Sermon from the Sunrise Service 2015

Easter Sunrise Service
Christ United Methodist Church
April 5, 2015

Scripture: Psalm 137:1-6
Isaiah 40:1-5

I was a member of a church once that was into leather. Specifically, we were into Bible leather, the leather binding that fits around the paper, holding it all together. We loved the way it felt and smelled. We especially loved the way it held all that paper together while continuing to allow it to flop and flap. We loved to wave that leather-clad Bible around; it felt like we were issuing a veiled threat that, should you disagree with us, we just might let it flop and flap about your head and shoulders awhile. When brought down suddenly upon a hard surface (like, say, a pulpit) it made a deeply satisfying THUMP! Yep, we loved us some leather.
Of course, we liked the paper, too. We even liked to read it sometimes, although looking back I get the impression that we loved the idea of the Bible, and we loved it as an object, a bit more than we loved spending time in it. Could it be that, when we talked about the Bible we thought that it was one thing, while upon opening it up we discovered that it’s a lot of things? Could it be that when we were holding it in our hands and waving it about menacingly we could call it “THE WORD OF GOD,” while when we cracked the pages we found, not just a word, but a whole bunch of tangled, messy conversations?
And could it be that, by being the tiniest bit intimidated by all those fraught and complicated conversations, we missed what most makes the Bible the word of God? Because that’s what the Bible is at its heart: a bunch of conversations. One part of Scripture makes a point about the human encounter with God, and another section answers back with a point of its own, sometimes clarifying, sometimes questioning the first. Thousands of these conversations, some big, some small, take place in Scripture. Such conversations are Spirit-breathed, and it’s only by listening to them in all their complexity and messiness that we hear the word of God speak from between these leather covers.
The conversation we come to listen in on today is the big one, of course; the one about Resurrection. That conversation has four main participants: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Paul likes to jump in on that conversation a lot, even interrupting the others at times, (because, you know, Paul). Peter, James, whoever it was who wrote the book of Hebrews; they all try to get in a word. But, as you may have noticed, we haven’t read from any of those folks today. Instead, we heard from the psalmist and the Prophet Isaiah–not the people we’re accustomed to find on the panel when resurrection is the topic.
But like I said before, this is THE conversation; the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is, for Christians, the linchpin of history. It’s what makes sense of everything else. The scriptural conversation tells us that God is all about the business of resurrection. And if that’s the case, then that conversation about resurrection is rumbling around all over Scripture, not just the New Testament.
More to the point, it’s a genuine conversation, not a monologue. When Scripture speaks to itself, we learn something from all the voices, if we listen carefully enough. Easter tells us that yes, God is first and foremost a God of resurrection. What’s more, God has always been about bringing life where there was no life. If we listen in on the Old Testament side of that conversation, we just might hear echoes of our own stories–stories about the God who refuses to let death have the last word.
One of the things we can learn from the Old Testament is that sometimes we grow so accustomed to being dead that we don’t think we need resurrection–but God knows better. I think that’s the situation we discover Moses in when, in Exodus chapter 3, we see him tending his goats out there in the wilderness. He’d had a pretty remarkable life before, being rescued as a baby from Pharaoh’s population control plan, and then winding up as an adopted son in that same Pharaoh’s court. He’d seemed destined for big things until thge day he saw that Egyptian dude beating up the Hebrew slave. Letting his temper get the better of him, he killed the Egyptian, and fearing for his own skin as a result, promptly got out of Dodge. So here he is, on the lam from the Egyptians, trying to keep as low a profile as he can by becoming a back country goatherder. And that’s where God finds him and, getting his attention with a bit of arboreal pyrotechnics, starts hollering at him about becoming a great leader and telling Pharaoh to let God’s people go.
Which is when Moses, seemingly satisfied with his newfound career in animal husbandry, tries to turn down God’s job offer. He stammers out a set of excuses, each one lamer than the last, until finally all he’s got to say to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is, in essence, “I don’t wanna!” But God isn’t buying it. It seems that when resurrection is on God’s agenda, when God intends to bring life to the death we’ve accepted for ourselves, we don’t have a lot of say in the matter. Death might seem more comfortable; we might have lowered our expectations so much that death feels like a pretty good business plan. God doesn’t care. God will settle for nothing less than the new life for which God went to all the trouble to create us in the first place. Sometimes we’ve grown so accustomed to being dead that we don’t think we need resurrection–but God knows better.
Other times we’ve hit rock bottom so hard that nothing short of resurrection can save us. Now, of all the biblical characters you know, I’m willing to bet that David isn’t the one who sprang to mind when I said that last sentence. Of the many folks who show up in the Old Testament, David is clearly the one with the best PR firm. He’s remembered as the scrappy little champion in the fight against Goliath, the great king and ruler, the one who began construction on the Temple, the “man after God’s own heart.” He was so popular that, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem centuries later, what do they say? “Hosanna to the son of David! Now that’s what I call an approval rating!
But read the book of Samuel–our source for most of what we know about David–and you’ll see that he was a character of almost Shakespearean complexity. Prior to becoming king, when things went south between David and his predecessor Saul and Saul was chasing David around the countryside trying to kill him, it’s often hard to tell just who was the cat and who the mouse. The Book of Samuel shows us a David who was, at the very least, highly motivated to acquire power, and highly skilled in pursuing it.
And once he got that power; how did he use it? Well, does the name “Bathsheba” mean anything to you? She was, of course, the young woman whom David ogled from his roof while she was bathing one day, and then “invited” to come join him for what, given the disparities in social power between the two individuals, can hardly be called a consensual activity. And when she became pregnant David conspired to have her husband Uriah the Hittite killed in battle in order to marry her himself and keep the whole thing hushed up (at which he failed apparently, given that the story is right there in Bible where anyone can read it).
These are not trivial matters. In David’s story we see murder, gross abuse of power, and more. Such sins do something to us, blackening the heart and cauterizing the conscience. In Hinduism they say that, if you do stuff like this, your soul is going to compact and shrivel within you, shrinking down so much that when you’re reincarnated the only appropriate body for your soul to be reborn into is that of a cockroach. While I don’t agree with the Hindu understanding of the end of the process, I find this picture of how sin truncates the human spirit compelling.
And I’m pretty sure this is what happened to David. I think it’s why he didn’t understand the parable with which Nathan the prophet confronted him. Remember it? Nathan told David a story about a poor man whose only joy in life was his little baby lamb. It seems this poor man’s rich next-door neighbor threw a party for his friends and, rather than slaughter a sheep from his own abundant flock, stole the poor guy’s baby lamb and fed it to his guests. Now, for the rest of us it’s as plain as the nose on our face that Nathan’s story is a thinly-veiled version of what David had done with Bathsheba. But David’s sin has so blinded him that he jumps up and vows to have the head of the villain who would do such a thing, until Nathan (in one of the bravest things anybody ever does in Scripture) points at David and says, “You’re the guy!” David finally sees what he’s done, repents and, though the rest of his life is hardly perfect, God uses him all the same.
David’s response to Nathan’s story is nothing short of resurrection. Like us, his actions had taken him to the far country, from which no return was to be had. Without the extraordinary grace of God, that’s where he–and we–would have stayed. Into the darkness of the grave we’ve dug for ourselves God shines a light and extends a hand. Some times we’ve hit rock bottom so hard that nothing short of resurrection can save us–and so that’s what God does.
And sometimes we get the resurrection we need, not the one we think we want. Remember the scripture passages we read a while ago? The first one was from Psalm 137, without question one of the most beautiful of all the Psalms. The setting is the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Babylonians were hauling a number of the leading citizens of Jerusalem off to Babylon. The psalmist tells of how their captors were trying to get the Israelites to sing a happy song for them. Yet how could they be happy when they remembered the destruction of Jerusalem? In words of haunting poetry the psalmist declares that he would rather lose his right hand than lose the memory of his home (the King James says, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning . . .”).
Now a little while ago we read verses 1-6, which are, of course, not the whole psalm. Here’s what the rest of the psalm says:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Yep, that’s right; at the tail end of this heartfelt song of loss and longing for home is an addendum speculating on how nice it would be if someone were to round up a few Babylonian babies and smack their heads against a rock. (I know what you’re thinking: between David’s sexual misconduct and this imagined act of violence, the sunrise service ought to come with a PG13 rating! All I can say is that I didn’t put this stuff in the Bible; I just have to preach on it. I’d be more than happy to preach about lambs and bunnies and little baby chicks, but there’s a distressing lack of biblical material on those subjects. We just told one of the only stories about a lamb, and you can see how well that turned out). Now as you may or may not know, the psalmist here is engaging in an extreme example of something that shows up pretty often in the psalms. Frequently the writers tell God how they’d like to see bad things happen to their enemies. The technical term for these are “imprecatory” psalms; their purpose is to take the anger we feel at the world’s injustice and lift it up to God, allowing God to deal with the situation. The idea is to take seriously the pain we feel when we’ve been wronged, while leaving it up to God to find a solution.
Yet because the psalmists were, like us, flawed and fallen human beings, it’s not hard to hear in their words sometimes, not just a prayer that God would right the world’s wrongs, but also some advice on how God should get the job done. And from giving God the benefit of our wisdom in such matters it’s a pretty short step to dispensing that justice ourselves on God’s behalf. So in Psalm 137 we find someone praying for remembrance and maybe resurrection–as long as that resurrection gets to involve a little revenge as well.
The bookend to Psalm 137 is the other text we read a few minutes ago, Isaiah 40. As the psalm speaks of the Israelites’ experience in leaving their home to go into captivity, so the prophet declares that the time has come for the descendants of those Israelites to leave their captivity and return home. And what is the first word that God speaks to Israel through the prophet? Comfort. “Comfort my people” God tells the prophet, and “speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Make a highway in the desert; knock down the hills, raise up the valleys, and smooth out the gravel so that the children and grandchildren of Jerusalem can return to the holy city.
The prophet’s words, every bit as lovely and haunting as the first verses of Psalm 137, speak of healing and forgiveness. They tell of those who wandered, but now return, of those who were lost but are now found, of those who were dead but now live. They speak of resurrection. But notice what they don’t talk about: revenge. Washed away are the anger and the thoughts of doing harm to those who have harmed us. In the healing light of resurrection, such darkness is chastened, and done away with. God gives us the resurrection we need, not the one we think we want.
Later today we’ll hear the main resurrection story, the one that makes all these other stories possible. We’ll hear the story of how God raises Jesus from the dead that first Easter morning. Into the darkness of death God speaks the word of resurrection. Starting with those female disciples who had come to prepare Jesus’ body, we haven’t stopped talking about it ever since. We’re here today because we hope to find our own stories of resurrection. As we seek them, we should listen to Moses, David, and the Israelites returning from captivity. They tell us that, just like them, God invites us today to leave the grave and step into the dawn of resurrection. God grant that it might be so. Amen.

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Paul, baptism, and that death thing

No one knows whether he’s always been our enemy. I like to think that in the beginning, he wasn’t. I like to think that at first he was a mysterious presence, but not a threatening one; that he would arrive unbidden, but not necessarily unwelcome. Probably sometimes his arrival was even embraced, as it is on occasion today. I like to think that, for a time, we knew him to be part of the natural order and accepted him as such, even if that acceptance didn’t mean we loved him.

            But somewhere along the way he tasted our fear, and that’s when things turned south. That fear, for whatever reason, intoxicated him. He became addicted to it. He worked to increase our fear, so that he might lick up every delicious drop. Allying himself with those who, like suffering and violence, have always sought our ill, he strengthened his grip on our imaginations. Now he’s almost always hovering at the back of our minds, infecting us with anxiety over the frozen nothingness we fear will greet us on the other side of the door he opens.

            And no, even though April 15 came and went recently, I’m not talking about the IRS agent; I’m talking about death. It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? Death It hardly seems appropriate to use that word on a beautiful spring morning like this, when the world itself is being reborn and we gather to talk about resurrection. More to the point, we’d like to think of Easter as the one day out of the year when we can forget about death, and focus on something else for awhile. Heaven knows, death gets his due the other 364 days out of the year.

            It seems, in fact, that no matter how hard we try death is always the uninvited guest in the room, the unnamed but not unknown watcher peering over our shoulder. In spite of our best efforts to compartmentalize death he’s always there, mocking our fascination with youth and our futile hope that if we somehow surround ourselves with enough stuff we will anchor ourselves to life and resist death’s inevitable call. Even our secret attempts to worship him, to create a culture that glamorizes death and violence have done nothing to appease his ravenous hunger to consume us.

            You’d think that death would be sitting fat and happy, but you’d be wrong. In fact, he hasn’t known a moment’s peace for a couple thousand years now. The trouble started one day when the Evil One, being the Prince of Lies that he is, started spreading a bunch of lies about this guy Jesus of Nazareth. To the scribes and Pharisees he said, “Kill him and everyone will forget his teaching.” To the priestly families he said, “Kill him and your power and influence will be secure.” To the Romans he said, “Kill him and the world will know that there is no king but Caesar.” And to death he told the biggest lie of all: “Take him, swallow him, and you’ll be more powerful than God himself.” So death teamed up with his old buddy violence and together they took Jesus’ life. When Jesus uttered the words, “it is finished,” the biggest celebration the world has ever seen got cranked up, with death, chaos, suffering, violence, and all the other Powers that from of old have sought to oppress God’s creation partying like no one’s business.

            Until, that is, Sunday morning and a very startling realization dawned on the Powers at exactly the same moment. The sun came up, the stone rolled away from the door of that tomb, and a lot of conventional wisdom got dumped on its head. Chaos doesn’t rule this world; justice does. Violence isn’t the final solution; love is. Death doesn’t get to speak the last word; that privilege belongs to resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is God’s final, irrevocable “NO!” to the all the Powers who thought they were in charge. The Resurrection is the sign that, to put it simply, God’s love wins.

            And here is the good news, brothers and sisters, for this fine Easter morning: death might still be our enemy, but because of the Resurrection, he is also our servant. Romans 6 tells us that as followers of Jesus Christ we share in his death. That is, of course, a daunting and liberating idea. Daunting because to follow Jesus, you have to die. He said it himself: If you want to follow me, take up your cross. Now, unless you know of some other purpose for which the Romans built those big heavy crosses, I’m pretty sure he’s telling us to die. That seems like a harsh word, doesn’t it? “Gee, Lord, do I have to, you know, die?” Couldn’t I, I don’t know, eat something I don’t like or come down with a cold, or something?” And here, by the way, is why everyone is always looking for one of those mythical lost gospels, because they’re hoping to find the one that says “If you would come after me, take up your broccoli and eat it.” No such luck, I’m afraid; it’s die or nothing. Die to our old life, our old habits, our prejudices, our plans, our pride; just die.

            And yet Paul’s assurance that we’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death is liberating because this is the death, the death that changed the rules of the game forever. This is the death that broke the power of death itself; this death is the sentence that ends in the word “resurrection.” In baptism, we die; it’s that simple. Why else would there have to be water? Without water baptism would just be a cute baby trying to yank off the pastor’s glasses as the pastor parades that baby around the sanctuary. But add water into the equation and baptism suddenly becomes something a lot more powerful. Water is about life because we can’t live without it, but it’s also about death, because put us in water and leave us there and sooner or later, we’re going to die. But that death in baptism isn’t just our death; it’s Jesus’ death as well. And that means that on the other side of the waters of baptism lies resurrection and new life. Getting there is simple: All we have to do is die.

            This is where it helps to read the whole Bible. I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard before that stuff that Jesus says about taking up your cross and dying. But it’s possible you haven’t heard Paul’s promise in Romans 6 that, if you’ve passed through the waters of baptism, you’ve already died and been raised to new life. This is why preachers like Rev. Carol are forever saying that thing about remembering your baptism when they talk about being a disciple. If you hear Christ calling you to follow him, step outside your comfort zone, and die to yourself (stick around this church long enough and I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen), then the reminder to remember your baptism can be pretty comforting for a couple of reasons. First, because it tells us that we’ve already had to die once, in the waters of baptism. And second, because it brings to mind what we all learned in summer camp as we stood trembling on the edge of the high dive: it’s always hardest the first time. Having been through that death already means that all our other deaths, even the daily ones, need not be so fearsome.

            Our fear of death doesn’t have to hold sway over our imagination, the way it rules the imagination of the world. Death is our enemy, to be sure, but not our conqueror. The death of those we love brings real grief because the grace of their presence in our life is now gone. The death of anyone, especially an innocent, is a sign that God’s kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness. Because we live by faith and not sight our own death is a mystery we won’t fully solve until we experience it, and that causes us fear. Yet I think that for the baptized death is at least as afraid of us as we are of him. He knows that we’ve been marked by the waters of baptism; he knows that our death is Christ’s; and he remembers how well that death turned out for him the first time.

            Maybe in the end death won’t be our enemy after all. Revelation chapter 20 says that, at the end of all things when God creates a new heaven and a new earth, death will be cast into a lake of fire. That fire could be destructive, of course, but I wonder if instead it won’t be redemptive. I wonder if death won’t emerge from it cleansed of his lust for power and his addiction to fear. I hope that he’ll walk up out of that cleansing fire, lay down his ancient enmity with God’s children, and stand bathed, as we stand this morning, in the healing light of resurrection. Amen.

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It All Starts with Jesus

As a Christian, I don’t get to talk about God. Or perhaps I should say I don’t get to talk about “God,” as in “In God We trust,” “God bless America,” “It was God’s will,” “Can God create a rock so big that he can’t move it?” “Does God exist?” and so on. All those rambling philosophical conversations in which God shows up from time to time, like the one where you argue that atheists can’t be moral because they don’t believe in God; diverting though they might be, I don’t get to participate in those any more.

Why this conversational embargo? Because I don’t have anything to say about that God. That God, the God of civil religion, cultural relevance, and philosophical speculation, is somebody I don’t know. Oh, I’ve heard a lot about him; people have been talking about that God my whole life. That God is the source of endless conversation, in fact, for a simple reason: you can say anything you want about him, you can make him into anything that suits your purpose–which is exactly what we do. Allow me to explain.

Back in the 19th century a philosopher named Ludwig Feuerbach said something that made him a lot of enemies: He claimed that “God” is nothing more than the sum of human desires, aspirations, and prejudices, projected onto the screen of the universe. In other words, it isn’t we who are made in the image of God, but the other way around. We take whatever is most important to us and imagine a God to whom that is most important, too. We want a God who hates our enemies, loves our friends, and blesses our endeavors. And so, that’s the God we make for ourselves.

The thing is, creating God in our own image isn’t all that hard. Why? Because by definition God is a mystery. God is infinite, beyond our experience. God dwells in inapproachable light. Finite creatures that we are, we simply don’t have the equipment to comprehend this God. Now, what that fact ought to do is make us humble in the face of the divine mystery; it should inspire in us a sense of hushed reverence. But the problem is, in addition to being finite, we are also flawed. Our flaw (the theological word is “sin”) leads us to take the exact opposite course to the one we should take in the face of the divine mystery. Rather than reverence and awe, we respond with idolatry. “Hey,” we say; “if there’s really nothing we can know or say about this God, then I guess we just get to say anything we want, right?” Which is precisely what we do.

And that is precisely why God chose to act. Rather than allow us to continue in our ignorance and idolatry, God chose to reveal the divine self in a couple of stories (that are, from a Christian point of view, really just one big story): the stories of Israel and Jesus. In those stories, the character of God takes on a definite shape; we learn from them what kind of God we’re dealing with. In those stories, and most especially in the Cross (what Christians consider to be the culmination and climax of the story), we discover first and foremost that God defines power differently than we do . We think power comes from coercive force, the ability to make someone else do what we want. At the Cross God shows us that true power resides in sacrificial love.

Everything else we know about God flows outward from what we learn about God in Israel and (for Christians), at the Cross. Everything we say about God must be tested against this reality. This is why the God of civil religion or philosophical speculation is, in the end, not only an idol, but frankly a boring one as well. That God is a human creation, interesting only to the extent that we humans find ourselves endlessly fascinating. But compared to the God we see in Israel and Jesus, the culturally-relevant, nationalistic, philosophical God of human devising is no big deal. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; that God calls us , challenges us, judges us, finds us wanting, and loves anyway, all while heading out into another adventure and telling us to follow. That God expects us to love people we don’t know, forgive people we don’t like, and tell the world a story it doesn’t want to hear.

Follow this God for a while and you’ll realize pretty quickly why we prefer to follow our own personal (in other words, idolatrous) Gods instead; our Gods, the ones we make for ourselves, never really ask anything of us other than that we congratulate ourselves for our prejudices every now and then. The God of Israel and Jesus, on the other hand, asks stuff of us all the time, hard stuff in fact–which is probably why following that God provides us with the truest sense of fulfillment we’ve ever felt.

This is why we say that, for Christians, it all starts with Jesus. As the culmination of God’s story in Israel, the Jesus story shows us who God really is. Apart from that story, we just don’t have that much to say about God. But say “Jesus,” and you’ve said the most important thing about God you’re ever going to say.

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Believing as a way to love God

In the last two posts I claimed that believing is not the prerequisite either to following Jesus or to belonging to the community of faith. In both cases I said that believing can and does enhance these other priorities, but that believing has to play second fiddle to each. But this time I want to let believing shine on its own. Believing doesn’t always have to be the wingman; sometimes it gets to lead.

Before I can do that, however, I have to ask a question or two. First, why are so many lay folk afraid of the word “theology?” For that matter, why are so many pastors afraid of it? I teach weekend courses to bivocational pastors, folks who pastor one or more congregations while holding down a full-time day job as well. I always start my theology classes by asking the last time they used the word “theology.” Other than to tell someone about the class they were about to take, practically none of them have used the word in a long time. When I ask why that is, they generally shrug and say that it’s just not a word their church members like that much–and hene they feel out of touch for using it.

If I were to unpack that statement, I’d say that church folk don’t use the word “theology” that often because it strikes them as somehow inauthentic or pretentious. At the least, it feels foreign, like something people in ivory towers talk about, but that has nothing to do with them. As someone who has been in love with theology since my first undergraduate theology course a long time ago, I regret this situation. Theology should be neither a burden nor an irrelevance; it should be a joy, and for one simple reason: because it’s one of the ways we get to love God.

Just as we’ve figured out in recent years that there are a lot of different kinds of intelligence, so it’s become clear that we don’t all express our love of God in the same way. Some folks love God most with their hands, loving God by serving God’s hurting world. Some love God with their hearts, finding themselves most happy when their emotions are engaged, often in lively worship. Still others love God with their spirit, communing inwardly with the Divine. And then there are those who love God with their minds, finding themselves closest to God when they are pondering and discussing the meaning of who God is and how God moves in the world.

Just as I think that all of these are valid ways to love God, I also believe that most of us find one or two of them more conducive to our own spiritual makeup than the others. That is a perfectly natural thing, and simply reflects the diversity of gifts among God’s children to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 12. But here’s the thing: just because I might find one of these ways to love God more in tune with my personality does not mean that I get to neglect the other three. Regardless of where my spiritual “sweet spot” lies, God nonetheless calls me to serve, to feel, to commune, and to think.

The branch of the Christian family tree in which I grew up had no trouble loving God with their hearts, but the mind stuff was another story. Simply put, we believed that you couldn’t feel your faith too much, but you sure could overthink it. We were afraid that if you thought too long and too much, you’d think your way out of believing. Looking back, I have to see this as a profoundly faithless attitude, as if the God of the universe could somehow be defeated by human cleverness.

More troubling still was the way this attitude closed off the possibility of loving God with the mind. Throughout its history God has granted the church teachers whose role is not simply to lead us into truth, but to model for us the intellectual love of God. Folks like Augustine and Macrina, Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich, John Calvin and Susannah Wesley, James Cone and Letty Russell; these and so many others have, by their probing, pushing, questioning, considering, and debating deepened their own love of God and that of all who have known their work. Folks like these are often known as theologians, and the description fits, because we remember them for the quality of their thinking about God. But they considered themselves first and foremost believers, engaging in that same intellectual love of God to which you and I have been called.

You don’t have to have an advanced degree, you don’t have to know big words like pneumatology and eschatology (although it wouldn’t hurt if you kept one or two in your back pocket); all you have to do is stop to think, to ponder, to reflect. All you have to do, in other words, is to open your mind and heart to the questions of what all this means. If you do, God will lead you into answers that, in their turn, will produce more questions, and more answers still. And before you know it, you will find that believing is just another way to love the God who believed in and loved you first.

Next time: It all starts with Jesus.

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Believing vs belonging

The last post asked, if following is the most important thing, then what good is believing? This time we’ll ask the same question about believing and belonging.

“I would never want to belong to any organization that would have me as a member,” says the well-worn quip. That attitude notwithstanding, most of us want to belong. Many hands have been wrung of late about the numbers of young adults who no longer feel any need to belong to a church. What doesn’t get asked frequently enough is where they do want to belong. Ask them that question and they’ll tell you they want to belong with other people who value authenticity, service, and genuine engagement with one another. What they don’t want is to belong to a group that a), judges other people and b), expects everyone to believe the same thing in the same way.

And right there you have the great misconception about believing and belonging when it comes to church. I’ve been part of a lot of churches, from hard-shelled fundamentalist to touchy-feely, peace+justice liberal, and the diversity of each and every one of them would surprise and even shock their leaders (especially the fundamentalists). People both inside and outside the church think that to belong you have to agree with some list of essential beliefs. Those outside think that their failure to subscribe to the list disqualifies them from ever coming inside. Those inside think that their similar failure makes them inadequate members, and that pretty soon somebody’s going to discover their inadequacy and they’ll have to leave. Both groups believe implicitly that the list is out there somewhere even though IT DOESN’T ACTUALLY EXIST. It doesn’t actually exist. With a small number of exceptions, even the fundamentalist churches only ask if you’ve invited Jesus to save you and want to follow him before you can join. Practically no one requires you to believe before you can belong.

Now, once you belong all churches expect you to grow. For some churches that means growth in right belief, but again only a few of them actually do any checking about this. For most, belonging—and following—are enough (some mistakenly equate belonging with following, but that’s a subject for another day). Sometimes explicitly, most times implicitly, churches recognize that expecting folks to believe before they can belong is neither practical nor desirable.

So once again we’re left with the question of what good believing does; if belonging comes first, does believing have to come at all? The answer is no, but yes. No, your beliefs about God, the church, even Christ don’t have to be set in order for you to belong (if they are set, and if they significantly contradict what the Bible and Christian tradition teach, then chances aren’t good that you’re going to want to belong to a church in the first place). But yes, believing does matter, because it’s a central part of the journey we’re on together. Living as a community in the presence of the mystery we name God will inevitably lead to questions about what this all means. You can discuss, debate, and argue with yourself about those questions, but the results are neither particularly fun nor particularly illuminating. But holding that conversation with others in a community of faith is another matter entirely. Whether it’s in a Sunday School class, a weekday fellowship meal, a service project, or gathered around the Lord’s table, our belonging to one another at church is going to enrich and deepen our believing. We don’t have to believe in order to belong, but belong long enough and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to avoid believing.

Following and belonging are what theologians like to call first-order activities; they are the essential things, the ones that matter most. Believing is not more important than following and belonging, but it aids both of them. We’re going to want to understand and believe better in order to follow better. Likewise, we’re going to find that the attempt to better understand that in which we believe is going to draw us closer as a community that belongs to one another. In both cases, we are led to believe, not because we have to, but because we want to do so. Belief, in other words, is a joyous result of our following and belonging.

Next time: why believing is important in its own right.

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Believing vs following

As a Christian, does it matter what I believe? Do I have to believe certain things in order to be a Christian? If so, what happens if I don’t believe those things; I guess that means I can’t be a Christian, right?

While these questions have been around as long as there’s been a Christian faith, they seem to come up more often these days. A lot of things have come together to make us less certain about what we believe, and what that belief means within the larger issue of our relationship to God. Whether Christians used to hold to their beliefs more firmly than we do is a question I can’t answer. What is clear is that they were more certain than we are that belief is what makes you a Christian.

Now here’s the place where I’m supposed to suggest that this was a good thing, and that maybe we would do well to follow their example. But I’m not going to suggest that because I don’t believe it. I don’t want to go back to a simpler time when we all knew what we believed and why. For one thing I know too much about history to accept the notion of “a simpler time.” But more importantly, I also know that Christians have long struggled to give believing its proper priority, to balance it with other obligations, notably: following and belonging.

When I read the gospels, I hear Jesus talking all the time about following him, about taking up a cross like he did. To be fair the Jesus of the Gospel of John enjoins the disciples fairly often to believe in him, but the Greek verb involved means to invest our faith and trust in him, more than give intellectual agreement to the truth of what he was saying. The gospels, as well as Paul and the rest of the New Testament, do say a lot about belief, but it is always a belief in or toward the reality of God in Christ, the purpose of which is to reorient our lives. It as though the whole New Testament is asking this one question: “Now that you know about Jesus, what are you going to do about it?” The purpose of telling the story of Jesus and the early church is to confront the reader with a decision. Belief in the truth of the story is not the point; changing your life so that this story now becomes your story is. Absent this decision and change, belief is meaningless. Faith without works is dead.

But early on, Christians mistook belief in for belief about. Placing one’s faith and trust in Jesus became trusting that what Christianity says about him is true. An encounter with the living Christ became an intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions. Simply put, the idea that all one has to do is believe in Jesus—by which we mean say the right things about him—explains why so many Christians are so capable of hate. If all you have to do is believe, then you don’t have to change your life. In other words, believing is easy; following is hard.

So if following is more important, does that mean that believing doesn’t matter? I know a lot of folks who think that (at least implicitly), but I don’t count myself among them. The thing is, even though most of us do a lousy job of living out our convictions, those convictions do matter. They shape what we expect of ourselves. They give direction to our following.

The best illustration of this reality comes from Europe during the Nazi period. In spite of the fact that large numbers of baptized Christians were complicit (at least with their silence) in the Nazi effort to eradicate the Jews, some people chose to do what they could to save Jewish lives. Many of these were individuals who acted out of personal courage, or kindness, or old-fashioned cussedness toward people telling them what to do. But sometimes groups of people worked together to save the Jews, like the small community of Le Chambon, France. When the story was told after the war of how this town hid and transported hundreds of Jewish refugees, it became clear that a couple of churches had been central to the effort. When asked why they did what they did, the members of these churches pointed toward their belief in God, in Christ, and in the biblical truth of the chosen people of God.The rest of occupied Europe was cowed by fear or lulled into acquiescence by centuries of believing that state mediated the will of God. But this small French community chose to believe in—and follow—the biblical God instead.

In Christianity, believing is not the only thing, nor is it even the most important thing; that honor has to go to following. But neither is it true that believing is nothing. Believe that, and you’ll believe—and follow—anything.

Next time: believing vs belonging.

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New Series: What Good is Believing?

Here begins a much-needed new chapter in this long-dormant blog, corresponding to the new series I’m kicking off in the Thinking and Believing Sunday School class at Christ UMC in Franklin, TN. Class members will know that I’ve been taking a hiatus since the summer, made necessary in large part by extra responsibilities related to my elderly parents. Those responsibilities are a bit better in hand, and for that reason I’m back in the saddle, folks!

I am by training and inclination a theologian. Since the spring of 1978, when I took my fist theology class, I’ve been in love with theology. Like all lovers, I want folks to share that love; hence, this series: “What Good is Believing?” Most folks are turned off by theology, and by the idea of Christian belief in general, because they think it’s something they have to do, that they’re supposed to do. Good Americans that we are, we don’t want anyone telling us that we have to do something, and thus we don’t like theology.

But what if theology were a joy, rather than an obligation? What if believing were something you wanted to do, rather were supposed to do? What good is believing? The short answer is that makes it more possible to love God, but only when we want to believe. Reasons to want to believe? I hope that’s what you’ll find in this series. So join us in class or in the blog; I think we’re going to have fun.

Next time: Believing vs following

Bob Ratcliff

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