Still on leave—some friends are now looking at a draft of my thesis; of course, having handed it across, I find new deficiencies in short order!!
Rev Dr David Rankin kindly presided at morning worship today—here is his sermon:
Sermon for Easter 4 and Feast Day of Apostles James and Philip (3 May 2009)
Acts 4. 5-12
John 10. 11-18
A sermon in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
1. Christ as sole-sufficient for salvation.
2. Christ as sole sufficient and the concept of the Church as that outside which there is no salvation.
3. Judaism and Islam as the great religions of the book and as imperfect and incomplete.
There are at least two questions which consistently challenge us as we are addressed, personally and collectively, in the preaching of the Word. One is: who is God in and through Christ for us? And the second: who are we, what is our identity, in the presence of God in and through Christ and in the face of the particular truth claims of the Gospel? The first is the major focus for my sermon today and considers the particular claims which the Gospel makes about the person of Jesus Christ for the individual, for the church, indeed for the whole of creation.
1. In the pluralist world in which we live – and particularly in a world in which we share space with persons of other faiths or of no faith at all – it is increasingly common for some Christian theologians and others to seek effectively (in my view) to relativise or at least to play down the particular and traditional truth claims of the Gospel and Church. Thus it is not uncommon to hear some Christians say that the respect which we owe to persons of other faith persuasions, or again to those who have no particular faith (as we might understand faith), and thus to their beliefs (or even non-beliefs), necessitates our pulling back somewhat from the traditional truth claims of the Gospel – the claim above all that Christ alone is the sole-sufficient mediator of human salvation and of human meaning – and talk rather in terms of the Gospel being but one way or means by which people might legitimately or otherwise gain meaning, purpose and truth in their lives. The fact that many non-Christian theologians, in particular Jewish and Islamic ones, find this increasingly polite reticence on the part of Christian apologists somewhat puzzling is another matter (of course) but nevertheless interesting. This reticence, which can lead effectively to a relativising or at least a downplaying of the exclusive truth claims of the Gospel, is often indeed the product of a seeming courtesy or good manners and would have puzzled many early Christians. To say that, however, is not to disrespect or to demean; it is merely to acknowledge this.
Yet the historic Christian tradition is clear – and while I understand and respect the viewpoint here of others (recognising that it is, however, possible to respect another person and yet to make the claim, however possibly fallibly, that they are wrong or in error) – and it is made clear from the scriptures read this morning. It is, to be sure, more implicit than explicit in the Gospel reading but it is a reasonable reading (I would suggest) of Jesus’ claim 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’ (10.16),
to say that it represents a claim of the exclusive significance of Jesus’ person and role for salvation,
while it is incontrovertible when Peter is reported in Acts as saying before the High Priest and other Jewish leaders that
‘[t]here is salvation in no one else [sc. but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (4.12),
that this recognises and maintains the exclusive nature and role of Jesus’ person for salvation.
2. Now, we must here, of course, distinguish between this claim in the scriptures – this claim of the sole-sufficiency and all-sufficiency of Christ alone as mediator of human salvation and of the meaning of human existence, that Christ alone can mediate a salvational relationship for human being with God and alone give ultimate meaning to our lives – and the later claim that such salvation will be found in the Church alone. The claim of a Church Father such as Cyprian of Carthage (in North Africa) in the 3rd century and the 16th century Reformer John Calvin that non salus extra ecclesiam (there is no salvation outside the Church) and even that ‘one cannot have God as Father who does not already have the Church as Mother’ is not necessitated by an understanding of the salvational necessity of Christ; though, personally, I have no problem with an understanding of the church as essential in the plan of God for the salvation of human being but that is another matter entirely for me and for my particular view of the church which I do not claim as UCA policy or doctrine!. The sole-sufficiency of Christ does not, however, necessarily require the claim of the sole-sufficiency of the offices of the Church for the salvation of humankind. Thus, to make a claim for Christ is not necessarily to make that claim also for the church; to make a claim for the priority of the Gospel is not necessarily to make it also for the church.
3. The question is rather: how does one maintain a respect for the views of others who do not accept the necessary mediation of Christ for the salvation and the truth of human being, and at the same time ourselves make that very claim about Jesus and thus dismiss unconditionally and without fear the claim of the other that it is not so?
It is perhaps instructive to look particularly, albeit briefly given the constraints of time, at the two other members of the three-member group of the so-called ‘people of the book’: Judaism and Islam. [Note that Judaism regards itself as alone the ‘people of the book’ and Islam only Judaism and Christianity as so, regarding the Prophet and the Koran as bringing these to completion.]
It would be appropriate, in some senses, to regard Judaism as the older sibling of the Christian faith and Islam as the younger. Both have been regarded for a long time, particularly in the case of Judaism but also with Islam, as sharing with Christianity a tradition going back to Abraham and as also sharing many important theological insights and theological truths. Yet both would be regarded, in the context of the Gospel, as incomplete and thereby imperfect (not necessarily wrong but as incomplete). For Christians Judaism points us to the coming Messiah, whom we believe has come in Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God, and whom we also believe Judaism has failed to recognise (the fact that Judaism regards us as having misread their expectation of the Messiah, either overstating it, or mis-seeing Jesus as that Messiah is of interest but no more here for our present purposes). Islam quite properly recognises Jesus as a prophet – and indeed recognises even more than some Christians do the important role of Mary the Mother of our Lord – but we would have the view that they fail, however, to give Christ the necessarily primary prophetic and salvational role. The fact that for Islam the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran simply complete what is incomplete in Judaism and Christianity is again interesting (particularly so given that it mirrors the Christian view particularly of Judaism) but no more here.
The challenge for us, then, in this time and age is to be clear – as Judaism and Islam certainly make clear with respect to the particular claims which they make with respect to their own belief systems and to those of the other two – about the claims which the Gospel makes about the sole- and all-sufficiency of Christ as Saviour of the World, while at the same time acting in a manner which is respectful but honest about the claims of those with whom we share this space and share also some measure of what we all regard as truth. It is in fact the case that our siblings, the Jew and the Muslim, expect and respect nothing less from us.
But, for us, it is crucial and indeed necessary that, for the sake of the creation and for all of humankind, Christ Jesus be understood as alone the ultimate, the complete and the perfect and sole-sufficient mediator of salvation and the meaning of human existence. And this salvation and this meaning is present for us as Christ himself meets us in the proclamation of his Word through our hearing and appropriation, as his Church, of the holy scriptures (this is of course what is crucial and not my or any other preaching) and our participation in and reception of the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and His Blood.
A sermon in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.