A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. – H. Richard Niebuhr
One of the biggest talking points of the royal wedding yesterday between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is – unpredictably – the sermon. Even The Guardian have got in on the act! Everyone seems to be talking about how great it was. (If you missed it, you can read a full transcript here).
Given all of this, I really hate to rain on the parade – but, I have to be honest, I didn’t like it. I mean, sure, the delivery was amazing. As an orator he did absolutely brilliantly – you have to admit it was powerful. But what about the content? After all, if he didn’t really communicate anything – at the end of the day, as a piece of communication, it didn’t do what it needed to.
If you watched it, I’d be interested to hear what message did you hear? What was the ‘take-home’ point? Something about love for sure – maybe, “we need to love each other”. Maybe something about God’s love or Jesus’ love thrown in there. It was an inspiring message, wasn’t it? We all like a bit of love!
But – this is exactly the problem, as I see it. Michael Curry avoided talking about the kind of love which really matters. Let me explain by briefly telling you about someone called Pelagius.
Pelagius was a theologian who was born in around 354. The real interest for our purposes is in what he taught. Here’s a section of what Britannica have to say about him:
After the fall of Rome to the Visigoth chieftain Alaric in 410, Pelagius and Celestius went to Africa. There they encountered the hostile criticism of Augustine, who published several denunciatory letters concerning their doctrine, particularly Pelagius’ insistence on man’s basically good moral nature and on man’s own responsibility for voluntarily choosing Christian asceticism for his spiritual advancement.
Pelagius’ key teaching was that we human beings are basically good, and we simply need to choose what is good – an ascetic lifestyle – to grow spiritually and closer to God etc. This teaching became known as Pelagianism.
The thing is, Pelagianism is alive and well today – in fact, I think it’s the default state of many people. We can solve our own problems if we simply try harder. It’s in our own power to choose what is right.
The problem with this view is that it removes the need for Christ. If we are basically good people who have the ability to choose the good every time, then why do we even need a Saviour? Why do we need a Christ who saves his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)? Can’t we just save ourselves?
And this is the problem with Pelagianism: it all but removes the need for a Saviour. It leads to the quote I started with – ‘a Christ without a cross…’ And the tragedy of it all is that the Bible says we cannot save ourselves. The Bible constantly reinforces our sinfulness and our need for a Saviour. I talk about this in my video about whether we are good people.
Let’s apply this to Michael Curry’s sermon. The sermon – as it seemed to me – at no point suggested that we have a problem with loving God and loving our neighbour – a problem the Bible calls sin. The sermon advocated loving each other – and imagining what the world would be if we did love each other. Of course, that would be a wonderful place to live! But we don’t live in that world. In fact, we live in a world where by nature we are selfish people, not inclined to love God or others. If we want to solve that problem, we need a solution which is bigger than ourselves – we need God to step in.
And this is the tragedy of the sermon: Curry basically said ‘try harder’. But we are incapable of achieving the love God requires by trying harder. We need new hearts, new hearts which only God can give. Instead of looking to ourselves for the solution, we need to be looking to Jesus. Someone who does try their hardest to win favour with God will ultimately despair – for evidence of that, read a biography of Martin Luther and what led him to the reformation.
This is why I said that Michael Curry’s message is ‘bad news’: it’s bad news because it bypasses the solution that God has given us in Jesus Christ. It bypasses the salvation that only to be found in him, and it leaves us with ourselves – us who are incapable of loving God and our neighbour as we should.
When I preach a sermon – at a wedding or in any service – I always try to proclaim Christ in some way. Jesus Christ is the solution to our needs, even if we do not yet realise it. Christ is the answer, the one who we must look to.
If you want to see me talk about this in a marriage context, have a look at this video on relationship issues.