What's so special about Jesus?

Every summer, lots of religious people sit in lots of national conventions and hear lots of leaders with impressive titles deliver lots of long speeches about complicated theological issues.

After a few weeks, people forget 99 percent of what's said during this siege.

But people are still talking about the Rev. Dirk Ficca's "Uncommon Ground" sermon at the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference in Orange, Calif. It has sparked something unusual -- a hot mainline Protestant story that isn't about sex.

The sound bite was a stunner: "What's the big deal about Jesus?"

Why do so many Christians, asked Ficca, think they need to convert people in other religions to Christianity? Don't they believe their God is powerful enough to work however He sees fit, even through other faiths? Don't they believe in the "sovereignty of God"?

"God's ability to work in our life is not determined by being a Christian," said Ficca, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister who directs the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. "OK ... if God is at work in our lives whether we're Christian or not, what's the big deal about Jesus?"

Ficca has seen traditional Christian missionary work and he rejects it, outright. Members of other faiths, he said, testify "that when Christians approach them with the sole purpose of converting them to Christianity, it feels like ... a kind of ethnic cleansing. What (missionaries) are saying is: Your religious identity is not acceptable and my job is to eliminate it from the face of the earth."

Presbyterian evangelicals are crying, "foul" -- early and often.

The result has been a clash between traditionalists and leaders of the denomination's progressive establishment. Much of the heat is in cyberspace, but there have been flare-ups in public meetings. Many documents linked to the July 29 sermon can be found through the "Jesus Debate" link at the WWW.PresbyWeb.com news site.

Conservatives are quoting centuries of doctrine and catechisms, such as the Scots Confession, which proclaims: "... For there is neither life nor salvation without Christ Jesus; so shall none have part therein but those whom the Father has given unto his Son Jesus Christ, and those who in time come to him, avow his doctrine, and believe in him." And, of course, they are quoting the Gospel of John: "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' "

Ficca reads those passages differently. He dedicated much of his address to undermining what he called the "instrumental view" of Jesus and salvation.

It teaches that "Jesus is the sole and only instrument of God's salvation -- through one person at a certain point in history, who lived and died in a certain way, only through this person does God's salvation come into the world," he said. "Here the Gospel is about Jesus; Jesus, himself, is the Good News. ^?And if Jesus is the sole instrument of God -- if it is only through Jesus that salvation comes -- then the only way for the world to be saved is for everyone to become a Christian."

In place of this view, Ficca advocated a "revelatory view." It teaches that the "Good News is not the good news so much about Jesus, but the good news of Jesus: The Good News that Jesus preached. What this view says is that Jesus reveals how God has been at work in all times in all places throughout history in all people to bring about salvation."

Thus, Christians no longer have to engage in "proselytizing ... for the purpose of converting people to Christianity." God offers believers many religious paths to reach one eternal destination, said Ficca.

Presbyterian evangelicals are urging their denomination to publicly reject this approach -- doctrinally and financially -- as soon as possible.

"Apart from God's unique act of self-identification with fallen humanity in Jesus ... the Christian faith simply has nothing else to say about 'salvation,' " said the leaders of the powerful Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas. "There is no 'Good News' apart from what God has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ."