On this Foundation Sunday, it is good to remember why Jesmond Parish Church was founded 156 years ago in 1861. It was founded to be …
"a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound, Scriptural and Evangelical truth".
And how important those words are for us today in a 'post-truth' world! For now you have to define what you mean by 'truth'. Thankfully, our founders did just that when they said, it is, "sound, Scriptural and Evangelical" truth. Those three adjectives are so significant. Let me explain.
First, the truth is to be 'evangelical'. That means it is 'gospel' truth or the truth that is the 'good news' relating to Jesus. And that is because, as Article XVIII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, says (quoting Scripture) there is "only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved."
But the question then is which Jesus Christ? People have constructed, over the years, many different 'Jesuses'. They have often made up an idea of Jesus to suit their own liking. Well, our founders answered that question. They said that sound scholarship means it has to be the Jesus of the Bible. For that is the Apostolic book of first hand contemporary witnesses to Jesus. It can't be some 21st century caricature based on the bits of the Bible modern people like. So the truth has to be not only evangelical but "Scriptural [or biblical] and Evangelical".
However, nowadays in our pluralistic world, it is fashionable to be "Scriptural" or "biblical" but still come up with quite non-biblical views. So the question is, how do you interpret the Bible? Again our founders were clear. They said you need to have not only "Scriptural and Evangelical truth", but "sound, Scriptural and Evangelical truth". And what does that mean? Well, for Anglicans it is the way of interpreting the Bible as expressed in Article XX of the Thirty-nine. That Article contains the sentence which says:
" … it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
That is to say, while of course, there is not to be any forced harmonization, there is to be a common sense reading of the Bible as a whole, and not just parts of it that you like. So you interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, but also the New in the light of the Old. And it is that - "Sound Scriptural and Evangelical truth" – that this church was founded to "maintain and promulgate (or promote or spread abroad)". Well so much by way of introduction.
In the rest of our time this morning I want us to look at our New Testament reading set for this morning, Jude 17-25, which is all about "maintaining Sound Scriptural and Evangelical truth." This passage and Jude's whole letter is particularly relevant for our 2017 Foundation Service; for 2017 sees the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. For it was in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 religious theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in Germany. And that lit the touch paper setting alight the whole Reformation of the Church in Europe and then beyond. However, it was Martin Luther who once famously said – or he has been paraphrased as saying from what he wrote elsewhere – the following:
"If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point."
And, sadly, the battle front in the Church of England this year relates to sexual and gender morality. Jude's letter is particularly for just such a situation. It deals with people not maintaining but denying Christ and biblical sexual ethics. And I have just two headings this morning, first, 'The Need to Maintain Sound, Scriptual and Evangelical Truth' and secondly, 'How to Maintain Sound, Scriptual and Evangelical Truth'.
The Need to Maintain Sound, Scriptual and Evangelical Truth
Look at Jude 17-19:
"But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, 'In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.' It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit."
Just some background to this epistle: it was written by Jude, and the most likely 'Jude' is Jesus' brother. And he was compelled to write because the Christian faith – its doctrinal and ethical basis – was under threat. So he is telling early Christians that, verse 3, they need to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." And the reason is that subtly, verse 4,
"certain people have crept in unnoticed … ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality."
They may have been saying that sexual intercourse was essentially not procreational, but recreational. After all God is a God of grace; he gives us freedom in Christ; so do what you like sexually. We don't know the precise details of these teachers or teaching. But we know there was this teaching leading to sexual licence in a number of New Testament churches and not least in the church in Corinth. Also in Revelation 2 we have details of the church in Thyatira, where the problem was a woman called Jezebel. She was positively encouraging sex outside marriage. And, of course, sadly such teaching has now come into the churches of the West and is with us today in the UK. A starting point was in the 1960s and has just mushroomed since. The sexualization of churches can be quite shocking. But, in one sense, you shouldn't be shocked. That is because you were told to expect this sort of thing happening by the apostles as verses 17 and 18 say:
"But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, 'In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions'."
Certainly Peter taught the same in 2 Peter. Also Paul's last message to the Ephesian elders included these words:
"I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them." (Acts 20.29-30)
And Paul wrote to Timothy about such false teachers. However, what specifically can we say about Jude's false teachers? Let me mention five things.
First, they seemed perfectly normal because, verse 4, they "crept in unnoticed" and they were described in verse 12 as "hidden reefs". On the surface things seemed good. So you just couldn't see the bad beneath. These people may well have talked fluently about God's grace and love, and Jesus' example of love, and how Christians should love one another and the danger of legalism and the law. They could have sounded so orthodox. I once heard a bishop, the leader, certainly the figure-head, of the New Theology and New Morality movement in the UK in the early 1960s. He was preaching on Galatians 5.1:
"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
It was, in one sense, 'truth', and sounded good. For that verse clearly is true. It was "Evangelical", for that verse is good news about Christ. It was certainly "Scriptural" – it is part of Paul's letter to the Galatians. But it was not "sound" Scriptural and Evangelical truth. For it must not be preached on its own, in a way that allows you to do anything your sexual instincts desire. That is repugnant to all the teaching in the Bible about the holiness of God and his righteousness. Indeed, you have some of that holiness teaching later on in Galatians 5.19 which lists the works of the flesh. And what does it say are the first three? Answer: "sexual immorality, impurity and sensuality". And the Bishops of the Church of England in a report once summarized the teaching of the Bible so well as to exclude any such New Morality. They wrote:
"There is … in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable."
So, first, the teaching of these people seemed good, but in reality it was bad. Then, secondly, these people seemed witty and probably were good company. Verse 18 describes them as "scoffers". However, that translates a rare word, used nowhere else in the New Testament except in 2 Peter. Others translate it as "mockers"; another as people "not taking things seriously" or "treating things as a joke". Of course, the more you make something a joke, it lowers its value and the easier it is to treat it casually. That is certainly true of sex. And, also, when arguing theoretically, 'wit' is so powerful. If in a debate you can make someone who holds the biblical view on sex look silly, you will gain considerable support for your liberal views for casual sex of all sorts.
Yes, thirdly, verse 18's reference to "their own ungodly passions" seems to have been, indeed, 'sex of all sorts'. Again without going into detail, verses 5-7 suggest these folk were justifying total sexual licence - from plain heterosexual fornication, to unnatural or ritual sex, to homosexual sex.
And, fourthly, verse 19 is blunt, "it is these who cause divisions". It is the false teachers who cause church splits and impairments of communion; not the biblically faithful people. We've experienced that in this Anglican diocese.
And, fifthly, the ultimate cause of all the trouble, is that these people, for all their appearance and subtlety are, verse 19, spiritually dead and utterly worldly. They need to repent and be converted. So – the faithful people Jude was writing to certainly needed to work to maintain "Sound Scriptural and Evangelical truth". But how? Well, that brings us to our second heading,
How to Maintain Sound, Scriptual and Evangelical Truth
Jude teaches that for maintaining such truth there has to be a twofold response. First, there needs to be personal spiritual growth on the part of the faithful (it's not to be all criticizing other people) and, secondly, compassionate action with regard to those who have been confused by false teachers. First, then, personal spiritual growth. Look at verses 20 and 21:
"But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life."
So Jude here is saying four things are needed:
One, you need to build yourselves up in your most holy faith. So you need to make sure that, together with others, you are on top of what you believe and not least how and why your faith is "most holy" (as it says here) in its doctrine and ethics. For it is in contrast to the unholy and degrading beliefs and practices of much of the modern West, as it was in the ancient Roman world. Today what was once stigmatized as immoral behaviour and even punished, is now not only tolerated but privileged. Conversely, while what was once regarded as moral is now stigmatized and punished, witness the McArthur family. Their baking company was punished for refusing to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage campaign slogan.
However, to build yourself up in your most holy faith takes effort. According to your need, it can involve making use of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, other JPC groups, the Christian Institute's pamphlets and booklets on modern ethical issues, my Coloured Supplements that are in the Newsletter and then on our website and other resources. You may find those helpful. It is a psychological fact that unless you are convinced in your own mind, you will never be able to take a private, much less a public, stand for your Christian faith, particularly on these sexual ethical issues. That is why you need to build yourself up in your most holy faith, as Jude says.
Two, Jude says, verse 20, you are to be "praying in the Holy Spirit". That is according to the Holy Spirit's will and for the Holy Spirit's wisdom and then for his power and courage. How vital that is! Jesus said, "apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15.5). And the Holy Spirit needs to make that union with Jesus real. And he needs to open blind eyes and soften hard hearts. For it is so true, as some of our 16th century Reformers well knew, namely, that what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind rationalizes.
Then, three, and above all you are told, verse 21, to "keep yourselves in the love of God." That is God's love for you that in turn generates your love for him and for others. For as Cranmer, the main drafter of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, wrote in his Homily on Salvation:
"the right and true Christian faith is … to have a sure trust and confidence in God's merciful promises to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ: whereof doth follow a loving heart to obey his commandments."
Who needs to learn that truth this morning – that God loves you and wants the best for you, and most of all to save you for all eternity through Christ's death for your sins? Well, says Archbishop Cranmer, if you truly believe that, you will repent of all your failings and sin. And then out of love and good will towards God, you will obey God and do good, and so help towards changing the world for the better.
And, four, you are, verse 21, to be "waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life." You are to be living ready for heaven when Christ returns at the end of time. That is a great motivator to stop false teaching and maintain the truth, so that others too can have that same hope of Christ's mercy and eternal life. So Jude says first for maintaining the truth, verses 20-21:
"beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life."
But, secondly, he says there needs to be compassionate action. Look at verses 22-23:
"And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh."
The original text here is unclear. But the gist is clear enough. Jude, earlier, in verses 4-16 has been quite ruthless with the false teachers. The only place in the New Testament where there is such horror and denunciation of false teachers, is in Jesus' attack on Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 23. But Jude writes now in a totally different tone for people being seduced by false teachers, yet still trying to be faithful. For such, he says, it is essential to show mercy. He is saying similar to what Paul writes in Galatians 6.1:
"Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness."
But Paul then adds: "Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted." And so Jude here also says, "Show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh." Jude is saying, 'Hate the sin, but love the sinner but be careful that you don't lose, by familiarity, your hatred of what is polluted.' And when necessary, he is saying, 'take appropriate drastic action'. For you have to "save others by snatching them out of the fire". These are all metaphors or picture language. But I am sure you can apply them to situations you know about.
I must conclude. The year ahead, I think, may be turbulent, in the Church and in the State. And in the Church and in the State I am sure at JPC we are being called at one and the same time both to maintain but also promulgate as never before "Sound Scriptural and Evangelical truth" and contend for it – fight for it but peacefully. That is daunting; but you and I can have great confidence; and that is as we trust in the one to whom Jude finally prays in verses 24 and 25:
"to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen."