Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 8, 2015
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 28:16-20
Audio available here.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 • Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.
Philippians 2:5-11 • Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Matthew 28:16-20 • Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
There was this person named Jesus.
A Palestinian Jew, born under Roman military occupation. A teacher, a healer, an itinerant rabble-rouser – and, some would come to believe, the promised Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.
Such messianic dreams of redemption and salvation were cut short – or so it seemed – by his brutal execution at the hands of the Roman military, in collusion with the religious leadership in Jerusalem.
It was sometime around the 30th year of the first century CE, and Jesus was dead – like so many others who had tried to bring about something new in the face of the old, old story of violence, military might, and religious power.
Jesus was dead.
And then, something happened.
A resurrection, some said. Impossible – just a hoax, said others. Whatever it was, his followers were suddenly filled with a life and a fervor that spread out from the provincial capital of Jerusalem to the rest of the Roman Empire and, eventually, to the ends of the earth.
Reports of this new thing, this good news, spread first by word of mouth, then passed into the oral traditions of the various communities that came to comprise the early church. The earliest literature in our Christian New Testament consists of pastoral letters written to particular communities who already held to a diversity of traditions and practices and vocabularies for proclaiming their faith. By the end of the first century, these oral traditions about Jesus began to be written down, in different ways by distinct communities, giving us the differing accounts that today we refer to as the gospels.
And for about 300 years after the death of Jesus, this was the situation – a diversity of communities, with a shared story, passed on with the particular language and tradition unique to each group.
Church historians refer to this collection of oral traditions and community practices as “The Rule of Faith.” The Judaism out of which the early church emerged had the Shema, the core declaration of the faith of Israel which we heard read tonight from Deuteronomy. But the church had not yet settled on such a succinct or unified declaration of its faith. Instead, different communities had different ways of expressing the core Christian proclamation. Tonight’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church was originally a hymn, which scholars refer to as the “Christ hymn” – a proclamation in song of the Rule of Faith. From Matthew’s gospel, we heard a more didactic approach, with a focus on teaching and the formation of Christian disciples. What such proclamations had in common was an emerging vocabulary of faith: the authority of Jesus over-and-against the authority of the Roman Empire; a Trinitarian understanding of God as a relational unity-in-community of Parent, Child, and Spirit; a set of ethics or norms for the behavior of the people who would be called Christian.
It wasn’t long before questions arose of what sort of beliefs fell outside the Christian consensus. Debates over the nature of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, of the understanding of the Trinity, of the proper way of administering the sacraments began to grow. And it wasn’t until the latter half of the fourth century of the Common Era – when the long-persecuted Christian faith had been legalized and a pagan emperor named Constantine got tired of Christian infighting disrupting his imperial ideal of order – that there was a first attempt at a written consensus on what Christians believe. The New Testament canon was established – remember, this is more than 300 years after Jesus’ death! – and for the first time Christians had a shared creed. In the year 381, this creed would be revised into its final form, the English translation of which – with one seemingly minor change – we read together just a few moments ago.
And with that, Christians agreed on what we all believed, and we never had to address any of those old arguments again.
The truth is, Christian faith has always been a contested field, a matter of debate and question, a diversity of theological opinion held together – tenuously at times, failingly at others – by an underlying unity, the proclamation of faith in Jesus the Christ. The creed established at Nicaea and Constantinople did not prevent tensions in the church – between the church in established city centers and the ascetic monastics of the Egyptian desert; between the Eastern Church and the Western Church, which split in the 11th century over differences in authority and theology that remain symbolized to this day in two different versions of the Nicene Creed; between the groups that would come to be known as Protestants and Catholics after the Reformation; between the Arminians and Calvinists whose debates about predestination and free will influenced the beginnings of the Methodist movement in 18th-century England; and on down to the present day. What do Christians believe? As it turns out, many, many things.
And yet. Somehow, through it all, the faith has continued. Somehow, through it all, people calling themselves Christians keep coming back, again and again, to this person named Jesus, this person who we claim, sometimes against all reason, somehow shows us what life is about. Somehow teaches us how to love. Somehow reveals to us what God is like.
Somehow, this now ancient story – of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and of a future hope in the Christ who will unify and reconcile all things – somehow, it has survived this long.
The word in New Testament Greek that is sometimes translated as “believe” is the same word that is, at other times, translated as “faith” or “faithfulness.” To believe, to be faithful, to trust – to show up, again and again, in the midst of the sufferings of the world, with a hope that God is indeed with us there, yes even there, even in that pain, that hurt, that seemingly God-forsaken place. To somehow set our hearts on this hope, to somehow tell our story in the language of this old, old story – to believe. To have faith.
In tonight’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that the disciples worshipped Jesus, and some doubted. There is no division, in the Greek, between the disciples who worship and those who doubt – they are all there, all faithful, all setting their hearts, once again, on this person named Jesus. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Of belief. It is all there, mixed in together.
What do Christians believe? Many things – but our language about belief, our theology, our questions, all come after our experience with this Jesus, this God-With-Us. Whether you had a spectacular conversion experience, like Paul or Mary Magdalene; or have had an inkling of faith all along and are just trying to figure it out as you go, like Mary or Peter; or whether you have simply experienced the love of God in a community that formed you and raised you, like Lois and Eunice passing their faith on to a young Timothy; whatever your experience of God has been, it is only after God meets us somewhere on the road that we can think to ask and to doubt and to question and to push back. Since that very first Easter morning, the question, “What do Christians believe?” has come after the almost instinctual response of the disciples to what God is up to in our midst – a response of worship, of song, community, of service to the world.
But what do I believe?
I’ll be brief:
I believe in a God with scars.
I believe in a God who weeps.
I believe in a God who is present exactly in the places where it seems no God, no shimmering celestial being, would ever want to go.
I believe in a God who is vulnerable, who is in solidarity with all the joy and the pain of this beautiful, awful world.
I believe God is with us. I believe God is love. I believe it is in the image of this love that we are all made.
Maybe you are not sure, tonight, what you believe. That’s ok.
But I believe that some inkling of this story, some whisper of this love, is what has brought us all here tonight.