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.