The bold, exclusively inclusive truth

May 18, 2017

Well, I am going to say it with a good deal of trepidation of what others might think, because it’s not in vogue to say it—and at the same time, I am going to say it with a good deal of self-admonishment that, as a minister of the gospel, I would be so concerned about saying it. Here goes:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  Acts 4:12 (NRSV)

Part of the reason I wanted to say it is because I am in the ol’-time religion mode this week on the death of my mother-in-law, Shirley “Susu” Stone. Susu was a lifelong Bible-believing West Texas Methodist woman most often described as a woman of incredible faith. This just seems like a verse close to the heart of ol’-time religious folk like her. Its truth, its simplicity, its good news. Well, the nostalgia has got to me. It’s been needed healing balm as I grieve her death and, honestly, as I wrestle with other significant events that have happened these last days surrounding The United Methodist Church’s denominational struggles.

Just typing this out, I am already feeling better about saying what I said. I know why I was afraid. The verse itself comes across as incredibly exclusive. Salvation in NO ONE else, NO OTHER name? I have found that this statement is easier for other Christians (West Texans, for example), but it’s just not Minnesotan to be so assertive and definitive. Still, I have always loved this verse and the whole chapter it’s found in. It’s one of those verses I have wrestled with from an early age. It’s so matter-of-fact, so audacious, and the impact of this verse has been the topic of discussion in my earliest memories of youth group and confirmation, and on into college and campus ministry. You see it, right? It begs the question, “So what about people of other religions?” Having always had a theologically inquisitive mind—that’s an awesome question! And folks who ask it often share something in common with God—that is, God’s heart that no one would perish!    

I’m getting bolder now so let me say this: It seems to me (pfff—that doesn’t sound bold) that there is an unequivocal claim in the scripture, which then has been passed down through the apostolic witness of the church, affirmed in the early church councils, established in our creeds, well-ordered in our liturgy, and engraved in our hymnody. Here it is: Jesus Christ is Lord! And therefore “there is no other name under heaven whereby mortals might be saved!” (Okay, that sounds bolder.) The unique and sole Lordship of Christ is in the earliest of confessions of the Church way back to Peter’s confession in Matthew 16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” Or Paul’s Christ hymn in Philippians 2: “Therefore, God honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that, at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven and on earth might bow…” (you know the rest).

I know how many of you are feeling. I’m one of you; I too am a Minnesota United Methodist, and it’s really hard for us to boldly proclaim any statement that might sound even remotely exclusive. Ironically, I was ordained to uphold it (“Have you studied the doctrines of the church, and after full examination, do you believe those doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scripture, and will you preach and maintain them?”)[i]

If you think it’s hard for you to say, imagine how hard it was for Peter in Acts 4. By the power of the name of Jesus Christ and the touch of Peter, a 40-year old beggar, crippled from birth, was healed at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple just days after Pentecost. It drew a crowd, so Peter used it as an opportunity to witness. The captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees were incensed, and they seized Peter and John and brought them before the leaders, elders, and legal experts. And, scripture says this unlearned, untrained lay person—a fisherman from the sticks—got up in front of the most learned, most trained, and highest priest—Annas—and said what I am sometimes afraid to say to my Minnesota United Methodist colleagues (blush): “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” And he said this after reminding them that they rejected and crucified that name!

You have got to read the story! It’s so good. Peter is so darn foolish (aka, filled with the Holy Spirit) and I don’t think he even knows how exclusive his statement sounds. In fact, I think he means it to be incredibly inclusive.  He’s just witnessing to what he has seen—the resurrected Lord. Almost to say, “If there are two people who have been murdered whom God has raised from the dead, then there would be two names under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved—but I only know of the one. But here’s the good news—I know the one! It’s not a secret! God has made him known!”

I think when we hear people using what appear to be exclusive statements, we assume they are stifling others. However, in this passage, the ones doing the stifling, the threatening, the rejecting, and the seeking to silence are not the apostles but the leaders and high priests. The actions of the apostles have only been to heal and witness (the main activity of the church). In fact, Peter describes the miraculous deed done to the lame man as “he was healed” using a form of the Greek work “sosa,” which literally can mean “save” or “rescue” from physical dangers or spiritual dangers, and then he makes a word play by using it again in verse 12, which could read something like this: “There is RESCUE in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven giving among mortals by which we must be RESCUED!”[ii] Is Peter being in any way exclusive here? On the contrary. He is being entirely inclusive by letting even his captors and accusers in on a secret. “Do you want to be rescued? Do you find yourself in danger, in need of healing? Are you hurting, broken, angry, addicted, afraid, or confused? Well, let me tell you, there is a name under heaven that has been given to you and me—Jesus!  You can look to other names, but they will come up short. This name will not let down!”

After hearing this, the Chief Priests and elders ordered them to stop “speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus” and Peter and John, those foolish kiddos, said something like “We could listen to you or God. Hmmm, we will choose the latter” (which is ironic, because I typically always choose pleasing people; it just feels more inclusive that way). That certainly wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but the real conundrum for the chief priests and teachers of the law was figuring out how they could keep a once lame man from dancing a jig (note to self: When Christ heals, it speaks pretty loudly). So throughout Acts, they just go on “sosa-ing” and witnessing in the only name under heaven for which “sosa-ing” can even occur. Yes, Acts 4:12 is in a way exclusive, but in so many more ways, it’s the most inclusive statement of scripture. There is a name GIVEN to all MORTALS by which we may be SAVED.

Susu used to say to me often, “Fred, are you putting the flame in the United Methodist cross and flame?” I hope so, Susu. I hope we all are. I think (not very bold)…no, I believe (more bold)…our Way Forward as United Methodists, particularly in Minnesota, starts with us being okay (more than okay) with affirming and professing again with boldness the very exclusive-inclusive truth that “ there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” I guess (not very bold) what I am saying is we could stand the ol’-time religion that does make some exclusive claims about Lordship of Jesus and the power of His name (bolder now)—and that, added to the very inclusive invitation to salvation offered to all people under heaven (and championed by Minnesota United Methodists), could bring about not only a way forward but the kingdom of God on earth.

[i] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, ¶330
[ii] Larkin, William J. Jr., Acts, IVP Downer’s Grove, 1995

Rev. Fred Vanderwerf is superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference's Southern Prairie District.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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