A sermon on Acts 4:12 by Richard Keith on 8 April 2018
I want to invite you to consider a possible near future. As you may know, we face the very real problem in the coming years of Australian citizens who have fought for ISIS in Syria coming home to Australia. But how can we ever trust them? How can we set them loose in the community?
Well, here’s one possible solution to the problem. Now, before I start, I need to point out that this “solution” is probably not legal. It’s probably not very effective. And I’m certainly not personally endorsing it. I’m not seriously suggesting this solution, I’m just using it as an illustration for a point I’m going to make later. So here goes.
We get these people who are known supporters of ISIS. I mean, we have iron clad evidence against them that they were supporters or perpetrators of terrorism. We don’t just lock them up because we are afraid of what they might do. But we charge them for the crimes that they’ve actually committed and there’s evidence of. We find them guilty in a court of law and send them to gaol. But when they’ve served their time, if they want to ever get out they have to pass this simple test. We bring them out to some public place and we film them and we get some cute kid to sing the National Anthem and we make them salute the flag and we post the video on the internet where all their terrorist friends can see it.
What greater insult can you imagine against their hopes of an Islamic state? What greater proof could you get that these people had renounced their ways and had committed themselves to the rule of Australian law in our great and wonderful land? And we make the punishment for not doing it life imprisonment. If they won’t salute the flag, they go back to gaol until they will. Like I said, it’s probably not legal or effective, but it does get the patriotic juices in our body flowing.
Now I’m not seriously suggesting this plan. But I present it to you today because it is a lot like how the Roman Empire treated the early Christians. The Romans forced the Christians to burn incense to the Emperor and if they wouldn’t, they were thrown to the lions.
It’s important to understand that the Romans didn’t actually have anything against other people’s religions. They loved other people’s religions and welcomed their gods among their own. Did the Greeks worship Zeus? That’s fine, the Romans said, he’s just the same as Jupiter. We worship him too. Did they worship Aphrodite, the goddess of love? That’s fine too, she’s just the same as Venus. Did the Egyptians worship Isis? That’s fine, the Romans worshiped Isis too. And the Romans were just as generous with their own gods. They worshipped Caesar, their own emperor, as the patron saint of their community. They believed that while he lived, Caesar’s spirit guided the empire and brought it good fortune. And when he died, Caesar went to join the other gods in paradise.
So most of all the other people in the Empire were keen to worship him too. The Greeks. The Egyptians. And others. Showing their devotion to the republic of Rome by offering incense to Caesar was just like standing for the national anthem. It was like saluting the flag. Not the Jews, of course. They had a god and they said he was the only one. But they had an excuse because the Jews were at least a real country with a long history with their own traditions. They were only being faithful to their roots. The Romans didn’t want to cause trouble for foreign people. They were more interested in keeping the peace and in making money.
But then came the Christians who followed Christ and they wouldn’t share that love for Christ with anything else. They wouldn’t worship Jupiter or Zeus. They wouldn’t show any respect for Venus or Aphrodite. They wouldn’t even show any gratitude for Caesar’s spirit which guided all things. They wouldn’t burn incense to Caesar.
Now, if burning incense to Caesar was like saluting the flag, refusing to burn incense was like burning the flag. The Christians didn’t even have the excuse of being a real country. They didn’t have a long history. In fact, they’d only started recently. It was like they were trying to be anti-social on purpose, like they were some secret society plotting to destroy the empire from within. All the Romans agreed: the Christians didn’t deserve to live. If they wouldn’t even burn incense to a statue of the emperor, which was such a small thing to ask them to do, then they couldn’t be trusted. They were thrown to the lions in the Colosseum at Rome as entertainment. It was a punishment reserved for the worst kind of criminals.
You could even be reported for something as minor as going to church. Something which you have done this morning. You didn’t have to love your neighbour. You didn’t have to forgive your enemies. You didn’t even have to go the extra mile. You only had to go to church. But if you were reported or were suspected of being a Christian for any reason, there was a simple thing you could do to avoid the lions. Something that any decent citizen of the Roman empire would and should be prepared to do. You could burn the incense to Caesar. Offer a tiny little sacrifice to his idol. Just throw the smelly powder in the fire in front of the statue of the emperor. That’s all they had to do.
So just to clarify the simple choice put to these early Christians: that’s either lions or incense, Christ or Caesar, death or the surrender of everything they stood for and held dear. An easy decision with clear alternatives. It’s not surprising that some suspected Christians chose to offer up the incense and then maybe drifted back to their ordinary pagan ways or slinked back to the church when the persecution ended. What is surprising is that many people wouldn’t. Their one confession was that Jesus Christ is Lord. That Christ, not Caesar, was the king of the world. That he was the true God and the true human being. The only mediator between heaven and earth. Our Saviour and our only hope. The judge of the living and the dead. So that to die for him was better than to live without him.
This is the unanimous testimony of all the saints. Christ alone. For example, in John chapter 20, Thomas knelt before the risen Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God.” Mark, the writer of the second Gospel, records the voice from heaven saying at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him!” John describes him in the book of Revelation as “the king of kings and Lord of lords.” The apostle Paul says of Christ in his letter to the Colossians:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation … all things have been created through him and for him. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
And again in his letter to the Philippians,
Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
And of course Peter, chief of the apostles, first bishop of Rome, said to the lame man,
“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
To the crowd that gathered to see the miracle,
“You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.”
and most clearly to the Sanhedrin,
“Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Jesus Christ is our hope and our song, our Saviour and Lord, our brother and friend. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Our prophet, priest and king. As Jesus himself said,
I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Doctors need nurses, every bowler needs a wicket keeper, but Jesus Christ needs no help to bring about our complete salvation from start to finish. He isn’t out to lunch or on holiday and so needs to work through intermediaries. He isn’t remote and uncaring and needs to be begged into action. He isn’t hidden away behind a vast bureaucracy that prevents him from seeing what needs to be done. He is the present, living Lord of his church and his world. He is both the narrow gate to life and the broad and spacious life that lies beyond the gate. He is not your imaginary friend. He is not the crutch who helps you hobble along. He is the hope of every nation. And although he is enthroned in heaven at the Father’s right hand and every saint sings his praise,
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!”
Yet he keeps his promise to the least of those who follow him,
“I am with you always to the very end of the age.”
Because Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the unanimous testimony of all the saints, those who knew him best, those who gave their lives for the Christ who gave his life for them.
Our message today is Christ alone. It is the heart and centre of the five great Reformation slogans. Christ Alone. Scripture Alone. Grace Alone. Faith Alone. The Glory of God Alone. These slogans represent not so much what we Protestants are protesting about. They are not about what we are against. But what we stand for. And Christ alone stands at their heart and centre.
Scripture alone has authority in the church, because it speaks of Jesus Christ, the church’s Lord and it reveals the good news in his name. We affirm that we are justified by faith alone, because faith trusts in the only Saviour. Faith isn’t the power of positive thinking. The power of faith comes from Christ whom it believes. We depend on grace alone, because Christ, and not the church or any saint, is the only fountain and source and channel of grace. He is the grace of God made in human flesh. And we live for the glory of God alone, the glory revealed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. The hope of glory that is ours through Christ alone.
In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light, my strength, my song. For I am His and He is mine. Bought with the precious blood of Christ. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. Because Jesus Christ is Lord, the only hope of all the saints. And so we live for him, because even to die for him would be better than to live without him.
I hope you can make it to church for the next four Sundays as we explore the 5 Alones of the Reformation further. But I hope that you can see already how they all rest on this one: Christ Alone. Because Jesus Christ, who lived and died and lives again for us, he is Lord. For there is no other name under heaven given to us by which we must be saved.