What is the Gospel? What is the Good News of Jesus Christ? What did Jesus do? What difference does it make that Jesus lived?
To this questions, often people will say something along the lines of Jesus died for our sins. There are many different ways to think about what Jesus did. We can all agree that Jesus reconciled us to God. Sin separated us from God. We were not living in accordance to God’s intention and Jesus came to reconcile us to the love of God.
One of the basic tenets of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is that we value diversity in faith. We say “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” No one is really sure who first said it, but we Disciples have latched on to the phrase and it has become important to defining Disciples theology.
It is difficult to define Disciples theology. The Methodists refer to the writings of Wesley for their theological foundation. The Catholics go to the writings of the Pope and their catechesis or teaching. Others like the Lutherans and the Episcopalians have catechesis. Many have creeds like the Apostles or Nicene creeds that set a minimum of belief in order to consider oneself a believer according to that denomination.
We Disciples have another saying, “No creed but Christ. No book but the Bible.” Many denominations have books of order or prayer books or such that define the conduct of the church the pastor or dictate the rule of the church. But we’re different; we’re Congregationalists meaning that we don’t have anyone who tells us what to do or believe. We own our building. The church employs me at their will without appointment from the Region.
Our only minimum of faith is “Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God.” That’s it! That’s the essential to bring unity to the Disciples. In non-essentials, we allow liberty of reason and study. We allow differences of opinions. We collectively agree that Jesus had a special relationship with God, but we might all think about that differently. We collectively agree that Jesus did something to reconcile us to God, but we might all think about how He did that differently.
The 19th century Disciples pastor Isaac Errett believed there were facts to be believed on the part of what God did including the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. So, we must believe that Christ was born, lived and died a human’s life and was resurrected from the grave. And, there were commands to obey – we are to believe, repent and be baptized.
The Disciples started as a movement seeking the unity of all Christians by returning to the Biblical Gospel and the Apostolic church or the church of the Apostles. They sought the church to be modeled after the New Testament church. In doing so, there were 3 basic statements of faith or what you might call doctrine of the Disciples: we believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible; we believe God reveals Himself in the New Testament; we are saved by grace; Jesus instructs us in the way of life to redeem us from sin and death; we believe in the continued mission of the church; and again our dependence on grace.
There’s a lot of liberty in these statements for diversity in theology, in how we define Jesus’s life, how we study and interpret Scriptures, how we understand inspiration and revelation. But’s there are some who want to define all of Christianity, maybe even divide Christianity, by what we should and shouldn’t believe, not about our faith in Jesus or the writings of the Bible, but by how we vote.
In politics, you often hear about the “evangelical vote” meaning the Christian vote. Politicians covet the evangelical vote because it is a large demographic. The evangelical vote seems to be set apart by their stance on education, the Biblical teaching of evolution, sex ed, the role of government, separation of church and state, economics, the Middle East, reproductive rights and sexuality. I would add guns to the list, but the list I found may need updating.
I want to give you some liberty this morning. I want to remind you that in order to be a Christian you do not have to vote a certain way, support certain things, support certain candidates or watch a specific news channel. There are plenty of Christians that are pro-life, pro-gun, anti-marriage equality, pro-Israel, pro-big business, pro-little government. There are also lots of Christians, who don’t get lumped into the evangelical category, who are still faithful Christians, who are pro-choice, pro-gun regulation, pro-marriage equality, pro-entitlements, pro-foreign diplomacy, anti-big banks. And, there are Christians who fall all over that spectrum.
When Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, there were missionaries who had come to Galatia after he left and were preaching the Gospel. Unfortunately, they were not preaching the same Gospel as he had. The missionaries were probably Jewish Christians, meaning they were Jews who converted. The missionaries were teaching that in order for the people of Galatia to become Christians they, as Gentiles or not Jewish, must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses.
Paul had defended the Law and persecuted Christians; now that he was a Christian, he re-considered his relationship to the Law. He saw the Law as restrictive and punitive. He saw it as a place holder ‘til Christ came. Paul believed that once we came to believe in Christ we needn’t be bound by the Law.
Now, the Jewish Christians who loved Christ and still revered the Law were confused about the relationship between Christ and the Law. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the Messiah of Israel. The Jewish Christians believed that in order for Christians to reap the benefits of the Jewish Messiah, they must become Jews. So, they must be circumcised and follow the Law as signs of being in covenant with God through Abraham.
Paul believed in justification by faith. He believed one did not need to become Jewish to be saved. Paul eventually went to Jerusalem before a council of Apostles and church leaders to defend his belief in the justification by faith alone. Ultimately, it was decided that a Christian did not have to become Jewish to be saved. And, Paul won in his stance that the Law was restrictive and punitive while in Christ there was freedom and grace.
This Galatians sermon series this summer is going to be one about the life of Christian faith. Today, I want us to know that in the Christian life there is freedom in the Gospel. The true Gospel that Paul defended was justification by faith alone. The first Disciples of Christ defended the Gospel as they sought unity. The first Disciples believed that we were justified by our faith and our faith was not something of tenets and doctrine dictated by the bishop or Pope.
Faith is something that is individually unique, because our faith is inspired by our experience and our reason. What I have experienced is different than what you have experienced; therefore, our interpretation of Scripture is different. How God reveals Himself to us is different for each of us.
I was talking to a man yesterday who had a near death other side experience of God. He told me about his faith before his experience and his faith after his experience. He told me about what he remembered about his conversation with God. He told me how the experienced has informed what he believes. He believes differently because he has experienced God differently than many of us.
I think our context informs our faith. I heard a comedian the other night talk about being in a liberal bubble. I think he was onto something. If you live in a conservative bubble or a liberal bubble, you’re exposed to different thoughts and opinions. If we’re honest, most of our Facebook friends have opinions very similar to ours. We have very few friends with opposing points of view and, in an election year, there are probably many people unfriending people who don’t share their thoughts and freely post opposing sentiments. What we hear and read informs what we think about God and God’s action in the world.
What I want to say is this. If someone tells you that in order to be a Christian you must do, say or believe something, be careful. They may be leading you astray. Christianity is not black and white. The Christian faith cannot be easily contained in a brief statement. There are many nuances about sin, how we are saved, who Christ is, the role of the Church, the relationship of the Holy Spirit. I have more theologians’ manifestos on my bookshelves in my office than there are people in this room. They all have something different to say about what it means to be a Christian and what we believe as Christians. They are all well respected scholars who are faithful in their work.
We don’t have to all believe the same in order to believe the Truth. We are united because we believe in Christ. That may be where are similarities end, but that’s okay, because we are charitable with one another. Amen.