Pentecost 4 – Summer Series
June 21, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.14a, 22-36
We continue our summer sermon series, "Singing Our Faith," as we put the beloved songs of faith, both old and new, in conversation with scripture and our daily lives. Today’s focus song is In Christ Alone, suggested by Alice Wu who says,
[T]he Bible list[s] lots of saints, but only Jesus Christ is my best friend, my savior, my Lord and my God. Because Christ die for me on the cross, through His resurrection bring new life unto me. Christ alone is my solid rock, my foundation, my strength, and my all in all.In Christ Alone was written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend in 2001, their first collaboration. Getty says that although there was no personal connection at first, they thought they’d try to do something together and see what happened. Getty’s idea was to tell the whole life of Christ and what it meant using Irish melodies. Not only does Getty have an Irish background, he wanted and could imagine a large group singing the song. In other words, it was to be for congregations. So, he composed several tunes and sent them to Townend and Townend chose this one. After Townend spent three months writing lyrics, they got together for editing, developing and rewriting. The rest, as they say, is history.
Getty and Townend are storytellers, which with compelling music makes In Christ Alone so powerful. They are committed to songs that are deep in meaning and yet simplicity in their sing-ability. They understand our need of the gospel story to sustain us throughout the week and write songs to do just that.
In our Acts text today, Peter also understands the need to tell the Christ story to his audience. The occasion is his so-called Pentecost speech, the oration he makes following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the gathered believers. In answer to the accusation that they are drunk because they are speaking in other languages, Peter makes this response. He tells us that Jesus’ arrival was not discontinuous with the past but was predicted by his ancestor, King David. Jesus was chosen as God’s anointed, the Christ or Messiah, who died for us, was raised from the dead and now reigns at God’s right hand.
As I thought about this song, the Acts text and the claims they make I wondered what Christ alone means for us today. During the Reformation 500 years ago the “solas” as they were called (“alones”) were a response to those who had added more to the basic gospel message. Thus the Reformers insisted upon grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone and scripture alone. We are saved by grace through faith and not by anything we can do. This happened through the unique Christ event and is fully explicated in scripture. Other writings may help us understand this event, but cannot add to it.
But what does Christ alone mean in our culture today where world religions and atheists are not only near but also our neighbors? Indeed, Keith Getty tells of his struggle at university to understand and embrace the faith of his upbringing amid an “unbelieving, universalist and multi-religious culture.” He says, “It was a journey to believe in the uniqueness of Christ, the Scriptures and the gospel story.”
There have been two classic approaches to the questions of how Christians talk with other religions. The first, universalism, says that Christianity is just one path among many that leads to “God.” Although this position seemingly makes for less conflict, it guts our understanding of Jesus’ uniqueness. The opposite position, the so-called confessional stance, argues that Jesus is the only way to God and pushes conversion of all people to Christianity. Although this position maintains the uniqueness of Jesus, it seems more coercive than Jesus was in his relationship with others.
In his book, The Open Secret, Leslie Newbigin argues for a third way that preserves Christianity’s confessional claims to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ but also allows for conversation with people of other faiths. Newbigin suggests we enter into dialogue by being vulnerable just as Christ was vulnerable. We empty ourselves, not of our convictions about God and Jesus but of our pride and arrogance that somehow we know God fully and have nothing to learn. We recognize the other we are talking with as God’s child, too. We humbly acknowledge that it is the Holy Spirit that does the converting and that through conversation with the other we might be converted ourselves, not to another religion but to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is.
In Christian Dogmatics, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson make the observation that “Christ’s uniqueness lies in his universality” and by that I think they remind us that Jesus has something to say to everyone in every situation. Jesus is not the exclusive property of the church. In other words, through the story of Jesus the Christ, we have the assurance that, all evidence to the contrary, God is working in the world today.
As I have been thinking about the Charleston shootings, I wonder if such an approach of humility and vulnerability might be what is needed today. I don’t think an approach of “all people need is Jesus” would be helpful. That might lead to another crusade or inquisition. Instead, what if we admitted that intended or not, we are a part of the problem of racism in this country and must be part of the solution. I don’t know what that means, but we need to figure out a way to address this problem or we will be continually lighting candles.
Meanwhile, we do confess that, “In Christ alone our hope is found.” Amen.