Sunday 27 August.
Laurie Wesley

The Essence of Christianity

Several years ago our former Moderator, Andrew Norton, had this to say :

    “I believe that our Church is deeply divided. We have allowed one debate to dominate us for the past 25 years. We have continually divided into two camps. When this happens our  debate becomes politicised resulting in a lack of Biblical discernment, integrity, and honest dialogue. What follows are power struggles to discover who is right and who is wrong, leaving everyone wounded through the process. The depth of division in our church is rarely talked about  openly but is present in passive aggressive behaviour that  lies beneath the way we sometimes (I would say often) engage with one another (distrust, power plays, manipulation, spiritual abuse and bullying). This becomes most obvious once every two years when we meet as a General Assembly.” 

Andrew also comments that our church PCANZ no longer engages with the wider nation. He says:

    “Sadly when people do hear us speak it is usually on one topic alone; we come across as a church that is obsessed with sexual orientation “

Andrew wrote this two or three years ago, shortly before he took up the Moderator position

I attended the General Assembly in 1998, and what Andrew describes is exactly what I experienced at that Assembly. I came home feeling quite depressed and thinking I would not  attend another Assembly.

So why is the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in this state? I believe it is because it has lost sight of what Christianity is really about.  In other words today’s Presbyterian Church has not really taken on board the essential message of Jesus, or of Paul for that matter, and we do not understand the true meaning of faith. I have a few favourite verses from the Old Testament that speak very clearly of what God calls to us to be or to do. Faith is our response to those calls. You heard one of these in the readings today 


          Micah 6: 6-8 
    “Shall I offer my first-born child to the Lord to pay for my sins? No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love and to live in humble fellowship with God.”

    Hosea 6; 5-6
    “What I want from you is clear. I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me”

    Amos 5: 21-24 
    “Stop your noisy songs, I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never runs dry.”

That last verse from Amos, along with one from Isaiah, was used by Martin Luther King in his famous
 "I have a dream" speech. I have a DVD of that speech and will show it in the hall sometime during tea and coffee.

Moving on now to the New Testament; this is clearly a collection of documents written by various authors at various times and in this aspect it is similar to the Old Testament. Neither the Old or New Testaments are works of tidy theology. By selective use of  books, or chapters, or even single verses, it is possible to derive a whole range of theologies or doctrines. I think I am right in saying that the Christian religion is much more concerned with doctrines and confessions of faith than other religions, which reflects the strong Greek influence on early Christianity. The Greeks were into philosophy and other things intellectual, and it was inevitable that this influenced the early church. The gospels and letters of the New Testament were all written in Greek, and it is generally accepted that the gospel writers, except possibly Mark, had never been to Palestine. They were therefore very familiar with Greek culture and thought. The development of doctrine in the early church led to various disputes that brought about the early creeds such as the Apostles and the Nicean Creed. The latter creed attempted to "resolve" an issue of that time, namely whether Jesus was truly human and if that was the case then what relation was he to God Hence that strange statement "being of one substance with the father" in the Nicean Creed. 

Our own church (PCANZ) traces its doctrinal beliefs to the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1643.  It produced a new doctrinal statement in 2008, but this was hardly any more relevant to today's world than the Westminster Confession.

Coming back to the New Testament; during my university years I was a member of the Ardmore Christian Fellowship which was part of the evangelical movement in universities and teachers colleges. The visiting speakers at its meetings were all evangelicals and their messages were almost invariably based on John's Gospel and Paul's letters. There was rarely any reference to Mark, Mathew, or Luke. The reason for this is that leaving out these gospels makes it easier to justify their doctrinal beliefs. The picture of Jesus presented in John is very different from that in the earlier Gospels.  In Mark's Gospel Jesus says to the young man who questions him

 "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone."

Jesus rarely speaks of himself, his message is centred on the "Kingdom of God"  In Mark, when one of his disciples asks if he is the Messiah he acknowledges this to be the case, but tells his disciples that they must keep this strictly to themselves. In John's gospel Jesus focuses his message on himself with the many "I am" statements.

Over the years I have moved steadily away from evangelicalism, for several reasons. It promotes a very doctrinal version of Christianity focussed on sin and personal salvation. This does not seem to me to be true to the teaching of Jesus. In Mathew, Mark, and Luke the Kingdom of God is mentioned 113 times and sin 17 times.

      Mark:        The Kingdom of God:   19 times.   Sin 5 times
      Matthew:  The Kingdom of God     52 times   Sin 10 times
      Luke:        The Kingdom of God     42 times   Sin 2 times|

  • If Jesus saw himself as the Messiah, then the role of the Messiah was not to save people from their sins, but to save or liberate the Jewish nation Israel from oppression under the Romans. Also, Evangelicalism subscribes to a very exclusive version of Christianity. It sees itself as having "the truth", which defines the way of salvation, outside of which there is no salvation
  • So what is faith? We are told that the word with the closest meaning to faith is trust, not belief, and faith is not adopting a set of beliefs, but putting one's trust in God, or for the Christian trust in Jesus. Jesus does not appear to connect faith with people's religions, let alone with specific doctrinal beliefs. In Matthew 8 vs10, Jesus is surprised at the Roman officer's attitude and responds saying "I tell you. I have not found anyone in Israel with faith like this."  and in Matthew 15: Jesus tells the Canaanite woman "You are a woman of great faith! What you ask will be done for you."

    Along with the Old Testament prophets, Jesus also warns that it is not religious observance that will earn a place in the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says

    "Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do what my Father in Heaven wants them to do".

    So faith is an attitude of obedience that allows God to use us for his purposes.

  • As you know, I resigned my membership of the Presbyterian Church over the homosexual issue. Down through the centuries gay men have been treated cruelly - they have been rejected, mocked, ridiculed, persecuted, and lynched.  Many mothers have grieved for their sons, knowing that they sons were gay and took their lives because they could not face the loneliness, isolation and rejection they would face as they grew older. Mothers seem to be much more accepting of a son or daughter who is homosexual than are fathers. Fortunately Western society has seen the error of its ways and at last accepted those who are homosexual in the same way as anyone else.
  • I marvel at how quickly this change has occurred.  Barbara and Kay and I like watching The Chase on TV - it is a quizz show involving four contestants. The compere, Bradley, generally asks them in turn what they would do with the money if they won it.  Last week one of the contestants,  a man, replied that he would take his husband on a trip together to the USA. No one showed a glimmer of surprise although it was the first time I had heard a statement like that on TV. In our country now there are two leading MPs (possibly more) in our parliament, from the two main political parties who are openly gay. 

    Returning to the title of this sermon, I would say that the essence of Christianity is in doing the will of God. And we only need to read Jesus'  "Sermon on the Mount" in Mathew's gospel to get a clear message of what God's will is. It is summed up in the so called Golden Rule - treat others as you would like them to treat you. There was an article in Indonesia's leading newspaper while I was there calling on readers to observe the golden rule: it was written by a Muslim and mentions Pope Francis speaking of the golden rule when he addressed the United States Congress a few years ago. The writer affirmed that the golden rule is at the heart of all religions. 

    To close, I believe from what Andrew Norton has said above, and the letter I received from the current Moderator in response to my resignation, that the winds of change are starting to blow through the Presbyterian Church. Like Martin Luther King I also have dream.  Not a grand dream like his, but at least a small one. I dream that the church PCANZ will come to its senses and cease its discrimination of homosexual people and will make amends, at least to some extent, by apologising sincerely to those who are homosexual for the hurt inflicted on them by the rejection and discrimination they have received from our church in the past.