With Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints sitting together in the Salt Lake Tabernacle for an "Evening of Friendship," internationally renowned Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias told them Sunday night that Jesus Christ's unique claim upon humanity is that he embodied truth and sacrificed himself for a world that often does not recognize him.
But what many Utahns may remember most distinctly is the sermon that came before it.
Taking the pulpit to speak of the event's historic nature, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw addressed a capacity crowd of several thousand, offering a stunningly candid apology to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and noting that "friendship has not come easily between our communities." He dubbed the evening "historic" and apologized that Evangelicals "have often misrepresented the faith and beliefs of the Latter-day Saints."
"Let me state it clearly. We evangelicals have sinned against you," he said, adding both camps have tended to marginalize and simplify the others' beliefs.
Historical animosity dating back to the founding of the LDS Church by Joseph Smith in 1830 has heightened in recent years between the two groups, particularly in the 1990s, when several high-profile evangelical leaders asserted that "Mormons are not Christians."
Mouw noted the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birthday next December and several scholarly events planned to celebrate during the coming year. "I hope many in the evangelical community will take part in those events," he said.
The Tabernacle was filled to capacity 10 minutes before the 6 p.m. service began. More than 7,000 tickets had been distributed shortly after plans for the event became known in September.
The fact that the LDS Church opened its signature pulpit to Zacharias the first such invitation in more than a century has had some in both faith camps talking about the motives of Standing Together Ministries and the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, who organized the event.
Zacharias shared the dais with both evangelical preachers and Latter-day Saint scholars and moved widely beyond the pulpit as he weaved biblical parables with modern tales of those who encounter Christ and recognize truth, often in the context of major human heartache and suffering that no political maneuvering can solve.
He spoke of the "exclusivity and sufficiency of Jesus Christ," noting that he asserted an exclusive truth claim in his declaration as "the way, the truth and the life." While he acknowledged that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differ in many of their views from historic Christianity, he emphasized much of what they share in reverence for a being both consider the divine Savior of mankind.
Christ as Lord offered the perfect "description of the human condition," he said, noting that when surveying the world's major religious traditions, "no where is the doctrine of sin so clearly enunciated as in the Christian faith." Without such a definition, relativism makes almost any behavior acceptable because it can simply be called some kind of sickness.
He related a conversation with a woman who had dedicated her life to freeing children from sexual slavery in an Asian nation, and how she had snatched an 18-month-old girl out of the hands of a man who was defiling her. "You tell me there is no such thing as evil. You want to call it deviance, aberrant, a slip of judgment? Jesus looked at it and called it what it was.
"Psychologists are coming to the realization that in taking away that word (sin), they've taken away that which was needed to identify what was real."
The Bible says all people commit sin, and thus "come short before the glory of God. Have you seen your own heart before Jesus Christ?"
Christianity is the one faith that offers true forgiveness, he said, recalling his own suicide attempt as a young boy in India. Someone brought a Bible into his hospital room, and he can now relive the "moment knowing what it was to hear the Lord say, 'neither do I condemn thee. Go they way and sin no more.' "
The Christian gospel offers the one true chance at lasting peace, he said, noting a conversation last March with one of the founders of Hamas, whose members regularly take responsibility for suicide bombings among Israelis. Reminding the leader of the biblical account both Islam and Christianity share of Abraham offering his son on the altar, he told the man that God stayed the execution.
"Until we receive the Son that has been provided, we'll be offering our own sons" up to the killing fields of warfare.
He said Jesus is the "embodiment of the ideal" of purity, and as such, evil will seek to besmirch his character. Singling out the best-selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," as a great "gasp of human skepticism," he said, "what better way to nail in the coffin of Christendom than to attack the purity of Christ." The book presumes a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Christ's triumph over the grave will outlast such speculation, he said, quoting evangelist Billy Graham's answer to the chancellor of Germany in the wake of World War II. "Outside the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I know of no other hope for mankind." The 45-minute sermon was greeted with a warm standing ovation.
Best-selling Christian musician Michael Card provided music for the service, performing piano and vocal music and asking the audience to join in on the chorus of several numbers.One pastor who concluded the service said several times he didn't want the meeting to end, noting he was excited to have met in the Tabernacle and suggesting the meeting become an annual event. Then with a smile, he added, "Don't you all have a bigger place right across the street?"
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