Last week we began to explore the profound changes taking place in the church in North America. People have been drifting away from the church, yet many of them have not given up on spirituality. Also, an increasing number of people within the church have become dissatisfied with traditional teachings. As a result, a number of theologians believe we might be in the early stages of a new reformation.
For centuries, being a Christian has meant believing certain doctrines about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Faith has become a matter of holding the correct, church-certified beliefs. Today, however, Christianity may be moving away from focusing on beliefs about God to an experience of God.1
Jim wanted me to understand the transformation he had undergone and he was also testing the water to see if I would be appalled by what he said. He began by saying that whenever people are asked to stand and say the Apostles' Creed, he stands in silence. Jim said, "I don't believe in the virgin birth and I'm not so sure about some of the other claims of the creed. I also don't believe the Bible is inerrant or that Christianity is the only true religion. In fact, I'm not sure if I should even come to church anymore. I feel a strong connection to the people here and Westminster's mission projects are terrific, but I don't believe some of the doctrines I'm supposed to believe."
He's not the only one who has shared with me his conflicted feelings. A number of you have told me of being out of step with what you're supposed to believe, but thanks be to God that Westminster provides an open, non-judgmental space for all of us to explore our faith.
Being out of step may stem from the way we use the words faith and belief. Beliefs are certain ideas we hold to be true. In the church, we hold certain beliefs about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, sin, and so on.
Marcus Borg, who will speak here the last weekend in October, points out that most people think "Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out...believing reflects uncertainty...believing is what you do when you think (certain) statements are true...the probability is good"2 but there is a degree of uncertainty. If there were no uncertainty we wouldn't use the verb believe, we would use the verb know.3 We would say, "I know it's true" rather than "I believe it's true."
I suspect all of us were taught that having faith means to believe certain church doctrines. Since the Nicene Creed was adopted in 325AD, the church has specified what its members are supposed to believe. Being confirmed as a member of the church has entailed memorizing certain doctrines and verses from the Bible. Diana Butler Bass reminds us that over the past couple of hundred years, some denominations "even insisted that true Christians must further believe particular ideas about drinking, women, science, the end times or politics. Layers of beliefs kept stacking up through the centuries."4
With the rise of science and the modern worldview, many doctrines the church has said we must believe have become increasingly incredible. So, in our time, for many, having faith has meant trying to force your brain to accept certain beliefs that seem unbelievable. Is that really what it means to have faith?
Part of our problem is a result of the shift in how the word belief is used in English today. To describe religious "believing" Latin used the word credo which meant "I set my heart upon" or "I give my loyalty to." "In medieval English, the concept of credo was translated as 'believe' (and at that time) to 'believe' was to 'belove' something or someone as an act of trust or loyalty. Belief was not an intellectual opinion (about whether or not something was true). The affirmation 'I believe in God' used to mean 'I hereby pledge to God my heart and soul'...belief had nothing to do with one's weighing of evidence...belief was more life a marriage vow - a pledge of faithfulness and loving service to the other."5
Today, when someone says, "I believe in God," it generally means, "After weighing the arguments for and against the existence of God, I've chosen to believe in God." But where does that get you? You can salute every line in the Apostles' Creed, but never experience God. You can affirm a long list of doctrines prescribed by the church, but never follow the way of Jesus.
That's the point of today's passage from the "Letter of James." In the first verse, the writer asks the members of the congregation, "Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?" In the following verses, it becomes clear that he is scolding them for showing favoritism to the wealthy. If he meant by the word believe, that they could affirm that Jesus is the Christ and their Lord, then his audience could simply say, "Yes, that's what we believe." But if believe means - as it did at that time - "to belove Jesus, to trust him and to follow him" they cannot say, "Yes" and still show favoritism, which is acting in a way that is at odds with the way of Christ.
James goes on to say, "What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?" In our day, most people would answer "Yes, faith is what saves you." But James says, "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."
In other words, faith without Christ-like action is not faith. Faith comes from somewhere deep within us. It's trusting, loving, serving.
Borg says, "When Jesus spoke about the great commandment, he did not say, 'You shall believe that these statements about God are true. Rather, he said, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."6 It's a passionate response to stake our life on someone.
In the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount is the longest single set of teachings by Jesus. He begins with the Beatitudes, then tells his followers that they are the salt of the earth and they are the light of the world and so they need to let others see the good they do. He then goes on to teach them about anger, adultery, divorce, revenge, loving enemies, giving alms, praying, fasting, not judging others and to follow the Golden Rule. Nowhere in that extended sermon will you find the word believe. It's all about doing.
Later, when a lawyer inquired of Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus did not respond by telling the man to affirm certain ideas about himself or God. Instead, he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus was constantly telling his followers to show their love for God by loving their neighbor. He didn't present his followers with a list of things to believe, but rather with a certain orientation toward life. "Yet," (says pastor Robin Meyers), "three centuries later, when the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom, there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!"7 What happened?
We must still have core beliefs, but the point is that beliefs aren't the main point. Having faith in God is not so much about believing certain ideas about God as it is loving God, trusting God, and living a Christ-like life.
Listen to this Russian fable: Long ago "in southern Russia there was a new bishop, young and full of enthusiasm. He was very concerned about correct doctrine, so he decided to visit all the parishes in his vast diocese to make sure they had their thinking right. Some of the parishes were quite remote. The journey was long and exhausting, most of it by ship since his diocese was spread along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Toward the end of the tour, the bishop's ship was anchored along an isolated coast. Barely in view was a small island on the horizon. This was the farthest edge of Russian civilization and no bishop had visited the island in memory. This duty-bound bishop inquired if anyone lived on the small island and was told that some holy men lived there, the remnant of a monastery. But no one ever visits there."
"The tireless bishop decided he would visit them the next day. The next morning, he set sail, and upon landing, he found a small community of monks. It was immediately evident that this community sparkled with stunning love for one another; the very air of the place was gracious, merciful and kind. To the bishop it seemed the perfection of Christian community, a tiny outpost of the kingdom of God."
"It was headed by an abbot, a beautiful, humble man. But, as the bishop spoke with them, it became apparent that neither the abbot nor any in the community had much of their Christian doctrine straight. The years of isolation had led to more than a few lapses in their understanding of orthodox Christian teachings, lapses that the bishop felt duty-bound to correct. He promised that he would send a priest from the seminary to instruct them, but before he left he decided to leave them some little legacy of correct teaching. So he taught them the words to the Lord's Prayer, a prayer they had long forgotten."
"The island monks received the words with great joy. They reveled in the beauty of this prayer and promised that they would continue to say it."
"The bishop and his party returned to the ship in the evening, too late to set off for home. So they lay at anchor through the dark, quiet night. Suddenly one of the deck hands pointed at the horizon. There was a light moving across the water toward the ship. The ship's captain put a telescope to his eyes. An astonished look dropped across his face. He put the glass down, and said, 'It's the holy man from the island, with a candle in his hand. He's walking toward us across the water.'"
"The bishop and all the entourage gathered on deck to watch in stunned silence. The light soon became the figure of the old man, who upon reaching the ship pulled himself on board. All but the bishop dropped to their knees in his presence. The old monk approached the bishop and said, 'Your Excellency, I'm sorry for disturbing you and your shipmates so late, but we have forgotten the middle part of that lovely prayer, and we were hoping you might be good enough to help us with the words one more time."8 The abbot and his community fumbled when it came to doctrines, but each was the epitome of a Christ-like person.
Being a Christian is not primarily about right belief, it's a way of life. It's about letting go of your ego and being transformed. It's about seeing the world with new eyes and developing a generous spirit. It's about letting your heart be broken by the same things that break the heart of God. It's about loving Jesus and committing your life to him.
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