Changing the Order

Johnsonville Uniting Church                                                      All Saints Day

    5th November 2017                                                                    Mark 1:  16 – 20

© Roger Wiig

 


(Author’s Note:  The questions throughout this ‘sermon’ involved the congregation in discussion.  Some of the points made were highlighted in a PowerPoint presentation as were the texts of the Apostles Creed and the Sermon on the Mount [the version found in Robert Funk’s The Five Gospels.])

 

Here are some questions:   How do you become a Christian?   How do you become a member of the church?  What is the point of being a Christian?   Are there any benefits?   What about responsibilities?   What has faith got to do with belief?     

The reality is that today, faith is so uncritically joined at the hip with the idea of believing, that old ideas and old ways of thinking are placing severe limits on what the church can do and on how people in the wider community are seeing us — which leads them to rejecting us.1 

I for one am frustrated about that.  I have spent my entire working life within the church and as I get older I see it shrinking further and the society around us — particularly the young —needing what the church could offer, if it could recover its essential message and follow the ways of Jesus. 

The truth is we were diverted from action to belief shortly after Jesus’ death, but more deliberately from the days of Augustine around the third century of our common era.  From then on it mattered very much what you believed and the church went through barbaric times, burning the heretics, raging violent war through the Crusades.  

Having moved on we are now alarmed as our Muslim brothers and sisters go through the violent storm we went through.  We should be appalled by our own history even as we should be appalled by the atrocities carried out by those who scream ‘Allu Akaba’.  The source of the violence was and is a focus on belief rather than on the humanity that lies at the centre of our faith. 

That focus on belief, led to a Galilean sage, a compassionate peasant, becoming, in the eyes of the growing church, a divine saviour.  That is a process you can follow through the gospels, from Mark, the earliest, to John, written 70 to 80 years after the death of Jesus.  The question was:  who is this man Jesus?  How do we account now for all that is happening in his name?  The great Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman, working through the New Testament, saw that questioning process as ‘the trajectories the church followed taking the Jewish peasant Jesus and making him God’2.  They found him so important that they lifted him up in their thinking to the point where they thought of him as God.  In doing that they were simply picking up the thinking in the culture around them where gods could become human and human beings could interact with and indeed become gods.  Parish minister and author Robin Meyer’s lamenting that process wrote that ‘what had been Jesus way of being in the world became a new way of believing in the world’.  It was a movement from being to belief, from action to theology.  It began with Paul and developed through the gospels to the point where in John’s gospel the change from man to God is complete.   And we all learned the verse:  ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.

The problem with this kind of focus on what we believe, is that it doesn’t connect with our actions and the world doesn’t change.  In fact this ‘believing’ shifts our focus to another place all together and we forget about how to live in a way that makes life better for others.  We can believe all the right things and not be free to be who we are and contribute what we can to make the world a better place.

We have got things around the wrong way.  We put believing up front and then belonging to the church where seemingly belief matters, and only then do we list actions or mission as a component of our life, and while action or mission is down in third place we seldom get around to doing any of it and the world suffers. 

So the order of things has been belief, belonging, behaviour.  And that order we have to turn on its head so it becomes behaviour, belonging and then belief.3

Here is a good way of seeing how the church got it wrong.  Our focus on belief continues when, in worship, we stand and repeat a creed — often one of the classic creeds like the Apostles Creed.  Let’s look at it.  How much does it tell us about the man and the way he lived?

Now let’s look at words that most scholars say are amongst the authentic words of Jesus — the Sermon on the Mount.  Let’s look at it.  Here’s the challenge — to work at being a different kind of person — humble, merciful, compassionate, thoughtful and kind — seeking to live well, working for justice and peace — standing up for what you know is right even when the opposition is strong and hateful.

The ministry of Jesus was and is and always will be about compassion.  When offering his compassion to others healing happened, hope was given, freedom was experienced, and community was built, love led to life in all its fullness.

Sadly we don’t see all people in the world enjoying ‘life in all its fullness’.  I don’t know about you, but I find the stories of the despair of young people carried by the news disturbing if not heart–breaking.  Life for them is tough and confusing.  They lose hope and depression drops them into a dark place.  Their question is:  how to live?  And there will be plenty of people who will sell them a ‘fix’, lead them into trouble.  But it is not only the young.  We all hear such miserable stories of the struggle some folk have — government departments or services not recognising  their need, or the severity of their situation, making crazy decisions and leaving them in despair.  It’s tough out there!  Depression abounds!

My question is:  As the followers of Jesus don’t we have something to offer, something that restores hope?  It won’t be our beliefs, but our compassion and kindness, our listening, our humility and generosity, our acceptance and smiles and love that will ease despair.  Maybe, maybe, if that is what we offer, healing might happen, hope might be restored.

It’s time we took that longest journey from the head to the heart.  Time we got the order right:  behaviour, belonging, believing.  First actions, then a community of support and in that community finding the meaning and the stories that become our motivation, our inspiration, and our encouragement.

We have to see Jesus as the teacher, not the saviour; faith as trust and action, not belief.  For our way, Jesus way, is a way of compassion not condemnation.  We may, and do, make mistakes, but we must wake up to the biblical conviction that we have been set in a world proclaimed ‘good’, that we are a people considered worthy, worthwhile — that we are simply called to live making life better for others, showing them compassion, hope and love, acceptance and generosity and the value of a caring community.

Today we gather in Jesus name as a loving community — a people who offer one another the acceptance of Jesus the man of wisdom, who was always forgiving and who in kindness offered healing to those who were broken, those who despaired, and those who were depressed and wondered if ever life is going to be better.

We can do it!  We can change the world for the better, one person at a time, transforming life when we get our life in the church around the right way — when we change the order and focus not on what we believe but on what we do. 

How do we do that?  Talk together about what we do?  That used to be one of the strongest points of Methodism — the small group discussions called Class Meetings that focussed on the experiences individuals had in following Jesus’ way of living and relating.  In Class meetings, in home groups, in after church conversations over a cup of tea, talking together about the things we are trying to do to help others builds a community where we remember the biblical stories about how we find our freedom, about how we are finding God with us, and how we are seeing that as the road into the future.  Those kinds of conversations and the actions that will flow from them are essential if ever we are going to have the confidence to address the despair and the depression we see in the world around us. 

So, let’s move away from right belief and start thinking about right practice and find again for ourselves the real value of belonging to the church, and then we will have something to share — our ordinary humanity and the wisdom gained from looking at the way Jesus lived his life with its hope-giving focus on compassion and the acceptance of the ordinariness of this wonderful life that is pure gift.

 

 

Notes:

1 An idea developed in Robin Meyers’ ‘Saving Jesus from the Church’ Harper Collins, 2010

2 Gordon Kaufman, ‘Jesus and Creativity’ Fortress Press, 2006

3 An idea developed in Diana Butler Bass’s ‘Christianity after Religion:  The end of church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening’, Har