This week's 'thought' comes from James S. Stewart former professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His name should sound familiar by now since I have quoted him in the past. It is taken from his superb book, "A Man in Christ." I cited a condensed version of this selection in my sermon on Sunday, but thought I would send it out in its near complete form for your further examination and contemplation. It contrasts two approaches to Christianity: one that sees Jesus primarily as our example, and the other which sees Him as the Lord with whom, or to whom, God has joined us, by grace, through faith.
As I mentioned in my message Sunday, I embraced (in my early years as a Christian) the concept that the goal of the Christian life was to imitate Jesus example of love, devotion and holiness. No problem there -- as long as the impossibility of the task is understood from the start. Yet, with the need to follow Jesus example I had also mixed in the idea that the more one did, or the closer one came to doing so, the more God accepted, approved of or loved them (or me) which can only lead to self-righteous pride when one feels they've succeeded, or utter despair when they realize they always fall short of the ideal. I wish I had read these words of Stewart before I ever did so. It would have saved me alot of needless pain and emotional turmoil and despair!
Therefore I offer them to you in the hope that if anyone has embraced the same ideas, it will save you from the pain I went through at that time (due to my distorted view of New Testament Christainity and what it is that gains us God's acceptance). Enjoy.
"Paul's mysticism... constitutes a very decisive challange to that type of modern religion which is content to regard Jesus merely as example... Now it is perfectly true that the noble ethic Jesus preached, and His own fulfillment of it in life and deed, have laid down the lines for all His friends to follow. Nor can there be any doubt that this was a real part of the divine plan by which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us -- as indeed the New Testament apostle recognized when he wrote, "Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps." But what Paul's mysticism [that is, his focus on our spiritual union with Christ] does, is to remind us that the example of Christ is only a part, and not even the greatest part, of the redeeming Gospel. Were there no more than this, the contemplation of the perfect holiness of Jesus could only breed despair. For no shining example... can cleanse the conscience that has been defiled, or break the octopus grip sin has upon the soul.
The evangel of an ethical example is a devastating thing. It makes religion the most grievous of burdens. Perhaps this is the real reason why, even among professing Christians, there are so many strained faces and weary hearts and captive, unreleased spirits. They have listened to Jesus teaching; they have meditated upon Jesus character; and then they have risen up and tried to drive their own lives to follow the royal way. Yet disappointment upon disappointment has been the bitter result. The great example of Jesus [like the law] has been a dead-weight beating them down, bearing them to the ground, bowing their hopeless souls in the dust. If Harnack's Christ (as ethical teacher and noble example) is all we have, we are left without a Redeemer.
Yet ever since Isaiah [46:1-4], men have been aware that one of the vital distinctions between true and false religion, is that, whereas the latter is a dead burden for the soul to carry, the former is a living power to carry the soul... "Christ in me" means something quite different from the weight of an impossible ideal, something far more glorious than the oppression of a pattern forever beyond our imitation. "Christ in me" means Christ bearing me along from within, Christ as the motive-power that carries me on, Christ giving my whole life a wonderful poise and lift, and turning every burden into wings. All this is included when the apostle speaks of "Christ in you, the hope of glory."
Compared with this, the religion which bases everything on example is pitifully rudimentary. This, and this alone, is the true Christian religion. Call it mysticism or not -- the name matters little -- the thing, the experience, matters everything. To be "in Christ," to have Christ within, to realise your creed not as something you have to bear, but as something by which you are borne, this is Christianity. It is more: it is release and liberty, life with an endless song at its heart. It means feeling within you, as long as life lasts, the carrying power of Love Almighty; and underneath you, when you come to die, the touch of everlasting arms."