“Liberal Christianity” 5/6/18 by Jonathan Bassett

First of all, I want to thank the congregation for the honor of preaching today. I’m flattered that my name
was mentioned as someone who might step in for Stacy, and I thank you for listening.
Please join me in a moment of prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our
hearts, be acceptable to you oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

My sermon today, really more of a homily, is titled “Liberal Christianity.”
I’ve been thinking about liberal Christianity, and talking with Stacy about this idea,
since the election of 2016. What does it mean to be a liberal Christian in America today?
Christianity is, in the public mind, closely associated with conservative politics.
Since Evangelicals helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, to identify as a Christian in America has generally
meant identifying as a Republican, and supporting conservative positions on a range of issues.
But here in this room, most of us support liberal social and political positions.
We live in a deep blue city in a deep blue state. And yet here we are,
in church on Sunday morning, professing to follow Jesus
Christ. So by those definitions, most of us are liberal Christians.
In the United States of 2018, that combination is unusual.

I suspect that most of us are also liberal Christians according to another,
more philosophical definition of “liberal.” Political philosophers use
“liberalism” to refer to the body of ideas that became popular during the European Enlightenment.
Writers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill all argued
that human society would work best when it treated all people as essentially equal in
their natural rights, and when it made decisions according to science, logic, and rational choices.
This was a radical break from previous political philosophies, which argued that human
society worked best when it allowed for significant differences among people’s rights, and when it made
decisions according to what church leaders told people was God’s will. Pretty much everyone in
America today is this kind of “classical” liberal, so we here are liberal Christians in this sense too –
which does not make us unusual. My apologies if I have offended any divine-right monarchists here
today; you’re the exception that proves the rule.

These two definitions of liberal Christianity are not the same, but they are,
I believe, related. Let’s consider these two meanings chronologically.
Many historians think that the Christian idea that God loves all people,
regardless of their birth or role in society, is one of the major sources of
classical liberalism. Classical liberalism was revolutionary in its day because it said that
Kings and peasants were not essentially different kinds of people:
they were each born with the same natural rights to life, liberty, and property.
This idea was built directly on the Christian teaching of
equality of all people before God. According to the Christian church, God saw Kings and
peasants as common descendants from Adam and Eve, and God made no distinctions between persons
in his kingdom. Remember that in Roman times, when Christianity began, the pagan religion had
individual personified gods, and the Emperor of Rome was himself worshiped as a God.
Christianity was radical in its rejection of that hierarchy, and distinguished itself
from Judaism by its evangelical nature: anyone could become a Christian, regardless of the circumstances of his

And the second definition of liberal Christianity, the one that puts most of us
here on the political left, is directly related to the first one. If God
loves all people equally, shouldn’t we strive to do so as well? And shouldn’t our society reflect that striving?

This emphasis on God’s universal and equal love is behind much of our theology
and worship here at Union Church. Just take moment to review today’s opening hymn:
Love, Peace, Grace, and Mercy are all flowing from God to us. And today’s scripture readings are equally powerful
in emphasizing God’s love for humanity and the grace that results. The first one, which is from the lectionary,
exhorts us to love each other as God loves us, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
And the second reading, about the woman who was supposed to be stoned for adultery, c
ontrasts Jesus’ unwillingness to condemn her with the quick and severe judgment of the Pharisees.

The idea that we can all​ receive Love, Peace, Grace, and Mercy from an all-powerful deity,
and the idea that we are supposed to love one another, are expressions of liberal
Christianity in the ​classic​ sense – focused on the equality of all people – that often lead
people like us to expressions of liberal Christianity in the ​political​ sense – trying to ensure
that the benefits of equality extend to all members of society. And the idea that we can be forgiven
for our mistakes, that we are not automatically condemned for breaking a rule, is the heart of Christianity
itself: the concept of redemption.

Conservative Christianity emphasizes the other half of the Christian equation:
the rules and original sin. A conservative reading of our first
gospel today would point out that it actually contains an “if – then” statement:
“​If you keep my commandments​, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and abide in his love.”

And a conservative reading of the story of the woman who Jesus does not condemn would point
out that although he does not condemn her, he does not endorse her behavior either. Jesus
does not send her off to keep doing what she did before – He tells her to “Go, and sin no more.”
I don’t think we liberal Christians actually disagree with our conservative church-mates on these questions.
I think we agree that the rules matter, and that sinful behavior is bad. We just prefer to shift our
emphasis to the possibility of grace and redemption.

The conservatives would remind us that the prerequisite for grace and redemption is repentance:
we have to feel the depth our sin, we have to genuinely regret it, and we have to strive to sin no more.
So the Connecticut puritan Jonathan Edwards’ famous 18th century sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of
an Angry God” would probably find more of an audience in Mississippi than Massachusetts today,
and conservatives might find our regular Sunday prayer for God’s grace a bit anemic in its
acknowledgement of the ways we have done wrong.

But even today, God’s rules and God’s love, human sin and human repentance,
are all part of the same Christian doctrine. How we live out that doctrine here and now,
as liberal Christians in Newton in 2018, and how we relate to, or don’t relate to,
our conservative brethren across the country and around the world, are questions for another sermon,
hopefully preached by someone more qualified than me. In the meantime let us strive
to do good, to love one another, and to be worthy of God’s grace.