Is There a God?

justinRecently I preached a series of sermons on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion.”  This was Question #2–“Is There a God?”–and I preached it (as I did all these questions) with the help of a “conversation partner,” sitting at a table in the same place where the pulpit usually stands, having a conversation about one of the most important things of all.  I hope you will enjoy it and learn from it.

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Jim:           Welcome back to this series on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion,” and again I have asked a member of the Millennial Generation to join me as a conversation partner as I understand that it is these young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who are doing most of the Googling.  Today I have with me Justin Williams, a brilliant musician who teaches orchestra at Clover Hill High School, and who played the violin for us here just a few weeks ago.  Justin is married to the former Roxanne O’Brien, who is also a gifted musician and a member of this church.  Welcome, Justin!

Justin:      Thank you.

Jim:           Justin the question we are asking today—“Is there a God?”—has been a real question for you, hasn’t it?  Tell us a little about that.

Justin:      Yes, I was a very devout Christian in college: maybe a bit too legalistic, but I considered myself a true believer, a lover of God, and a witness for Jesus.  But some of the questions I ran into like the problem of evil and the accuracy of the Bible were hard to answer.  I began to read books like Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, and Evidence, by Josh McDowell, but realized that unless you assume the Bible to be true, many of their arguments are unconvincing.  So, I read on.  I read a book by William Craig called Is God Real?  I read Francis Collins’ book, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.    I even read the Richard Swinburne trilogy, Is There a God? etc.  But in each case I found their answers relied on poor reasoning or creative but misleading analogies.   There were too many questions and I wasn’t finding good answers for even the best resources.  I ended up doubting and finally disbelieving most of what I had been taught.

Jim:           Wow, that’s quite a journey, Justin.  Thank you for being so honest with us.

Justin:      Well, that’s just where I am.  I am still open to discovering truth and changing my mind but I’m not still searching for an answer to the “God question.”  I don’t need the concept of “God” to explain the way things are in the world, and even if I were convinced that God was real and the Bible was true, I would have a hard time serving a God who does some of the things recorded in Scripture.  I mean, really, have you read some of the Old Testament? 

Jim:           I have!

Justin:      That said, I love First Baptist Church!  Roxanne and I tithe to the church each week and I love what you’re doing here.  I’d like to be a part of it when and where I can fit in. 

Jim:           Well, thank you.  I love this church, too, and one of the things I love about it is that it is a safe place to ask questions like this one: “Is there a God?”

Justin:      Wait, Dr. Somerville…

Jim:           Yes ?

Justin:      I don’t think you heard me.  I’m not asking that question any more.

Jim:           Right, but there may be some people here who are, and if you can believe it the journey you just described is a journey that many thoughtful Christians have taken.  It’s just that their journey didn’t end there.

Justin:      OK…tell me more.

Jim:           Do you see this beautiful visual aid I’ve brought?

Justin:      Yes, it’s gorgeous.

Jim:           Thank you!  I made it myself.  These are Tinkertoys, and when I was a kid we had a huge set of Tinkertoys.  I used to get up on Saturday mornings and make structures taller than I was (of course, I wasn’t very tall back then).  But for our purposes today I’d like to let this little structure represent our “framework of understanding.”  You see, I grew up in a Christian home, too.  Mine may not have been as conservative as yours but when I asked my mother, “Who made the world?” she would say, “God made the world.”  She may not have known it, but in those early days she and my dad were helping me build my framework of understanding, and, back in the 1960’s, most of the people I encountered shared the same understanding.  If I asked my neighbors or my Sunday school teachers who made the world they would say the same thing: “God made it.”  So, when I went off to school for the first time, I took my framework of understanding with me, and I was fine, until somebody said, “God didn’t make the world,” and that didn’t make sense.

Justin:      Right!

Jim:           I talk about it like this sometimes: if I go outside and a bird flies by I say, “Right.  Birds fly.”  I have a place to hang that experience on my framework of understanding.  But if I go outside and a cat flies by I either have to say, “I didn’t really see that,” or I have to re-build my framework of understanding to include the experience of flying cats.  And we really don’t like to re-build our frameworks.  We’re very protective of them.  It’s easier to justify our old understanding than to accept a new one.  So I might say, “That cat didn’t really fly; someone just threw it across my field of vision.”  Does that make sense?

Justin:      Yes.

Jim:           So, when we go off to school with the framework of understanding our parents helped us build in our conservative Christian home (what some people would call our “Christian worldview”) it shouldn’t surprise us that not everybody will share our understanding.  It often happens for young people when they go off to college: they encounter different views, different understandings.  Their pastor always told them that the world was made in six days but their science professor tells them it evolved over billions and billions of years, and maybe for the first time in their lives they are presented with conflicting voices of authority.  They have to decide: “Which voice will I listen to?”  And if they choose to listen to the science professor it can be very empowering.  It can make them feel that they have finally grown up.  The only problem is that they have to decide what to do with their old framework of understanding.  Can they just rearrange their Tinkertoys to accommodate this new concept?  Or will they have to take the whole thing apart and start from scratch?

Justin:      Yep.  That’s where I was in college.

Jim            If it’s any comfort to you, some of the most brilliant people I know have been in that same place.  A scholar named Marcus Borg, whose writings I have appreciated, grew up in a comfortably conservative Christian home, but struggled with doubts in early adolescence.[i]  Those doubts turned to disbelief in college and by his mid-twenties he would have described himself as an atheist.  Only later did he realize that he didn’t have to replace his Christian worldview with a secular worldview, but he did have to replace it with a different kind of Christianity, and it started with his concept of God.  His old concept was something he calls “Supernatural Theism,” (which sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  “It’s super, it’s natural, it’s supernatural!”).  It’s the concept we find in much of the Bible: God is a supernatural being who made the world and everything in it and who is now “up there” somewhere, above us.  Borg says that if you had asked him in childhood what God looked like he would have pictured his old Lutheran pastor, Pastor Thorson, standing in the pulpit shaking his finger (and apparently he was a finger-shaker).  Or maybe someone like Santa Claus, who “sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake; who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”  The message Borg got, even in childhood, was that if you are good, then, when you die you get to go to heaven, but if you are bad, well, “you better watch out”!

In biblical times that concept of God worked pretty well.  People who lived back then didn’t know what we know now.  They believed the world was mostly flat, and that the sky was a hard dome over it, like some of the big sports arenas today.  The stars were like little lights fixed to the underside of the dome and the sun and moon moved on tracks from one side to the other.  All the human action was going on down here, on the floor, but God was up there somewhere, in the skybox, watching.  And that was mostly comforting.  God wasn’t very far away.  But during the Enlightenment we learned that the world wasn’t flat, it was round, and there wasn’t a hard dome over it, there was a universe!  If God was up there somewhere he wasn’t anywhere we could see with our telescopes.  He must be very, very far away.  Some theologians solved the problem by saying God was transcendent, he was “radically other,” you couldn’t get near him if you wanted to, while others suggested that God was immanent, that he was very near, but only through your experience of him, only “in your heart.”

Neither of those answers was very satisfying to Borg.  He kept looking, and found that before the Enlightenment some Christians were comfortable talking about a God who was transcendent as well as immanent; one who was not only “up there,” but also “right here.”  Borg uses the word panentheism to describe this view, and that’s going to take a little explaining.  If you look at the Greek roots pan means “everything,” en means, well, “in,” and theos is the word for God.  Panentheism means, literally, “everything is in God.”  It’s different from pantheism, which means everything is God, and which has been denounced as a heresy.  No, panentheism simply means that everything—including the universe—is in God.  And that’s a pretty big idea.  Are you still with me, Justin?

Justin:      Sure!  Nothing I love more than Greek words.

Jim:           Me too!  So, one of my favorite theologians has described panentheism by talking about the way a baby exists inside its mother’s womb.[ii]  In there it may be aware of its mother’s heartbeat, the distant murmur of her voice, the fact that it is surrounded by warmth and love and sustained by the nourishment she provides, but it may not be aware of much more than that.  The mother, on the other hand, is texting on her smartphone while picking out paint swatches for the nursery.  She’s out there in the world, and fully aware of everything.  Now, suppose that we are like that baby, reaching out with both hands to get a better understanding of who God is and what God is like, but not doing a very good job.  We are limited by our ability to apprehend and our capacity to understand.  God is bigger than we are.  And yet we cannot deny the reality of our experience.  There’s something there, something all the world religions attest to, something William James once identified as “The More.”[iii]

Justin:      OK, but now you’re raising one of my questions: what is the evidence for God?  How do we know we are “in” God and not just in the solar system or in the universe? 

Jim:           Good question.  A lot of people point to the universe itself as evidence.  They say that it couldn’t exist as it does if there were not some intelligent mind behind it.  That may be true, but I don’t think it has to be.  The universe is big enough, and complex enough, that we could actually be the product of random chance.  It’s possible.  And then there’s the Bible.  Our call to worship from Psalm 19 insisted that “the heavens are telling the glory of God!”  But if you don’t believe the Bible, if you don’t think it’s true, then that’s not very compelling evidence, is it?  Some people might say, “Well, you can’t know these things, you just have to accept them on faith,” but that often seems to be only another way of saying, “In order to be a good Christian you have to believe unbelievable things.”  So, we end up with experience, and experience is admittedly subjective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Look at love for example.  I’m assuming that at some point in your life you’ve had an experience of something you would call love.  You might even say that you love your wife (and if you’re smart, you will, because she’s sitting right there).  It’s hard to come up with evidence of your love.  You might have said at one point, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think of anything but Roxanne,” but that hardly qualifies as evidence.  Someone who had never been in love might think you had insomnia, or an upset stomach, or a weird obsession with people who play the French horn.  But someone who had been in love would read your experience in a different way.  She would say, “Oh, that’s easy.  You’re in love.”  And there are thousands, probably millions, maybe even billions of people who would agree with her diagnosis.

So, if there are billions of people in the world who say, “There is a God,” you would want to take them as seriously as you would want them to take you.  Their experiences may be different, they may not talk about them in the same way, or in the same language, or in the same religious tradition, but if billions of people are saying, “Yes, there is something More than we can see and hear and touch; there is a spiritual reality just as surely as there is a physical reality,” that would at least serve as a good starting point.

So, Justin: I know I haven’t answered all your questions.  You had a great question about communication, for instance.  You said, “If God is God why doesn’t he do a better job communicating?  I mean, I’ve got my cell phone right here!”  I loved that, and I’m going to get to it in a later sermon, but for today I’d like to leave you with this thought: maybe your old way of thinking about God needed to be dismantled.  Maybe you were exactly right to pull those Tinkertoys apart.  But maybe, someday—when you’re ready—you can add to your framework of understanding a new understanding of God: not so much as a supernatural being who is “up there” somewhere, but as the loving Presence who is both “up there” and “right here,” the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.[iv]

—Jim Somerville and Justin Williams, ©2016

 

[i] All of this is from The God We Never Knew (HarperCollins, 1997).
[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, according to Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, pp. 156-7.
[iii] In the last chapter of his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
[iv] Quoting from Paul’s speech in Acts 17.

Getting Right with Each Other

GroupHandsUnityPB_545x277A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “straight church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?”

I’ve had a good many requests for my sermon from Sunday, June 19, quoted above.  It was number four in a series called “Getting right with God,” based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but as I said in the introduction, it’s not getting right with God that’s the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

I’ve posted the full text of the sermon below with a link to the video at the end.  I hope you will read it or watch it, and if you feel like sharing please do.  I think there’s some good news here.

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After worship last Sunday someone asked me why I was spending six weeks talking about “Getting Right with God.”  “Isn’t it fairly simple?” he asked.  I’ve been thinking about that question ever since, and I’ve concluded that getting right with God is not the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

Wasn’t that the problem Paul was dealing with in Galatians?  It wasn’t that God had any trouble welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles into his family; it was that the Jewish Christians had trouble welcoming them into the church.  They thought they should be circumcised first, then they could get their names on the rolls, then they could take communion.  And Paul argued, “No, it’s not circumcision that makes us part of God’s family: it is faith in Jesus Christ.”  That seems so obvious to us now that we could almost fall asleep during a sermon from Galatians.  Until someone comes down the aisle who is not like us.  And then we sit bolt upright in our pews and begin to come up with all sorts of reasons why that person should not be a member of the church.

It happened here on January 3, 1965.  At the close of the 11:00 service two Nigerian students who were attending Virginia Union University came down the aisle to join First Baptist Church.  And why not?  They were the sons of Baptist ministers in Nigeria who had heard about First Baptist Church.  They knew it was the church where the president of the Foreign Mission Board was a member and the former president of the Baptist World Alliance was the pastor.  They encouraged their sons to attend. And so, these obedient boys put on their Sunday best and came to church.  And it must have been wonderful to walk into this place when Dr. Adams was the pastor, and the pews were packed, and the choir loft was overflowing.  These students must have gotten a little giddy from the splendor of it all, and when the invitation was given they came down the aisle.

I don’t know what Dr. Adams was preaching that day.  I doubt that he was preaching from this passage in Galatians that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  But something that he said or something that those students felt in this place made them believe they would be welcome.  And so they walked down the aisle and asked to join the church.  As I heard the story Dr. Adams, who had traveled the globe in his work as president of the Baptist World Alliance, and who had gotten to know Baptists of every kind, would have been happy to welcome them.  He knew that in Christ there is neither black nor white.  But this was 1965, and this was Richmond, Virginia, and Dr. Adams had the presence of mind to welcome them without promising them membership in the church.  That would be decided a few weeks later, after many long discussions with the deacons and a bitter and painful business meeting that practically split the church.  In the end, by a narrow margin, the congregation voted to welcome those students as members.

It’s interesting that our church history is called “The Open Door.”  1965 was one of those times (and our historian says as much) when the open door was tested.  How open was it, really?  Could we welcome black people, as well as white, into our membership?  The answer was yes, and I’m grateful.  When I think about some of the people I might never have known if this door hadn’t been open I almost weep!  The life of our congregation has only been enriched by its diversity.  We can see that now, looking back.  It’s always easier looking back.  We’ve struggled with other questions since then.  Can women be ordained as ministers in this church?  Can Christians from other denominations join without being immersed?  Can people who are differently oriented be members here?  Again and again the open door has been tested and every time it makes us sit bolt upright in our pews.  So, don’t fall asleep during this sermon from Galatians when Paul is working so hard answer the question of who can be a member of the church and who can’t.

For him the door was open—wide open—and I can almost see him on a street corner in Galatia, inviting people of every description into this new life with Christ.  They might ask, “What do I have to do?”  And Paul might answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus!”  “Is that all?” they would ask.  “That’s all!” Paul would answer.  And then, when they had confessed their faith, they would be baptized, not as a requirement for membership in the church, but as a symbol of their new life in Christ.

In those days, in that part of the world, they would strip off their clothes on the riverbank, symbols of the old life, and then wade out into the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  When they came up out of the water it was like they had been born again, and when they stepped out onto the riverbank they were given a new, white robe to wear, a symbol of the new life.  And then Paul might say to them, as he says here in Galatians, “Listen, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus!”  And then he would move on to the next little town and start all over again.

But apparently someone was coming along behind him, telling those new Christians that believing wasn’t enough, baptism wasn’t enough, that if they wanted to be part of God’s family they would have to become Jews, they would have to start obeying the Law of Moses, and the men among them would have to be circumcised.  You can probably imagine what Paul had to say about that.  But you don’t have to imagine it.  You can read it for yourself in Galatians 2.  Paul says, “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (vs. 16).  And as far as circumcision goes, Paul reminds us that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, not after.  “He believed God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6), Paul says, arguing that Gentile believers stand in that same tradition.

You might ask, “Then why did the Jews even need the law?” and Paul anticipates that question.  He says that the Law was “added because of transgressions,” and what he means, I think, is that we humans have a tendency to stray, that on our way from the Present Evil Age to the Age to Come we might wander off the path and get lost.  Have you ever seen two teachers walking with a group of preschoolers, where the teachers are holding on to each end of a long rope and the preschoolers are holding on in between?  It keeps everybody safe until they get back to their school, and then the children let go of the rope and run to the door.   I think that’s what Paul would say the Law was like—like a good, strong rope we could hold on to that kept us from going astray.  Until.  Until it brought us to Jesus.  And then we didn’t need the rope anymore.  We were free to run to him.  And as Jesus himself once said, he is the door, the door that lets us in to his Father’s house.

Can anybody go in through that door?  Let’s see what Paul says.

  • In Galatians 3:26 he writes: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
  • In verse 27 he writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
  • In verse 28 he writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
  • In verse 29 he writes: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the Promise”

Can you picture those children of God, still dressed in their white robes, coming into the Father’s house and sitting down around the family table?  Whatever distinctions divided them before have disappeared; they are all one in Christ Jesus.

And Paul says that’s how it should be in the church, but often that’s not how it is.  A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the straight church.  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?  I’m telling you he has opened the door, and if you are in him you are in—period!  All you have to do is believe it, to accept the good news that you are accepted.”

And that’s where faith comes in.

Paul uses that word five times in the first four verses of today’s reading.  Count them: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”  Did you get all five?  “Faith, faith, faith, faith, faith!” Paul says.  “That’s what sets us free from the law, that’s what puts us right with God, that’s what makes us part of his family.”  And I want to be careful about how I say this, but I believe that for Paul faith is the new circumcision, the sign of the New Covenant—not some mark in the flesh but a matter of the heart.  So, who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith, and the faith that I’m talking about is the faith that God loves us and wants us for his own.  It’s the gospel Jesus preached.  It’s the message Paul proclaimed.  And most of the time the only thing that keeps us from receiving it is our own disbelief:

“How could God love somebody like me?”

But sometimes others keep us from receiving it.  They say, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “How could God love somebody like you?”  That is at least one of the messages that came out of last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando.  It certainly seems that someone judged those people dancing in a gay nightclub and found them worthy only of contempt.  It’s at least one of the messages that came out of last year’s shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.  Someone judged those people who had gathered for Bible study and found them worthy only of hatred.  They may not have done it with guns and bullets, but there have probably been people along the way who judged you, and found you worthy only of contempt and hatred.  And, God forgive us, there have probably been people we judged, people who don’t come to church here because they believe that if they did they would not be welcome.

Who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith.  And who can have faith?  Any one.  Paul would say that it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  These days he might add some other categories but it wouldn’t change his message: all you have to do is believe that God loves you and wants you for his own, all you have to do is see Jesus standing at the door, begging you to come in, all you have to do is find the courage to take that first step.  “It takes faith,” Paul might say, “but faith is all it takes.  It is the new circumcision, the sign of the new covenant.  It is not a mark in the flesh, but a matter of the heart.”

Have you ever been to one of those conferences where there is a registration table at the front with all the name tags already made up?  They sit there in their shiny plastic sleeves—the names of all those who have registered for the conference.  I sometimes look at them when I ask for my own tag, and sometimes I see the name of someone I know.  “Oh, look!  John is coming to this conference.  Oh, look!  There’s Betty, or David, or Jane.”  But when we take a break for lunch and I walk by that same table, I usually see some name tags that have not been claimed, some people who were planning to come to the conference, but for whatever reason didn’t make it.  If church were like one of those conferences there might be a table out front with everybody’s name tag on it.  Everybody’s.  And when we went out after the benediction we would see the names of all those people who didn’t make it: some who found something better to do, some who weren’t physically able, but some who didn’t believe…they would be welcome.

–Jim Somerville, 2016

 

Watch the video by clicking HERE

 

When Religion Makes Things Worse

volcanoLet me begin this post with a test.  It’s a true-false test, and there’s only one question, but it may be the most important question you will ever answer.  Ready?  Here it is:

Q: Is your understanding of God true, or false?

Several years ago I got to hear Alan Hirsch speak.  Hirsch is originally from South Africa.  He has worked as a church planter in Australia, and has become one of the leading voices in the missional church movement.  I wrote down almost everything he said.  But one thing that stood out from all the others:  Hirsch said, “If your conception of God is radically false, then the more religious you are, the worse it is.”  Think about that for a minute.  The word radical comes from an old Latin word meaning “root,” and you could picture it this way: if the way you think about God is false at the root, then the trunk will be twisted, the limbs will be lopsided, the branches will be bent, and the fruit you find on that tree will not be the kind of fruit that will do anyone any good.  In fact, it could be poison—bringing death and not life.

All of which makes me want to ask, “Is our conception of God radically true?  Is the trunk straight, the limbs strong, the branches full of good fruit?”  It’s a question I’d like every Christian to consider because many of us have spent our lives going to church.  We’ve been to Sunday school and Bible school; we’ve sat through more sermons than we can count, spent hours in Bible studies and small group discussions; we’ve been on retreats and mission trips.  We should have learned something about God by now, but what have we learned?  Is our conception of God radically true or radically false?  Because if it is radically false—as Alan Hirsch warns—then the more religious we are the worse it is.  But how would we know?  How could we be sure?  In what may be the most important “True-False” test we will ever take how can we be absolutely, positively, one hundred percent certain that our conception of God is true, and not false?

I think that’s the question that got Nicodemus out of bed in the middle of the night, the question that had him up wandering around the house in his pajamas until he finally got dressed and went to see Jesus.  John tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were some of the most religious people who have ever lived.  They had as their motto the words of Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  But they had interpreted holiness first of all as righteousness, which they did by keeping all 613 of those Old Testament rules, and secondly as purity, which they did by separating themselves from anything impure or unclean.  Jesus, on the other hand, ate with sinners and tax collectors, he didn’t always wash his hands before meals, and sometimes he broke the law by working on the Sabbath day.  And yet Nicodemus couldn’t deny that the Spirit of God rested on this young prophet from Galilee, and that the things he did and said seemed uncannily true.

He needed to know more.

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  It was his way of starting the conversation, of acknowledging that Jesus was onto something.  He didn’t come right out and ask, “Do you think my conception of God is radically false?”  But that’s the question Jesus answered.  “Yes,” Jesus said.  “Your conception of God is radically false.  It needs to be ripped up by the roots and replaced with something new.  You need to start from scratch, Nicodemus.  You need to be born again.”  And Nicodemus said, “What?!  Can a man enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” But maybe what he meant was, “Are you asking me to give up my conception of God, the one I’ve worked so hard to acquire, the one I’ve spent my life perfecting?  I’ve been to seminary, Jesus!  I got all the answers when I was there.  I sealed them up in logic-tight compartments.  And now you’re asking me to open those compartments and conceive of God in a whole new way?  I can’t do it, Jesus!  It would be like trying to crawl back into my mother’s womb!”

One of the real problems people were having with Jesus in those days—and it wasn’t just the Pharisees—is that he wasn’t what they were expecting at all.  They were expecting a Messiah, a political and military leader who would run the Romans out of Israel and restore the nation to its former glory.  When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was Peter said, “You’re him!  You’re the Messiah!”  But when Jesus began to explain what kind of messiah he was—that he hadn’t come to conquer and rule but to suffer and die—Peter said, “God forbid, Lord.  This shall never happen to you!”  He said it because he hadn’t been born again yet.  He hadn’t given up his old conception of God, or of God’s Messiah.  But on the Day of Pentecost, after he had taken a few deep breaths of the Holy Spirit, Peter began to say that this same Jesus who had suffered and died had been raised from the dead, lifted up to sit at the right hand of God, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and poured it out upon his church.  “Let all Israel be assured of this,” Peter said to the crowd: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).

But you see, that’s a radically different conception of messiah than the one Peter had started with, and he couldn’t take hold of the new without letting go of the old.  I think that’s what Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus: that his old conception of God won’t allow him to be part of the new things God is doing, and that he can’t just modify that old conception, he’s got to give it up.  In another place Jesus says it like this: “You can’t put new wine into old wine skins” (Mark 2:22).  When the new wine begins to ferment and bubble it will blow those old, brittle wine skins to pieces.  You’ve got to put new wine into new wine skins.  You’ve got to open up those logic-tight compartments and get a fresh conception of God.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You’ve got to be born again, friend—born of water, born of spirit, born from above.  You’ve got to let God’s spirit blow where it will instead of trying so hard to control it.  You’ve got to learn to follow, not lead.”  I think Peter got that in the end.  The Spirit led him into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus had led him into a true understanding of who God was.

Which brings us to the Doctrine of the Trinity.

May 22 is Trinity Sunday, and as preaching professor David Lose likes to say it is nobody’s favorite day to preach.  “But,” he argues, “behind all the convoluted doctrinal, philosophical, and hermeneutical concerns that found expression in the Trinitarian controversies of the third and fourth centuries pulses the more concrete and urgent desire to describe the [true] nature and character of God.”  In other words Trinity Sunday is that one day each year when the church looks at its conception of God and tries to be sure that it is not radically false, to be sure that it is, in fact, radically true, and we do this by looking at God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As I’ve suggested, the Spirit led Peter into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus led him into a true understanding of who God was.  David Lose says, “Perhaps the best way to approach the Trinity, then, is to think of it backwards. It is through the power of the Spirit that we can receive Jesus as God’s surprising and unexpected messiah who reveals to us the gracious and loving nature of the Father.”[i]

He focuses on one verse in particular, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  “What is striking about this verse,” he says, “is that everywhere else in John the word that is translated here as ‘world’—kosmos—describes that entity which is hostile to God. So we would not be remiss to translate the opening of the verse, ‘God so loved that God-hating world that he sent his only Son.’”  He says, “This verse has profound implications as, according to the Fourth Evangelist, all of God’s work in Jesus through the Spirit is to save us from our own folly and penchant for self-destruction. In fact, as it turns out God has no particular designs or plans for our punishment or rejection.  Instead, God only plans and works for our salvation and health. God desires for us only life, life in all of its abundance here and now as well as in the age to come.”  In other words, he concludes, what we learn about the Father from the Son through the Spirit, is that “God is, above all else, a God of love.”[ii]

Now, let me ask you: what kind of tree is going to grow from the root of love?  What kind of trunk, and limbs and branches will it have?  What kind of fruit will it bear?  If your conception of God is radically true, then the more religious you are the better it is—for you and for the world.  But if your conception of God is radically false, then being religious will only make things worse.  And there are some radically false conceptions of God in the world.  One of the more popular among them seems to assume that he does have particular designs and plans for our punishment and rejection.  This is one of the reasons I led a Wednesday night workshop for my church on the doctrine of the Atonement, trying to understand how the death of Jesus can make us “at-one” with God.  It’s a difficult doctrine.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  But at one point I said to the people who sat there listening, “I’m telling you all this because I don’t want you to be afraid of God,” because there are some theories of the Atonement that can do precisely that.

The worst is the one I’ve come to call the “Virgin-in-the-Volcano” theory.  When my daughter Catherine was studying abroad in Costa Rica she took a side trip to Nicaragua and visited an active volcano that her tour guide described as one of the “seven entrances to Hell.” In primitive times the people of that region thought that some angry god inhabited the volcano, and when it would start to rumble they would throw virgins or young children into the volcano to appease it.  That’s unthinkable, isn’t it?  We reject that as primitive, pagan superstition.  And yet there is a theory of the atonement that sounds almost exactly like that.  It suggests that our sinfulness so offended God’s holiness that he was on the verge of destroying us, and none of us was perfect enough or pure enough to appease his anger.  But then along came Jesus—the sinless Son of God—who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.  And that did the trick; God was no longer angry.

That may sound familiar to you.  It may sound like something you learned in Sunday school.  But think about what it does to your conception of God: it teaches you that God is angry with you and wants to destroy you, and that the only thing that will appease his anger is the sacrifice of his sinless son.  If we were still talking about the god of the volcano we might say that there wasn’t a virgin on earth perfect enough or pure enough to satisfy him.  That in the end he had to give the people his own son, so that they could throw him back into the volcano, so that his anger could be appeased.  Can you see how twisted that logic is?  And can you see that if your conception of God is anything like that then the tree that grows from that root will be similarly twisted, its branches broken, and its fruit rotten?

But here’s the good news:

A Trinitarian theology won’t let us get away with that kind of thinking.  To speak of one God in three persons is to insist that Father, Son, and Spirit work together, that they share a common purpose.  You can’t have one person of the Trinity angry with us, eager to destroy us, while another person of the Trinity loves us, and steps in to save us.  No, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit work together tirelessly toward the goal of our redemption.  As it says in John 3:17, “God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,” and it must mean to save it from something other than God’s wrath: I think it means to save it from us.  We’re the ones who keep threatening to blow the world to smithereens.  We’re the ones who keep going to war with each other.  We’re the ones who can’t seem to love our own neighbors, much less our enemies.  We’re the ones who don’t love God as we should.  And maybe it’s because—at the heart of it—we don’t love ourselves.  We look in the mirror and what we see is not a beloved child of God, but a miserable sinner who deserves no better than death.  It’s not hard for us to believe that God would be so angry with us that he would want to destroy us.

“Enough of that!” the Father says to the Son.  “Go and show those people how much I love them.”  And Jesus does.  He comes and loves us and loves us and loves us.  And some of us can’t accept it.  We reject it and we reject him.  We put him to death on a cross.  And he goes willingly, not so God will finally stop hating us, but because he wants us to know that God has never stopped loving us, and that there is nothing he wouldn’t do to show his love.  Not long ago I went to a friend’s ordination service, and at the end of the service communion was served in the Baptist way, with deacons passing out little pieces of bread and little cups of juice.  I’m usually up front leading communion.  I don’t often get to sit out there and contemplate its meaning.  But on that Sunday afternoon I did, and as I looked down into that little cup I didn’t see the blood of sacrifice, I saw the wine of celebration; I saw Father, Son, and Spirit loving me enough to forgive my sins and restore our relationship; I saw the Holy Trinity raising a glass and proposing a toast to our now-and-forever friendship.

Now, you tell me: what kind of tree will grow from that root?  What kind of trunk will it have, what kind of limbs will it lift up, what kind of fruit will it bear?  Is it the kind of fruit that will nourish the world God so loves, or the kind of fruit that will make it sick to its stomach?  This is a “True-False” test, and as I suggested earlier:

It may be the most important one you will ever take.

–Jim Somerville

[See the video! Click HERE]

 

________________________

[i] David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, from his comments on the Trinity Sunday reading for Year B (John 3:1-17) at the Good Preacher website.

[ii] Ibid.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

phrasal-verbs-cut-downFor the past few months I’ve been teaching a Sunday morning class called “Talkback,” which I describe as, “a candid conversation between the pulpit and the pews.” It started as “Sermon Talkback” when I was doing a series called “Christianity 101” and thought people might have some follow-up questions about God, the Bible, Sin and Salvation, Heaven and Hell, but it turned out those were only some of the questions they had. Since then we’ve talked about almost everything you can imagine, and it’s been life-giving. But every time I’ve hosted something like this, where people are free to ask anything they want, someone will eventually ask, in one way or another: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It is the most perplexing theological problem or our time.

But not of Jesus’ time.

In Jesus’ time people didn’t ask why bad things happened to good people. They didn’t believe bad things happened to good people. They believed bad things happened to bad people, and if something bad happened to you it was because you had done something that deserved God’s punishment. I can still remember the Sunday school class where a woman shrugged her shoulders and said, “I just always thought that God did all the good things and the Devil did all the bad things.” That’s a simple solution, but not a good one. It makes God and the Devil equals, and they are not. But the solution in Jesus’ time was not much better. People in those days assumed that God did everything—good and bad—and what you got depended on who you were. Was God rewarding you for being good, or punishing you for being bad?

So, in Luke 13:1-9, when some people ask Jesus if he has heard about this incident in Jerusalem—where some Galileans were apparently cut down and killed by Pilate’s soldiers while they were in the very act of offering their sacrifices in the temple —they are not asking him why this terrible thing happened to these faithful and observant Jews, they are asking him what these people did to deserve such punishment. You can tell by the answer Jesus gives. He says, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” “Well, yes,” they might have said. “That’s exactly what we think. I mean, God is responsible for everything that happens, good and bad, right? Didn’t he use Pilate’s soldiers to punish these sinners?” And Jesus must have looked at them for the longest time before saying, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”

And if this were “Talkback” someone would already be raising her hand and asking, “What does Jesus mean repent? Repent from what? And what does he mean by the word perish? Does he mean that if we don’t repent from our sins we’re going to be killed?” But before anyone can ask those questions Jesus offers another example: “Those eighteen on whom the Tower of Siloam fell,” he says (and we really don’t know what happened. The Pool of Siloam was in the southern part of Jerusalem. Presumably a tower in the city wall had collapsed, killing eighteen people ). “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” “Well, yes,” someone says. “They must have been. Otherwise why would God punish them in this way?” “No,” Jesus says. “I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.”

And with these two examples Jesus brilliantly addresses every bad thing that will ever happen to us. He addresses moral evil, which is what happens when people shoot, and stab, and kill each other, and he addresses natural evil, which is what happens when earthquake, fire, and flood kill us. Those Galileans? They suffered from moral evil. Pilate ordered his soldiers to kill them. Those eighteen? They suffered from natural evil. That tower simply fell.

According to Jesus, bad things don’t happen to good people and bad things don’t happen to bad people, bad things happen to all people. It’s not that God does it to them, it’s not that the Devil does it to them, it’s simply that we live in a world like this one. I think what Jesus is trying to tell us is that in this world life is short and uncertain, that we never know when it will end. And I think that’s what he means when he says that we will perish “just as these people did.” We won’t be killed by foreign soliders, necessarily. We won’t be crushed by falling towers, necessarily. But we will, necessarily, perish, and the word Jesus uses means that we will be “lost, ruined, destroyed.”

Unless.

And isn’t that a hopeful word? Just when you think Jesus is telling us that we’re all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it he says, “Unless. Unless you repent.” And we have to ask:

“What does that mean?”

I’ve told before that there are two Greek words for repentance. One is epistrephein, which means “to turn around,” and the other is metanoia, which means “to change one’s mind.” And I probably don’t need to tell you which one Jesus uses here. He’s already said, “Do you think, because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” and, “Do you think, because these eighteen perished in this way they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusualem?” “No,” he says. “If that’s what you’re thinking you’d better think again. You’d better change your mind about why people suffer. You’d better repent.”

Could it be this simple? Could Jesus be saying, “Unless you change your mind about why people suffer you will die thinking that God is punishing you, and that’s just not true!” Death is not God’s punishment. Death is simply what happens when someone cuts you down with a sword, or a huge stone tower falls on you. As Jesus himself would find out soon enough, death is what happens when they nail you to a cross. But it is not God’s punishment. If that’s what you’ve been thinking you need to think again. You need to change your mind. You need to repent. God is not against us; God is for us. “Then why,” someone will ask, “does he let us die?” as if that were the worst thing that could happen.
Ah, that’s where I wish we could see things from God’s perspective! I believe that if we could we would see that death is as natural as sleep. It’s not always as peaceful, but it’s as natural. I think I’ve told you before that my older daughter didn’t like going to bed at night. I’ve always assumed it was because she thought she might miss the party, but there may have been some deeper reason. Whatever it was, she did not “go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas might say. She raged, raged, against the dying of the light. Her little sister, on the other hand, loved a good nap, and when she got sleepy she would sometimes toddle into the nursery and climb into her own crib. She knew there was nothing to be afraid of.

I believe that from God’s perspective death is as natural as that: as natural as sleep, but as I said it is rarely as peaceful. Most people don’t go to bed after celebrating their one hundredth birthday and then just not wake up the next morning. Some of them suffer terribly, and that’s when we ask why. Jesus himself asked that question while he was suffering on the cross. Death is rarely as peaceful as sleep, but it is just as natural. On Ash Wednesday the minister makes the sign of the cross on your forehead and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a way of reminding us that we are mortal and that we will die someday. These earthen vessels will return to their former state, and there is no guarantee that they won’t be smashed to pieces in the process.

“This is just how it is in the world,” Jesus might say. “People die.” It’s not the way it was supposed to be, but it’s the way it is. If someone cuts you down with a sword, you’re going to die. If a tower falls on you, you’re going to die. But here’s the truth: you’re going to die eventually, even if you live to be 110! There is no way around it. The question is not whether you are going to die, but how, and even though that may be a fascinating question it doesn’t really lead to fruitful conversation. Which may be why Jesus stops talking about death, and starts talking about fig trees.

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,” Jesus said; “and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. And so he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.’ Which would have been remarkable, because fig trees are abundantly fruitful. In that part of the world they can produce as many as three crops a year. This little tree has missed nine opportunities to bear fruit! So the man says with good reason, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” But then the Gardener speaks up and says, “Not so fast. Give me one more year. I will dig around the roots and put on manure. Then if it bears fruit, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” And again, this is remarkable if only because fig trees thrive on neglect. You don’t have to dig around the roots. You don’t have to put on manure. You just leave them alone and they will bear up to three crops a year. A fig tree is, almost by definition, fruitful. But not this one. And if it were not for the intervention of this hopeful gardener it might already be cut down and tossed on the fire.

It’s as if Jesus is holding up two pictures in this passage: one is a picture of how things are in the world and the other is a picture of how things are in the Kingdom. In the world people are cut down in the act of worship, they are crushed by falling towers, fruitless figs are tossed onto the fire. But in the Kingdom someone holds up a hand and says, “Wait! I believe this fig tree might do something yet, and I will give it every possible chance to bear fruit.” In the Kingdom someone holds up a hand and says, “Wait. I know this person hasn’t shown much promise, but I believe there might be some good in there yet.” In the Kingdom there is this Gardener, this Savior, who sees our value and wants to spare us, who believes in us even when we can no longer believe in ourselves. And he not only offers us eternal life (which should set us free from our paralyzing fear of death), he offers us abundant life (which should make us willing to take some risks).

In the first part of this passage the question is not whether you are going to die, but how. In the second part of this passage the question is not whether you are going to die, but whether you are going to live. Are you ever going to become what God made you to be? Are you ever going to drive your roots down into the rich soil of his love? Are you ever going to spread your leaves toward his light and his life? Are you ever going to relax, and let the sap flow, and let the fruit grow? The good news of this passage is that it’s not too late—for any of us. The bad news of this passage is that someday it will be, and before that day comes we need to do something.

We need to repent.

If you listen closely you can almost hear that hopeful Gardener saying, “Wait. Give her another chance. Give him a little more time. There’s some good fruit in there, I know there is.” And for the moment at least—it’s true. The ax hasn’t fallen, not yet. The death blow hasn’t come. What will we do with the life we’ve been given? Because in this passage the worst that can happen is not that we will someday die,

But that we might never live.

Learning to Float

learn-to-floatJesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

If I were making a list of all the things I wish Jesus had never said, this saying would certainly be on the list. Not because it’s so bad, or so hard, but because it makes people think of faith as a quantity, as something you can have more or less of.  Usually people assume they have less and wish they had more. If they had more they could move mountains, right?

And sometimes there are mountains to be moved.

In Luke 17 the disciples beg Jesus, “Increase our faith!” but he says to them there essentially what he says to them here: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And I don’t know that I’ve heard it this way before but when I read that passage this time around it almost sounded as if Jesus were saying, “Increase your faith? You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

In a book called The Heart of Christianity New Testament scholar Marcus Borg devotes an entire chapter to faith. He claims that in Western Christianity faith has come to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” or “believing” a set of statements to be true. For most people, being a Christian means believing that there is a God, believing that the Bible is the revelation of God, and believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for our sins.

Borg (who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota) acknowledges that “for some Christians the list would be longer: believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; believing in Genesis rather than evolution; believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he raised the dead, that he himself was raised from the dead in a physical bodily form, and that he will come again someday. Sometimes the beliefs become very specific, Borg writes: believing in infant baptism instead of adult baptism (or vice versa); believing in “the Rapture”; believing (or not believing) in Purgatory. The list goes on and on, but as you have probably experienced for yourself believing “the right things” is very important to Christians.

But here’s the problem:

All this emphasis on belief can quickly turn faith into a matter of the head rather than the heart. And Marcus Borg would insist that it has happened rather quickly.

Back in the Middle Ages the word orthodoxy meant “right worship” (in fact, that is the literal meaning of the word). But during the Protestant Reformation it came to mean “right belief,” partly because all those Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were still figuring out what they believed. Should we baptize infants or adults? Is communion a sacrament or an ordinance?

And then there was this other thing, the Enlightenment, that changed the way we understood truth. In the Middle Ages no one questioned the story of Jonah and the Whale. It was in the Bible: of course it was true! But during the Enlightenment people began to ask: Could there really be a fish big enough to swallow a man? And could a man really live after three days in its belly? The only truth that counted was that which could be verified scientifically; in other words, truth was replaced with fact (which is a much smaller word).

And so, after being run through the wringer of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean believing the right things, and believing them no matter what, even if they are not scientifically verifiable.  But it was not always so.  Marcus Borg helps us by looking back to the Middle Ages, and four different Latin words for faith:

1. The first is assensus, from which we get the English word assent, and it means pretty much what you would expect it to mean: giving one’s intellectual assent to a claim or proposition, that is, believing that it is true. The opposite of this kind of faith is “doubt” in its milder form and “disbelief” in its stronger form. For example: you might go from doubting that a fish could swallow a man to disbelieving it altogether. Marcus Borg says that when he was a teenager he had those kinds of doubts and prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Since then he has wondered, “Is this really what God wants from us: our intellectual assent to a long list of theological propositions? Our heads rather than our hearts?” He also notes that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, still be miserable, still be unchanged—that faith as assensus doesn’t have much transformative power. And yet there are some things we can and should affirm. At the bare minimum being Christian means a) affirming the reality of God, b) the utter centrality of Jesus, and c) the centrality of the Bible.

2. The second Latin word for faith is fiducia, and the closest English equivalent is fiduciary, which may mean something to the bankers and lawyers in the room, but doesn’t mean much to me. A better word would be trust, or the phrase “radical trust.” As Soren Kierkegaard might have said, “Fiducia is like floating in an ocean of God’s grace.” Borg says that once, when his wife was teaching an adult Sunday school class, she asked if anyone had ever tried to teach a child to swim. Several hands went up. She asked, “What was the hardest thing about it?” And they all agreed: getting the child to relax and float, to trust the buoyancy of the water. Fiducia is learning to trust the buoyancy of God, and the opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt but anxiety, or worry. In the middle of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, when they were afraid their boat was going to sink, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?” A few chapters later he says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not clothe you, you of little faith?” In both cases he is talking about faith as fiducia: radical trust.

3. The third Latin word is fidelitas, which can be translated as fidelity, or faithfulness, specifically, faithfulness in our relationship to God. It means what faithfulness does in a marriage—being faithful to God in the same way you might be faithful to a spouse. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, but unfaithfulness or adultery. Another biblical word for this kind of unfaithfulness is idolatry—giving one’s ultimate loyalty and allegiance to something other than God. Borg says, “As the opposite of idolatry, [this kind of] faith means being loyal to God and not to the many would-be gods that present themselves to us. Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.”

4. The fourth Latin word for faith is visio, and this one is fascinating. As you might guess, visio is a way of seeing “the whole,” a way of seeing “what is.” And there are three ways of seeing it.

a. One is to see reality as essentially hostile, as if everyone and everything really were out to get you. It may not surprise you to learn that there have been some forms of popular Christianity through the centuries that have viewed reality this way, as if God himself were out to get us, and that—unless we offered the right sacrifices, or said the right prayers, or did the right things—he would.

b. In the second way of looking at reality it is essentially indifferent. Someone with this view might say, “The universe is made up of swirling force fields of matter and energy, but is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams.” And if God is the one who brought it all into being, he has long since stopped intervening or even caring. If you look at reality this way, you might not be as defensive as in that other view, but you might become rather selfish, looking out only for yourself and those you love, since obviously no one else is.

c. In the third way of looking at reality it is essentially nourishing and life-giving. It has brought us and everything else into existence. It is filled with wonder and beauty. It loves us and cares about us. This is the reality Jesus was talking about when he said, “Look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field.” God feeds them. God clothes them. God sends his life-giving rain on the just and the unjust.

Can you see what a difference faith as visio could make in your life? What a difference there would be in seeing reality as essentially hostile, essentially indifferent, or essentially nourishing and life-giving? This last way of looking at reality can lead to the radical trust we talked about earlier. As Borg says, “It leads to the kind of life we see in Jesus and the saints, known and unknown. Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.”

There they are: four Latin words for faith—assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio—and you may have noticed that all but the first are relational words. Fiducia describes a relationship of radical trust. Fidelitas describes a relationship of love and loyalty. Visio describes a relationship of life-giving nurture. Assensus is the only one that means giving our intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions and, as I said, that’s important.

But it may not be the most important thing.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” And so we try to increase our faith. We try to believe more and doubt less. We try to believe things that are, frankly, unbelievable. And we do it because there are mountains that need to be moved.

But what if that’s not what Jesus meant?

What if he meant, “You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”  Because here is the truth: that little “mustard seed” is found only five times in the Gospels. It’s mentioned twice in reference to faith, as in, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” But the other three times Jesus uses it he talks about how, if it’s planted in the ground, this tiny seed can become a huge bush, even a tree, in which the birds of the air can build their nests. A mustard seed, in other words, is something small that can grow big—if you put it in the ground. But if you put it in a Ziploc bag, and bury it in the bottom of your sock drawer?

That mustard seed will always stay the same size.

What if Jesus is trying to tell us this: that we don’t need a lot of faith, we only need the tiniest little speck. But we need to put our faith in the right place—not in ourselves and our ability to believe—but in God, the One who gives us life and nurtures it, the One who loves us like a faithful spouse, the One we can trust completely, and, yes, the One who can and does move mountains. Let us put our mustard seed of faith in him; let us tend it and nourish it; let us water it with worship, study, service, and prayer;

And then watch it grow.

I keep thinking about Marcus Borg’s wife trying to teach her son to swim, helping him as he struggles and thrashes in the water, telling him over and over again to relax. And then I picture him finally listening to her, hearing her, and obeying her—stretching himself out on the surface of the water like you would stretch yourself out on a king size bed, feeling it beneath him lifting him up, holding him, even as his mother’s arms are beneath him, supporting him. I can almost hear him gasp with wonder as he realizes that he can float, and almost see the smile on his face as he lies there on the water with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth as his mother chides,

“O, ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

—Jim Somerville ©2015

A Sermon for Every Sunday


Well, here’s something you may not have known:

For several months now I have been working on a project called “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” which was conceived as a way to help small, struggling churches that don’t have preachers, but has evolved to include churches in the interim, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Wednesday night programs, and Sunday school classes.

The idea is simple enough: with some help from my friend David Powers I have been recording sermons by some of America’s best preachers for every Sunday of the liturgical year, so that when those small, preacherless churches get to the Third Sunday of Advent (for example) they can simply push a button and hear a sermon from Bishop Michael Curry (above).  Other “Every Sunday” preachers are William Willimon, Brian McLaren, Lauren Winner, David Lose, Brian Blount, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Andrew Foster Connors, Grace Imathiu, Rolf Jacobson, Gary Charles, and Karoline Lewis.

How does it work? Here’s a possible scenario, straight from the website:

Imagine that the bright young pastor of a country church is called to a church in the big city…

The congregation is faced with a decision: do we call another pastor?  Can we afford to?  They hear about “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” a way to get America’s best preachers into America’s small churches, house churches, Bible studies and small groups–on video.  They decide to give it a try, at least in the interim.

With the money they save they buy a big, flat-screen TV and a quality DVD player.  They put the lectern on one side of the chancel and the TV on the other until the two are nicely balanced.  Some of the older members shake their heads.  They never thought they’d see such a thing in church, but again, it’s only for the interim.

On that first Sunday the English teacher at the local high school–a member of the church–leads the service.  She opens with the call to worship, announces the hymns, invites members of the congregation to read scripture and say prayers.  When it’s time for the sermon she reads the Gospel lesson and then nods to the high school student who has downloaded the video from the web site.  He pushes a button, and the congregation waits, breathlessly.

What they see is high-definition video of one of America’s best preachers, looking straight into the camera and preaching the Good News.  It’s as if he is talking only to them.  The sermon lasts 12-15 minutes, and when it’s over the congregation responds with a murmur of approval.  The English teacher steps back to the lectern and says, “I had a chance to watch the sermon last week, and I was thinking about how it applies to our context…”  She takes a few minutes to make some connections between what the church has just heard and what they live with every day, and then she moves on with the service.

When she greets them at the back door later even those older members have to admit, it’s been a good day in church.  And they want to know:

“Who’s preaching next week?”

Click on the link below to visit the website, and then, if you feel inclined, share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or simply by word of mouth.  I’d like to make sure that the people who could benefit from such a service would have access to it before the launch date on November 28.

It may seem a little crazy—but in times like these, when churches are struggling and technology is everywhere—maybe not so crazy after all.

Click HERE to find out more.

 

Which Jesus Will We Give Them?

cappucino and cross“When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar.”

That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called “The End of the Road.” I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:

Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

But what I said in the sermon is this: that “giving people Jesus” can mean more than one thing.

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”?

Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.

Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.

Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is accomplished.

Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there’s any reason to go on?

Which Jesus will you give her?