Part 1 of our new sermon series on Methodism and other Christian religions titled “My Slice of Christianity” inspired by Adam Hamilton’s Christianity’s Family Tree
23,000,000 people can’t be wrong!
Or can they? Roughly, that’s how many Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons there are in the world today. 23,000,000! The number is actually higher, probably closer to 23.5 million people. Popular thinking often leads us to believe that if a bunch of people believe in something then it must be true and 23.5 million people is a lot of people. But we know truth and belief are two different things. The confederacy at the time of the Civil War had 5.5 million free people (and 3.5 million slaves), but that didn’t make slavery alright. Numbers can be impressive, but they don’t divulge the truth. If you ask the average person, they would probably say that Mormons are Christians and probably most would say followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians even if they think some of their practices are strange. And for sure, if you asked a member of either religion if they are Christian they would certainly say they were. But does that make them a Christian?
Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t make you a Christian.
I’m fond of the saying, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car,” and that sort of applies in this case. Even John Wesley said in one of his famous sermons, “Whatsoever the generality of people may think, it is certain that opinion is not religion.” So what makes someone a Christian? There are a lot of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who lead Christ-like lives and who honestly believe in their faith, and they do a lot more on behalf of their faith than probably most Christians in mainline denominations like our own. So how can we tell the difference? Our sermon series over the next few weeks will explore our Christian heritage and we will discuss some of the differences between our Methodist beliefs and those of other Christian denominations. Knowing what we believe and why we believe it is important. But I thought it was equally important to discuss how we define Christianity first. Before we discuss the difference between us and other Christians, we need to know what a Christian is. Is it simply believing in Christ? Most people believe that he existed, but that doesn’t make them Christian. Muslims believe that Jesus was virgin-born and performed many miracles, but we wouldn’t consider them Christian. Many Buddhists and Hindus believe that Jesus was a great prophet who led an exemplary lifestyle, some Hindus would say Jesus had the divine within him, but we wouldn’t consider them Christian either. The difference between these other religions and ones like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons is that the former don’t consider themselves Christians either. But the latter do. So what makes a Christian a Christian?
Traditionally we’ve defined Christianity by a few simple beliefs.
John Wesley summed them up in his essay “The Character of a Methodist.” He wrote that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, that Scripture was sufficient to “equip us for a life of faith and service,” and that Christ is both fully human and fully divine. Scripture is the inspired Word of God, Scripture is sufficient to equip us for a life of faith, and Christ is both fully human and fully divine. Everything else Wesley said we should “think and let think.” These basic concepts we find supported in Scripture in many different places. We shared the passage earlier from 2 Timothy about the sufficient and inspired nature of Scripture and so this morning we’ll read about the divinity of Christ.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
It always confused me to hear Jesus being called “the Word of God.”
I didn’t really understand what it meant. I just sort of accepted that John was referring to Jesus because that’s what everyone told me, but I read something really interesting that made a lot of sense. It said that the “Word” was something both Jews and Gentiles would have been familiar with. The Jewish people would recognize this description of Jesus meaning that Christ was the “instrument for the execution of God’s will.” Throughout the Old Testament, God’s will was often made manifest by his “word” and so Jesus would have been seen as the personification then of God’s will on Earth. On the other hand, the Greek interpretation of “word” was Logos which would have meant in Greek philosophy that he was the bridge or the intermediary between God and Earth. So in the Old Testament you have the “Word” as the manifestation of God’s will, and in Greek the “Word” would have been understood as the bridge between God and Earth. To use this description of Jesus as the “Word” would have meaning for everyone in trying to understand what role Jesus played in God’s creation. Explaining that the Word was there at the beginning, that the Word was with God, AND that the Word WAS God establishes Jesus as divine, on equal terms with God.
But not all people who claim to be Christian believe this.
From my reading and understanding of both Jehovah’s Witness beliefs and Mormon beliefs, neither one of them think that Jesus was God in the sense we traditionally understand it. In the faith of the Jehovah’s Witness, Jesus was not God, but a creation of God. He was also known as the Archangel Michael and did not die on a cross but on a stake. When he died he was not resurrected but existed only in spirit form. The Jehovah’s Witness’ were taught that only 144,000 people would be taken to Heaven and the rest of humanity would remain dead. They revised that interpretation to say that true believers after 1935 would be resurrected to a new Earth but that 144,000 who were chosen prior to 1914 would still be the only ones to go to Heaven. Mormons similarly don’t believe that Jesus is actually God. Instead they believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are different and distinct beings that act in unison with one another. It seems like a very subtle difference but it denies that Christ actually is God and instead an actor and one of many gods. The Mormon faith also teaches that we can eventually become God or at least as God is. They also believe that God and Jesus both have physical, perfected bodies, that God is made of flesh and bone so when we are created in his image that is a literal interpretation. Mormons also believe in a Heavenly Mother although not much more is said about this divine being. They also don’t believe in hell but instead on three levels of Heaven. My roommate in college, Wayne, was Mormon and he described it to me this way. There are three levels of Heaven. The first level is occupied by true followers of the faith, the Mormons, who get to dwell with God. The second level are for all Christians who are not Mormon. They come close to accepting the truth, but are not quite on the Mormon level and they get to dwell with Christ. And while they are happy, they are always looking up and wishing they could be with God the Father. The third Heaven is for everyone else. They get to live with the Holy Spirit. And while they too are happy, they are always looking up at the first and second Heavens and wishing they got to be there. Now, while the official version of the levels of Heaven or what is called the “degrees of glory” is a little more complicated, Wayne’s version was a good summary of what is taught.
As for the sufficiency of Scripture and Scripture as the inspired Word of God, there are also differences.
The Jehovah’s Witness faith believes in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but they use a translation of the Bible that conforms to Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. As mentioned before, they don’t believe Jesus died on a cross so they changed the translation of the word to “murder stake.” They don’t believe that Jesus was God but instead a creation of God so they changed the verse we read that distinctly said “The Word was God” to instead say “The Word was a god.” And because they believe that Christ already returned in 1914, they changed the translation of the word “coming” to “presence.” In contrast, the Mormons instead do not believe in the sufficiency of Scripture – not because they doubt God but because they believe mistakes were made and the Book of Mormon corrects those mistakes. They also turn to two other books written primarily by Joseph Smith based on his interpretation of the Bible and by a series of golden plates that he claims revealed to him God’s teachings. Because they hold these revelations as equal to the Bible and in some cases supersede the Bible (although not the Bible’s fault), they don’t truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.
That isn’t to say that members of either church are not good people.
Many of them as I said before live a more dedicated, Christ-like life than many of us “mainline” Christians. That’s also not to say that we can’t learn from them as much as we hope they learn from us. Their dedication to evangelism is something that mainline Christianity has struggled with. And according to a 2012 study, Mormons were the fastest growing religious group in the United States, followed by members of the Muslim faith. But as we explore our faith deeper and seek to define what we believe, it is important to point out that not every Christian faith is in fact Christian. Or at the very least that when we seek to understand our faith, there are some very fundamental beliefs we hold that we believe come from God and the Bible that define who we are. We should always seek to love those who are different than us. We should always seek to understand without ridicule people who honestly adhere to their faith. And by understanding our own faith better we can be prepared to do as Peter said and be “prepared to give an answer…for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15).” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.