October 10, 1999
A Faith In and The Faith Of Jesus
Have you ever received one of those phone calls that offers you three days and two nights free lodging at an exclusive resort if only you will sit through a thirty minute presentation selling you a membership in their time share or condominium? Our culture specializes in merchandising memberships. If ours were a consumer Christianity, this would be the time for me to appeal to you for your support. But I have nothing to offer in exchange for the promise of your participation. The best I can do is to invite you to consider with me the meaning of membership here. I want to attempt this in two ways.
First, Celebration Circle shared materials with preachers that provide three phrases that guide my outline. They are: a frightening journey into the mystery of God, walking in the shadows of faith, and an anaerobic capacity to thrive on paradox. As I worked with these they suggested some reflections on temporary, inclusive and corporate membership appropriate to this recommitment season.
But what I really want to talk with you about is a faith in Jesus and the faith of Jesus. These two phrases emerged out of my preparation to form the heart of what I have to offer this morning. It is easy and tempting to put them in opposition to each other, make one a straw man, and build a sermon that proceeds to allow the other to knock it down. My experience, however, is more complicated than that. I grew up with a faith in Jesus. I come from a fairly traditional, mainline Protestant background, and there is much I value about that. I suspect many of us have something like this in common. But as I continue to listen to God I find myself called to the faith of Jesus. More than a change in proposition, I find this a change of point of view.
Let me begin with the Celebration Circle phrases and use them as springboards to explore a faith in Jesus and the faith of Jesus.
A Frightening Journey Into The Mystery of God
The frightening journey into the mystery of God is at the heart of recommitment because it asks us to have a first hand experience of the Real. I have not always found this easy. I could understand the Death of God theologians because the Divine appeared more absent than present in my life at times. The Sacred to me is frequently the Hidden Holy rather than the Hound of Heaven. Having a cerebral palsied daughter complicated my experience with the Mysterious One. Random acts of cruelty and senseless ugliness often remind me that the dark night of the soul is still a common reality.
A faith in Jesus helps. It hopes a one-time conversion experience will be enough. It can name the date, time and place it came face to face with God. It hopes this confers a lifetime membership that secures a place of privilege. It wears its Christianity proudly. It needs to be right and it wants to proclaim Jesus Lord. This faith in Jesus attempts to provide the answers and certainty many long for.
This is part of a recurring temptation to domesticate God. As Bill Countryman points out, "One can make idols of the real God too. And the most dangerous idols are those made from the best materials." Fortunately we cannot shrink God down to our size. The Mysterious remains beyond human comprehension. Like manna in the desert the most we can hope for is a daily dose. We cannot own our experience of the Sacred. Inspiration does not store well. The Numinous may grace us with vision, but it isn’t likely to light our path all the time. A first hand experience of the Holy remains a temporary grace.
This is the faith of Jesus. It is a gift one does not hold on to. It risks the abandonment of the cross. It takes up the towel and washes the disciples’ feet. It focuses on others because it knows that is often the best place to find God. It is more interested in service than recognition. This is a time sensitive, temporal reality. It takes no thought of the morrow. It knows eternity passes through the here and now. The Sacred is best found in the moment. Membership is a temporary participation pass.
The faith in and the faith of Jesus are relatives. My faith in Jesus prepared me for a first hand experience of the Holy. I can still remember the tootsie rolls holy rollers used to bribe us kids to the tent meetings with in Iowa City. This faith that started with Bible verse memorization and altar calls led me to grapple with important issues of Biblical interpretation, historical accuracy and traditional authority. Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Kierkegaard and Unamuno enriched my sawdust trail experiences. But reading, feeling and thinking about are no substitute for meeting a person. A first hand encounter brings all of these alive.
A recommitment that hungers for God is sometimes satisfied but never extinguished. It affirms the reality of the Hidden Holy. No matter how well we merchandise memberships, there are no lifetime options. No matter how long and careful our study, how mystical our experience, or how rich our tradition, the Real will stretch and surprise us. In practice, temporary participation passes are the best we can do. And these often include a frightening journey into the Mystery of God. It involves a spirituality of experience based on a first hand encounter with God that keeps us humble and human.
Walking in the Shadow of Faith
Walking in the shadow of faith acknowledges the role doubt and imperfection play in our journey. These open the door to a more inclusive membership. Allow me to illustrate with a piece of adapted fiction.
An undesirable person approaches Seekers for membership. She is disabled, brash and resentful, an authoritarian woman of considerable wealth. Moreover, she is full of doubt. She is not sure she believes in this resurrection and miracles stuff. In exchange for membership she offers the community an ideal structure and location that fits almost all the criteria the various searches for space have generated. In a heated, difficult and long Stewards meeting, incredibly the decision is made to extend membership to this woman in exchange for the gift of space.
At the first Stewards’ meeting that includes the newcomer there is a great surprise. Instead of the brash, resentful, authoritarian woman everyone knew, the new Steward shows herself to be gentle and wise. She asks interesting questions and listens to answers with patience. Her doubt is replaced by a personal and touching faith. For every ugliness previously obvious, a hidden beauty now appears.
Perplexed the Stewards ask, "Where is the woman who made us agonize so long and hard to reach such a painful decision?" The newcomer replied, "I am the same person, but an evil sorcerer has put a curse on me so I shift from being rapturously beautiful to being repulsively ugly. Now you have a choice. I can share my gentleness, faith and wisdom with you in public, but then I will be arrogant, doubtful and paternalistic in private or vice versa. Which do you prefer?
Overcome with the Spirit, the Stewards decided it was not for them to choose. They said to the newcomer, "We want you to be the way you want to be." They gave back her power and honored her integrity. In that stroke of generosity the spell was broken and the newcomer was able to be her true self. And Seekers had a place they longed for and another imperfect Steward.
They did not live happily ever after however, for faith has a shadow side. Doubt and imperfection live there. They are not easy companions. And as this story reminds us, the Hidden Holy takes on many distressing disguises. These factors often complicate discussions about the meaning of membership. But if we would stay in touch with God, we must stay involved with these issues.
A faith in Jesus risks being exclusive. It often has room only for true believers. It seeks to convince others it is right. It worries about doctrinal correctness. It limits the Lord’s Supper to the faithful. It restricts its pulpit to the theologically trained and thinks lay people are good for filling pews and offering plates. It wants to make sure Christianity is the first, the best, and the greatest.
The faith of Jesus includes others, breaks down boundaries, and crosses borders. It lets people of dubious reputation wash its feet with expensive oil. It is happy to share its food with imperfect strangers. It embraces Samaritans, zealots, Gentiles and good practicing Jews. Instead of separating itself from others to maintain its purity, it feeds the hungry, sets prisoners free and heals the sick without much concern for cost or category.
Seekers has done much to wrestle with these tensions. The paper made available to those interested in preparation for recommitment this year is rich in growth and movement. We come out of an exclusive integrity of membership tradition that arose in response to the cheap grace of mainline church belonging. Show up a Sunday, sign a card and you are in. But John Cooke has reminded us that some of the residents of L’Arche would not qualify for membership here. Pat Conover’s transgender persona has pushed me on the limits of inclusion. Some of what I have written and shared is probably a stumbling block to others.
Bill Countryman’s recent book Living on the Border of the Holy provides a radical contribution to this ongoing discussion. He argues the Protestant Reformation took a step in the right direction in proclaiming the priesthood of all believers. Its challenge of the clergy/laity split is one we embrace. But now there is need for another step, the priesthood of all. It is time to move beyond the believer/non-believer split. The God of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son can no longer be only the God of believers.
Jesus brings the message we are all priests. No longer is priesthood limited to the Levites of the house of Aaron. No longer is worship limited to the temple in Jerusalem. No longer is access to the Sacred controlled by the privileged few. Instead the faith of Jesus manifests itself in a male from the tribe of Judah and the house of David. Instead of limiting the experience of the Holy, he shares it with ordinary working people. He welcomes women among his close followers. He associates with undesirables and even eats with them. Jesus embodies the reality we are all priests.
This suggests recommitment is a time to consider inclusive membership further. As difficult as it may be for those of us brought up in a faith in Jesus to consider that doubters, non-believers, and people radically different from us are priests, hopefully the time of the Crusades, the Inquisition and similar attempts to force our beliefs on others is behind us. If we broaden our circle of compassion to the point where others criticize us for keeping company with tax collectors and prostitutes, we are probably headed in the right direction. When we do, we practice a spirituality of imperfection that understands the Divine can take the less than perfect and produce better than average results with it.
An Anaerobic Capacity to Thrive on Paradox
An anaerobic capacity to thrive on paradox includes a faith in Jesus and the faith of Jesus which at their best both put us at the disposal of others. My first inclination was to contrast these two phrases. But I want to avoid the dichotomizing tendency. Instead I want to replace either/or with both/and. Maybe the faith in Jesus makes the faith of Jesus possible. This pregnant pair point towards the importance of a corporate membership.
I certainly grew up with a faith in Jesus. The son of missionary parents, and evangelistic relatives, Sundays often meant church services from morning to night for me. Ironically my parents were Methodist missionaries to a predominantly Roman Catholic country, Christians sent to convert other Christians. And one of my childhood memories is walking to Sunday school while Catholic kids and we threw rocks at each other on the way, in part because we were kids, but in part because adults of each faith believed they were right and their neighbors were wrong. This resulted in a faith that emphasized personal salvation and individual virtues. My faith in Jesus helped guide and nurture the first several decades of my life.
The faith of Jesus allows and encourages me to be intimate with others while honoring our differences. It’s helped me come a long way. I’ve just spent seven days in silence with a community of Buddhists in Madison VA. I’m slowly learning there is much of value in this God bathed world when I take time to speak softly and listen loudly. And few groups take incarnation more seriously, or use the human body as completely to pay attention as some of the Buddhists I’ve met. It amazes me that having a faith that proclaims the incarnation as the heart of the gospel, that I don’t listen to my body and use my body to pay attention to the Sacred more. I’m grateful they are willing to share what they know with me. They help me understand one meaning of a corporate membership.
The faith of Jesus reminds me we are all priests and membership happens when we minister to each other. Membership is not a thing. It is a relationship. When we help another listen to the Holy, when we hold a hurt, satisfy a hunger, put ourselves at the disposal of others Christ is in our midst. Then a faith in Jesus dances with the faith of Jesus in these ways. It moves:
- from needing to win, to learning to fail without being a failure
- from needing to be in control, to allowing my fears to strengthen and teach me
- from needing to be first at the table, to being at the disposal of others
- from needing to be right, to wanting to be loving
- from needing to be included, to realizing we are all connected
- from needing to be a unique part, to being a part of the whole
Ours is a corporate membership. Paradox is the nature of spirituality. Chesterton defined it as, "Truth standing on her head in order to attract attention." We are both unique and united. Recommitment is a most personal and individual choice that we make together. Each of us will affirm our community ritual. But even this personal choice is a relationship we have with the living God. In the Spirit we are reminded that love of the Sacred involves love of neighbor. And we make people neighbors when we care for them.
This individual choice is about us. I am here because this is a place where I experience Spirit. And I am here because of David, Dan, Ken, Marjory, Anne, Margreta, Carolyn and each of you. Your sins and virtues often stimulate and challenge me. I often feel cared for and appreciated here. I am here to find the Hidden Holy and know that together this option is real. I am here because together the Mysterious One helps us participate in Hope and Home, FLOC and many other choices that put us at the disposal of others. An anaerobic capacity to thrive on paradox practices a spirituality of contradiction that knows an intimacy that respects differences is possible.
The story that ties this together for me is that of a teacher who holds up a picture of a bird in flight and asks the students, "What do you see here?" "A bird," the students reply. "Very good," said the teacher, "but it is also a picture of a huge, beautiful, mysterious sky with a bird flying in it." Both perspectives are correct.
A faith in Jesus sees the bird. It narrows our focus. It uses Jesus as an anchor, a window, and a savior. It excludes others who don’t share that focus as it stretches toward God. It is a valid and useful point of view when skillfully practiced. The faith of Jesus, on the other hand, looks at the huge, beautiful, mysterious sky with a bird flying in it. The God bathed world we live in stretches us to include those who are hungry for God, the doubtful, the imperfect, and even those who have honest differences with us. This wide-angle perspective doesn’t lose sight of the bird flying in the sky, and indeed is possible because of it. It knows there is much more than any of us understand, and we are all connected.
So, a faith in Jesus and the faith of Jesus invite these practices. The fearful journey into the mystery of God is about a spirituality of experience where our first hand encounter with the Sacred keeps us humble and human. Walking in the shadows of faith invokes a spirituality of imperfection that knows God can take the less than perfect and do better than average with it. And an anaerobic capacity to thrive on paradox is about a spirituality of contradiction that allows us to be intimate with each other while respecting our differences. These practices can keep a faith in Jesus and the faith of Jesus involved in God’s work in our world.
Whether we are focused on the bird or on the huge, beautiful, mysterious sky with a bird flying in it, I hope these reflections enrich our consideration of the meaning of membership here.