Sermon given to l’Eglise Presbyterienne du Rwanda on 7th February 2010
Let me ask you a question. Is there anybody here who has ever had doubts about their faith? Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask anyone to stand up and make a confession. I doubt there is anyone here who hasn’t at sometime wondered if all they heard in church was right.
Now here is my confession. Ever since I first came to faith nine years ago there has been a niggle at the back of my mind that has never really gone away until recently. At the time when I decided to become a Christian we were worshipping with baptists. All I heard in that church sounded sensible. The people there were welcoming, loving Christians and it was one couple in particular that helped me to make that step over the line and ask Jesus into my life. The discomfort that I pushed to the back of my mind like a problem I didn’t really want to deal with was that, well, the Baptists weren’t the only church in town. They weren’t the only church in Scotland, never mind our small town of Dunfermline. There were other churches, and it wasn’t very obvious that they spent much time talking to each other. Now at that time I didn’t really know much about church history but I had a fair idea that Catholics weren’t the same as Protestants and that there were people in America calling themselves Christians who had some pretty funny ideas, particularly about creation.
As time went on my wife and I were baptised and recieved instruction about what the Baptists believed that was different to other denominations. Again, it all sounded sensible and like a young child I accepted all of this as without questioning too much. Then after a few years I came to realise that things were actually a lot worse than I had thought and every now and again this niggle kept raising its head like an itch that needed scratched.
Let me try to explain this difficulty that I was wresting with. Until the sixteenth century, there was only one church in Europe, and that was the church of Rome. Then came the Reformation and a whole new way of doing church. In fact, as this new Protestantism as it came to be known developed, there appeared a whole spectrum of ways of doing church. Christians later left Europe and spread across America spawning even more new churches and beliefs about what worship meant. In more recent times, Protestantism has spread to Africa, the far east and South America. Across the world we now have Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Pentecostalists and lots more.
The difficulty that I had was that for all that these churches take their teaching and traditions from the same Bible, there are some alarming differences between them. Should infants be baptised for instance? I have seen ministers get very agitated about this one. Should women have leadership roles in the church? That doesn’t seem to be a problem here at the EPR, but in some other places this has caused bitter division. Should we read the Bible literally or figuratively, and was the world created in six days of twenty-four hours? There is hardly unity among all Christians about this one.
Now, and so that I am not misunderstood, pointing out these differences isn’t meant as a criticism of other churches. But as Christians, and I mean each of us as individual followers of Christ, as Christians I think we should be able to recognise these differences and understand where we stand in the body of Christ. Because if each of us simply follows the doctrine and teaching of the church they happen to attend then what does that say about how we all relate to Christ?
So, what is it that all of us have in common regardless of which church we attend, or which continent we worship in?
I think this matters because, if we are sincere in our faith, we should be asking ourselves what our relationship with Jesus looks like. What is my part? What is expected of me? Now, I don’t believe that it was Christ’s intention to have different kinds of followers. I’m not sure that there is anything in scripture to suggest that two individuals from different church traditions should have different relationships with Jesus. Look at 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit.
We are not clones, created as identical copies of each other. We are created as individuals, but what we all have in common is the same Holy Spirit.
Certainly Jesus did not treat all of his disciples in the same way and he made no pretence at equality. In Mark 10:35-45 James and John ask Jesus that they may sit on his left and right hand in eternity. Jesus replies that this is not his gift to grant. Those special places are already reserved for others. He then says to all his disciples:
You know that they who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So we should serve humbly, but the point here is that the same rules apply to all. None of us have any special privileges.
Something else that should cause us to look at our relationship with Christ is the fact that the churches have changed their beliefs as they have evolved. At one time, using musical instruments for worship was forbidden. There are some traditions that adhere to this today. The concept of mission and evangelism has changed. It hasn’t always been considered part of the church’s role to go out and evangelise. For a long time it was understood that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 applied only to the Apostles that Jesus gave the instruction to. So are we wrong to use instruments? Is it wrong to evangelise? Does the Great Commission apply to us here?
Now before going on I should say that I think it is a good thing that we should ask questions. It is part of our learning, our growing in Christ. How can we know what God is saying to us as children of his if we don’t ask questions?
So, churches have evolved and changed their beliefs over time, but I don’t think that Jesus intended for the essential nature of our relationship with him to evolve and change. Yes, we will grow in our understanding of who he is and we will grow closer to him as the Holy Spirit changes us. But it is us that is changing, not the Holy Spirit or the hopes and expectations that Jesus has for us. Others may disagree with me here, but I find it a sobering thought that my relationship with Christ should be no different from that of someone living in the early days of the church, or of someone living at the time when he returns.
What then is the answer here? What is it we are looking for? If different churches believe different things, where does that put each of us? What does it mean to us here and to the Pentecostalists worshipping up the road that we are all the same in Christ? If we could ask Jesus the question, what is the picture he has in his mind of one of his followers? Incidentally, I once heard from a preacher in Edinburgh that we should bring our Bibles to church to make sure that he was telling the truth. And he was right. Don’t just take my word for it, because I don’t have all the answers. Look at your Bible and make sense of it yourself.
And this is maybe the first clue to what it is we are looking for. We shouldn’t come to church on a Sunday just to hear a piece of teaching without thinking about it. It was good to see someone a couple of weeks ago taking notes. I have been in some churches where the pews on a Sunday look like a school classroom with jotters and notebooks being scribbled in through the sermon. I think a lot of us here are comfortable with a more formal approach to a Sunday service and I am probably one of them. We are used to sitting respectfully during a sermon and listening. I used to take notes during the sermon but fell out of the habit. So here is my resolution: that I will get back into the habit. So if you see me sitting there next week scribbling away, I’m not working on my diary because I’m bored with the message!
The point is that we should come to church with a learning attitude. And if churches have their differences, this is the first bond that all Christians have in common. We have a duty to question, to ask, to be curious. Don’t just accept what the preacher says. Go home and look it up. If you don’t agree with him, why not? What is a particular passage saying to you that the preacher interpreted differently? Now, this might sound like a recipe for disaster. Where is our faith if the Bible means different things to different people? But here is the magic bit: Just as we have faith in Christ and his promise of salvation; just as we have faith that he is alive today; so also can we have faith that the Holy Spirit will guide each of us, whoever we are, whichever church we go to, in the same way. Let us all read our Bibles with a mind open to the Spirit, and let’s see where the differences are. My faith is that they will be very few and when we do come across them it will be because of our openness to the Spirit, not what the Spirit is saying to different people.
And this leads us on to a second trait that unites all Christians. Church, any church, isn’t something that is done to us like a shop where religion is dispensed. We shouldn’t come here with an expectation that the minister is going to do all the work while we just sit there passively. Church is a place where we all come in fellowship to worship together. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ, and those that aren’t there yet have something to look forward to. But we also have a corporate relationship with him and it is called church. Each of us should come bringing something of themselves as a contribution to the service. For some this will be singing in the choir. For others it will be giving a reading. Some will welcome visitors and make sure there are enough hymn books on the seats. Whether it is being part of a prayer in the seats or leading the service from the front, we all have a part to play. Church is something we do with each other. It is worship, it is fellowship.
A third thing that all Christians should have in common I think is their attitude to Christ. A minister I know at home said once that Jesus to him was like a friend. Yes, we should be respectful but most of all I think Jesus wants us to know him as someone we can grow close to; someone we can trust; and most of all someone we can put our faith in. It is very easy to look on our faith as something else to do on our list of jobs for today. “I must read my Bible”. “I must go to church”. I know I have let myself fall into this before now. But there is no obligation. We don’t have to read our Bible. We don’t even have to come to Church if we don’t want to. Let’s not fall into the same legalistic mentality that the Jews had. Following a strict prayer regime in itself isn’t going to make us grow in Christ. But reading our Bible should hold out the prospect of a new understanding; a brightening of our day; or an answer to something that has been troubling us. We have spoken about church already. It shouldn’t be an obligation. Church should be somewhere we go with just ourselves and go away with something more.
In Mark 10:15, Jesus says
Most assuredly I tell you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.
We need to remember that although Jesus is a friend, he isn’t a pal; a buddy. We need to have humility and be open to the teaching of the Spirit. Yes, sometimes we will get it wrong. Sometimes we will hear what we want to hear rather than what the Spirit is saying to us. I don’t think these things will be held against us if we are sincere in our learning and growing in the same way as a child learns and grows.
Above all, Christians wherever they are in the world recognise this thing called love. Turn to 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.
It is easy, well perhaps not so easy, to read the Bible and do what it says. We can devote our days and our weeks to doing nothing wrong. We can make a list of good things to do for other people and spend our spare time visiting the sick and helping our neighbours. Of course we will fail. But even if some weeks we managed to tick off everything on the list will that make us better Christians? Sadly, and frustratingly, the answer is no, it won’t. Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t do good deeds. Of course we should; but these on their own aren’t enough.
This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to struggle with, and maybe haven’t found an answer to yet. Being a good Christian; growing in Christ; running Paul’s race of 1 Corinthians 9:24 can’t be achieved by methodical and ritual application. Focus and determination are both laudable qualities, but an essential part of our Christian life is recognising our own human failings and recognising that God doesn’t think any the less of us for that. He loves us precisely because we are fallible humans and it is only through him that we can be turned from what we are into what he wants us to be. Paul in Philippians 1:3-6 says
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.
Growing closer to Christ isn’t about trying harder. In fact perversely, it is probably about trying less hard. The trick is to let the Spirit do the work; and it can’t do that if we are trying to run our own race.
So for all that the churches we go to might have different ideas about what particular passages of the Bible mean, or how we should worship, or whether the world was created in 144 hours. That doesn’t mean that we as individuals shouldn’t look for our own answers. On the contrary, it is probably the best reason we have for looking for our own answers. Nor does it excuse us from giving ourselves to Christ’s kingdom with the love and compassion for others that Jesus taught us. And especially, it doesn’t excuse us from coming to whichever church we attend in a spirit of family and love. Amen.