Acts 4.5-12

'There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.'
Quite a claim to make about a Galilean carpenter. Or to make at all. To claim that faith in Jesus is the only way for humanity to be saved has never been popular. It was no more popular when Peter said it in front of his own community than it is for me to say it here in front of mine. In fact it cost Peter his life. I'll see what happens in my case!

It is, however, an idea that sits very uncomfortably with modern thought - even in church, though it has always been official doctrine, it is unpopular with many. We live in an age where everything is relative. Your opinion and mine - however wildly different - are equally valid and therefore we must respect one another and above all we must not seek to persuade anyone else to our viewpoint.

Now it is easy to criticise that worldview (and I'm just about to do so), but let me begin by applauding some important things that modern thinking gets right. Firstly, the respect shown to different viewpoints is surely correct. And the implied humility of not imposing your will on others is surely correct also. Such respect and humility are fundamentally Christian principles and if Christians had only shown that respect and humility consistently since Jesus' time, history would have been cast in a very different way.

But to claim that all truth is relative is surely nonsense. There is no such thing as my truth and your truth. Truth is rightness. Anything that is not right is not true. Yes, there are different perspectives. And yes, we can all look at the same truth and perceive a different aspect of it, but it is the truth we are observing, it must the same truth. Truth is inherently absolute and objective. That's what truth means.

Of course, some people in our society go even further and say that they do not believe in truth at all. Pure relativity in all things is all they are left with. And it is a beguiling idea. The rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depend entirely on your point of view. Both are right in their way, so they should just stop fighting. Attractive idea isn't it? But extend the logic and it goes horribly wrong. Whether mass murder is more wholesome than vegetable growing depends entirely on your point of view. That's surely bonkers. Relativising everything may be a convenient way of avoiding conflict, but it renders everything meaningless.

So I want to assert, right at the outset, that truth does exist and that it is absolute. Either there is one true God or there is not. I assert that there is. Either Jesus is his only begotten son or he is not. I assert that he is. And if he is, then there is salvation in no-one else. And I assert that there is not. Why not?

Well for one thing, if he is the only begotten son of God, there is no other. But speaking personally for a moment, what clinches it for me is Gethsemane. God's son faces the supreme crisis of his life - hideous torture and death on a cross in order to save the world from its sins and reconcile it to God. And he is in an agony of terror at the prospect. His soul is grieved unto death and he prays - with tears and sweat and blood - that if there is some other way, some way in which he might avoid that awful end, his father might spare him. If there were any other way would not his father have spared him? If there are (to use the old metaphor) many roads to the top of the mountain, any number of other ways by which we can be saved, and God still put his son through that agony, I would struggle to believe in a loving God.

But there was no other way - no other way than for God himself to inhabit our lost humanity and to face the consequences of our sin - death - to confront death in his own body and destroy it.

There is no other way that death could be defeated. No-one but God's own son could have done that. No-one but Jesus can save us from death. There is salvation in no one else.

I assert that unashamedly as truth. And Peter, who had just witnessed Gethsemane and Calvary and the Resurrection at first hand, seemed absolutely convinced of it too.

Now, I know that that viewpoint opens up all sorts of problems. I can deal with them briefly now, though not in detail, but let's at least name them honestly.

Firstly, where does it leave other religions? Are they all wrong? And what about their followers? What about the billions of people worldwide who sincerely seek to follow God by practising their own religion. Are they all lost just because of an accident of culture and religion?

And what about all the good people we have known (and loved) who never became Christians and never went to church? Are they all lost just because they couldn't agree with our culture and religion?

Well, I think the key phrase there is "culture and religion". Peter is saying that it is through Jesus alone that humanity is saved. He is not saying that it is through Christian culture and religion (both of which are things we have invented) that a person is saved. At the risk of being disloyal to my employer, there are other ways of being Christian than belonging to the Church of England. Shocking, but true! There are other ways of being church than by carrying out our rites and rituals. Church is formed, according to Jesus, "wherever two or three are gathered together in my name".

And if the first half of my sermon alienated half of you, what I am about to say will probably alienate the rest of you! Cultural Christianity is a very dangerous thing. It is cultural Christianity that leads to family break-up, cultural destruction, violence and war. And there are two forms of cultural Christianity - there is the form that is all culture and no Christianity (just about the outer forms of religion); and there is the form that assumes that my way of being Christianity is the only way. Either form is a kind of religious imperialism that assumes that everyone should basically be like me.

And it's a very easy to reach that conclusion through apparent logic. Step one is to say (as I have said) that Jesus is the only true manifestation of God and therefore all truth is in Jesus. Step 2 is to say that I follow Jesus, therefore I posses all truth. Step 3 is then obvious - if you want to follow Jesus the only way is to become like me. And an awful lot of church thinking has been based on that sort of logic. But it is just as wrong as the kind of relativism I was railing against earlier. By extension of the same logic I can say this: 1. Einstein was the greatest physicist ever; 2. I believe Einstein, therefore; 3. if you want to understand physics, you should become like me. (I can assure you that if you do, you will come a cropper very quickly!)

But that was the logic that lay behind the crusades. It was also the logic that lay behind the great Victorian missions to the pagan world. It wasn't Jesus we were exporting. It was cultural Christianity. We were trying to make the little Anglicans. And in doing so, the church has rightly been accused of enormous cultural damage all around the world.

But bringing Jesus to people is not about making them cultural Anglicans. It is about bringing them the salvation and liberation of Jesus. One of the most moving quotes I have heard was from Bishop Simon Barrington Ward, former head of the CMS (who preached in this benefice a couple of summers ago). He was told by an African Christian: "You know, you British did a lot of cultural damage in Africa. You destroyed tribes, you destroyed traditional ways of life, you created wars and you robbed us of our resources. But you gave us Jesus. And for that we are forever grateful to you." And so for the last 50 years the CMS has changed its approach. Now it gives communities the gospel and lets them work out what to do with it. And countless new African and Indian and Chinese expressions of Christianity are sprouting around the world.

That is why I feel so uncomfortable about cultural Christianity. That is why I will always refer us back to Jesus. It's not that our cultural Christianity is wrong. It's just that it is not the absolute truth. Jesus is.

Now this has many implications for us. We live in a culture now that is changing fast. It is already almost as different to traditional church culture as the pagan world was to the Victorians. If all we do is insist that they join a church culture that is ours, but no theirs and (even worse) if we insist that following Jesus requires them to follow us, we will simply be repeating the old mistakes and they lead to violence, cultural destruction, family break up and war (that is, if they don't fail entirely, which is frankly a preferable option).

But if we give people Jesus, then people will still find salvation in him - in ways we couldn't imagine. It won't mean they change their culture and become like us. Maybe it won't even make them change their religion. But it will liberate them and heal them and save them.

That is why I am confident that the church of Jesus will never die out. That is why I am convinced that Jesus can save even people of other cultures and religions when we cannot see it. But if we can see it, if we can have eyes to see Jesus at his saving work in all humanity, then we will stand back in awe and wonder at his saving power and rejoice in our brothers and sisters whom Jesus is reconciling to God through his amazing sacrifice. Amen.

Preached: Bolton (Joint Service), Sunday 29th April 2012