Donald MacLaren-St James Truro NS
The 16th – century Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and others—were derisively nicknamed, “the Sola – ists.” They distilled the essence of the gospel in five Latin slogans using the word sola, meaning only, solely or exclusively: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, to God’s glory alone). But, are we still sola – ists today?
In July, I spent a week in Israel/Palestine where my days were filled with greetings of shalom and salaam. This is a world filled with linguistic and religious diversity: geographically small, where the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths seek to live faithfully in a charged political, social and historical context. What does Christ alone mean in such a context?
On the plane home I began working on a course on John’s gospel that I taught later in the summer in Havana, Cuba. Cuba, a secular context, yet one in which over 50 evangelical/protestant religious groups, not to mention Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Baha’i among others, are registered with the Office of Religious Affairs, which is directly connected to the ideological section of the Communist party. This is a context of religious plurality in which the majority of believers are members of the Afro – Cuban Santeria movement, a syncretism of Catholicism and the native religions of the original African slaves. Again, what does Christ alone mean there?
The experience of such diversity encourages a deeper reflection on the importance of context to any discussion of Christ alone. In the context of the 16th century, Christ alone affirmed that salvation came solely through Christ, not mediated through the church, as had traditionally been proclaimed. For a reforming movement seeking to establish and define a new context for faithfulness, this became a critical statement of faith.
John’s gospel presents another distinct and complex context, a context in which members of that community, a sectarian and beleaguered community, part of the Jewish diaspora, sought to live faithfully. It was a community that found refuge in Alexandria after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, yet also a community that was on the margins of the synagogue, increasingly disassociated from the traditional forms of Judaism, betwixt and between in terms of defining itself in a new place. For this reforming movement, not the Torah but the affirmation of the Word, the Word which was with God at the beginning, the Word which became flesh in Jesus Christ—Christ the way, the truth and the life, the only way to God, established the context for faithful discipleship in an alien, threatening environment.
What about us? We are not 16th -
century Reformers; we are not the first – century Johannine community. What might Christ alone mean in our context—or, perhaps, what shouldn’t it mean? Surely the affirmation of Christ alone should not lead to a smugness on our part, as if Christians of a certain sort have exclusive access to the mind of God: a God who says, “I will be who I will be,” a God of surprises, a God who has consistently refused to be boxed in by our limited understandings (1 Corinthians 13:12).
What then does it mean? The religious context of Canada is changing. We experience it in congregational life; we see it all around us. It is in the midst of the challenges presented by this new (and for some, threatening) context that we are called to define what Christ alone means. What new thing is God doing among us? What is the model for faithful discipleship provided by Christ alone? What does the life and ministry of the one who crossed boundaries mean for us, the one who made God known in new ways, the one who was sent to teach about the love of God for the whole world?
I believe God is calling us as a church to deep and likely painful theological reflection, not unlike what the author of John’s gospel or the 16th – century Reformers were called to do in their contexts. It will require us to ask what it means to be reformed yet always reforming, what it means to follow the way of Christ in our world of diversity and difference.
In my work of preparing students for ministry, it calls upon me to do at least two things. First, it challenges me to reflect on the boundaries I have created that may be an impediment to what God is calling us to be in our time. It also calls on me to risk living as fully as I can those gospel values for which Christ alone provided the example, gospel values that are much more focused on love and acceptance than exclusion and marginalization.