Sunday, April 26, 2015

Salvation In No One Else? (Acts 4: 1-12)

This is the scripture I didn’t want to preach on. The last verse of this passage – that bit about how there is salvation in no one else but Jesus – this verse has been used (and abused) by Christians for centuries. It’s been used as a club, a weapon, to beat other religions over the head, and to show how Christianity is the only valid religion.
I didn’t want to preach on this verse, because it seems so disrespectful of all my interfaith friends.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to preach against this verse, because wouldn’t that make me a heretic?
It seemed like the safe thing to do would be to just ignore it.
But I didn’t. Instead, I let it dwell in my mind for a bit. And it wasn’t long before something didn’t seem right. Something about this verse didn’t “fit.” Something made me think that perhaps the true meaning here isn’t what it appears to be.
So I decided to do some study and research.
It all starts off ok. It’s actually a pretty interesting story. Peter and John were speaking to crowds of people about Jesus, but they got arrested and thrown in jail. Overnight.
The next day, Peter and John were taken from jail and brought in to face the authorities: the rulers, the elders, the scribes, and the high priest.
Standing before them, Peter and John knew that the law was not on their side. The law was never on the side of the poor. The law was never on the side of common, ordinary people. Those who had power and wealth used their power and wealth to ensure that power and wealth would remain theirs. It was all about privileges and tax breaks for the rich, and restrictions and heavier burdens on the poor.
In ancient Rome, it was wealth and power that saved you. Thus, salvation was only for a few.
I do not make this statement lightly. It is not mere rhetorical flourish. And it is, in fact, the first clue to understanding that troublesome verse that is yet to come.
Because salvation – the Greek word is sozo – meant freedom. Salvation meant a life of wholeness. Salvation meant a life of wellness. Salvation meant living the life God intends for you to live, free from any ailment or oppression that would keep you from being a full participant in all that life has to offer.
That troublesome verse at the end of this passage says that “there is salvation in no one else but Jesus.” When I remember that salvation – sozo – really means healing, wholeness, and freedom from oppression I began uncovering what this verse is really saying.
So there they were, Peter and John, standing before the authorities; and these authorities were power personified. The kingdom, the power, and the glory all belonged to them.
This powerful group of men asked a question of Peter and John, the two without power. And the question they asked was: “By what power did you do this? In whose name? By whose authority?”
They were referring not only to the words Peter and John spoke to the people, but also to the healing of a lame man that had taken place. This lame man had no power or wealth. Because he was lame, he was even worse off than Peter and John. He relied on alms just to survive.
But now, he had been set free from his ailment.
Why was this a problem? In Roman society, everyone had their place in society, and everyone was expected to accept their status as a God-given fate.
For those born into nobility, wealth, or power, this was easy. And since they had the power, they could use their power to make sure everyone else accepted their status without complaint.
The problem was that when this lame man was healed, he gained a new status. He went from being infirm and dependent, to able-bodied and free.
This upset the whole framework of society. You can’t just go around giving people freedom and power!
This is something those with wealth and power could not tolerate.
What right did Peter and John have to upset the balance of things by healing this man?
One more thing: the Greek word for healing? Sozo. The same word that, a few verses later, is translated as “salvation.”
So Peter and John, using the power of Christ, gave healing-slash-salvation to this lame man. The authorities are offended, because they only recognize healing-slash-salvation as coming from the wealth and power that is bestowed upon people by Caesar. Everything good is from Caesar. Healing/salvation is from Caesar.
This is why they interrogate Peter and John, and insist that they answer the question: by whose power and authority did you heal/save this man?
And in their response, Peter and John insist that healing/salvation is only found in Jesus.
It now becomes clear that this statement is not a contrast between Christianity and other religions. It’s not about other religions at all!  Rather, it is meant as a contrast between the way of Jesus, and the way of Caesar. It is meant as a contrast between the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, and the kingdom proclaimed by Rome. It is a contrast between the sozo of Jesus, and the sozo of Caesar.
It is Jesus who gives life – Jesus, the one who was rejected by the powers of the world. It is Jesus who heals and who makes people whole. Not Caesar. Not Rome.
This verse doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity verses other religions. This verse has everything to do with the way of Jesus verses the way of Caesar.
This means, then, that every time someone today uses this verse to elevate Christianity over other world religions, they are missing the point.
To add an even deeper level of irony, many of those who use this verse to highlight the superiority of Christianity over other religions are the same people who campaign for things like tax breaks for the wealthy and reduction of assistance programs for the poor. Right? But promoting policies that favor the rich over the poor aligns them with the rulers, the elders, the scribes, and the high priest… not with Peter and John… not with Jesus.
Those who misinterpret this verse so drastically miss the point of what’s going on in this scripture that they flip it completely around so that their interpretation of it becomes the exact opposite of what it really meant.
That’s why Bible professor Walter Wink says this: “Christians armed with the certainty that they alone possessed God's truth tore about the globe destroying [other] religions and spiritualities... Let us apologize to the countless victims slaughtered by Christian conquistadors for refusing to convert; let us beg for mercy from God and humanity for the arrogance of Christianity in its spiritual scorched-earth-and-take-no-captives missionary juggernaut.”
For Peter and John, the way of Jesus was a subversive, revolutionary movement – a nonviolent revolutionary movement – that provided an alternative way of living to that prescribed by the ruling authorities. The reason this verse has been so misinterpreted over the years is that ever since Constantine converted to Christianity 1700 years ago, Christianity has been aligned with the ruling authorities. Christianity has been, for all these centuries, in the position of privilege and power.
And since Christianity has been in the position of privilege and power all these years, it makes it very hard to interpret Bible verses that are critical of privilege and power.
The tendency – the temptation – is to misinterpret them. Or reinterpret them.
In fact, this verse about salvation coming through no one else but Jesus has been called the most misused scripture in the world.
For the past 1700 years, Christianity has been at the center of privilege and power in the western world. And no one likes it when their privilege and power are threatened. When scripture itself challenges that privilege and power, we re-interpret it: it’s no longer about confronting privilege and power; instead, we turn it into a verse about Christianity’s superiority over other religions.
Jesus himself never really said much about other religions. When he did encounter someone whose faith differed from his… someone who worshiped facing Mt. Gerizim, for example, instead of facing Jerusalem as all “good” Jews did – Jesus was surprisingly open and welcoming toward them.
But Jesus did say an awful lot about his kingdom and his way as being an alternative to the kingdom and way of Rome. When the world looked to Rome and to Caesar for salvation, it is then that Jesus said, “No – look to me. I am the way.”
The elders, rulers, scribes, and high priest... they all looked to Caesar and Rome. To them, Peter and John were just “ordinary men.” Here, the Greek could be more correctly translated as “idiots.” Peter and John were condemned as idiots for proclaiming a path to salvation that didn’t involve Rome.
So before we go around condemning other religions, let us remember: It’s the adversaries of Jesus and his followers who do the condemning. Jesus didn’t condemn people. The agents of Rome did the condemning. Jesus was the one who was condemned.
So when scripture says there is salvation in no one else, it’s a challenge not to other religions, but to a society that says salvation is found in wealth and power.
This is something I have found to be true. As much as I have tried to find salvation in wealth or power, that has always failed me.
But when I look for salvation in Jesus and in the things he taught – when I seek healing and wholeness through him – I have always found it.

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