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is Christianity Repressive?

Purpose To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships To participate in God’s mission to the world  Opening Prayer Almighty God, you alone can order the unruly wills and passions of sinful men: Grant to your people that they may love what you command and desire what you promise, that so, among the many and varied changes of the world, our heart may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Responsive Prayer—Psalm 36 Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; Your judgments are like the great deep. How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. For with you is the fountain of life; In your light do we see light. Summary and Connection In his recent radio interview, the famed “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins called himself a “cultural Christian.” Dawkins’ comment was prompted by the cultural shift in the UK precipitated by the striking growth of Islam, which, according to Dawkins, is a radically intolerant and hostile religion. Dawkins, however, was quick to clarify that he was not a follower of Jesus or a believer of the teachings of Christianity. Dawkins’ interview provides a clear picture of our culture where Christian moral and ethical values are celebrated to the extent of being taken for granted, while Christianity itself is considered as a repressive religion.  In our spring sermon series, Good for You?, we are focusing on some of the contemporary challenges to the Christian faith. We live in a culture where many people assume that Christianity devalues the self and distorts human identity. Christianity, according to many, is repressive as it robs human beings of their fundamental right of autonomy. However, is that a true assessment of Christianity? This week we will address the issue by answering one of the common questions against the claims of Christian faith — is Christianity repressive? This week’s discussion is from Mark 8:34-38. In these verses, Jesus presents three radical demands. He provides a strong rationale for his demands, and he ends with a solemn warning. Firstly, Jesus demands his followers to deny the self. Notice how Jesus, rather than affirming the self, is calling us to deny our self. It is vital to understand that following Jesus is a lifelong commitment that requires courage and sacrifice. Following Jesus is not a recreational activity or a part time voluntary service to boost your moral score. Many people wrongly conclude that Jesus here is asking his followers to adopt some kind of asceticism — denying the material things and pleasure, or that he is demanding self-discipline. One commentator describes Christian self-denial like this: “It is not the denial of something to the self, but the denial of the self itself. It is the opposite of self-affirmation, or putting value on one’s being…of claiming rights and privileges peculiar to one’s special position in life or even those normally believed to belong to the human being as such.” In verses 35-37, Jesus provides a strong rationale that is fundamentally different from how we perceive the good life. According to Jesus, the authentic way to experience the good life here and for eternity is by denying the self and carrying the cross for the sake of the gospel. Jesus’ words were repugnant to his audience as the cross was a symbol of agonizing punishment and humiliating death. Christianity offers a radical definition of the self and the good life — the only way to save one’s life is by bearing the cross and by identifying oneself with Jesus, who bore the cross. In verses 36 and 37, Jesus asks two vital questions that redefine the value of human life, and the true essence of human identity. Human life and identity are infinitely more precious and irreplaceable than the so-called “good life” and identity the world claims to offer. Jesus ends with a solemn warning for us: would you be ashamed of Jesus and continue to seek identity from the world that is filled with sin and shame, or would you seek and find your identity in Jesus who calls us to share both in his sufferings and glory? Discussion Questions 1. Looking at the Bible Observation: Read the passage privately. What does the text say? What according to you is the theme of this passage? Do you notice keywords, parallels, or surprises? Read verse 34: what are the three radical demands made by Jesus to his followers? Discuss the nature and implications of Jesus’ demands. 2. Looking at Jesus At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. According to you, how does fulfill the demands he is placing on his followers here? How does Jesus’ fulfillment of the demands make him a worthy candidate to commit our lives to? 3. Looking at Our Hearts In this passage we learn an important lesson about the nature of  Christian faith: It is a lifelong commitment that requires self denial, courage and sacrifice. Take a moment to reflect: On a day-day basis, do you see yourself following Jesus as a lifelong commitment, or more on  a volunteer basis? Share. How does self-denial look for you? For example: For the ones who tend to be proud, it means denying the inordinate desire for status and honor, and looking to Jesus as the source of honor? 4. Looking at Our World How might this passage help you as a community group to reflect the gospel freedom in a city that looks down at Christianity as repressive? Sending God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.

April 21, 2024 | Read

Is Christianity Intolerant?

“Tolerance” and “inclusivity” are principles of high value in our modern society. Likewise, one of the most common critiques of Christianity these days is its perceived lack of tolerance and inclusivity. When we take a look at Luke 13, however, we find a picture of Jesus that illustrates, yes, his shockingly exclusive commitment to God, but also the shockingly inclusive nature of his relationships. When we examine Jesus’ actions and words, we find that what he offers — and therefore what Christianity offers — goes far beyond tolerance. It is a radical love extended to all, as all have sinned and are in need of rescue. Watch this sermon as we consider the inclusive hope of the gospel.

April 14, 2024 | Watch

Is Christianity Intolerant?

Purpose To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships To participate in God’s mission to the world  Opening Prayer Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth so that they may return into the way of righteousness: Grant to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s service that they may renounce those things that are contrary to their profession and follow all such things as are agreeable to it; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Responsive Prayer—Psalm 96 Oh sing to the Lord a new song; Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, bless his name; Tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all the peoples! Summary and Connection Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician and physicist who also, after a profound conversion experience, thought deeply about philosophy and the Christian faith. Among his writings, he left this observation about Christianity: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.”  If we follow Pascal’s steps, we’ll note that, first, no one is neutral about Christianity. If Jesus is truly who he says he is, then we have to completely change our lives, and no one can be neutral about that. Second, Christianity can actually be respected if we respect our neighbors enough to give them good reasons for our hopes. Third, no one then, and no one now, is very interested in whether Christianity is true unless they are first interested in whether Christianity is good. That is why we’re in a sermon series called Good for You? and this week we are asking the question, “Is Christianity Intolerant?” In Luke 13, as Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem, a questioner asks him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Passing over all the intermediate objections, this gets right to the heart of whether Christianity is intolerant: Is Christianity eternally narrow? Is heaven going to be exclusionary? If so, how do Christians relate to those who believe otherwise? And why would anyone want to believe something so constricting?  Jesus answers the question, not with a yes-or-no statement, but with a command, saying to the crowd: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” Paradoxically, as he explains it, the narrow door leads to the broad way of life in God’s kingdom, to the feast that diverse people from all over the world are called to attend, and to a stunning reversal where the last will be first and the first will be last. Jesus combines exclusivity, his authoritative command and knowledge of salvation, with inclusivity, inviting all without exception to come to God’s table while there is still time. Yet what is most attractive as we keep reading the Gospels is how, on the cross, Jesus executes the greatest reversal of all: God for man, the first for the last, him for us. If we understand that, we just might want to learn if it’s true. Discussion Questions 1. Looking at the Bible Observation: Read the passage privately. What does the text say? What according to you is the theme of this passage? Do you notice keywords, parallels, or surprises? See if Jesus answers the question. Does he answer the question? How does he answer it? 2. Looking at Jesus At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. Considering the whole Gospel of Luke, in what different ways will Jesus live out and finally execute the great reversal of the first becoming last, and the last becoming first? How will Jesus’ great reversal draw the world to himself? 3. Looking at Our Hearts Do you consider Jesus’ teaching here to be narrow and exclusive, or broad and inclusive? Could it be both? How should the answer change us? 4. Looking at Our World If Jesus is drawing people from all over the world, and he is, and if worldly orders are being reversed, and they are (incrementally now and finally in the new creation), what should that mean for our posture towards others in the church? What should that mean for our posture towards the world? In what ways should we be narrow, and in what other ways should we be broad? Sending God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.

April 14, 2024 | Read

Is Christianity Sexist?

In order to address what the Bible has to say about men and women, it’s important to consider the broad sweep of the Bible’s message. When we do that, we discover that the Bible affirms the equality, the complementarity, and the unity of the sexes.

March 13, 2024 | More...

Will Science Dispel Christian Faith?

Contrary to what people think, modern science and Christian faith are not in conflict with one another because science can only answer certain questions, science addresses different questions, and there are some questions science can never answer.

February 7, 2024 | More...

Beyond Morality: Living a Life of Worship

When most of us think of the “good life,” we are not merely imagining an ethical or moral life but a life that is truly worth living, even in the face of the existential problems with which we must contend. Luc Ferry, a French philosopher and self-proclaimed atheist, offers this interesting thought experiment: Imagine we could wave a magic wand and cause everyone living today to begin treating one another perfectly, with equal dignity and respect. There would be no more war, genocide, racism, or xenophobia. There would be no need for a police force or a standing army. Our judicial system and prisons would eventually disappear. And yet, Ferry suggests that even if we were to wave that magic wand, the most profound existential challenges we face would still not be resolved. This is how he puts it,  “Still—and here I have to weigh each one of my words—none (I really mean none) of our most profound existential problems would be resolved if this came to pass. Nothing, even in a perfect realization of the most sublime morality, would prevent us from aging; from witnessing, powerless, the appearance of wrinkles and white hair; from falling sick, dying, and seeing our loved ones die; from worrying about the outcome of our children’s education or from struggling to achieve what we want for them. Even if we were saints, nothing would guarantee us a fulfilled emotional life.” The point is that morality is indispensable to human life. And yet, it is not enough.  We read in the story of David in 1 and 2 Samuel about the importance of living a life of worship before God. David is far from perfect, but that is not what matters. What matters is that whether winning a great victory or committing an egregious sin, David lives a life of repentance and faith. Whether in triumph or defeat, hope or despair, David does not run away from God. He runs towards God. And that is what fills his life with enduring meaning, value, and purpose. What Is Worship? The problem with religion is that it leads us to think of God like a genie in a bottle—rub the lamp and out will pop God to grant you your wishes. Religious people tend to think God is there to serve us, to fulfill all our dreams, and to make us feel good about ourselves. We assume that if we are good enough, pious enough, zealous enough, devout enough, if we say all the right prayers, observe all the right rituals, and keep all of the right rules, then God is obligated to bless us and to make our life go well. We are not really interested in God for who he is—we are merely using God to get whatever we want. And if God does not deliver, then we become angry, bitter, and resentful because he did not fulfill our expectations.  It is critical to realize that the real God will challenge our dreams, not merely fulfill them. The poet W.H. Auden once wrote that a Christian is someone who says, “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.” God is not here to serve us. We are here to serve him. In fact, in Hebrew the word “worship” and “serve” are the very same word. God is not here to worship us. We are here to worship him. God is not supposed to follow us according to our terms. Rather we are supposed to follow God on his terms. And if we do, then he promises that he will bless us—not out of necessity, but as a pure gift.  Christianity offers this unique view of salvation: God relates to us on the basis of sheer grace, which means that a relationship with God is not something that we achieve through our own efforts, but something we can only receive with empty hands. Religion leads us to say, “I obey, and therefore, God accepts me.” But the gospel tells us, “God accepts me, despite my sin, through the substitutionary sacrifice of another, and therefore I obey.” We strive to love, serve, and honor God, not motivated by mere duty or obligation, but motivated by gratitude and joy for what he has first done for us—not as a way to try to win God's love, but in order to demonstrate that we already have it. If we know that God has done absolutely everything that is necessary in order to cover our sin and put us in right relationship with himself, then that will infuse our life with insuppressible joy, regardless of our life circumstances or personal challenges. There is, of course, a rightful place for lament as we mourn those aspects of our lives or within the wider world that are not yet in line with his purposes. Nevertheless, the foundation of a Christian’s’ life must be one of joy. The English author G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.” Why Worship Matters When Isaiah has a vision of the Lord seated enthroned above the ark of the cherubim in Isaiah 6:5, he immediately says, “‘Woe is me! For I am lost!’” Isaiah acknowledges that he is a sinner and “a man of unclean lips.” But despite Isaiah’s sin, God does not strike him down. Instead, one of the seraphim flies to the altar, the place of the sacrifice, and removes one of the burning coals and places it on the lips of Isaiah saying: “‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” God has now made Isaiah clean.  This, of course, was just a vision. We get something far better. There are only two places in the New Testament where the Greek word for “mercy seat” or “place of atonement” is used—once in Romans 3 and once in Hebrews 9. In both cases, “mercy seat” or “place of atonement” is used not to describe a place but a person. Hebrews 10 tells us that the blood of bulls and goats could never do anything to actually take away people's sin. This is just a symbol meant to prepare us for the ultimate high priest who does not enter the most holy place within a humanly constructed temple, but rather he enters into the presence of the divine being himself. And there he offers not the sacrifice of an animal, but rather the sacrifice of his very own self. He gives himself for us so that our sin might be covered by his blood, and so that God in his mercy might forgive us and cleanse us so that we can enter into his holy presence and live. Jesus is the mercy seat and the place of atonement. He is the true prince of peace and the one who makes it possible for us to approach the throne of grace and live. And the mercy seat is open, still.  The gospel tells us that God is so holy and you and I really are so flawed that Jesus had to die. There was no other way for us to be able to enter into God's holy presence and live. And yet, at the same time, God is so loving and you and I are so valuable, that Jesus was willing to die for us. When you take these two truths deep into your heart and into your life, then that is what unlocks the joy. Morality and ethics are essential and important, but they are not sufficient to actually live the “good life.”  The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a historic document of faith from the 1600s, begins with this question: What is the chief end of man? In other words, what is the meaning of life? The answer is short: To glorify God and to enjoy him forever. As C.S. Lewis astutely observed, those two commands are actually one and the same. In commanding us to worship him, God is inviting us to enjoy him. The only way in which we truly learn to live the “good life” is through worship, by living our lives before the God of grace. And when we do, it will fill our lives with insuppressible joy.  ___ Adapted from David and The Good Life: Worship, a sermon delivered by Jason Harris on October 16, 2022. Listen to the sermon or read the full transcript. "Christ and Contemporary Culture" is a journal written by Jason Harris which reflects on the intersection between Jesus Christ and our contemporary culture. If you are skeptical or resistant to Christianity, the hope is that you might pause to reflect on your pre-existing ideas about the way things are and perhaps think again. For those who have embraced Christianity, these posts will serve to encourage you in your ability to communicate the gospel in a way that takes our current cultural context seriously. Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee

May 18, 2023 | Read

Reclaiming the Importance of Friendship

The depth and the quality of our friendships determine the depth and the quality of our lives. And yet, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. The number of people who say that they do not have a single close friend has quadrupled over the last 30 years, and nearly one in four people say they have absolutely no one to talk to.  In his chapter on friendship from his 1960 work, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis said, “Ancient people considered friendship to be the highest and the best, the happiest and the most fully human of all the loves. And yet we modern people tend to ignore it, which means that friendship is the one love that you are least likely to experience.”  The Friendship Between Jonathan and David Perhaps there is no better place to turn in order to understand the importance of true friendship than 1 Samuel 18 which describes the bond between Jonathan and David. Jonathan is Saul’s son and the next in line to the throne, but God has anointed David, an unlikely shepherd, to be the future king of Israel. Despite Saul’s incurable jealousy and the conflict his rampant suspicion causes, Jonathan and David share a deep friendship. Their bond reveals the key ingredients to any meaningful friendship: a common spirit, a common commitment, and a common vision. A Common Spirit The first thing we are told about Jonathan is that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Jonathan recognizes a kindred spirit in David, which reflects an important aspect of friendship. Friends see the same truth which cultivates a deep unity of spirit. Friends, therefore, are not afraid to share their innermost thoughts or feelings because they know that the other person will understand, even if they do not see things exactly the same way. Friends are willing to be completely open because they do not fear that the other person will hold anything they say against them.  A Common Commitment Secondly, friends share a common commitment. We may not always like it, but friendship often entails obligations. That is explicitly the case with Jonathan and David. 1 Samuel 18:3 tells us that Jonathan “made a covenant with David.” A covenant is a relationship based on promises which entails both privileges and responsibilities. Some people assume that a covenant is the same thing as a contract, but while they are very similar, there are some important differences between the two. In a contract, two or more parties enter into an agreement with one another, out of their own self-interest, in order to pursue a mutually agreed upon objective. In a covenant, two or more people make binding promises of love and loyalty to one another in order to accomplish something together that they could never do on their own. A contract is inherently transactional, but a covenant is inherently relational. Considering the hostility that Saul demonstrated towards David, it is understandable why the covenant between Jonathan and David was necessary. Their friendship was caught in the clash of competing dynasties: the dynasty of Saul and the promised future dynasty of David. Even though Jonathan is Saul's son, he gives his allegiance to David, and the two pledge their loyalty to one another and to each other’s families forever. A Common Vision If friends are people who see the same truth and travel the same road toward the same destination, then it means that true friends also share a common vision. Jonathan and David shared God's vision that David, rather than Jonathan, would become the king. That is why in 1 Samuel 18:4, Jonathan takes his royal robe, armor, and weapons and gives them all to David. This was not just a spontaneous act of generosity on Jonathan's part to meet the need of a newfound friend. By giving David his royal apparel, he relinquishes his claim to be the king and joins David in a shared vision of God’s promised future.  In contrast to lovers, C.S. Lewis presented the essence of friendship like this: “We picture lovers face to face but friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” He went on to say that if all you want are friends, then you’ll never make any because friendship has to be about something. “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” But a true friend is someone who shares a common spirit, a common commitment, and a common vision. And for the Christian, in particular, there can be no greater mission than helping one another travel the same path towards the new heavens and the new earth that God has promised.  Unity But Not Uniformity Friends share much in common, but unity does not mean uniformity. If you are exactly like your friends in every conceivable way, then how could your friends ever challenge you or help you see things differently? What we need in our friendships is unity in diversity. Proverbs 27:17 says that just as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. As modern people, we tend to think that the essence of friendship is nonjudgmental acceptance—we should simply accept our friends as they are and affirm all of their desires. But what if there is something wrong with your friend’s desires? We need friends in our lives who do not merely accept us “just as we are” but who care so much for us that they refuse to allow us to remain “just as we are.” We need friends who are willing to lovingly speak truth into our lives in order to help us become the truest version of ourselves.  The True Friend The sad reality, however, is that no matter how strong our friendships are, even the best of friends will let us down. That is why Proverbs 18:24 tells us: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is one friend who sticks closer than a brother.” The covenantal friendship between David and Jonathan is meant to prepare us for the ultimate friendship that we can enjoy with God in and through Jesus Christ. Many people—ancient and modern—are familiar with the idea that two people could enter into a covenant with one another and the Lord would serve as a witness to those promises. But no one—ancient or modern—would have expected the God of the universe to actually enter into a covenant with human beings. And yet, that is what the God of the Bible has done. God comes to us and makes his promises of love and loyalty to us. Even though we often prove to be faithless, God remains faithful.  Jesus left his Father's throne above, giving up his royal rights, status, and position as God's one and only Son, to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. On the night before his death, Jesus gathers together with his disciples one last time. Even though he knows that moments after this Judas will betray him with a kiss, Peter will deny ever knowing him, and the rest of the disciples will abandon him and desert him in his greatest hour of need, Jesus says to them in John 15:15, and to all of us by extension: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus opens his own heart to us. He shares his innermost thoughts and feelings, holding nothing back. We were on the outside, and he brings us into the inside. He tells us that there is no greater love than that one person should give up his life for his friend. Jonathan was willing to risk his life for David, but Jesus actually lost his life for you on the cross.  Aristotle once said that it would be impossible for a god to be friends with human beings because they are too dissimilar—it would be like a man becoming friends with his tools. But that is not the message of Christianity. The message of the gospel is that the God of the universe has gone to extraordinary lengths in order to transform you and me, strangers to his promises, into friends. Even though we have failed, Jesus bears those failures. And even though we are faithless, he remains faithful. When we receive Jesus as our friend, we are then able to go out into our world in strength, proactively seeking to be a friend to others in a time when we all so desperately need one. ___ Adapted from David and The Good Life: Friendship, a sermon delivered by Jason Harris on October 2, 2022. Listen to the sermon or read the full transcript. "Christ and Contemporary Culture" is a journal written by Jason Harris which reflects on the intersection between Jesus Christ and our contemporary culture. If you are skeptical or resistant to Christianity, the hope is that you might pause to reflect on your pre-existing ideas about the way things are and perhaps think again. For those who have embraced Christianity, these posts will serve to encourage you in your ability to communicate the gospel in a way that takes our current cultural context seriously. Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee  

May 4, 2023 | Read