Monday, April 23, 2012

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – The 4th Sunday of Easter (Day 1)

Acts 4:5-12

 5 The next day the leaders, elders, and legal experts gathered in Jerusalem, 6 along with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others from the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and asked, “By what power or in what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, 9 are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? 10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! 12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”

This episode or sequel to Jesus’ resurrection brings us face to face with one of the Christian faith’s most exclusive, and at the same time most universal, claims. Peter voices this claim in v.12: “Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.” In our pluralistic world where peace in many places often hinges on the tolerance religious groups exercise toward one another, and in which truth claims are as a matter of course treated as barely hidden power plays and individual preference is the default warrant for truth claims, how does such an exclusive claim for Jesus gain a hearing? Or why should it?

Two basic versions of this claim must be distinguished. The first is what we might call hard exclusivism. In this version one must respond in faith to Jesus of Nazareth and become a member of his church if one hopes to be saved. This draws a clear and distinct line: those who make such a confession are in and those who do not are out. On this hard view even those billions of human beings who never heard the gospel or those who die in infancy have no chance of salvation.

The question of those who have never heard and infants who die along with the evident goodness, morality, and mercy prompted the development of a softer view of exclusivism (often called inclusivism). It shares with the hard view the conviction that salvation is through Christ alone. Whoever finds it and wherever it is found, if salvation comes to someone it is due to and through Jesus Christ, though the person may know nothing of him or what he has done for them.

This view of Christ as the sole source of salvation distinguishes these first two view from a third – pluralism. Here they may be many definitions of salvation, many destinations of the saved, and many saviors. There are various differentiations here to but they do not concern us here. It seems to me that Christian faith must retain its exclusive focus on Jesus Christ as the sole source of salvation. Scripture does not, so far as I can see, offer us that option. We must somehow make sense of this exclusive claim yet with universal significance, that is, how this member of Abraham and Sarah’s family can “bless all nations” (Gen.12:3).

A scene from C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia story, The Last Battle, might be of some help to us. Emeth, a faithful soldier of Calormene, Narnia’s dreaded enemy, dies in the “last battle” on Stable Hill. He has been a devoted follower of the Calormene deity, Tash. He finds himself in a strange but beautiful verdant, flourishing land. Then, wonder of wonders, he encounters the last thing he’d ever hoped to see – the great lion Aslan, the Christ-figure in these stories. He’d always considered Aslan as identical with the Calormene deity Tash as he had been taught in Calormene. Now he meets him face-to-face. Here’s how Aslan’s conversation with Emeth (significantly, this name is a transliteration for the Hebrew word for “truth,” or “faithfulness”) goes.

“So I went over much grass and many flowers and among all kinds of wholesome and delectable trees till lo! in a narrow place between two rocks there came to meet me a great Lion. The speed of him was like the ostrich, and his size was an elephant’s; his hair was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes like gold that is liquid in the furnace . . . and in beauty he surpassed all that is in the world even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust of the desert. Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honor) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” (Ch.15)

Lewis here depicts Aslan as the one true God and source of salvation (entrance into Aslan’s country). This salvation, however, is not limited to Narnians or even explicit friends of Aslan. Emeth, whose name points to his character, finds what he sought for all his life with all the truthfulness and faithfulness he could muster. In fact, as Aslan tells him, all his service to Tash done for the sake of honesty, honor, care, and the like, is accepted by Aslan as service done for him!

Tash, whatever other virtues he might possess, is a false purveyor of salvation. Yet even in the service of Tash, Emeth found and responded in faith and love to Aslan! Or better, Aslan found Emeth, the true-hearted one, on the path he followed even though that path itself was not salvific. Dare we believe that the Creator God, the Holy One of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has no way, or worse no interest in seeking and saving those on other paths or no paths? That Jesus his Son, the Lord of the universe, cannot or will not reach out to his creatures wherever they are and in whatever ways they can and will respond to him. He is the savior, the only one - but he will labor as much outside the bounds of the church as he does within and seek and save all who respond to his overtures as Emeth did, even if they at that time know nothing of him or have explicitly rejected him.

There is obviously much more to say about all this. But I believe that Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan and Emeth here in The Last Battle offers a fine point to build a conversation around. Lewis holds together what I claimed earlier must be held together: an exclusive savior, Jesus, who nevertheless has a universal reach. What do you make of his account?

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