All That You Can Leave Behind
Matthew 23.13-15, 23-28 & 9.14-17
Introduction to Lenten Study: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most
Lent 1C; February 14, 2016
Today we begin our Lenten Sermon Series. This is the first of seven sermons based on Martin Theilen’s book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most. Now at first hearing, this title may seem negative. It may sound like an attempt to figure out the minimum beliefs necessary to gain the full benefits of Christianity. This title may sound like cheap grace, that is, like Christianity without the cross, without suffering or sacrifice, without discipleship, without works of love and deeds of compassion. That would be a most un-Lenten theme, indeed. But, let me assure you, this sermon series and the book study that accompanies it will not present a cheap, watered down version of the faith. Indeed, I think you will find that the opposite will be true.
The focus of the book and our study is indicated by the subtitle: A Guide to What Matters Most. That’s what we are concerned with—the essentials of the faith, all of those things that you can’t leave behind if you want to follow Jesus. The title of the book is actually derived from a question the author was asked by a young man, named Danny. Theilen, is a Methodist pastor. So, one of the first things Danny said to him was, “Preacher, you need to know I’m an atheist. I don’t believe the Bible. I don’t like organized religion. And I can’t stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians.” (p. ix)
Nonetheless, the two struck up a relationship. Over the course of about a year, Danny moved from atheist to agnostic to very interested in Jesus. One day, he declared, “I’ve had an epiphany. I realize that I don’t reject Christianity. Instead, I reject the way intolerant Christians package Christianity.” Not long afterwards, Danny said, “Martin, you’ve just about convinced me on this religion stuff. So, I want to know—what’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?” (Ibid.) What Danny wanted to know was what is essential; when you get beyond all the denominational packaging, beyond all the secondary doctrines, what are the core beliefs of Christianity. That will be our focus during this Lent.
[Danny’s question is a very important one. There are a lot of folks, especially young adults, who cannot believe because of the package in which Christianity has been presented to them. The idea that Christians are self-righteous and judgmental recurs in almost every survey of young adults. Of course, every one of us is sometimes self-righteous and judgmental, but somehow, many folks have gotten the idea that these attitudes are essential and inevitable parts of the faith. They are not and indeed they are contrary to what Jesus teaches. Nonetheless, we clearly have an image problem.
In addition to those who are put off by Christianity, there are many of us who do believe, but we are confused about what is essential, or we are uncomfortable with some things that fellow believers insist are core beliefs. I hope that in the next few weeks, we can at least begin to clear up some of this confusion and shift our focus to the essentials.]
I want you to notice something that didn’t happen in the story of Danny. Theilen wasn’t judgmental, he didn’t quote an unending stream of scripture to show why he was right and Danny was wrong, he didn’t yell. Instead, he built a relationship. I’m sure he did quote some scripture; I’m positive he talked about his beliefs. But he did so in the context of a relationship. That requires effort and time. Just as important, he listened and he was respectful. Christians should never be obnoxious and judgmental—that only drives people away. But building relationships, listening, showing concern and compassion, walking with people through life, in short, loving them—that draws people to God. Judgement, well that is something we should leave to the God of grace.
I think it is interesting to note that Jesus reserves his harshest language, his most judgmental language not for notorious sinners, but for religious leaders. Jesus goes after the Pharisees with both barrels for focusing on secondary issues and missing the point of their religion: justice, mercy and faith (Mt 23.23). By their teaching, they are actually distracting people from what really matters. No doubt, they probably drove some people away from God. That’s why Jesus was so upset them.
Now, Jesus doesn’t reject the core teachings of Judaism, but he does reject some of the contemporary beliefs and old-time, traditional practices that obscure those essential teachings. That’s the point of his discussion of old and new wineskins. Just as old wineskins cannot hold new wine, there are some old-time religious ideas and practices that are not compatible with the new things that God is doing in Jesus. Those tenets of old-time religion need to be discarded so that people will be able to receive God’s grace and join in God’s work.
In the first half of his book, Theilen mentions 10 things that Christians don’t need to believe. One of those, we’ve already discussed, the idea that it is okay to be obnoxious and judgmental. We don’t have time to go into all of the other nine, but allow me to briefly highlight a couple of things we can leave behind.
One thing we can leave behind is the idea that the Bible must be read literally, that it must be literally true. I addressed this in my February newsletter column, so let me just say this. In the UCC, and other mainline protestant churches, we take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. The Bible is a record of our ancestors’ reflections on and encounters with God. As such, it reflects their cultures and their understandings of the world. It is a book written by humans. At the same time, it is a book inspired by God. It is the chief means through which God speaks to us, though not the only means. Its stories shape our faith, our imagination, and our understanding of ourselves, God and the world. For more than two thousand years, Jews and Christians have heard God in its pages. Because the Bible is a collection of diverse literary styles written by humans a very long time ago, we don’t always have to take it literally. However, because it bears witness to God and because God speaks to us through it, we must take the Bible seriously.
A couple of related ideas, that we can also leave behind, are that Christians cannot affirm evolution and that science is an enemy of religious faith. These ideas are closely associated with a literal reading of Genesis. The point of the creation stories is not how God created. The meaning of the stories is that God is the Creator, all that God made is good, and human kind has been created in God’s image and likeness. Theistic evolution understands the evolutionary processes discovered by science to be God’s method of creation. It is a position that takes the Bible seriously without rejecting science. So, as Thielen points out, one can be both a scientist and a Christian. Let me give you a couple of examples of the compatibility of faith and science. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and advisor to the White House on scientific affairs, is a devout Christian. Then there is Sir John Polkinghorne. He is the only ordained member of Great Britain’s national science academy, the Royal Society. A theoretical physicist and a theologian, Polkinghorne has spent the last 30 years arguing for the compatibility of science and religion and promoting a dialogue between the two.
One more thing we can leave behind: the idea that Christians don’t doubt. A couple weeks ago, we read 1 Cor. 13, where Paul says, “we see through a glass dimly.” Faith isn’t certainty, it isn’t having all the answers. We are finite, limited creatures who can’t know or understand all things. Faith is trust and belief, trust in God and belief that seeks to understand. As Thielen writes, “Real faith asks hard questions. Real faith struggles. Real faith doubts. And real faith accepts ambiguity, mystery, and unanswered questions.” (196) I’ve always liked what Tennyson said, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds.” (In Memoriam, 96) He goes on to say that he knew one who wrestled with his doubts and “thus he came at length / To find a stronger faith his own.” Doubt is natural and inevitable, and it can, if handled correctly, lead us to new and deeper understanding. Certainty, on the other hand, is often evidence of a lack of trust, a lack of faith.
I’m reminded of the lyrics to U2’s “Standup Comedy:”
The DNA lottery may have left you smart
But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart
I can stand up for hope, faith, love
But while I'm getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady. (http://www.u2.com/lyrics/186)
We must use our minds, but we must also know our limits. Faith believes where it cannot see. It trusts God to be God, to keep God’s promises. It trusts that God’s steadfast love endures forever. So, while we seek understanding, we eschew certainty and we are humble enough not to try to explain things we do not understand.
Well, there is certainly more that could be said. But, the bottom line is this: there are some old wineskins that we need to throw out, some ideas and actions that need to be left behind. They stunt our faith and they present stumbling blocks to many outside the church. Like Danny, there are many folks out there who think they are opposed to religion or Christianity. But what they really reject is the way that Christianity is often packaged. They reject the old wineskins and the self-righteous Pharisees. They need to know that there are other, newer wineskins out there; there are other expressions of Christianity, other ways to faithfully follow Jesus.
We in the UCC believe that God is still speaking, that doubt can lead to deeper faith, that science and religion should be allies, that women and men are created equally in the image of God and can equally serve in God’s church. We don’t believe in the Bible. We believe in the God who is revealed in Christ and speaks through the Bible, and therefore we take the Bible seriously. We believe in grace. We believe that the Christian life is a journey, an ongoing growth in goodness and love. So, it is important that we determine all that we cannot leave behind. As another U2 song says, “[We’re] packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been, a place that has to be believed, to be seen.” (“Walk On”) We’re packing a suitcase for the Kingdom of God, so we best know what we need for the journey.
And that brings us to the answer to Danny’s question. What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian? Jesus. Jesus is the new wine. He is the one who uniquely reveals God. As Christians, we must believe in Jesus. We must look to his incarnation, life, death and resurrection for in these events, in this life, is revealed God’s character and the pattern for our discipleship. In him, we find the faith, the hope and the love, the strength, direction and humility, we will need for the journey. And that will be the focus of our Wednesday night Lenten Study and our sermons for the next six weeks.
So I hope you’ll be here, and maybe bring a friend. I hope you’ll come with open minds, hearts and hands, ready to receive the grace and wisdom the Holy Spirit offers, ready to embrace each other in love, just as we have been embraced. I hope you’ll come listening for the still speaking God and ready to learn what we can’t leave behind as we follow Jesus on the way of discipleship. Amen.