In September of 2017, Christianity Todaypublished an article entitle, “Catholic bishop apologises and priest resigns after Hindu deity Ganesh is welcomed in church.”
The Hindu community of Spain’s Ceuta and Melilla had been completing their worshipping celebrations of Ganesh, the famous deity with the head of an elephant and the body of a child.
On their journey, they were welcomed at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Africa, led by Father Castro. The Hindu party had been singing chants traditionally dedicated to Saint Mary, and then brought the image of Ganesh into the church and toward the Altar, where Catholics there sang Marian hymns with the deity’s image in view.
What was intended as a sign of respect on the part of the Hindu community was taken as scandalous to many in the Catholic community, who don’t share the pluralistic spirit that’s prevalent in Hinduism.
Bishop Rafael Zorzona Boy said the event was ‘regrettable’, and apologised for the cause of any ‘pain, confusion or scandal in the Christian community.’ Father Castro was ‘admonished’ for his role in the controversy, the bishop said.
A diocese statement said that in no situation was the ‘love of the members of the Hindu community or their beliefs [to be] rebuked,’ but that positive local Catholic-Hindu relations also ‘forces us to be increasingly more faithful to our Christian tradition.’
This is not the first time that an ostensibly Christian minister has gotten into trouble for getting too cozy with Hinduism. Consider this 2006 article, “British priest in Kerala in conversion debate,” in The Hindu:
A controversy has broken out in the U.K. and the U.S. with the media reflecting a debate over an Anglican priest who converted to Hinduism in Kerala where he has now stayed for nearly a year, and where he regularly offers ritual prayers in a temple.
Rev. David Hart, 52, who has a fascination for Lord Ganesha, celebrated Vinayaka Chathurthi in front of his house here last month. Mainstream newspapers, church journals, popular websites and radio stations in the U.K. and the U.S. are now debating the propriety of allowing Rev. Hart to continue his “pluralist religious identity” while remaining a priest of the Church of England.
The Times, of London, in a report headlined `Hinduism no barrier to job as priest in Church of England’ (September 8), published a photograph of Rev. Hart offering prayers to Ganesha and quoted from a report in the Kerala editions of The Hindu on August 27. Church Times, of the Church of England, launched a poll on whether Rev. Hart, “who recites the Gayatri Mantram with the same devotion with which he celebrates the Eucharist or offers namaz in Muslim prayer halls” should be allowed to continue as a priest…
Rev. Hart, an Associate Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Winchester, mentions his conversion in a book Trading Faith: Global Religion in an Age of Rapid Change. Focusing on a new model for understanding religious practice and faith, it was released here earlier this year. A follower of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Rev. Hart has changed his middle name from `Allen’ to `Ananda Krishna Das.’
He is unruffled by the debate. On September 10, the BBC’s Radio 4 did a live telephone interview with Rev. Hart for its `The Sunday Programme.’ Around 20 U.S.-based online discussion groups have sprung up debating the controversy.
Defending his decision not to inform the Bishop of Ely about his conversion while renewing his orders, Rev. Hart told The Hindu: “Becoming a Hindu has not brought about any change in my spiritual status. The act has not shaken my Christian beliefs by even one per cent.”
Also the international secretary of the World Congress of Faiths based in London, he does not find any contradiction in being identified as a “religious pluralist.”
He said: “Asking me to express my preference for any particular faith is like asking me to choose between an ice-cream and a chocolate. Both have their own distinct taste.”
We live in strange times, though this last statement about ice-cream really takes the cake! The question is this: is the church, as followers of Jesus defined by a particular conviction about a particular belief that we believe to be true above all others or would we say that the gospel, the core belief of Christianity, is simply one dessert among many others? Is the gospel a non-negotiable that we dare not edit or add too, or is it simply a preference that we dare not privilege above other religions’ preferences?
I want to argue this morning that the former is true, that the gospel is not simply a casual opinion among other equally-valid opinions. Rather, it is the very truth of God that defines who we are! This is the conviction of our church, and it is expressed in the second section of our covenant, the first line of which we will consider this morning.
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel
What does it mean to “covenant to embrace the whole gospel”?
The gospel is the saving good news about Jesus.
We should first ask what this gospel is that we covenant to embrace!
In his book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch says of the word “gospel” that it is
a word which started life as the Greek for ‘good news’, evaggelion. Significantly, the first Latin Christians did not seek an exact equivalent in their own language and simply slurred the word with a Latin lilt into evangelium. Many modern languages have in turn borrowed from the Latin: hence, in English, ‘evangelist’ and ‘evangelical’. Far away from Mediterranean society in England, during what we misleadingly used to call the Dark Ages, Anglo-Saxon scholars were more adventurous than the early Christian Latin-speakers: they considered the etymology of the original Greek and came up with their word ‘Godspell’, once more meaning ‘good news’ – Gospel.
So the gospel is “good news.” And, in Christian usage, it is good news about somebody named Jesus Christ! There are many ways to articulate the truth of what the gospel is, but let us consider some of the New Testament’s own summaries of the gospel. These should, of course, be given preference over any all other articulations of it.
We will begin with 1 Corinthians 15. In the third verse Paul offers a summary statement of “the gospel” (v.1). What is significant about this is that this has the feel of a liturgical formula about it. That is, we may find in the latter half of verse 3 and onward a somewhat codified expression of the gospel that was used in corporate worship. Couple that with the fact that 1 Corinthians is one of the earlier books of the New Testament canon and it means that we are hearing in these verses a theological formulation that is situated very, very early in Christian experience. Put yet another way, this is one of the earliest definitions of “the gospel” that we have. Here is what Paul writes:
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures
Notice the elements of the gospel:
- “Christ died for our sins”
- Christ “was buried”
- “Christ was raised on the third day”
Those tree events are situated at the very heart of the gospel. There is no true gospel without them! They carry with them, of course, profound theological implications upon which we can explore the gospel even more fully, but they constitute the core, the heart of the gospel.
In the little book of Jude we find a profound nuance to our understanding of the gospel.
3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
The importance of the phrase “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” cannot be overstated. This tells us that the gospel was given to the church, that it is one thing, and that it is unchanging.
In Romans 10 we find another summary expression of the gospel. Paul writes:
9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Notice the elements in this summary:
- “Jesus is Lord”
- “God raised him from the dead”
When these are put all together, we are able to see a strong expression of what the word “gospel” means. It is the unchanging truth that Jesus Christ laid down His life in payment for our sins, was resurrected from the dead, and now offers us eternal life. Through the received and believed gospel, in other words, Jesus Christ “will” save us (Romans 10:9).
The gospel is what makes the church the church and we invite the wrath of God if we abandon or distort it.
If, then, this message is unchanging, that means that the church dare not tinker with, alter, change, or, Heaven forbid, abandon the gospel. To this idea, Paul spoke with devastating bluntness in Galatians 1 when he wrote:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
It is impossible to read this and not see within its words the absolute importance of the gospel and the absolute tragedy of the church abandoning it! These verses help to establish certain fundamental truths about the gospel that we dare not forget or neglect. Among them we find these truths:
- There are “different gospel[s]” that are truly false gospels for there is only one true gospel.
- Different gospels are only distortions of the true gospel
- We must reject any and all false gospels.
- Those who promote a false gospel, even though they might have previously been a true and good teacher of the true gospel, are “accursed.”
This has many implications for the church, not the least of which is the fact that the church is now the steward of the gospel. It is the church’s most prized possession. It is the most valuable thing that we have and we dare not abandon it.
The language of being “accursed” is significant. To distort or pervert or change or alter the gospel is to invite the wrath of almighty God upon yourself. We must never forget this! If we abandon the gospel, we are abandoning that which God holds dear and that through which we are saved! If we distort the gospel we are perverting which is sacred and beautiful and good and right.
It further means that we must individually and corporately test all truth claims against the unchanging gospel. The gospel becomes the plumb line that determines whether or not any truth claim is true and right. For that reason, the gospel must not be muddied or contaminated by heretical notions, for if our conception of the gospel is wrong, then our ability to assess other assertions will be stymied.
And, of course, the eternal destinies of men and women are at stake with the gospel. The gospel presents us with the way of life, now and eternal. It is the light of truth that points all men to Jesus Christ. If we abandon it, we are quite literally abandoning the door to heaven itself for we are abandoning the Christ to whom it brings us.
The gospel is the empowering heart of all that we are and all that we do.
If we are to conceive of the gospel’s position in the church, we should conceive of it as the burning, generative, transforming heart of all that the Church is and does. It does not sit stagnantly in the center of the church’s life. Rather, it is a dynamic presence. It is, in fact, the power of God! In Romans 1, Paul writes:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
The gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” This is important because it shows us not only what the gospel accomplishes but also what it is not. It is not simply a collection of detached assertions and propositions about the person of Jesus. It does not merely say things. Rather, according to God’s Word, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation.” It does say things, that is true, but it says things that draw us into the presence of God and His life-altering power!
When we say that our church wishes to be “an authentic family around the whole gospel” we are saying more than that we simply want to think the same thing. No, we are saying that we want to bind ourselves to the gospel of salvation, the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of power. To truly embrace the gospel is to embrace Christ Himself, for Christ came proclaiming the gospel!
The gospel is less like a book that we all want to protect than it is like a burning fire or a pulsating source of energy. Those metaphors, while deficient, get closer to what the New Testament means by the word “gospel.” As we gather around the gospel of Jesus, we are informed, we are shaped, we are changed by the Spirit of the living God who illuminates its truths and profundities to us. To be drawn into Christ is to be drawn deeper and deeper into the gospel He proclaimed and modeled and lived in His life, death, and resurrection.
Church, we must not abandon the gospel of Jesus! We must not alter or edit or change it! We must, instead, embrace it and plant our feet deeply down within it. We must embrace all of it, the whole gospel, in all of its beauty and power and wonder. And we must let it loose in our midst. We must let the gospel’s astonishing implications for our lives come out of the darkness of our own safe complacency and drive us into the thrilling and wondrous life of the Kingdom.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years(p. 77). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.