Sunday, 12 January 2020

‘The Way, the Truth, and the Life?’

‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.’

This claim of Jesus of Nazareth is as shocking today as it was when he first made it; but for different reasons. Then, because it was a claim to deity; today, because it is a claim to exclusivity: then, it was a claim to be the only way to God and to reconciliation with him; today, it is viewed by many to be the arrogant, the unpopular, the unwarrantable claim that there is only one way to knowing God and to being reconciled to him.

In today’s cultural climate three popular modern misconceptions abound: The first is that all religions are essentially the same. But even a brief examination reveals that this is not so: whilst they may appear superficially the same, fundamentally they are quite different and at odds with each other. For example, Islam never speaks of God as ‘love’ but only as a God of ‘justice’; whereas Christianity (orthodox and biblical) insists on both. Secondly, the popular secularist dogma that all religions are private affairs - they may be the truth for you but they are not necessarily the truth for me! And, thirdly, the belief – albeit illogical and without evidence - that a unique revelation is either impossible or somehow unfair. Embarrassingly for their proponents or adherents, it quickly becomes clear that all these arise from sheer intellectual laziness, a refusal to examine and analyse all the facts and evidence available.

God’s answer however to the human problem is not many ways but one way. His solution is at once unique yet universal, exclusive but this in order to be inclusive – inclusive of all his creatures.

It should come as no surprise then that this unique and fact-based (rather than subjective and pluriform) truth concerning Jesus is so shocking to so many today. It challenges and deeply offends modern moral and philosophical ideas, modern dogmas, modern social taboos, the proud, the scientist who says there is no God, and the list goes on.

Take the theory of scientific materialism for example, one in which the atheist scientist states dogmatically, ‘I cannot believe the claims of Christ to be God.’ Why? Because it undermines the world view to which he or she is wedded; because in a philosophy of scientific materialism there is no place for a personal agent in creation. Indeed, as the President of the American Scientific Association recently said, ‘At all costs we must not let ‘God’ get a foot in the door.’ That Science and the idea of God are not at odds is rationally, cogently, and often very amusingly set out by the likes of John Lennox and other scientists who are Christians, some of whom are Nobel Prize winning scientists. That such exclusiveness and uniqueness is for our universal personal benefit is vehemently decried. ‘I came to save’, said Jesus; ‘to bring life in abundance’, and so that a person might know God the Creator not just as idea or object but as person and Father.

Today then, we Christians are on thin ice here…socially, politically, and morally; but by no means either theologically or philosophically. Why? Because of the historical facts of ‘REVELATION’. It is a basic tenet of Christianity that we believe what we believe not because we have invented it but because it has been revealed to us in the fact of Jesus Christ’s historical existence and confirmed by the historical fact of his resurrection: and these are confirmed not only by the most compelling historical evidence but also by the testimony of God’s promised Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds and in the knowledge of his risen presence with us when we ‘take up our cross and follow him’.

The uniqueness of this ‘revelation’, of this all-consuming and all-enlightening truth, is of course a problem for many today. But truth tends to uniqueness, to constraints, to boundaries, to prescriptions, to what is okay and what is not, to, dare I say it, absolutes…does it not? Ask a doctor or an accountant! And yet, today, Christianity (any religion in fact) is considered by many as private opinion or preference rather than public fact and universal truth, and therefore of an altogether different category from, say, maths or medicine.

So what are Christians to do? Remain in the cosy comfort of this ‘saving’ truth? Surely not when so many are confused, lost, ignorant…. whether they realise it or not. (Yes, I know they very often don’t take kindly to being told so!!) No, it is the Church’s business – the business of all of us who call ourselves ‘Christians’ - to be signposts to Jesus, to live as children of the Kingdom with kingdom values in our hearts and to proclaim him; not stay silent. Yes of course, as St. Paul reminds us, ‘we have this treasure in jars of clay’; we are flawed and fickle people with no right or reason to boast of ourselves. But his light can shine through when we allow it, when we allow him to guide and where necessary change us, and when we do not try to hide or keep it to ourselves! So, when people say ‘what’s the meaning of life? What do you say to them? When people say, ’I hurt, life’s unfair, why is there so much suffering in the world, what happens to us when we die?’ What do you say? Well, what do you say? ‘My adherence to modern philosophical dogma, moral inclusiveness, and contemporary social taboos demand that I neither offend nor warn you’? If you saw a blind person swimming in the sea just beyond a sign saying, ‘Danger: Sharks!’ would you leave them there in their ignorance and blindness?

Let’s assume for just a few moments that Jesus’ claim is true. (Actually, it’s the only rational and reasonable conclusion that makes sense of the evidence! I really would encourage anyone wanting to search for God to start not with philosophical questions about the existence of God but with the historical person and historical record of Jesus, a record of the quality and integrity that no other historical records of that time come anywhere near to matching - this the considered judgement of the best of secular historians themselves.)

When we consider the reason for Jesus’ coming - that the fact of human sin is a barrier between humankind and God our creator - a barrier that needs to be broken if we are to be reconciled to him - we find that the God whom Jesus revealed is a perfectly gracious and merciful God but that he is also perfectly just and hates evil. So, He himself offers the solution to the human predicament. It’s actually mind-blowingly simple if a person puts aside for a moment their philosophical, political or moral prejudices, their pride and their wilfulness. Fascinatingly, children get this where adults don’t - or refuse to! When you’ve just come in from playing in the garden or (for the benefit of adults here) weeding the flower bed, and you are offered the most beautiful, delicious, Victoria sponge cake by your mother - filled with cream and adorned with strawberries, is it unreasonable of your mother who, don’t forget, made the cake and made you, to ask you first to wash your filthy paws? This is just an everyday picture of what God is doing though Jesus for you and for me, for everyone, but obviously at a considerably more profound moral level.

Sin acts as a barrier between us and God, just as the aluminium film does between the coffee and you in your Nespresso capsule: it needs to be broken and only God can do this. But along with forgiveness for sin comes the offer of new life. The offer is life – life in abundance with him and in an ever more loving and selfless living of life now and then on into eternity.

You see, if it is true, if Jesus was and is whom he claimed to be, then it‘s a no brainer! So I say again, start your enquiry with Jesus…his life, his teaching, his claims, his resurrection: examine the evidence with an open mind!

But in examining all the evidence - and not just the bits that appeal to you! - there will come a very sobering discovery. We have been warned. We will be judged when we leave this life and meet God face to face. Anglican clergy are no longer supposed to talk about this because it upsets people. But Jesus did; he said that it was the very reason for his mission, his mission to ‘save’ us from this judgement through faith in him, in his paying the debt on our behalf, the debt we owe to a perfect God because of our sinfulness and selfishness, the debt to God’s perfect justice. At funerals I often encounter in the most non-religious people a deep-seated feeling or suspicion that when they die they will have to give an account of their lives to someone or something. If a person has any sense of justice at all, it should come as no surprise that God does too!

The reasons for not taking Jesus at his word I have found, and without exception, are not based on a genuine, impartial, and open-minded examination of the facts and the evidence but on the moral challenge of those words – his challenge to a person’s pride and to their greater desire to formulate their own moral code (with its countless ‘get out of jail free’ cards!) And countless times I have encountered this in people whom often we would label nice, pleasant, good, doers of good deeds, even ‘religious’ - to a certain degree at any rate. But Jesus said that theirs will not be enough goodness or niceness or religion to get to the Father, to the Truth, to eternal life, to the answers to our deepest questions and perplexities if there is no room for Christ in their lives. To receive Christ requires, above all else, honesty about ourselves and humility in ourselves.

The words we read in the bible are designed to make us Christians – practising believers in God’s perfect solution to the human problem. It is an offer because that is the way of love, and love cannot force itself upon anyone. Look then at Jesus and tell me God does not love you personally. Look again and tell me you don’t need to repent and accept his offer. Look again at Jesus and tell me you owe him nothing, not even the courtesy of the time to check the facts about someone who said that they had died instead of you and for you. Many either do not know this or have rejected this: that is the greatest sadness of the human race; that is why God chose you and me to help such people to ‘see’. And helping such a person to ‘see’ is one of the greatest joys in life you will ever experience. ‘He is the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through him.’ This is the truth, this is our message. Will you share it or will you ‘pass by on the other side’? If you do, you will be breaking both of the Great Commandments. Yes, it’s that important!

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