

See also:
Does the Cross mean "No"? Further Reflection on Christians and Other Faiths. Also in French: La Croix est-elle un "Non"?
Other Faiths: A New Testament Perspective

Gospel: Easter 4: 22 April John 10:11-18
Epistle: Easter 4: 22 April  1 John 3:16-24