I have been staying away from sermons for the past several weeks. After all when you try to talk to your pastor through the written word and he ignores you after his initial response there appears little reason to expect worthwhile material to come from him through the efforts of a sermon. To use the biblical metaphor of being faithful in little things, how can someone who can’t defend or expound his ideas in direct communication hope to do so in the larger sermon context.
So it being Easter Weekend we were treated to the efforts of the Pastor to explain the meaning of the Resurrection. Which he did an adequate job on. Of course he had to include the idea that Jesus paid our penalty and that He was our Substitute, including the special music of the song “The Day He Wore My Crown”. Because of course we being human with the virus of sin, are sick and we deserve to be killed on a cross while wearing a crown of thorns. After all as the lesson study of our church for April 2010 said “the fact of the matter is we all deserve death." Isn’t it strange how when Christians talk religion they use such ideas as we all deserve death but when someone’s child or loved one dies we don’t tell them well he or she deserved to die after all. No it is a phrase we use when we want to talk God’s atonement. Like this worksheet from a Christian church says:
“I am guilty before God and I deserve death and hell, and the death penalty must be paid. God the righteous Judge cannot overlook sin. The Lord Jesus came to earth and paid the death penalty for me. He died as my Substitute.”
I always wonder when I read these types of statements “cannot overlook sin” if these people have any conception of what the word forgive means. After all it is in the rather famous Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4). Now that statement is far more philosophical than actual because we are pretty poor at forgiving other people even at our best and we would certainly hope that God forgives us better than we forgive others. So the statement is more likely indicative of the concept that God completely forgives us and we need to strive to follow His example and be willing to forgive others. But how would that work if one believed that there was no forgiveness unless first a penalty had to be paid?
But it sounds so religious to say we all deserve death. It’s what all the preachers are saying so we keep saying it. It has become tradition. Now there is certainly some truth in the concept, we are mortal, we will die, it is a fact of nature and the statistical rate of death to life is pretty much 1:1 for the last several thousand years. If God did not do something about it then that death would be certain and final. So if God chooses to give eternal life to someone it is all God’s doing and not because anyone was deserving of God giving them a special gift. As if they had something over God and God just had to give them a gift to return the favor that person had shown to God.
So what is easy and correct and inarguable “we are mortal and we die” turns into “man deserves to die”, and we don’t even believe it but because we keep hearing it from our religious teachers we parrot it back because if you parrot back what your church says they will give you leadership roles in the church, they will count you as wise in the ways of the spirit.
To get back to my experience with the sermon today. The pastor at one point reflected upon the statement of Christ:
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NIV)
As part of the resurrection sermon he used this statement to indicate that the only way to salvation is through Jesus. So what does that mean to all of the millions or billions of people that have never heard of Jesus Christ? Well according to fundamentalism it means they have no shot at salvation. The Website Religious Tolerance notes several statements from Fundamentalist Christians including the following:
A Christian missionary, William Carey, and generations of missionaries who followed in his wake...who "believed...that...Personal faith in Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation for all peoples everywhere, and those who die without this saving knowledge face eternal separation from God."
Of course that makes little sense because if you had to believe in Jesus Christ how could any of the Old Testament folks be saved. The apologetics website CARM says the following to answer this predicament:
As you can see, the Bible tells us that Abraham was justified by faith (see Rom. 5:1 and Eph. 2:8-9). That is, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, v. 4 above. They were saved by faith in the Messiah in whom they were trusting. Only, for them it was a trust in the future Messiah. They knew He was coming as had been prophesied.
In other words when the Bible talks about these people having faith in God it meant that they had faith in the Messiah who was to come even if they really had no knowledge of said Messiah and even though the Old Testament writings give very little foreshadowing of the Messiah. If you look up the texts which CARM uses you will see that they say noting about the Old Testament folks having faith in a coming Messiah but since they have made an exclusivist claim they have to insert new meanings into the Bible to back up their incorrect ideas.
But just like the religiosity of saying we all deserve death there is a traditionalism that sounds so good in saying that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ paid the penalty and became our substitute. After all we all have to have a substitute or God will have to kill us because we deserve to die because God cannot overlook sin, someone has to pay the penalty or there is no forgiveness from God. I know it does not sound very logical and it is not logical it is traditional, it is what we have allowed our preachers and their sermons to tell us without questioning what they are saying. After all how many times have you heard your pastor answer questions after he gives a sermon? Never for most of us, yet for some reason we think we are being trained in our Christian spirituality in those passive presentations by pastors who hardly ever see, read or hear contrary ideas to their traditions. They don’t go out and look for them, they usually don’t go to Sabbath School classes where real discussions occur preferring rather to lead their own Sabbath School classes or avoiding them altogether as they prepare to give their sermons.
If the pastors got out and listened or read more widely they could certainly come up with better material and they could explain logically verses that say there is no other way to salvation than through Christ. Because after all it is easy to do. Jesus Christ is God there is no salvation except by God granting salvation and He knows the heart of everyman whether they will accept His gift or not accept His gift, whether they would be happy to have a relationship with God or not. We don’t get to God, God gets to us, He is the prime mover He is the one who made the first move and ultimately the most revealing move through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We did not go up to heaven to see a revelation of God, God incarnate came here. But that certainly does not mean that God is restricted to salvation of those who have heard the story of Jesus. That is not even a controversial idea in Adventist history as Ellen White who Adventist tradition has labeled a prophet expressed the idea that there will be many in heaven who never heard the name of Jesus Christ. But because there is this dogma so prevalent thanks to fundamentalism my pastor made the statement just like any fundamentalist would make. I am pretty sure he does not believe it the way he said it, but it is a sermon and sermons are meant to sound pleasing and spiritual and the best way to do that it seems, is to preach in trite statements, words that please the traditions of the consumer.
Christianity has to change; we have to move away from sermons the training ground for passive Christians to an engaged and thinking Christianity. I suppose that there will have to be another Reformation of Christianity to break us away from our traditional chains, but as I was reading the latest issue of Charisma Magazine online I see that the young leaders they highlighted are nothing close to the Reformational leadership the Christian church needs. There needs to be a movement from the ground up, an uprising against our own leadership. Think how much better God would be served if our leadership actually helped instead of hindered.
Please break your chains.