Month: January 2018

Unity through Diversity

A sermon preached at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity based upon Romans 14:1-9.

Christian unity is quite an interesting concept. In theory most of us are in favour of it … but only if everyone starts believing and behaving the way we do. As soon as there is any suggestion that we might have to change then we start getting a lot more reticent. Of course there is a good reason for this. We are right and everyone else is wrong! The prospects for any significant movement towards unity from this background are quite limited. What I’d like to do today, however, is to challenge the assumption that just because we believe we are right we must necessarily assume that other people are wrong.

The underlying issue here is that many of have been taught that there is one true way to be a Christian. I think this has been rooted in the assumption that the Bible presents us with a single understanding of God – it’s just that different Christians have developed different ideas about what that understanding is. One of the insights of modern theology, however, with roots going back nearly two hundred years, but more intensely over the last fifty years, is that the Bible gives us multiple different ways of understanding God. In retrospect it is amazing that we ever thought anything else. The Bible is a collection of books written by different people, from different cultural perspectives, at different times.

The example we looked at in CentrePoint on Sunday (link to that sermon) was the question of why Jesus was crucified. Paul, in his letters, particularly to the Romans, sees Jesus’ death as God’s response to mankind’s sinfulness. “We were God’s enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son.” This has been adopted as the predominant opinion for Protestants since the Reformation. It’s only fairly recently however, that Bible scholars have spotted that Luke writes virtually nothing, in either his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, that links the crucifixion with our sinfulness. In the parable of the Prodigal Son (which is only reported in Luke’s Gospel) the son’s sins are forgiven by a loving father rather than requiring the placation of a wrathful God. There has been some backlash to these ideas more recently, particularly from evangelical Christians,  but I think there is an emerging consensus that the theological perspectives of Paul and Luke, whilst not actually contradictory, are, at least, very different.

The simplest explanation of the very different ways in which Luke and Paul write is that they actually had a different understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. We are thus seeing evidence from the Bible that even as early as the New Testament period different Christians writers had different ways of understanding God. Of course if we go back to the Old Testament the differences become even more apparent.

Paul himself picks up this theme towards the end of his Letter to the Romans in the passage we have heard read this morning. It is clear that within the early Christian community in Rome there were groups of people who believed different things and as a consequence behaved differently. There were at least two issues: what food Christians are permitted to eat and which days should be set aside as holy. Paul does not side with either group on either issue, in fact he specifically councils against Christians judging each other. He considers it important for us each to make up our own mind but not to assume that people’s whose opinions differ are necessarily wrong, they are just different. It is not important that we as humans judge who is right and who is wrong because that is ultimately for God to decide.

Here is a model for Christian unity. The model is not uniformity but the honouring, and even celebration, of diversity of beliefs and behaviours. If the modern theologians I referred to earlier are to be believed and the Bible does represent a collection of books written by authors with different understandings of who God is, then there is a solid Biblical foundation for this model.

This is not of course to claim that all beliefs and behaviours are tolerated, you don’t need to know very much about Paul’s writings to understand that he saw some beliefs and behaviours as completely unacceptable, but equally he is here quite dogmatic that there is more than one acceptable way of approaching and understanding God.

I think we can go further. Because if we can accept that just because people behave differently and believe different things to us that they are not necessarily wrong, then it may be that we can learn from them. The purpose of dialogue between different Christians who believe different things is not to convert them to our own opinion but to try and understand where their opinions come from. The result of that dialogue may not be that they are changed but that we are changed. The result of that dialogue may be our own growth and development as Christians.

That is certainly my experience. I’ve learnt and grown very little from discussing my faith with people who see things the same way that I do. Where I have learnt and grown most in faith has been where I have honoured those with different beliefs and engaged in conversation with them. The two people I have learnt most from in my home congregation, and would most like to emulate in my growth in discipleship, are both people whose theological opinions are quite different to mine.

In the past our prayers for Christian unity have focussed on inter-denominational unity but in the modern Methodism there is often as much diversity in what we believe within the congregation as there is between us and the local Anglican or United Reformed or Baptist churches. If we are going to honour, celebrate and explore that diversity, and grow as Christians through this process, then we have an opportunity to do this within the congregation as much as with other denominations. In many ways this is what excites me about small group discussion in general, and our rejuvenated life groups programme in specific. The groups gives us the opportunity to do just that. If we share, honour and celebrate our different perspectives then we grant ourselves an opportunity to grow and flourish rather than to shrink into our own hardened shells.

So I’d like to encourage you all to join a Life Group and through fellowship and discussion with people who have different perspective to yours to flourish into the abundance of life that we are promised through our faith in Jesus.


Why was Jesus crucified?

A sermon preached as part of a series looking at different hymns. This sermon is in response to Charles Wesley’s great hymn And can it be? (see video clip below to hear it sung). The Bible reading was Romans 5:1-11.

“Why was Jesus crucified?” is not the sort of question I would normally address in a sermon. The answers to this question provided by a most theologians get very complicated and very abstract and esoteric very quickly (if you don’t beleive me look up the Wikipedia article on The Atonement in Christianity). I much prefer more concrete theology – ideas that relate more to the way we live our lives in the world today.

There is, however, a particular reason for reflecting on this particular question within our congregation now. At Easter we are hosting an event call Risen! We’ll be inviting children from many of our local schools into our church to tell them the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. Imagine a child coming home to a parent and saying, “Mummy, mummy, what happened to Jesus was horrible wasn’t it? Why was he crucified?”

How do we prepare parents to answer that question? How do we answer it ourselves? Let’s just pause for a minute. Think about how you would answer that question to a 10 year old child born in the twenty-first century. “Daddy, daddy, why was Jesus crucified?”

I’d guess if we wrote those answers down secretly and then compared them that we’d get a wide range of responses. Those different answers would reflect the different ways that each of us think about God and Jesus. Some of us will feel very strongly that there is one correct answer and that the all Christians should share this. It wouldn’t surprise me if several of you felt there was only one correct answer but had different opinions about what that answer was! Some of us might feel less certain about our answers. Some of us might feel uncertain to the extent that we are unable to give a simple answer.

Some of us will have based our answers on particular Bible passages. Perhaps the passage like that we heard from Romans which suggests that Christ had to die to save sinful men and women from God’s anger. One of the hot topics in contemporary academic theology , however,  is whether the Bible presents a single consistent view of why Jesus had to die, or whether the different early Christians who wrote different chapters in the New Testament had a number of different views.  (To learn more try Googling  “Atonement in John” or “Atonement in Luke”. If you do though be aware that much of the content is a backlash from commentators who oppose the original ideas and thus that the material is rather one-sided – you’ll have to dig a bit deeper to get a more balanced argument).

Luke for example, writing in either his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, says virtualy nothing that links Jesus death to our sinful nature. Jesus was crucified because he offended the Jewish and Roman authorities. The central message of Luke’s gospel, epitomised in the story of the Prodigal Son, is not that we are saved from the anger of a wrathful God, but that we are forgiven by a loving Father. There is also considerable debate about the purpose of Jesus’ death as related in John’s gospel and letters. Many extremely authoritative scholars suggest that John saw Jesus’ death as a revelation of God’s love rather than as a specific response to our sinfulness.

So we need to be very careful about stating that the Bible provides us with a single explanation for why Jesus was crucified. It doesn’t, it provides us with a number of different explanations. Some of these link Jesus’ crucifixion to our redemption, and others don’t.

Explanations of why Jesus was crucified have changed within the church over time and these views have reflected the changing context in which Christians were living. In the very early days, when Christianity was still heavily influenced by Judaism, Jesus’ death came to be viewed in terms of an animal sacrifice. This is reflected in some of Paul’s letters and gives rise to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world. Slightly later Christians tended to see Jesus’ death primarily as an example of how we should live. This was at a time when the Church was very heavily persecuted and many Christians were being martyred. Jesus’ death became seen as something that Christians were called to share in, often literally.  (It’s interesting that neither the Apostles’ nor the Nicene creed make any reference to why Christ died. This suggests either that the issue was not seen as particularly important at the time or that the people writing the creed could not agree amongst themselves.)

Perhaps the most well known change in emphasis in our understanding of why Jesus was crucified came at the time of the Reformation. The significance of Jesus’ death was one of the major differences between the reformers and the Catholic church. By this time the established church (which we now know as the Catholic Church) was corrupt and raising money by selling the forgiveness of sins. The reformers’ response was to emphasise a view that the price of our sins had already been paid by Jesus’ death on the cross. It follows from this that  this is not an something that is under the control of contemporary church authorities.

So where is this getting us? We’ve found that the Bible presents us with a number of different ways of understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and that, over time Christians, have chosen to pick and choose between these depending on the time, place and context in which they have been living. The viewpoint that we have inherited from the Reformation is probably that most prevalent in Methodism today, but I’m personally not convinced that it is any more Biblical or fundamental than any of the others.

I find the variety of explanations useful. I respond extremely positively to some of the images – I’m particularly drawn to Luke’s ideas that our sins our forgiven by a loving father. I respond quite negatively to others – I am really put off by images of Jesus death as the sacrifice of the lamb of God. (I find the notion of being washed in the blood of the lamb particularly repellant). But that is just me, other people have come from different life experiences and find different images helpful.

If we drop our need to impose the particular explanation that appeals to us on other people and see these as a range of reasonable alternatives, then we open up the Gospel to be understood in different ways by different people. We can liken this to the day of Pentecost when Peter preached to people in one language and was understood by people speaking a range of different languages. The gospel message was for all, not just for those who spoke a particular language.  Similarly, Jesus died, most of us believe, for all people, not just those who think like us.

Behind everything I’ve said so far is the question, “Does it matter?”

The important thing is not whether or how we can explain our redemption but that we have experienced it. The central truth of our redemption is that we are liberated from the imperfection of our previous lives (call it sinfulness if it helps) to dedicate ourselves to living a God-filled life in the future. However much we have failed in the past we are offered a new opportunity in the future and no-one can take that away from us.

This can be truly liberating and life-changing. Many of us are imprisoned by what we have done or what has been done to us in the past. We carry the burdens of our life experience. In a few seconds silence just pause and reflect on what separates you from God. It may be guilt for something you have done or not done in the past. It might be pain from something that someone has done to you in the past. It might be disappointment that something that you hoped passionately for at one time has not coe to fruition. It might be grief for someone or something that used to be important in your life. Whatever it is, the liberating Gospel truth is that that is in the past and that all you need do to find God’s love is to live for him in the future.

All you need to know is that God is holding out his arms to embrace you. It doesn’t matter whether you see those arms as those of a dying saviour nailed to a cross to pay the price of your sins or the arms of a loving father who is willing to forgive them. What is important is that you know that those arms are always open – and that they are waiting for you, whoever you are and whatever you have done.



PS The more attentive will have spotted that, having been asked to preach on this hymn, I made absolutely no reference to it in the sermon! This is because it was the words of the hymn that inspired and are implicit in the whole sermon. Wesley’s hymns are often  prescriptive in their theology but this one isn’t. If you read the words carefully this is a powerful celebration of the redemption that Wesley (and his brother John) had experienced so powerfully without imposing any particular way of understanding it. Indeed the take home message of the second verse is that this is a mystery that is beyond our understanding.