ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                                                                   JANUARY 22, 2017

 

WHAT AND WHY

Isaiah 61: 1 – 4; John 3: 16 & 17

Rev. Sabrina Ingram

 

Last Sunday I spoke of the plight of Christians in Nigeria and the minister who said, “Christians in Nigeria need to know what they believe and why they believe.  They need to be focused.”  We’re going to take a deeper look at that statement today.  To some degree I’ll be “preaching to the choir” but I hope the Holy Spirit may speak to us in fresh ways.  To begin, the Christian faith is simple but not simplistic.  Theologians, beginning with Paul, have spent the last 2000 years discussing and examining the intricacies of Christ’s teachings, the meaning of his death and resurrection, the subtle interpretations of scripture and the details of doctrine.  For instance during the Reformation questions arose around the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Does the host actually turn into the physical body of Christ?  Does the Holy Spirit unite with the bread and wine to spiritually make them the body of Christ for our spirits? Is it only a ritual we do to remember Jesus’ sacrifice?  Is it necessary to celebrate it at all – do we need an outward sign or should we be focused on the inward power of grace?  But when it comes to the essence of our faith – there are certain core beliefs that make us “Christian” which all churches share.

 

Christians believe in a Triune God.  God is a mystery unveiled as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is personally engaged in history: creating, saving and sanctifying us.

God is revealed in the scriptures of The Holy Bible.

God is sovereign and God is love.  God desires our love, deserves our worship and requests our obedience.

In love, God created all that is and had an intimate relationship with humanity.

Having free will, humanity sinned which separated us from God, harming individuals, creation and ordered systems (i.e. nations).

God longed to restore this broken relationship. (Jesus referred to this state of restoration as “The Kingdom of God/ Heaven”).

Through the people of Israel, God was born as Jesus of Nazareth to save and heal.  Jesus is fully God and fully human.

Salvation is made available to all through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Jesus conquered death and brought restoration, wholeness and eternal life by physically rising from the grave.

This act of salvation is God’s work, done for us.  We do not deserve it and we can do nothing to earn it.  We call this grace.

We access this grace through faith in Christ.  Through faith we’re united with Christ, living and dying in him.  Faith leads to transformation (rebirth; new life; spiritual maturity).

Jesus ascended to God, giving his Holy Spirit to those who believe; together we’re called The Church/ The Body of Christ.

The Holy Spirit lives in us empowering us to continue Christ’s work in our world: loving and serving God and others, living in ways that honour Christ and sharing the Good News of God’s grace.

Jesus will return to bring his kingdom into its fullness.  He will judge all people and receive those who share his resurrection life into his kingdom where we will glorify and enjoy God for all eternity.

 

That’s our faith in a nutshell.  The Creeds of the Church were also designed to describe our beliefs, and if you want to read in more detail I’d suggest you look at Living Faith, written by PCC.  That may sound pretty dry or cerebral, yet behind each of those statements are the actions of the Living God.   At the heart of Christianity is Jesus Christ – thus the name. Just as a Canadian is one who lives in Canada, so a Christian is one who lives in Christ.  Take the Christian out of Christ and you have an un-regenerated person.  Take Christ out of Christianity and you have nothing except sin and death.  It isn’t enough for us to know about our beliefs or to know about Jesus; we need to have his Spirit in us creating a relationship of grace and love.  We need to have faith – to trust Christ with our lives – and we need to have an intimate, lively relationship with Jesus.  People who deny Jesus was God or say his death was like any other and his resurrection didn’t happen, they cannot claim to be Christian.   If there is no Christ then saying one is Christian is meaningless; it undermines the essence of Christianity.  As Tim Kellar said,   “you can’t remove Jesus’ miraculous entry into the world or His miraculous return to life without destabilizing the whole of Christianity.  A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be.”

 

So that’s what we believe.  Why we believe is equally important.  We believe in Christ, in part, because of the witness of the Scriptures.  Scripture reveals the Living God.   It tells us the “what” of our faith through God’s interactions with others so we can come to accept the “what” as truth.  Right understanding and devoted living have certainly undergirded the Reformed Tradition.  The theologian Karl Barth who wrote volumes on the Christian faith highlighted the importance of Scripture when he was asked if he could sum up all he knew about Christianity in one sentence; he said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.  

 

We also believe because of the witness of others.   We are inspired by “…all the saints, who from their labors rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed.”  The eye witness of those who lived and followed Jesus underscores the truth of the Scriptures.  Their stories and their theology are authentic.  Their own dedication to Christ which led to imprisonment, beatings and even death accentuates the depth of their faith; why endure persecution if you know it’s all a lie?  The witness of Christians who came after them is also important.  We have writings from many people throughout history who have touched us with their faith.  We have the examples of saints who have gone before us, whose lives were transformed and who lived to glorify God.  We have known people whose faith inspired us; whose words spoke to us; whose music moved our souls; whose depth of love stunned us; we have seen people reborn and changed because of their relationship with Christ; we have met people who are whole and peaceful against all odds because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Other Christians encourage our faith so we believe, in part, because of them – and that should inspire us because how we live and express our faith may be a witness that builds someone else’s faith.

 

Another reason we believe is because of the Spirit’s witness to us personally – we have experienced God’s grace:  “Something happened and now I know, he touched me and made me whole.”  Just as sin is expressed in our lives in unique ways, grace doesn’t come pre-packaged – it is as individual as the person whose life is saved.  Different people mean different things when they say, “Jesus is my Saviour”.   In Isaiah’s announcement of the promised Messiah, sin is manifested as oppression, broken-heartedness, imprisonment, and grief.  In response, the Messiah comes to bring justice, healing, freedom, and comfort.    When asked to tell why they believe in Jesus some people may speak of the overwhelming guilt they felt for sins they committed and of Christ’s forgiveness.   To someone who has lost a loved one or is afraid of death, Jesus may be their comforter or through him they may have the hope of eternal life.  Many people whose lives were empty and meaningless, find a sense of purpose through their faith as they participate in building up Christ’s kingdom on earth by working for justice.     For those who are emotionally broken, Christ offers wholeness.  For those who are trapped in addictions, relief and freedom are intertwined with their faith.  For those who are alone and abandoned, salvation may look like the friendship of Jesus and the ability to reach beyond yourself to others.  For those burdened by shame, salvation may come in the discovery that through Christ you are a beloved child of God, precious in his sight.    In the face of despair or failure, Christ may bring healing to another person’s anxiety or depression.  I, for one, because I’ve experienced the depths of depression, know I wouldn’t be alive today if not for Jesus.  For me, salvation is joy.  What is salvation for you?  Why do you have faith in Christ?

 

When we know who we believe in, what we believe and why we believe, we have focus.  We go from being “lukewarm” to being passionate disciples of Jesus Christ.  We can endure the storms and droughts of life.   We become “Oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61: 3) with our roots so deep we are unmovable, with our trunks so strong we can endure to the end, with our leaves so beautiful we display God’s glory and with our fruit so lush we bring the healing, justice and wholeness of Christ’s salvation into our world.