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The Name of Jesus Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-16

It is sometimes said, especially by those who are sceptical about the Christian faith, that the Bible contradicts itself and so is unreliable. Whether it really does or not is a whole sermon in itself. However our two readings today provide us with one example where that may seem to be true at first sight. In Acts 4:12 Peter says that there is no other name under heaven by which mortals may be saved. But in John 10:16 Jesus says that he has other sheep, not of this fold, whom he will bring and they will listen to his voice.

I want to look at these two verses especially in the light of interfaith questions. Here are some that come to mind immediately: Is Jesus the only way to salvation? What about other faiths or even those who’ve never even heard the name of Jesus? To say there is no other means of salvation may sound arrogant and exclusive. What do we make of that? On the other hand, should we not be faithful to Christ and not water down Christianity by allowing other faiths to be true? Then there are the wider questions: how do faiths relate to each other anyway? How can we think rationally and reasonably about these issues? These and other questions like them are more important these days because of the kind of world in which we live. We are a global village and people of different faiths live side by side in many communities. Even the UK Home Office thinks it is a priority and has launched its “Side by Side and Face to Face” initiative to support community cohesion.

A Closer Look
Let us take a closer look at these two readings. How you handle or interpret texts is very important. The temptation is to use a verse as a so-called “proof text”. They can be put forward like soundbites or slogans that are supposed to finish all debate and demand our unquestioned obedience. The trouble is, as a tutor of mine put it in theological college: “A text taken out of its context can become a pre-text.” In other words, you have to remember the reason for and setting of a particular Bible verse. If you forget the “scenery” out of which you’ve plucked it, it can end up not meaning what it was originally meant to be there for. Any one verse relates to the verses around it and you have to understand its context in order to get a better understanding of it. Many things can help point you in the right direction if you keep them all in mind.

If a ship is coming into port after dark, the navigator will look for the guiding lights on the shore. These lights are lined up behind each other and only when they are all lined up from the viewpoint of the boat can that vessel be guided safely into the harbour. The more lights, the better the chance of a safe straight line home. Just the same way, when seeking to understand a verse in the Bible the more “guiding lights” you can find, the better your understanding can be. “Guiding lights” in understanding a text are: the culture of the time; the reason for the story or argument; what the language or words might have meant at the time; who said them; what the background history is; what experts and commentators have said about it.

Some Answers
If two seem to contradict each other it is even more obvious that you can’t hang a whole doctrine on one of them. With the two texts we’re looking at you can’t use either of them to argue for Christian exclusivism (that Christ is the only way and all other religions are wrong); or that all religions somehow are right. Let’s look a little more closely at each text and find some guiding lights.

“No other name”. The context of these words is a legal challenge in a religious court. Peter is being asked what authority he had for performing a healing in the temple. His response is that he did it by the name of Jesus, the only name given for salvation. We need to remember that Peter was in front of the same court that condemned Jesus to death and from which Peter had shrunk into the shadows and denied the name of Jesus. Now he is bold and confident. The authorities were upset because of the challenge to their power. It was not a debate about different religions but a question of authority. By Jesus’ death, Peter declares, salvation comes and he is the key in the building that is Israel. “You have rejected the very one by whose name you could be saved!” he says courageously. It is not really about comparing whether or not other religions are valid, it is a direct response to the challenge of threatened authorities.

“Other sheep”. The gospel of John was written with non-Jews in mind. Gentiles who were fond of deep thinking and thoughtful ways of describing spiritual things would have been attracted to John’s way of telling the story of Jesus. It would be a help for them to realise that they are the “other sheep” who may also belong to Jesus’ flock. The context of this passage is, interestingly enough, not too dissimilar from the Acts passage. The religious authorities are reacting strongly to Jesus’ healing of a blind man. Jesus is a challenge to their power – or so they think. Jesus defends himself by saying he is in fact the Good Shepherd who lays down his life in sacrifice. “Other sheep” though, are not forced to accept Jesus’ Lordship, but are attracted by his self-sacrifice.

A Story
I would like to finish with a story which I have found in William Barclay, a great preacher and Bible scholar.
Egerton Young was the first missionary to the Red Indians. In Saskatchewan he went out and told them of the love of God. To the Indians it was like a new revelation. When the missionary had told his message, an old chief said: “When you spoke of the great Spirit just now, did I hear you say,' Our Father '?” “Yes," said Egerton Young. “That is very new and sweet to me," said the chief. “We never thought of the great Spirit as Father. We heard him in the thunder; we saw him in the lightning, the tempest and the blizzard, and we were afraid. So when you tell us that the great Spirit is our Father that is very beautiful to us." The old man paused, and then he went on, as a glimpse of glory suddenly shone on him. “Missionary, did you say that the Great Spirit is your Father?” “Yes," said the missionary. “And," said the chief, “did you say that he is the Indians' Father?”

“Then," said the old chief, like a man on whom a dawn of joy had burst, “you and I are brothers!"

I think what this helps us to see is that we have to hold together two things. On one hand we must be loyal to the name of Jesus; we belong to the Good Shepherd. On the other hand it is not for us to condemn “other sheep” as being misguided or outside God’s good purposes. In some ways the two texts we’ve been looking at hold these two things together in the one Christian scripture. Therefore, so must we.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Risen Christ,
faithful shepherd of your Father's sheep:
teach us to hear your voice
and to follow your command,
that all your people may be gathered into one flock,
to the glory of God the Father.