No other name…but other sheep (Easter 4, Year B, 29 April 2012)

Acts 4.5-12
1 John 3.16-24
John 10.11-18 

I was sitting in my office one day. Not here, it was a few years back when I was head of the Pastoral Care Department of The Wesley Hospital. I’d just picked up the phone. There was a very angry woman on the other end, who was a member of the Uniting Church.

Let me start at the beginning. The chapel at ‘the Wes’ is open 24/7. As you’d expect—people want to come in and pray in a hospital chapel at all sorts of times. Sometimes, staff came in to pray too. There were a couple of staff members who at that time were coming daily to pray.

One had been coming for some time; she was almost part of the furniture. The more recent ‘pray-er’ was a student in the hospital. Like the first, she’d come in around mid-morning to pray. Unlike the first, she’d unfold her prayer mat, kneel and bow low to the ground. You see, unlike the first, she was a Muslim.

Sometimes, the two women would be in the chapel at the same time, the Christian and the Muslim each at prayer in their own way. The angry woman who rang me thought we were setting a very bad example to ‘young people’ by allowing this student to use the chapel to pray her Muslim prayers. She wanted to know why we hadn’t forbidden her.

I told her we were showing hospitality to a stranger in our land. That’s quite a biblical value, by the way, and to her credit she realised straight away that it was. She didn’t give up her objections, but she did eventually run out of steam.

What do you think our responsibility was in this situation? Especially in the light of Peter’s confession of faith to the leaders of his people:

There is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

If there is ‘no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’, should we have done something different? Should we have offered her another space to pray? Should we have told her that Jesus is the Saviour of the world? I’m comfortable with what we did, though I do understand that for some people it’s not clear that we were right.

‘There is salvation in no one else…’ What does that mean?

To the woman who rang me, it means that only those who accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour can possibly be saved. It’s literally a life and death issue for her, heaven or hell, eternal destination. Is she right?

I didn’t know about Islam when I was a young boy. My early religious experience was pretty limited. I thought the only Christian churches were the Church of England and the Catholic and Methodist Churches. Oh, and something called the Church of Scotland. As far as I knew, there were no more than that.

But if you go to Mt Ommaney shops or just get on a train tomorrow, you’re quite likely to see Muslim people. It’s the world we live in, and the only world our children will ever know. We live in a multicultural, multi-religious time and place. Muslim families may live on our street, we may work or study with a Muslim.

Are our Muslim neighbours barred from heaven?

Did Peter mean that only people who put their trust in Jesus here in this life will ‘go to heaven’? Because that presents us with some real difficulties. Did Peter mean that all those who don’t believe in Jesus won’t ‘get to heaven’—

  • even if they’ve never heard of him;
  • or if they die in infancy; 
  • or if they have a profound intellectual disability; 
  • or if they are treated so badly by their church that they turn away from it out of self-respect or self-preservation?

Will any of them ‘be in heaven’? Most people who say that you must believe in Jesus to be saved make some exceptions here. They just can’t believe, for example, that God would unfairly send a baby to hell.

But what is our responsibility towards our neighbours who belong to other faiths?

The lady who rang was very clear. She wanted the Muslim student excluded from praying in the chapel. After all, there is salvation in no one else. There is no name that saves other than Jesus’ name. Not only were we offending her and setting a bad example, but we were also compromising our Christian faith by allowing it to continue.

But you know, we’re starting at the wrong place here. We shouldn’t start by asking if a Muslim can go to heaven. That’s God’s business, not ours.

Our business is to be the disciples of the risen and crucified Lord Jesus. Remember how he prayed?

Your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as in heaven.

Our business is to keep praying. We leave it to God to judge who’s going to heaven when they die. Our business is to work with God to bring heaven down to earth.

So it’s no surprise that our New Testament reading (1 John 3.17-18) says

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Our Muslim student didn’t need food or clothing from us; she just needed a place to pray. We gave her one.

So what then is our responsibility towards our neighbours who belong to other faiths? How do we relate to the followers of Islam or indeed of any other faith?

Let me suggest three ways to relate: neighbourliness, service, dialogue.

Neighbourliness: the command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves applies here. We should as far as possible live in peace with our neighbours, without prejudice or anxiety. We usually find they want to live in peace with us. We get to know them as people and families as we are able.

Service: we join with people of goodwill to make the world a better place, whether that’s in service clubs, bowls clubs, political parties or any other social group. If there aren’t people of other faiths in these groups yet, there will be. Just wait for the second generation to grow up.

Dialogue: we have Good News to tell! We need to know what we believe we we say ‘Jesus is Lord’, and be ready to speak. We also need to extend the same courtesy to other believers. It makes life a lot richer.

It’s all about God’s coming kingdom. ‘Your kingdom come.’ The Apostle Paul says (Romans 14.17):

the kingdom of God is…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

This is how we relate to all people. With God’s righteousness, which as far as I can see looks a lot like accepting the neighbour who is different and forgiving one another. With a desire to live in peace with one another as far as possible. With the aim of joy in the Spirit, which surely only comes as we seek the best for others.

But still, the Bible says…

There is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

CS Lewis wrote these words in his book Mere Christianity: 

We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ, we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.

This makes sense to me. God is reaching out to all people, no matter who they are. God became human in Jesus Christ. I believe that all who are saved are saved through his work in their hearts whether they know it or not. The Spirit is at work in every human life. One day, ‘every knee will bow’ at the name of Jesus, the risen crucified Lord.

There’s a lot more to be said about all this, but we’ll leave it there for today. Our children are growing up in a very different world from the one I was born into. Let’s make sure we live in that world too. It’s the one in which God has placed us.

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Filed under church year, Culture, Interfaith, Prayer, RCL, sermon, spiritual practices

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