Easter 4B Sermon (1997)

4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 4:5-12;
John 10; 1 John 3:16-24


Last month I began my newsletter column with this joke: “What do you get when you cross a Lutheran and a Jehovah’s Witness? Answer: A person inclined to knock on doors but not say anything.” That’s poking fun, of course, at our reluctance as Lutherans to be more assertive about sharing our Christian faith. As I said in the article, we might not want to take up the tactics of Jehovah’s Witnesses, knocking from door to door. But how often do we find ourselves sharing our faith under any circumstances?

And I dare say it’s not just a Lutheran phenomena. We could plug most of the mainline Christian denominations into that joke and still poke fun with an element of truth behind it. For the truth is that most church-going mainline Christians are quite reluctant to share their faith with others, even in this age that we hear over and over again about the large majority of our neighbors who are unchurched. We can just look around us this morning at all the empty spaces in the pews and see how true it is. While we are here worshiping this morning, the vast majority of our neighbors are home sleeping in, or finding something else to do. Recent surveys also tell us that the majority of unchurched people still claim to believe in God; they just don’t believe in going to church. And here we are–the “faithful remnant,” if you will, those who still go to church–and we’re reluctant to share our faith with those who don’t go to church. We’re shy about inviting them.

Why is this, do you think? Is it because we’re aware that Christians have been too pushy in the past? Is it because much violence has been done in the name of trying force people to believe in Jesus? This is part of it, I think, and they are good reasons. We don’t want to go back to the days of being pushy or forceful, and even violent in our religious zeal.

But I’d like us to seriously consider one other possible reason today for being shy about sharing our faith. And it boils down to last two verses of our first lesson: “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Salvation in no one else. What I want to know is: Do we still believe this? That’s what I want us to honest about this morning: Do we believe that only Jesus saves us? I’m not just asking if we believe in Jesus. There’s many of the unchurched folks who still believe that Jesus was a great prophet, perhaps even that he was the Son of God. But I think that it is distinctly a minority now that believes salvation comes only through Jesus. One of the most common religious statements that I do hear from people these days goes something like, “We all worship the same God.” Well, this verse from our second lesson today would seem to disagree with that, don’t you think? If Jesus is God’s Son and the only one who truly saves us, then not everyone is worshiping the same God.

Let me give a quick example. My favorite story–one that I’ve told several times–is about Hilda and her son. Hilda’s son is deeply into crime, he’s suicidal, and to top things off he’s an avowed atheist. Hilda comes to talk to her counselor, fearing that her son will go to hell. So her counselor asks Hilda to imagine that judgment day of her son before God. He asks her what she would want to do for her son in that situation. Hug him, of course; hold him tight. Now, what would God want to do. Well, Hilda can’t conceive of a God who would do less than her, and so God embraces the both of them. What might we conclude about God from this story? Isn’t it that God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most? Yet that isn’t the picture of God that most of us have grown up with, is it? The God we have grown up with is a God who can send people to everlasting damnation. Hilda and her counselor had to back away from this idea of God that they had grown up with, in order to hold out for a God who would love even her son unconditionally. You might say that they had to begin worshiping a different God. So it’s not only not true that everyone worships the same God, but it’s not even true that the same person always worships the same God. Hilda changed her mind. She went into her counselor worshiping a God who could eternally condemn her son to hell, and she came out of her counselor’s office not worshiping that same God anymore. No, God loved her son at least as much as she did, and she would never eternally condemn her son, so God couldn’t, either.

Now, I’m not trying to advocate too easily changing our minds about God. Satan is only too eager to get us to worship a god modeled along the lines of himself. Satan even tried to get Jesus to worship him. Remember the temptation story? But Jesus wouldn’t bite. He refused to worship any God other than his Father in heaven. It’s that God whom Jesus worshiped, the God who raised him from the dead, it’s that God who saves us. There is salvation through no one else, because Jesus was the first to worship the true God, the God of life who was able to raise him from the dead.

Now, this might make us uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, good reasons like we mentioned earlier, such as not wanting to go back to forcing Jesus’ God on other people. There has been so much violence done in the name of Jesus that I want us to be absolutely clear about that today: namely, Jesus’ God has nothing to do with such violence. It’s been our violence using Jesus. No, the tragic irony has been that, when we say that salvation comes through no one else, it is precisely this kind of violence that I think Jesus is saving us from. He, and he alone purely worshiped the true God of love, and we just have not been able to get it. Jesus came to save us from our violence, and we have so often used Jesus as an excuse to go ahead and do more violence. No, we don’t want to let our belief in Acts 4:12 carry us into more violence.

But neither should we let go of Acts 4:12, or retreat from it. Why? Because it is true, and because believing it’s true is what makes us Christian. Only Jesus can bring us ultimate salvation. Only Jesus helps us to truly experience the God of unconditional love and life. And I believe that the Hilda story is about discovering this God of Jesus who unconditionally loves us. I believe that the disciples had to go through a similar change of mind that Hilda did, they had to give up the violent God who eternally punishes, for a God who eternally loves. This didn’t happen overnight, mind you. There are still traces of the violent God, even in the New Testament. But the New Testament ultimately comes to focus more and more on the God of love. St. John’s community is an excellent example. Both the gospel and the letter of John which we feature this Easter season boils it all down to love. God is Love. And we can only come to fully and truly love, because God has loved us in a special way through Jesus.

Now, I have a bit of a problem here in that this is the time where I need to wrap things up, but I’m just getting started. That’s O.K. we don’t have to finish it all this morning. I accept that simply won’t have the time this morning to really get at the uniqueness of the Christian message, other than to briefly mention that it lies not just in our view of God as unconditional love. No, many modern folks who have dabbled in all other kinds of spirituality, will rightly tell us that many other religions and spiritualities emphasize love. No, the real uniqueness, the reason why only Jesus saves us, is that only Jesus also showed us our true selves. It took God’s Word coming into the flesh to show us not only the true God, but also who we truly are. I would dare to say that what really makes the Christian message unique is our understanding of original sin. Jesus also came to reveal to us the deep-seated problem we have in lapsing back into gods and idols who get us involved in violence. For example, we fall back into believing that God is backing us in a war. Or we believe God wants us to execute the bad people. Or we believe that God wants us to threaten others into believing with visions of hell. Or we believe that God thinks it O.K. for us to cut loose our help of unemployed people, because, after all, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ And, in our secular age of many false idols, the list could go on and on. No, Jesus came to show us the depth of our problem with sin, how and why it’s got us in its grips. It took going to the cross and being raised again to reveal this all to us. And, when we know how bad our problem is, then it really changes our experience of God, too. Because, at the same time that Jesus came to show us our sin, he also came to forgive us. That’s how much God loves us.

You can breathe a sigh of relief, then. Even though we’re just getting starting, I’m going to wrap up my piece for this morning. Because it’s really all about Jesus’ promise to come here week after week to lead us and guide us, to help us to understand the Scriptures afresh by understanding all the things about himself. It is about Jesus coming here again and again to offer that word of forgiveness through body broken and blood outpoured. It is about Jesus pouring out his Holy Spirit upon us so that, with Peter and all the saints, we may turn from being shy to boldly proclaiming that ‘there is salvation in no one else’ but Jesus. I think, to borrow the title of ELCA Bishop Anderson’s new book, that “It is an exciting time to be the church.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 19-20, 1997


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