Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Rose by Any Other Name

RCL Easter 4B
29 April 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Click the link below to hear the sermon as preached at 10.00 a.m. on the 29th of April:

            One of the more influential teachers in my life was Mrs Nancy Galbraith, my English teacher in grades 7, 8 and 9.  Under her tutelage we explored the great stories of English literature, learned how to write well and were introduced to a world that was even more expansive than the wide Colorado skies under which we grew up.

            As you can well imagine, an indispensable part of the curriculum required us to engage the works of William Shakespeare.  I cannot now remember all the plays that we read aloud to one another, studied and, on a couple of occasions, saw performed in the theatre.  I can well remember, however, our study of Romeo and Juliet

            It was clear that Mrs Galbraith knew we should study the play, but it was not one of her favourite plays.  Perhaps it was her influence that shaped my own dislike of this play --- teachers do have a lasting impact on their students!  One of the things she said about the play which has remained with me to this day is this:  “The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is that they love one another because they need one another.  They do not need one another because they love one another.”  There is another sermon in this quotation from my teacher, but it is not the sermon for today.

            You may remember that Romeo and Juliet are the children of two warring families, the Montagues and the Capulets.  As the children of such feuding families, the idea that the two might fall in love and marry one another is out of the question.  At one point in the play Juliet ponders the meaning of names and asks the famous question whether what we call a rose would smell as sweet by any other name.  Her answer is obviously, “Yes, it would”.  But I want to suggest that names are important, because names shape us and become, in a very real sense, our identities.

            I say this to you today because we have two texts that have been the source of controversy and conflict in the history of the relationship between Christians and people of other faith traditions.  Both centre on the power of a name and identity.
  • In Acts 4.12 Peter tells the assembled rulers, elders and scribes 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.” 
  • In John 10.16 Jesus tells those who are gathered around him that “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Both of these texts, along with others, have been used by Christians to exclude the believers of other faiths from God’s coming reign of justice and peace.  Our sisters and brothers in other traditions have been told that they are damned if they do not confess the name of Jesus.  They have been told that there is only one flock, a Christian one, and that all others are doomed to eternal separation from God.

            I think that this message is based upon a limited understanding about what it means to confess the name of Jesus and what it means to say that there will be one flock and one shepherd.  We can, I believe, confess that Jesus is Lord and we can believe that we are called to be one flock without condemning the believers of other religious traditions.

            To believe in the name of Jesus requires that we first know what the ‘name’ of Jesus means.  In the ancient world names were carefully chosen.  In the Hebrew ‘Yeshua’ means ‘God saves’.  That is surely true.  When we proclaim our faith in the name of Jesus, we are claiming that it is only God who saves. 
  • We shall not be saved by any particular political system. 
  • We shall not be saved by the acquisition of more goods and power than another person or people. 
  • We shall not saved by imitating this celebrity or another celebrity. 
We shall only be saved through God’s initiative, for it is God, and God alone, who created all things, who redeems all things and who brings all things to their perfection.  What ever 'salvation' means, it will come only through God.

            To be saved has more to do with becoming a truly mature human being living in time and space now than it does with anxiety about what happens after our deaths.  What the life and death of Jesus shows us, what the life of the earliest Christian community shows us, is what it means to be fully alive. 
  • It means to break down the walls of hostility between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. 
  • It means to grasp the paradox that true wealth is found by giving rather than accumulating. 
  • It means to be made whole, the New Testament understanding of salvation, in this life not only in some hoped-for future.
            To believe that there will be one flock and one shepherd has more to do with understanding the solidarity of all human beings, believers and non-believers alike, as children of the living God and all of us made in the image and likeness of God.  We live in a world where political leaders and others expend considerable time and energy fostering division rather than unity.  What we as Christians confess is that God is the shepherd and that humanity the flock.  We remember that in Jesus of Nazareth God united us with the followers of the covenant of Moses, the Jewish people, so that we can witness to God’s unity and to human solidarity.  When Jesus was asked about the essential commandments, his answer, although a firmly Jewish one, was universal in its scope:

Hear, O Israel,
the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
with all you soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.

This is the first and the great commandment.
The second is like it:
Love your neighbour as yourself.

There is no commandment greater than these.

Before Jesus walked this earth, the prophet Micah refused to limit religious orthodoxy to participation in the Temple rituals in Jerusalem.  In answer to the question, "With what shall I come before the Lord?", Micah responded, "[The Lord] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."  (Micah 6.6, 8)

            Today is an occasion when we must go below the surface of our Scriptures if we are to proclaim our faith truly. 
  • To proclaim that there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved is to proclaim that it is only God who saves and no other. 
  • To proclaim that belief in Jesus leads to salvation is to follow the way embodied by Jesus that leads us to maturity in this life even as it promises us a future in God’s reign.
  • To proclaim that we believe there to be one shepherd and one flock is to know that the only shepherd is God and that the only flock is the human race.
We need not be shy to share this name and to proclaim our message of human solidarity as one people brought into fullness of life by God’s initiative.  Religious differences are real, but Christians need not use those differences to claim superiority or an exclusive message of divine favour. 

            Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?  Perhaps it would.  But Christian discipleship, a life dedicated to the God who saves and who summons all human beings into one flock, would not.  For our rose is Yeshua and his scent beckons all human beings to our common source and hope.  Amen.

No comments: