Christ Only Reformation series St Mark’s 15.10.17 Isa 9:1-7 Ps 110 Acts 4:1-12 John 14:1-6
If you had been born in Europe in 1500 you would have been immersed into a religious culture whose intensity we find difficult to imagine. The sacramental system covered your life span from baptism in infancy to the last rites in death. The priest would have blessed you at your first haircut, and if you were a boy at your first shave and so on. An elaborate scheme of pilgrimages, indulgences, penances, tithes and masses was a part of everyday life and when you were in some need you would sought a saint to intercede on your behalf to God e.g. St Christopher for safe travel. You certainly would have honoured Mary as the Mother of God. Unless you were a part of the top 10% of society the mass and Bible in Latin were incomprehensible and you would have simply taken the word of the Church on spiritual matters. If you visited of the great cathedrals their architecture would have confirmed your heart conviction that God was very far away and the best you could hope for was a quick deliverance from purgatory if you did regular penitence and good works. This vast powerful and controlling religious enterprise was built on one great heresy; that Jesus could not be personally and directly known as the Way to the Father.
Then in 1517 something happened that would bring indescribable freedom to the consciences of millions. When Luther began to testify “The cross alone is our theology” he initiated a rediscovery of the gospel that “Christ alone” saves us. This gospel of the supremacy, centrality and all sufficiency of the person of Jesus burst like a bombshell on Europe. All the religious complexities of the day were made absolutely secondary or rendered useless. The foundational power of the Protestant Reformation was its undeviating Christ-centredness.
The Swiss reformer Zwingli realised that the Catholic Church’s emphasis on good works was a dreadful burden and testified, “Christ is the only way of salvation of all who were, are now, or shall be.” Expounding on union with Christ Calvin states, “our salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ (Acts 4:12). We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. [[If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him’ (1 Cor 1:30). If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing.]] If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth…If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross (Gal 3:13); if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection…[[In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him,]] let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.’ (Calvin, Institutes, II. 16.19). Article 18 of the Anglican Articles of Religion is clear, “[[Those who presume to say that every person shall be saved by the rule of life, religion or sect that he professes, provided he makes diligent efforts to live by that rule and the light of nature, must be regarded as accursed. For]] holy Scripture declares to us that it is only in the name of Jesus Christ that men must be saved.” In its emphasis on Christ as the only Way the Reformation was being faithful to what Jesus said about himself.
In his Farewell speech in John’s Gospel (ch.14-17) Jesus explained to his disciples that he was going to leave them and return to the Father, “that where I am you might be also” (John 14:3). This confused the disciples so Thomas replied to Jesus, ““Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”” (John 14:5); Jesus responds; ““I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”” (John 14:6). Knowing he was the full and final expression of the life of God Jesus went on to say to his disciples, ““Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”” (v.9). He did not point to his teachings as the Way, like Buddha did, or to a book as the Word of God, as Mohammed did of the Koran, nor to his example of leading a good life as the way to God, like liberal Christianity does, he points to himself as a person as the way to God.
The writer Thomas à Kempis tried to expound what Jesus was saying in his Farewell speech by speaking as the voice of Christ; “Without the Way, there is no going. Without the Truth, there is no knowing. Without the Life, there is no living. I am the Way which you must follow, the Truth which you must believe, the Life for which you must hope. I am the Way unchangeable, the Truth infallible, the Life unending. I am the Way that is straight, the supreme Truth, the Life that is true, the blessed, the Life everlasting. If you abide in My Way you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free, and you shall attain life everlasting.” (Imitation of Christ Book 3, ch. 56). Archbishop Michael Ramsey memorably said, ““God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.”. Since God is completely Christlike this means there is no eternal life outside of Jesus; this is the gospel of the apostles.
Confronted by the Jewish leaders for healing a man in the name of Jesus Peter boldly testifies; “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men and women by which we must be saved.”” (Acts 4:12). Anyone and everyone may come to God, but there is but one point of access, only one who brings the Most High down to our level, Christ (Luke 1:35). The relationship between God and humanity is like an hourglass [JY uses an egg timer]; God being the top chamber and humanity the bottom one. The two chambers of the hourglass meet at a single narrow point and this is the only passageway between them. Being God in human form Christ is the central point of the hourglass. There is no other saving point of contact between God and humanity other than Jesus (von Balthasar). The Reformation rediscovery of the person of Christ as the exclusive hinge point and sole mediator of salvation is as much needed today as it was 500 years ago.
No ways to the Way
One contemporary challenge to the gospel is called religious pluralism. God willing, Donna and I will be in Myanmar next month, a country where 88% of the population are devout Buddhists. Can Buddhists get to heaven without hearing about Jesus and believing his gospel? Can people be saved through trusting in the teaching of the Koran? Or saved just by being “good people”? Is the spiritual quest of humanity like climbing a great mountain whose peak is the presence of God? The mountain has many sides but in the end we will all meet together at the summit. This lovely image completely contradicts Jesus’ words about his own identity; ““No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”” (John 3:13). Anyone who believes there are many ways to God is denying that Jesus is the Son of God and cannot explain why the needed to die on the cross. Religious pluralism always robs people of the passion to preach the gospel.
But there are far more common ways in which the “Christ Only” rediscovery of the Reformation has been weakened. Very many Christians live like there is a way to the Way: Baptists are tempted to think understanding the Bible and praying are ‘ways to the Way’; Pentecostals often treat speaking in tongues and powerful spiritual experiences as ‘ways to the Way’, many Catholics are more devoted to the sacraments than they are to a personal relationship with Christ. Traditional Anglicans are likely to think that being a good person is their ‘way to the Way’. From a slightly different angle people from all spiritual traditions are tempted to treat gifted charismatic church leaders as mediating the grace of God. There is however no way to the Way. Countless times I have found myself dealing with folk suffering from spiritual disappointment, depression, burn out and confusion because they have put their trust and energy into some way other than the Christ the Way.
Heaven or Jesus?
If you are still confused about the main point of this sermon let me try to make things clearer with an illustration. On Thursday this week Donna had a visit at home from a nurse who came to take a blood sample. Afterwards she was feeling emotionally hurt because this lady had put a needle into here multiple times but had shown “no interest in her as a person”. (Does everyone understand what I mean by “being interested in her as a person”?) Those who are truly interested in knowing Jesus as a person will not make their first focus his teaching, his miracles or his good life, they know who Jesus is as a Person is fully revealed in his suffering for us at the cross. Knowing that the final revelation of the character of God comes through the crucifixion Paul taught, “There is one God and one Mediator between God and humanity—the human, Christ Jesus, 6 who gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone.” (1 Tim 2:5-6). The cross was Jesus Way to heaven, but most people don’t want to know this Jesus.
People want to get to heaven/paradise/nirvana as a final state of blessedness free from all strife and suffering but they show little or no interest in Jesus as a person. This is understandable for folk from other faiths but what about professing Christians? A friend of mine was disturbed when some members of his home group admitted that they didn’t think much about or find the thought of eternity interesting or inspiring. This is what I replied to him; “Christians long for heaven because there we will see Jesus face to face and become just like him 1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2….seeing just how wonderful Christ is so we become “lost in wonder love and praise.”” Living forever without Jesus would not be heaven it would be hell. Christ is not a means by which after death we are reunited with lost loved ones or released from the agonies of this world; heaven is the place where fully and finally Jesus will share with those who are interested in him as a person his own relationship with his Father.
I had a demanding time last Monday. I had three very draining appointments with people who needed to deal with deep and sinful issues in their lives. Later in the day I went down by the river to pray and I had such a deep longing in my heart just to be with Jesus. Do you want to be with Jesus? Do you know Jesus personally? Have you been freed from trying to find a way to the Way? Have you experienced the revolutionary power of the gospel that to be saved and to keep on being saved (Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 1:18) all you need to do is to truly believe what Christ said; ““I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”” (John 14:6). Let us pray.