Benediction Online

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I believe...

On the afternoon of Good Friday I joined Suzan Vaughn on a talk show to consider the meaning of Good Friday and to discuss the differing beliefs that have been held by faithful Christians over the centuries. Although we were deliberately somewhat controversial, there was only one caller, Alan, who said he wanted to ask me about faith but who took so long setting up his question that we never got to hear what he was actually asking.

This morning’s Gospel reading highlights the question of faith and belief. Some scholars think that this passage was the result of a conflict at the time that it was written between the Johannine community who produced this gospel and the followers of Thomas who had a different take on Christianity.
Talking about Christianity as a faith suggests that there are certain core beliefs that all Christians share. That’s probably true, but when you look at the different branches of the church that developed in the first few centuries and since:  Syriac, Coptic, Orthodox with its many ethnic variations, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Reformed Catholic, Holiness and Pentecostal , it’s very quickly clear that Christians differ. That’s not surprising when you realize that there are very few things that Jesus asked his disciples to believe – he didn’t teach a coherent, systematic theology - and the apostles like Peter preached simply that Jesus is resurrected and Jesus is Lord.  What has become clear from recent scholarship is that there was never one true faith which heretics departed from, but that there have always been different understandings of Christianity as a belief system.

Contemporary western Christians often have difficulty with the idea of evil spirits, of miracles of healing or miracles of bread, fish and wine multiplying, difficulty with the Virgin Birth and difficulty with the resurrection. In fact, if you define Christianity as a belief system, then many of us feel like we’re being asked to check our brains at the door, or to believe three impossible things before breakfast.

The Judaism of Jesus’ time was a way of life founded on ritual and keeping the law of Moses. In contrast, Christianity was astonishing freedom where salvation came, not from rigid codes of behavior, but from believing that Jesus was Lord and joining the new movement which was discovering the joys of living with the Spirit.

And so in today’s Gospel we have Thomas saying that he needs proof. How many times do you hear that? “I’ll believe in God when he starts answering my prayers” as one friend told me. Yet the proof of the pudding is in the eating as the old adage goes. You get to believe in God as you experience God. You get to experience God as you believe in God. Saying “I believe in God” but doing nothing about it is like looking at the pudding but not tasting it.  To really experience God you have to at least willingly suspend your disbelief for a while.

To some extent, faith is learned behavior. Certainly there are those of us who have had experiences like Paul’s on the road to Damascus where suddenly we see and we know that God is real and God is present and life is changed. But for most of us, it’s a more plodding experience. As we turn to God, so God turns to us and we have glimpses of the Spirit’s presence and as we share those glimpses and hear about other’s experiences, so we wonder and reflect and we see more and more God moments. Until we realize that actually we do believe. One of the reasons that Bible reading and Spiritual reading is so important is that it helps to build and support our faith.

But now I’ve slipped into talking about “our faith” as if we know what that means.

For me, faith is not about believing as historical and factual things which we don’t know for sure actually happened. There are plenty of things that I take on faith without actually experiencing them. For example, I believe that there is a country known as Afghanistan which has been the site of many wars. I don’t actually know it personally, but enough people talk as if it is true and I see no reason why it should not be true. Similarly I believe because I have been told so, that the chair I have been sitting on this morning is not actually solid but is made up of rapidly moving particles.  That is as counter-intuitive as the idea that the earth rotates around the sun when it is clear to my eyes that the sun moves across the earth. There are many things that I have faith in, many things that I believe to be factual that I have no way of proving.

For me, our Christian faith goes much deeper than the merely factual and historical. It points to deeper and higher and broader and greater truth. So my faith is not in a set of unascertainable data. My faith is in the world and the love to which all the stories point.  Perhaps it’s a bit like the Higg’s Boson which was just a scientific hypothesis for forty years. It needed to be true in order to make sense of the data. The scientific stories all pointed to it but it could not be proved until last year, and even last year’s experiments leave a lot of questions. In the same way my faith in God is based on the truth that all the spiritual stories seem to point towards and my trust in God increases every time I test the hypothesis. God needs to exist to support the data of my life and experience.

When I sat down on my chair this morning, I had faith that it would hold me up despite its lack of factual solidity.  That kind of faith is more like trust. It is a working faith, a trust that the hypothesis holds. Theoretical belief systems are pointless unless they provide the framework that we can trust and live with, and trust to hold our weight.

As Episcopalians, we are in the stream of Christian tradition which developed from the resolution of an ancient and passionate argument. The church of the fourth century argued about the nature of God. The so-called winners declared that God is three in one. And so we regularly recite together the creed that developed from that conflict as it played out in the year 325 in the Council of Nicaea. This is a way of honoring our ancestors and declaring our own identity. We are the ones who stand on the ground of the Trinity. Just as I sat on my chair believing and trusting that it would hold me up, so I believe and trust in the God who is a Trinity, the God who is in constant relationship, the God whose infinite love and creativity led to the creation of the cosmos, including the elusive Higg’s Boson.

So when we say the creed together, I am not saying that I believe every aspect of it to be historically or even cosmically factual, but that I trust that this way of thinking about the divine is solid because it has held the weight of almost two thousand years of our spiritual ancestors. And every time I test it, it holds my weight too. I am saying that these are my people, this is the tribe to which I belong, those who see God as a complex, astonishing Triune Being.

Holding a set of intellectual beliefs is irrelevant unless they stick to your ribs. They are only valuable if they provide a framework which helps make sense of life. Christians are often criticized for being hypocritical – for saying that we believe in love and forgiveness but in living in a way that belies that. Jesus breathed the Spirit upon the disciples so that they might experience God within not just through him. When our beliefs help us to connect with God within ourselves and the Christ in each other, then and only then do they become valuable.

One of my clergy colleagues recently said “I don’t know if I’m a Christian anymore.” He was half-joking, but underneath the humor was the question that I often hear, do I have to believe all this stuff, because you know, I really don’t. And my answer is that all this stuff is not the moon but the finger pointing at the moon. All this stuff is what the church has developed over the centuries as it has tried to live the life of the Spirit. Some of it is still relevant, some of it is timeless and eternal and some of it is probably quite silly. We are , after all, human.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That’s us. We are the ones who have not seen but are coming to believe. We are the ones who have not seen but are coming to trust. It’s a journey, and one I am glad that we are on together.


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