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The Centrality of Jesus and the Unity of Christians

By A.R. Main


      The keyword of this Conference of Churches of Christ has been "Unity." The purpose of our gathering has been the exaltation of Christ and the promotion of His cause. We have sought to, give Him the central place in our life and thinking. So, appropriately, in this last service we combine the ideas and consider the subject of "The Centrality of Jesus and the Unity of Christians."

      Our theme is appropriate for the times as well as for the conference, for there is today a greater interest in the subject of Christian union and more discussion regarding it than ever before.

      Later in this year two World Conferences are to be held, one dealing with Faith and Order, to be convened at Edinburgh in August, and the other dealing with Life and Work to be held at Oxford. With other Christians, we, shall be represented at these gatherings. The Anglican Church Union has planned for 1940 a great conference to consider the question of union.

      In Australia, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists have recently framed proposals for union. While these, for various reasons, have been postponed by the Church Conferences or Assemblies, yet the issue is a very live one.

      Dr. Wand, Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, some months ago, in delivering the Moorhouse lectures in St. Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, dealt with the principles of early Christianity with a view to finding a basis of union, or re-union, for Christendom.

      Reasons for Unity.

      People have sometimes asked us, "Do you think there will ever be an organic union of Christians? Particularly, do you really believe that all will ever agree to unite in Christ and on a New Testament basis?" Such are NOT the questions which I now discuss. When I am asked if Christians will ever thus unite, my simple answer is: "I do not know." But I am more interested in a more important question, and give to it a very definite reply. I do know that the will of Christ our Lord is that Christians should unite.

      You may advance a score of reasons for Christian union, and perhaps a few against it, but I wish to go back to the centrality and authority of Christ for the settlement of the question.

      Consider the reasons which seem to make a demand for union and on account of which it is urged. Amongst these are the following:

      1. The folly of division and overlapping, especially in the case of communions which show little difference in either creed or polity.

      2. The cost of maintaining competing churches and separate ministries in places which could be well served by one strong church.

      3. The, feebleness and futility of much of our witness because of division. If we could take united action and speak with one voice against the trinity of social evils--drinking, gambling, vice--which assail our land, how much more effective our protests would be!

      4. The greater impact which a united Church could make on the non-Christian world. Our Lord prayed for unity "that the world may believe." The comparative pusillanimity of the Church in the face of war and preparations for war is a tragic result of disunion. It is dreadful to have to confess that a divided Church must bear no little part of the responsibility for the existence of a pagan world.

      5. Dr. Wand, in the Moorhouse lectures to which reference has been made, referred to two forces in our time which have made a movement towards re-union imperative, namely, in the sphere of morality a neo-pagan ethic, and in the sphere of politics the rise of the totalitarian state. The new morality and a system of humanistic ethics encourage man to find the end in himself and the highest law in his own convenience. The totalitarian state claims the allegiance of the individual in the, totality of his being. The complete subordination of the individual to the state runs counter to the Christian conception of the value of personality and Christ's special regard for the worth of the individual man. How can these moral and political dangers be met by a Church which is divided against itself ? A united Christian people might be able to face and settle the present world situation; a divided Christendom cannot hope to do so.

      6. The will of God. You will not think that I doubt the importance of most of the other reasons assigned for union when I say that above and beyond all others lies the revealed will of God and of the Christ whom we call our Lord and Master. Every consideration of the subject should lead us to the authority of Jesus Christ our Saviour. We have his own prayer "that they all may be one." We also have the Apostle's condemnation of division and party spirit, and his exhortation that Christians endeavour to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

      A Great Change for the Better.

      In comparatively recent years there has been a remarkable advance in Christian thinking and appreciation of the mind of the Master. As has been frequently remarked, there has been a twofold change. There is, first, a new regard for Christ. The person, character, and work of the Lord Jesus are studied and interpreted as never before. Volumes abound dealing with His life.

      We have illustrations of the new feeling in the eagerness, with which people read such works as Morton's "In the Footsteps of the Master" and Weatherhead's '"It Happened in Palestine." Again, there has been a new attitude towards the union of those who believe in Christ. Consideration of the Master's teaching has resulted both in a better spirit amongst what were not so very long ago, warring sects, and also a developing desire for the union of all those who profess to serve the same God and Father, love the same Saviour, and seek the guidance of the same Holy Spirit. These changes should cause rejoicing in every Christian heart.

      Division is rarely defended to-day; not long since it was gloried in. One of our own writers, Professor Chas. Louis Loos, writing towards the close of last century, said that he remembered a Seceder minister in Eastern Ohio, U.S.A., who used to prepare his flock for the worthy celebration of the monthly communion with such words as these: "My brethren, I exhort you to abhor all other denominations, especially the Catholics." It would be difficult to match such a word to-day! The return to Christ has meant the learning from Him of a new and better spirit.

      The Sin of Division.

      There is a new sense, developing wonderfully, of the sinfulness of division. You to whom I directly speak, and members of Churches of Christ generally, will know that for nearly a hundred and thirty years our preachers have spoken of the sinfulness of sectarianism. They did that at a time when the declaration was almost peculiar to them. Now, happily, this isolation is removed and there is general agreement that wilful division is sin.

      An important booklet on union was issued a few months ago by the Victorian section of the Australian Regional Committee of the World Conference of Faith and Order. Four essays on "The Approach to Union" were contributed by Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Church leaders. The writers of these articles go far beyond a mere statement of the desirability of union. They take the position which preachers of Churches of Christ have consistently maintained, that disunion is sin. Dr. Cranswick, Bishop of Gippsland, writes: "There is another reason, and that a dominating one, which makes the Church of England sound the note of urgency in the unity movement. That is the sinfulness of division." The Methodist representative declares that "Methodist leaders clearly recognised the sinfulness of division." The of closing sentence of the Presbyterian article and of the book states that "our divisions are a grievous hindrance to the progress of Christ's cause," and that "our supreme aim in union is Christ's aim when He prayed that His disciples might be one 'that the world may believe.'" This is high and familiar ground to us.

      A Greater Advance Necessary.

      Yet more is needed. It is easier to acknowledge in words that Christ is Master, that He wills the unity of His followers and that neglect of His will is sinful, than it is to give Him the central place in our lives.

      The centrality of Jesus is the key to the unity problem. We may put Him at the circumference of our religious thought instead of at the centre. The Apostle Paul reminded the Christians of His day that Christ had been made the head of the body, the Church, "that in all things He might have the pre-eminence." As truly as an individual Christian, so the Church may put something other than Christ at the centre of its life and thought. As we review the course of Church history, can we not see that He has at times been found away out on the circumference classified with the opinions and speculations of men? It is ours to bring Him to the centre and make loyalty and devotion to Him the test of fellowship and the bond of union.

      In What Terms Does Our Religion Express Itself?

      In what terms should our religion tend to express itself? In what terms is it revealed in the Scriptures that the life and faith of the Apostolic Church expressed themselves? The answer to each question is, In terms of Christ.

      We, as members of Churches of Christ, have been seeking to reproduce the simple Christianity of the New Testament. May we, as the days go by, ever regard Jesus Christ as our Lord, and make Him the centre, the focal point of all our thinking.

      Christianity is Christo-centric. Let us see that our individual and church life are so.

      May I illustrate how truly the whole of our religion is or should be expressed in terms of Christ?

      1. We honour Him by wearing His name. Redeemed men and women, called out from the world, belong to the Church of God or the Church of Christ. It would be a great advance if every Christian would be content to wear His name. In modern times the name is becoming increasingly advocated. The United Church in China bears this name--Church of Christ. Dr. E. Stanley Jones advocates it as the name of the United Church. "Church of Christ," when used in a scriptural sense and not in an exclusive or sectarian way, is a uniting name. Would that all believers would be content to use it.

      2. What is the Church's message? How truly that centred in Christ in the Apostolic days is clearly revealed. The preacher then was said to have "preached Jesus" or "preached Christ." Paul wished to know nothing among men but Christ and Him crucified. His Gospel is the one authorised message.

      3. The creed of the Church is definitely expressed in terms of Christ. Church historians of all denominations agree that the earliest Christian confession of faith was a simple confession of the Lordship and Membership of Jesus. The only creedal subscription asked as a condition of baptism and Church membership was a confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Men may differ on a thousand subordinate points; faith in and loyalty to Him is the tie that binds.

      4. The ordinances of the Church similarly exalt Christ.In the initiatory rite of baptism the subject is baptised "into Christ." He dies to sin with Christ; he is "buried with Christ," and he rises from the symbolic grave to walk in a new life in a with Christ. The Lord's Supper also centre in Him. On every Lord's Day we "do this in remembrance" of Him.

      5. But Christianity consists in more than name, message, creed and ordinance. It is primarily a life. That life expresses itself also in terms of Christ. The Apostle wrote: "For me to live is"--what? What word would you, have to supply to make a truthful declaration? Self? Business? Pleasure? Paul's statement was, "For me to live is Christ." He wrote of "Christ who is our life." Oh, that we might all so truly be expressing Christ in our lives that with such humility and confidence as had the Apostle we might each one say: "I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live; and yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself up for me."

      6. This present life does not end all. A future life awaits us. For the Christian, that also expresses itself in terms of Christ. He is described as "Christ our hope." We are "joint heirs with Christ." If we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him. We are now children of God; what we shall be doth not yet appear, but we know that when He appears "we shall be like Him for we shall see Him even as He is."

      In such a way, I think, by a due regard for the will of our Lord and Saviour, by putting Him in the very centre of our thought and life, we shall be likely to solve the problem of unity. Drawing ever nearer to Him, we shall come nearer to one another.

      Oh, that we might all give heed to the admonition of the inspired Apostle and endeavour to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," remembering that God's word reveals that there are seven elements in this most desirable thing described as "the unity of the Spirit"; for "there is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all."

      Love the Secret of Union.

      Especially it has to be remembered that it is in a common love for Christ our Saviour that we find the uniting principle. We have been thinking of His redemptive love this Eastertide, and the remembrance of His love and sacrifice has evoked a fresh response of love in our hearts. When Christian hearts are aglow with this love, a closer union should not, be impossible.

      You recall the familiar story of the man who saw in a picture gallery the representation of our Lord's suffering for sinful humanity. He looked, he stood in adoration, long and earnestly he gazed, the tears came to his eyes, and in ecstasy be clasped his hands and exclaimed, "Bless Him! I love Him." One who overheard the words presently came up, and, taking him by the hand, said, "Brother, I love Him, too." Others gathered, and ere long an adoring group stood by the picture of the crucified Lord--a company united in heart, loving because He first loved them. Love was the reason for the sacrificial Cross. In love is the secret of union to be found. May we all come to possess an abiding love for Him, such a love as will enable us to keep His commandments, and also to love all for whom Christ died.

      Our appropriate prayer to-day is "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity."

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