ST. STEPHENS PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 28, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
IN CHRIST ALONE
Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; Matthew 16: 13 – 23
When a 3-year-old girl used the word “salvation” in a conversation, her mother was surprised. She asked her daughter if she understood what the word meant. “I know all about it, Mommy,” she said. “We saw it at the movies.” The mother was puzzled. The only movie she had seen in the last few weeks was a Disney production. “What movie?” she asked. “You know,” she replied, somewhat impatiently, “101 Salvations!”
We live in a time when many people believe there are 101 ways to salvation; that all religions are the same and they all lead to heaven. When Jesus walked the earth, he asked his disciples, “What’s the word on the street? Who do people think I am?” They replied, “Some think you’re John the Baptizer, some say Elijah, some Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” (Matthew 16: 14). What would be the answer to that question today? “Some think you’re little more than a great teacher, a moral guide, a story teller, a prophet, a good person or a religious leader.” Or maybe: “some think you’re a puppet master or a fairy tale or an imaginary friend”. If held up at all, Jesus is often placed along side other religious founders and philosophers like Adi Shankara, Buddha, Moses and Mohammed. Of course, not every religion sees Jesus as we do. Judaism rejects Jesus entirely. Sikhism views Jesus as a high-ranked Holy man or saint. Buddhism has no official regard for Jesus, although some Buddhists claim Jesus was the product of Buddhist missionaries to the Middle East. While Islam acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, it rejects the Biblical claim that Jesus is divine. While they accept much of the Biblical account of Jesus’ life, they dismiss his death and resurrection. They acknowledge him as a prophet, but a lesser prophet than Mohammed – a kind of John the Baptizer paving the way for someone greater. The Bahá’í faith consider Jesus to be, not God, but along with many others, a manifestation of God, reflecting the attributes of the divine in our human world. In a similar way, some Hindus sects grant Jesus along with many others, the role of an avatar or expression of Vishnu, the god who protects and restores world order. Scientologists acknowledge Jesus as a teacher. To others Jesus is a human being.
Many would see these views as a good thing – a coming together of religions, an expression of tolerance. For Christians, it’s problematic. There was an early Roman Emperor named Severus. In order to win over the growing number of Christians in the Empire, he added Jesus to the names of the pantheon of gods recognized by Rome. He was shocked that the Christians were far from impressed. It actually angered them. Severus couldn’t comprehend why his tolerance wasn’t appreciated. No doubt many people who read the list above wouldn’t be able to understand our reaction either. For us, Jesus is more than human and he’s more than someone else’s concept of God. A woman was making leaflets for a church which requested a picture of the hand of God shielding the earth. When she delivered them, the outreach leader hemmed and hawed and finally said, “The hand looks too human; could you make it look more like God’s hand.” In Jesus we see the hand of God in human form and it’s like no other.
Jesus went on, “And how about you? Who do you say I am?” (vs. 15). This is the most important question any person can answer. How would you answer it? Simon Peter said, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (vs. 16). In other words, you are God because you are of one substance with God, you are God’s presence in our world. You are the one for whom we’ve been waiting; the Messiah – the one set apart and anointed by God to save us. Only you Jesus. In you alone. In Christ alone. That’s our answer also.
When we say, ‘Christ alone’, we mean two things: Christ’s work on the cross is both unique and sufficient. On the cross we see Christ’s power to reconcile people to God. Prior to the cross, God in his mercy, had provided a temporary way to reunite with his people. He had set in place a system of sacrifices and had placed a high priest in a position to offer these sacrifices as a substitute for the individual’s own life. However, this process wasn’t unique. Many people of various races and religions offered sacrifices to their gods, either to bribe to please or to appease those gods. This was also not a unique system in that in required repetition – you needed to offer a lamb one day and another day a dove and on it went endlessly. Even the priest wasn’t unique. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Earlier there were a lot of priests, for they died and had to be replaced (vs. 23). Not only is Jesus’ death on the cross unique “Unlike the other high priests, he doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for his own sins every day before he can get around to us and our sins” (vs. 27), Jesus is all we need. His grace is sufficient, “Jesus’ priesthood is permanent. He’s there from now to eternity to save everyone who comes to God through him, always on the job to speak up for them…He’s done it, once and for all: offered up himself as the sacrifice” (vs. 26). The cross was God’s tool. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, “completely holy, uncompromised by sin, with authority extending as high as God’s presence in heaven itself” (vs. 26). Through Jesus one-time sacrifice, he brought about permanent salvation for those who are willing to receive it. The cross was a horrific instrument of physical torture. For Jesus, it also was an experience of complete spiritual darkness. Just prior to his time of death, Jesus called out to his heavenly Father, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15: 34). In that terrible moment, the Father turned away from his beloved Son. Jesus death was more than it appeared to be. It may have been Jesus’ body dying on the cross, but he was dying as a sacrifice for our darkness, our rebellion, our sin and our need. In that moment, when God looked at Jesus, he saw all of humanity – he saw you and me. It’s not that Jesus had to die on a cross – he could have died in any number of ways; it was that he died in our place. His death cut him off from God and plunged him into the spiritual darkness that was our fate. It was the only way to accomplish a salvation that would be once and for all. It was God’s unique way of bringing about a redemption that would be sufficient. There was no other way, but by Christ alone.
If Jesus had to be lost, abandoned, severed from God to save us, it follows that we can’t repair our relationship with God alone. Being good, participating in a few religious activities or creating one’s own designer spirituality simply isn’t going to cut it. Christ is God’s way. God’s hope. Christ alone.
This undeserved grace and salvation through Christ is unique to the Christian faith. The Qur’an does speak of the forgiveness of a compassionate and merciful Allah. But when it comes to salvation only the praiseworthy find mercy. In Islam, only those people whose merits have been weighed on Allah’s scales are entitled to clemency. The uniqueness of the gospel is the good news that mercy is available to the undeserving. When grace must be earned, it’s not grace at all. As Saint Augustine wrote, “For grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.” We find this grace in Christ alone.
The phrase ‘Christ alone’ was first used in the 16th century, to emphasize that Jesus was all we needed to know God or to be reconciled to him. Over the preceding centuries, the Church had placed itself between believers and God. They taught that Jesus’ had entrusted the keys to God’s salvation to the Church. The role of the Church was then to distribute salvation to those who proved themselves worthy. Sometimes today, the Church still acts like the gate keepers to heaven. People resent us for that, and so they should. The Reformers were adamant that it’s through Christ alone we’re saved. The Church points to but doesn’t control or mete out God’s grace. People don’t need other mediators, priests or advocates – we just need Jesus. Christ alone.
Our belief in ‘Christ alone’ means that Christians today are in a difficult spot. We need to affirm that the import of ‘Christ alone’ objects to the idea that all religions are different ways to the same God. There are not 101 salvations. Christ refuses to be just a part of a choose-your-own-adventure, self-serving spiritual quest. Christ refuses to be one of many. Christ is everything or he’s nothing. This doesn’t make Christianity an exclusive club. Christians are still not the gate keepers of heaven. ‘Christ alone’ pours out his grace on everyone equally. We have no reason to be proud or self-righteous because our salvation isn’t our own doing – it’s a gift from God. The image of Christ, alone on the cross, doesn’t give us the right to judge or reject anyone, because it’s the image of a man dying for his enemies; a Saviour who loves those who don’t love him. Nothing about that can possibly give Christians the right to be arrogant or threatening. In fact, it should make us humble and loving. It should make us yearn for people to be reconciled with God. Christ alone should give us the courage to stand alone, in a world that misunderstands God’s act of redemption.
A scientific convention was held at a lakeside resort. After the day’s proceedings, a physicist, an astronomer and a molecular biologist hired a boatman to row them around on the lake. As they discussed string theory, bubble universes, the Gaea Hypothesis and other abstruse topics, the biologist noticed the boatman looking bored. He asked, “What do you think of these ideas?” The boatman replied, “I don’t understand any of it.” The astronomer asked him how far he’d gone in school. He told them he couldn’t read. “I hate to say it,” said the physicist, “but you’ve wasted your life.” The boatman said nothing. By now they were in the middle of the lake. A sudden storm whipped up. The waves started heaving and the boat flipped over. The boatman started swimming for shore. The scientists cried out, “Help! We can’t swim!” The boatman called back, “I hate to say it, but you ‘ve wasted your lives.”
The world looks at us and judges us by its values. To them we’re wasting our lives on a worthless myth. At the moment when lives are on the line and we discover we can’t save ourselves, then Christ Alone, will not only redeem us – he will be redeemed.