Sermon for October 21st, 2018

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Hebrews 7:22-28

22Accordingly, Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

Solus Christus

Today we're talking about the 16th century reformed doctrine or teaching known as "Solus Christus" or "Christ alone."

I'm reminded of the story about the Sunday school teacher who asked her children what they knew about Jesus Christ. One little boy raised his hand right away and said, "Jesus Christ lives with God in heaven." "Very good," said the teacher. She then called on a little girl, who said "Jesus Christ lives in my heart." "Yes," replied the teacher, "That's true as well." And then the pastor's kid raised his hand. With just the slightest hesitation, the teacher called on him, and he said, "I think Jesus Christ lives in my bathroom." "Really?" said the teacher. "What do you mean by that?" And the pastor's kid explained, "Well, every morning my dad gets up, bangs on the bathroom door and yells, 'Jesus Christ, are you still in there?'"

Solus Christus. Christ alone. By now, I hope you are beginning to see a pattern to these "Five Solas" of the Reformation. When the 16th century Reformers said "only this" or "only that" they didn't mean, "we only believe these five things and no others." The pattern--what they generally meant--was that when faced with a choice between X and Y, or even X, Y, and Z... ONLY (sola) one of those things (let's say X) is a valid or athoritative choice.

So while it's certainly helpful to learn and know the "Five Solas" -- it's also helpful to know (in each of those five cases) what the rejected alternatives were. It's helpful to know the context.

So just to review the past few weeks:

1. When the Reformers said "Sola Scriptura" they meant that Scripture alone (not church tradition, and not church leaders) has the final, authoritative word in matters of theology and doctrine.

2. When the Reformers said "Sola Fide" they meant only our faith (not our deeds, our words, or our beliefs) could save us, and...

3. When the Reformers said "Sola Gratia," they meant that we can only come to faith through God's Grace or God's gift (not because we earn it, choose it, deserve it, or acquire it in any other way).

4. That brings us to today, and Solus Christus, or Christ alone.

At the heart of this "Sola" is a very old question about who's in charge of the Church. It goes clear back to the earliest days of the church, while the new testament is still being written. Some early Christians believed that Jesus had given the "keys to the kingdom" to his disciple Peter, and so after Jesus, Peter was in charge. But Peter himself, in the Book of Acts, seems to defer to the judgment of Jesus' brother, James--who is acknowledged by many in the early church to be the one in charge.

Fast forward one thousand, five hundred years (roughly the 16th century), and the church is still arguing about who's in charge. In the Eastern churches, Orthodox Christians have a priest in charge of every church, and a patriarch in every major city, who is in charge of the churches in that region. All the patriarchs are equal...but the patriarch of Constantinople (the capital) is slightly more equal than all the others.

In the Western churches, Roman Christians also have priests in charge of every church, and a bishop in every city who is in charge of the churches in his region, but the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope) is in charge of all the other bishops. At some point archbishops and cardinals are added as an extra layer in between the pope and the bishops. And abbots (or sometimes priors) are in charge of monasteries.

Into all this mess come the Reformers, who have a pretty interesting idea: When asked who is in charge of the church, their answer is: Jesus. Still. This is why in Reformed Presbyterian churches like ours, instead of priests and bishops, there are ministers, or pastors, who are chosen and elected by vote of the congregation, and whose primary function is to serve others (that's what minister means) through preaching, teaching, and showing compassion and care.

As your pastor, I cannot force the church to do anything its elected leaders don't want to do. I cannot compel you (as individuals) to do anything that goes against your conscience or convictions--Jesus alone is Lord of the church, and Jesus alone is Lord of the conscience. If the 16th century Reformers had known of the expression "You're not the boss of me" I think it would have been one of their favorite sayings, at least as it pertains to the hierarchy of church authority.

This doesn't mean that the church is without leaders -- we elect elders, deacons, trustees, and pastors to do the work of the church, but we come and go -- the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Jesus Christ.

So when the Reformers said "Solus Christus" they meant that Christ alone is in charge of the church (not any one person, not the pastor, not a priest, not a bishop, and not the pope).

Great. I think we've got that. But (as so often happens) in the 500 years since the Reformation, this doctrine has continued to change and evolve, and not always in a good way. Today, when I hear Christians say "Christ alone" they are too often relying on a really bad interpretation of John 14:6, where Jesus tells his disciples, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

So the argument goes that Jesus (and by implication, Christianity) is the ONLY way, the ONLY truth, the ONLY life, and the ONLY way to "get to heaven." All other paths, all other religions, all other belief systems that don't align perfectly with ours are false and wrong. This is exclusivity at its worst.

This is not at all what the Reformers meant by "Solus Christus." And it's not good theology for the 21st century (or any century) either.

When Jesus speaks these words to his disciples, he's not trying to scare them into believing, or define who's in and who's out. He's telling them that he's about to leave them, and Thomas asks, "How are we going to find you in the this place where you're going? We don't know the way." Jesus reassures them by saying, "Yes you do, because you know me. I'm the way, I'm the path, I'm the road.

One way (a not so great way) to look at this is to say that there are lots of roads, but only one (the Jesus road) leads to God. All the others will lead you astray.

But another way to look at it to say that there are lots of roads, and all the ones that lead to God are, in some way, Jesus roads, familiar to those who know Jesus, who listened carefully to his teachings.

Over and over again in his teachings, Jesus tells his followers to love each other. He tells them that's how people will recognize them as his followers. 1 John 4 tells us that God is love, and that Jesus is God's love made manifest among us.

That's how Jesus can say "No one comes to the Father except through me." He's not saying Christianity is the ONLY true religion. He's saying that everyone who "makes it" in the end, it's because they traveled down the path of love.

Yesterday morning I was in Houston Texas for a conference, where I had the opportunity to hang out with one of my favorite people, Dr. Mohammed Eissa. He is a devout Muslim, progressive, intelligent, and open-minded. He is a mentor and encourager to hundreds of teachers across the country. I can say with certainty that Dr. Eissa walks the path of love.

Also yesterday in Houston, I had lunch with my friend Ameel Attalah, who is from Iraq, and is part of a small ethnic minority of Aramean Catholics, less than 1% of the population of Iraq. Today, Ameel lives in Tuscon Arizona with his wife and children, where he teaches art at a local middle school. Ameel also comes to El Paso each summer, to our church, where he teaches in our summer STARTALK program. Ameel walks the path of love.

Last night, right after getting off the plane here in El Paso, I got to hang out with Ben Zeidman, the Rabbi at Temple Mount Sinai, who had invited me to come play the bagpipes for a fundraiser at the Holocaust museum downtown. Rabbi Ben is (clearly) Jewish, and for the past few years, we often sit next to each other at Hillside Coffee on Friday mornings, writing our sermons for our respective congregations. I know that Ben Zeidman walks the path of love.

I don't think any of these three friends would agree with the notion that "belief in Jesus Christ" is the only way to get to God. And yet all three of them are walking on what looks like a Jesus path to me. They would probably describe it differently, with language from their own traditions. But we all seem to be approaching the same destination.

First Presbyterian Church is, and will continue to be, an unapologetically Christ-centered church. That doesn't mean that we think Christianity is right and every other system of belief is wrong. It simply means that through the teachings of Jesus, we found our path, and it is a path of love. We want to stay on this path, following the voice we recognize and are most familiar with, the voice we hear the most clearly, the voice of Jesus. We realize there are others walking alongside us on the path, who see things we do not, who recognize different landmarks, and hear different voices guiding them. We're happy for their company along the way.

So what then, is Solus Christus in the 21st century, if it is not a way to reject or exclude people who think differently than we do?

Yesterday, on my way to the Houston airport, I drove past Lakewood church, which has now become the largest Christian mega-church in the United States, averaging over 50,000 people in attendance each week. People flock to Lakewood to hear its dynamic pastor, Joel Osteen. While I admire Osteen for his uplifting message, and I mean him absolutely no disrespect in what I'm about to say, I wonder what would happen to all those people if Osteen were no longer there? If he (or his message) is the main attraction, what happens to the faith of his followers when he turns out to be human, makes a mistake, or falls from grace, as so many televangelists often do?

Some put their hope in dynamic preachers and leaders, while others put their hope in institutions: I've watched in sadness over the past decade as many of my Catholic friends have turned away from the church and their traditions, disappointed in the wave of priest sex-abuse scandals, and the failure of church leaders to address it adequately. While I understand their disappointment, as the pastor of a 136 year-old church, I also understand just how hard it is for institutions to change, especially patterns that have been ingrained years.

And finally, some Christians seem to put their hope not in leaders or institutions, but in an ever-changing cycle of church trends (which I think is highly encouraged by Christian bookstores and publishing houses). Whether it's the "Purpose Driven Life" of the "Prayer of Jabez" or "The Secret" or the "Emerging Church" or the "Non-denominational Church" or "Celtic Spirituality"--and yes, I admit I have gotten caught up in some of these things as well. They aren't, in and of themselves, bad things. But when we place our hope and our trust in these things as the ONLY way forward, the ONLY way to "save" the church or our faith, we are inevitably disappointed when the trend passes and everyone moves on to the nex great thing.

So here's a thought--here's a 21st century take on an old, 16th century idea: When we, as Christians--as those who carry the name of Christ in our title, Christ-ians--are given the a choice between a charismatic church leader, a human institution, the latest Christian trend, or Jesus Christ...let us put our hope, our trust, our confidence, in Christ alone.

Solus Christus: The only one who holds us together as a church community, our only high priest, our only bishop, the only one who leads us, and calls us to walk with him on the path of love.