Lent 4 – Speaking Christian

Why Christian

Speaking Christian…

In the face of religious decline and mistrust, and our highly personalized (narcissistic) culture and the infighting and divides that happen even within Christianity, in spite of all of that, I still believe Christianity has much to offer the world.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried to make my case, for the community it offers – reflecting back an understanding of God that is not our own, an experience which stretches us, pushes our growth, and requires us to see the face of God in everyone we meet.  I believe that through traditions that we did not create, but instead inherit: communion, confession, baptism, we find words that are not our own, which move us, challenge us, and force us to come up with an understanding of faith that is uniquely ours.

And so, why Christian?

Well, it’s what we know – it’s what’s comfortable – our family, someone significant in our life led us here, someone modeled a life of faith rooted in Jesus, someone opened the scriptures for us, someone shared their faith with us in profound ways…and we stayed maybe because when we got here, we had an experience of something more.  More to life than sleep, eat, work, repeat…More than politics and CNN and even more than the life we make in family.  This life to which we are called, calls us to pick up our own cross, pick up the injustices of the world, that we might bring hope instead of fear and life in place of death.

This commitment to our faith is a minute-by-minute dialog between reassurance and doubt, listening for God as that still voice speaks among the many we hear in our day to day lives.  It is wondering, when we look at the world, how God is still acting with and through those upon this earth.  It is wrestling with difficult notions of “why bad things happen to good people,” and “if God is all powerful, then why aren’t the wrongs of this life prevented…”

In today’s society however, many are too stressed out to wrestle with their faith.  They want to be told what to believe, what to give, how to live, in easy, sound-bite ways.  But I don’t think it’s that easy.  Just as our kids going to school don’t become functioning members of society just because they are taught math and science, nor do we become functioning members of the Christian faith, because we’ve heard the words, Love your God, and love your neighbour as yourself…but how do you love your God?  How do you love your neighbour (when maybe you don’t love yourself?)  Like I picked up my neighbours blue box because it was at the end of her driveway this week – is that enough??  For some people, learning to love God and neighbour means committing to regular church[1] attendance, putting yourself out there, connecting with others that believe as you do, and others still that don’t.  Others still find that a life lived in service of one another leads to a life of meaning.  But beyond dogmatic teaching and understanding, the blessing of Christianity, I believe, demands a personal commitment to mystery, as Jesus asks each one of us:

who do you say that I am?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks his own followers who they say that he is, and they start with a rambling list of the names that others had bandied about when describing this new teacher.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  But none of those descriptors matter.  Jesus asks his friends, his followers, his disciples…But who do you say that I am?

I think this is the most powerful question that we have to answer of our faith.

For how we see Jesus shapes our understanding of Christianity. How we see and experience Jesus might be rooted in that person that brought us and kept us in church, it might be rooted in our experience of scripture or our relationship with God, but how we answer that question speaks to the profound and unique way that God has touched our lives.

There’s a small number[2] in the church though that would answer that question describing Jesus as no different than you or I.  They’d call us to abandon the language of God, forsaking this foolish notion to describe an experience that transcends definition.  They believe that we need to move beyond quote-unquote “primitive” belief systems of the past, past the “idolatry” of our traditions and reject language that we ourselves did not come up with.  Those in this camp would see us move beyond labels of Christianity, move past the Lord’s prayer, replace[3] it with language with less baggage, less history, and therefore fewer problems.

In response, Marcus Borg, author of countless books encouraging a deeper understanding of Christianity (a few of which are in our library), wrote in his book Speaking Christian, that replacing the language of our past abandons a past that we have learned from, a past that in many ways we dare not repeat.  In abandoning that past, in tossing out the language that has evolved and given new life to faith for countless generations, we throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Instead, he believes that we need to embody the Biblically rooted acts of liberation, redeeming our language of faith – setting it free from all that inhibits or binds, loose it from that which is not life-giving so that our faith becomes a conversation of both past and present…tradition and contemporary.

This redemption of language, allowing tradition to inform our present circumstances, has been lived out in the United Church (as well as other denominations), as over the last thirty years, we’ve tried to move into usage of inclusive language to expand our understanding of God, and express our faith in new ways.  This has led to some heartbreak as those in the pews have not fully understood why the lyrics of beloved hymns were changed,

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

When humans developed the technology to fly, soaring above the clouds, we soon realized that when we pointed ‘up,’ that God wasn’t hanging out in a fluffy white armchair.  And as we started to deconstruct our own beliefs, we realized we didn’t need God just ‘up,’ as some of us finding deep power in a more ancient, almost Celtic, being in all things,

before you to lead you,
behind you to encourage you,
beneath you to support you,
beside you to befriend you.
above you to watch over you.
within you to remind you that you are never alone.

We’ve likely heard that benediction countless ways, but at the heart of those words was a newer and yet older[4] understanding of how God interacts with us.  Through inclusive language, we’ve found new ways to answer that question that Jesus asks,

who do you say that I am?

Marcus Borg says that to say that too often we Christians neglect this question, finding the words of tradition as too distant, too foreign for us to comment.  Others still, we find a way to twist our answer to that question to our own benefit.

In his studies, it is because he believes that there are two streams of Christianity (regardless of what denomination you find yourself in):

“These two visions of Christianity—one emphasizing the next world and what we must believe and do in order to get there, the other emphasizing God’s passion for the transformation of this world—are very different. Yet they use the same language and share the same sacred scripture, the same Bible. What separates them is how the shared language is understood—whether within the framework of heaven-and-hell Christianity or within the framework of God’s passion for transformation in this world.”

So these two visions – heaven and hell Christianity and (he doesn’t call them this) but here and now Christianity have argued over the answer to Jesus’ question,

who do you say that I am?

fought over the real intention of Jesus’ words, and the real purpose of our faith.  While Borg addresses the heaven-hell Christians found in the southern Bible belt of the U.S. we know that Canadian Christianity is not immune to this get-out-of-jail-free-card theology.  It is a dangerous belief system, unconcerned with the needs of others, seemingly ignoring the whole ‘social gospel’ of Jesus’ ministry, healing and feeding and loving and teaching.

My bias is clear.

I grew up in the United Church, and I stayed after I learned about its social stance on justice and peace, in the work it did to establish the ministry of all people (women, men, gay, straight), in the fight to defend creation, in its global understanding of mission and the work of the Mission and Service Fund.  And for each of these acts of justice rooted in scripture, revealed a combination of social ministry and faithful exploration of scripture that I didn’t find anywhere else.  So I’m biased.  And I think Jesus’ bias is fairly clear too, as he doesn’t dangle the carrot of the afterlife before the disciples.  Instead Jesus warns them about the here and now:

24 “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

You notice the scripture doesn’t say:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…and don’t worry, God will reward you with a shiny halo and pretty wings…

And so, as I answer that question, of who do I think Jesus is, I believe he is both the fulfilment of all our human dreams and desires, and the blessings of the God beyond all of our human limitations.  I believe he is that to which we aspire, as we heal one another, feed one another, and remember all those whom the world forgets.  I believe he rises above the limited language we have to describe that which is ineffable.  I believe that he transcends even our petty divisions within the faith, calling us to deeper community beyond these walls.  And I believe that this mystery, to which we are called to explore as we live out our faith, calls to each one of us as we share in the community the answer to the question:

But…who do you say that I am?
And so may Jesus whisper this question to you…
and may you have the courage to answer.

[1] To be a Christian you must go to church…http://www.kentucky.com/living/religion/paul-prather/article137730183.html
[2] Gretta Vosper, http://www.grettavosper.ca/letter-gary-paterson-regarding-paris/ ; Richard Dawkins, God Delusion
[3] Marcus Borg in Speaking Christian speaks about the “replacement” of language vs redemption
[4] The Celtic Christians had a strong sense of panentheism – the belief that God was both contained in every part of creation (a spark of the divine) and yet was more than the collected universe


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