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Saturday, February 25, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Is Church Necessary?

1 Corinthians 12:4-27

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Matthew 16:13-19

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

          In 1797, villagers in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France, began noticing a wild boy, about ten years old, who lived in the forest. About three years later the boy emerged from the woods and allowed himself to be taken in by the people of the town. A young doctor adopted him, named him Victor, and began to teach him speech and human customs. The Wild Boy of Aveyron, as he came to be known, became the most famous of many cases of feral children, as educators, theologians, and philosophers debated what makes a human being a human being. How do we become who we are? How much of our identity is due to our heredity, how much to our environment, and how much to our training and education? In Victor's case, he lived to about the age of forty, learned to function at a very childlike level, but never learned to speak. Other feral children over the years -- including cases like Danielle Crockett, who was found in 2007 at the age of seven locked in a dirty diaper-filled room in Tampa Bay, Florida -- have great difficulty overcoming the deficits of affection and training in the early years of their lives. Allegedly, in the 13th Century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II ordered a group of infant orphans to be raised by nuns without ever hearing speech, to determine whether the natural human language imprinted by God was Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Aramaic. It turned out, according to the monk Salimbene di Adam, who chronicled the story, to be babble.
When female sea turtles are ready to lay their eggs, they crawl up on a beach, dig a hole, lay the eggs, cover them with sand, and then crawl back into the ocean.  About two months later the eggs hatch, the baby turtles dig their way out of the sand and crawl to the water to swim away.  They never know their mothers, and all they ever know is imprinted in their DNA.  But human beings aren't sea turtles.  It takes years and years of nurture to develop emotional and intellectual intelligence.  Mind you, that learning doesn't end at eighteen, or twenty-one, or at sixty.  My great teacher Julian Hartt used to say, To be is to become, to the last breath. 
Human beings were created for community:  we depend on each other.  The biggest argument I ever got in with my step-father -- and that is saying something -- was the time we were sitting at the dinner table in his home in the Washington suburbs, and he declared that he was one of the most self-sufficient people he knew.  I told him that was one of the most asinine things I'd ever heard, which did not make him happy.  "Did you build this house, or kill and clean this turkey, or make your own clothes, or generate your own electricity for heat, or build your own car?" I asked.  "You're an insurance agent, whose income comes from other people buying your product, paying you money you didn't print.  You're one of the least self-sufficient people I've ever met."  It went downhill from there.
If we are dependent upon others for emotional nurture and for intellectual development, why in the world would anyone think it is any less true that we are created needing community for our spiritual lives?  Christian faith, to paraphrase a political commentator, is a team sport.  When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he says two commandments are inseparable:  to love God with our whole selves and our neighbors as ourselves.  The first letter of John says that anyone who says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.  And St. Paul says, in this morning's lesson, that the community of believers, gathered together, is Christ's body in the world.  No believer, by him or herself, can possibly be the body of Christ, because we are all given differing gifts and functions.  I can preach and teach, but I can't count money.  But Judy Savage can't play piano or sing in the choir.  And Grace Fulcher and Dianne Jordan can't fix the roof or the plumbing.  And Ray Bassetti can't cook liver and onions or make a key lime pie.  And Doris Parsley and Kathleen Shultz can't run the youth program.  Now, which of these is most important  -- other than Kathleen and Doris?  The eye cannot say to the hand "I have no need of you."
Faith in Christ is a team sport.  We learned how to follow Jesus from parents and teachers and preachers and friends who taught and preached and counseled and modeled discipleship for us.  We read the Bible, written and copied by many people over a long period of time.  We study commentaries and read books reflecting thousands of years of understanding.  We sing songs and pray prayers written by others and handed down over centuries or over a few weeks.  When life slams us upside the head, when our faith fails and our hearts break, we are held and loved and fed and encouraged by our church family.  And when we fall away and break our vows and shoot ourselves in the foot, we are admonished and corrected and held accountable by our church family, all so that when we are strong and our brother or sister is weak, we can do the same for them.  And, perhaps most importantly, we teach each other how to be wrong right:  we confess that we are imperfect people in need of God and of each other.  We forgive each other and work together to make amends.  Of course the church is full of broken, flawed people.  That's the whole point.  We cannot be whole by ourselves, because we're not made that way.  We are not sea turtles.  This is a team sport.
When Peter makes his confession of faith to Jesus -- our gospel lesson -- that Jesus is God's Son, the Messiah, Jesus says that the church will be built upon that confession.  The church:  not private religious conviction, not a philosophy or a theology, but the church.  And, Jesus goes on, that ekklesia -- the called out -- will act in congruence with heaven, binding -- drawing people into covenant -- and loosing -- setting people free from all that enslaves them.  As Adam Hamilton says, the church is God's chosen plan for the salvation of the world. 
Is church necessary?  Don't ask me, ask God.  And, according to the New Testament and, indeed, the whole Bible, God's answer is an absolute yes.  If you're going to follow Jesus, this is the place Jesus said to do it from.

An English priest went one wintry night to visit a parishioner who had been absent from church for a long time.  They sat in front of the blazing coal fire in the man's house and talked a long while.  "I'm sorry, Father," said the inactive church member, "but I don't think I need to go to church to be a good person.  I can worship God just as well at home as I can sitting in a pew."  The priest said nothing, but stretched out his boot and drew two red hot coals away from the fire and out onto the hearth.  After a few minutes, the coals cooled and darkened, until the priest finally reached out with his hand, picked them up, and tossed them back into the fire.  In a short time the coals began to glow again, until they were burning brightly.
After a long silence, the parishioner said, "Father, I'll see you Sunday morning in church."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Who Is the Holy Spirit?

Transfiguration B

Romans 8:9-17

9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

John 16:12-15

12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

How many times have you been converted? I suspect that most of us have been converted at least several times: I know I certainly have. When we talk about conversion in church, of course, we tend to mean our conversion from not following Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior to doing so. For some of us that happens in one moment, in a dramatic and life-reversing choice and/or event. For others of us, especially those of us who have never known anything but life in the church, that can be a long process, like the change from childhood to adulthood. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that conversions were both instantaneous and gradual. What’s important is not the speed, but the fruit of that change.

There are some other conversions. Some of you who are older have had conversions about the issue of race relations. We’ve had conversions about the role of women in the culture. We’ve had conversions about whom we include in all kinds of ways. There are political conversions, cultural conversions, sports conversions, even culinary conversions: as a child I hated liver, and now I love it, especially when Doris Parsley cooks it.

I know today is Girl Scout Sunday and last week was Boy Scout Sunday, but I hope it applies to these young women for me to say that three of my early changes of life and heart had to do with Scouting. I have always been an idealistic romantic, and the ideals of Scouting caught fire in me when I was very young and still burn brightly. When I was elected to membership in the Order of the Arrow – a fraternity of honor campers – I took with absolute seriousness the Order’s commitment to cheerful service to others. OA was my first experience with mission work, and my father, who wanted me to be a pilot, never understood why I abandoned flying lessons while in high school because I found going to camp every other weekend doing service projects more fulfilling. My second conversion in Scouting was during Senior Patrol Leader training, when I became a believer in what Scouting calls Patrol Method – which trains young men to operate as a patrol and not as individuals, and equips them to lead the troop, rather than have the adults lead the troop. My third Scouting conversion came from attending the World Jamboree, then the Swedish National Jamboree, and then the U.S. National Jamboree in three successive years. I saw there a vision of a worldwide brotherhood united by common ideals and experiences. It was a short step from those conversions to my conversion to Christ and to ministry, and I am absolutely convinced that God was working in me through Boy Scouting to bring me to faith.

Scouts talk about the Spirit of Scouting­ -- a set of ideals and experiences that transform life. So, during my senior year in high school, when I became active in a very dynamic church youth group and went with them on a retreat, language about how the Holy Spirit fills and transforms a life that has been surrendered to Christ sounded very familiar to me. When I bowed my head in the middle of a cheesy movie and gave my life to Christ, there were no angel choirs, fireworks, or dramatic emotions, but over the next few months I felt my interests and priorities and commitments slowly changing. Something was changing in me, from the inside out. And that continues to churn, more than forty years later.

As I said at the beginning of the service, it’s revealing that we have so few hymns in our Hymnal about the Holy Spirit. Mainline Christians have well-developed understandings – for the most part – about God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ, but we tend to be weak in our understanding of the Holy Spirit. Historically, that’s where Pentecostalism comes from – it was a movement in the late 1800’s that sought to give equal attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. All generalizations are false, but Roman Catholics tend to emphasize the work of God the Father as Creator and Law-Giver; Protestants tend to emphasize the work of Christ the Savior and Lord; and Pentecostals tend to emphasize the transforming work and experience of the Holy Spirit in the believer. This is why Catholics, Protestants, and Pentecostals need each other: all the members of the Body need each other, just as God is One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, from Genesis to Revelation, is the power of God at work in the Creation. In the very beginning, the Spirit Wind of God is moving across the waters, creating all that is. God breathes – the Greek and Hebrew words for Spirit, breath, and wind are all the same – life into human beings. The Spirit Wind of God blows back the waters of the Red Sea so the Hebrews can escape slavery. The Spirit descends upon the prophets so they can speak God’s Word of judgment and of forgiveness. The Spirit descend upon Jesus at baptism, claiming him; the Spirit Wind blows upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost giving them power to proclaim the glory of God. And in Revelation the Spirit flows like water from the throne of God, making all things new. It is absolutely essential to understand that the Holy Spirit is not a New Testament phenomenon – the Spirit is with God from before the beginning.

The idea of the Trinity – that God is One, and is three Persons called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is a hard thing to grasp. As I have re-read some ancient texts about the Trinity this week, I’ve also been reading a new biography of Albert Einstein. That combination has been providential (pun intended). Einstein had to do some hard mathematics to get to the General Theory of Relativity, just as the early church fathers had to do some hard theology to define how we understand God. But both Relativity and the Trinity say the same thing – that reality is like a dance in which everything influences everything else. Einstein said that time influences space, and space influences time. Neither one is first – they dance with each other. In exactly the same way, in God creation and salvation and transforming presence all dance with each other. When we experience forgiveness by the indwelling and transforming Spirit of God, we are a new Creation. And when we are re-created, we forgive beyond ourselves and share the Holy Spirit to transform the world.

That, in part, is what St. Paul was saying in the first lesson today – that the Holy Spirit enables us to die to ourselves and live to God. When we do that, we find ourselves transformed from fearful slaves into joyful children of God. That new life enables us even to suffer for the sake of the gospel, because we know that God will always win in the end. One of the great mistakes Christians make about the Holy Spirit is to believe that the Holy Spirit is only active in committed Christians. If that were so, how would anyone become a Christian? One of the hymns in our Hymnal says I sought the Lord, and afterwards I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. The reason the vast majority of Christians in the world and in history practice infant baptism is because we believe that God is working all around us and even in us long before we ever know it or cooperate with it, to bring us to life in Christ. Then, once we surrender to God, we can move with the Spirit, instead of against it.

Finally, see how, in our second lesson, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit always acts in union with the Creator/Father and with the Redeemer/Son. In the first Letter of John, this becomes more clear: there are all kinds of spirits at work in the universe, and not everything spiritual is good or Godly. There are spirits that tell people to kill their loved ones. There are spirits that tell people to wreak vengeance upon the world. There are spirits that tell people that they don’t need anyone else, that they are their own gods, that they can hole up in their own self-contained universe and ignore any truth external to themselves. By this you will know the Spirit of God, 1 John 4:2-3 says: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the anti-Christ. Anything that claims to be spiritual but is not consistent with the flesh and blood concerns and teaching and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth is not from God. Any so-called Spirit that does not connect us with the hungry and the poor and the lonely and the lost; any spirit that does not draw us from our isolation into community; any spirit that does not compel us to pour out our lives in works of justice and mercy is the spirit of anti-Christ, no matter how exalted its name or loud its voice. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit all dance with each other, and invite us into their waltz.

My conversion to the Spirit of Scouting filled me and prepared my for my conversion to the Spirit of Jesus, who continues to disturb me and move me and comfort me and upset me every day. Who is the Holy Spirit? He is the movement of God -- Creator, Savior, Healer, Judge, Comforter, Disturber – from the beginning to the end, within and without, calling and equipping you to dance with Christ, and with all his people.

Shall we dance?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Christians Believe, and Why: Who Is Jesus?

Colossians 1:15-20
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

John 14:8-13 
8 Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father'? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

As many of you know, the week after Christmas Vicki and I hopped on a train in Ashland and headed to New York City, where we stayed for two nights in the theater district, visited some friends, did some sightseeing, and, for my birthday, saw the musical “Wicked” on Broadway.  It’s a wonderful play – a “prequel” to “The Wizard of Oz – about the childhoods, school days, and relationship between Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elfaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.  Somewhere down the road that play is going to really show up in a sermon, because it poses the question Are some people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them? 
Vicki and I have seen a lot of plays and a lot of musicals over the years.  We met doing a church production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, Ruddigore.  We’ve seen plays in churches, dinner theaters, high schools, colleges, small towns, small cities, and big cities.  We’ve seen famous people on stage – Katharine Hepburn, Christopher Reeve, Edith Stapleton, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Goulet, and Ginger Rogers, to name a few.  We’ve seen famous plays and Broadway musicals, and experimental theatre best forgotten.  And always when we’ve seen these live stage productions, there were one or two actors who were wonderful while others were forgettable; the sound or the sets or the lighting or the orchestra or the choreography were good or decent or terrible but always uneven.  That’s just the way it is – not everything can be perfect.
But that Wednesday night, sitting in the eighth row of the orchestra in the Gershwin Theatre, everything about that show was breathtaking.  Every performer, from the young woman playing Elfaba to the lowest flying money, was incredible.  The sets, the dancing, the sound, the orchestra – every single aspect about the production was absolutely superb and right and stunning.  After every song, at the close of every scene, Vicki and I kept looking at each other and echoing our granddaughter:  Oh wow! And at the end of the show, following the moving final scene and song, I just sat there with tears in my eyes at the wonder of it all.  It was simply – perfect.
Speaking of theater, Judi was the co-owner and director of the restaurant and dinner theater on the Eastern Shore when we moved there in 1993.  Many of our church members performed in the dinner theater, and Vicki and I and our two sons got roped into performing in some of the plays.  Judi was a native of New York and, though raised in a Jewish family, identified herself as spiritual but not religious.  I’ve never known what that meant, and frankly, I don’t think the people who use that phrase know either.
Judi’s marriage fell apart, as did the restaurant and dinner theater business.  One Wednesday night I walked into choir practice at church, and there was Judi, sitting on the front row with the sopranos, looking very nervous.  She looked and me and in her typically theatrical manner, said I don’t know if I can do this.  I’m Jewish, but I need to be doing music.  Music heals my soul.  So I’m going to see if I can do this because I need to be singing.  But I’m not doing any of the rest of this Christian thing.
Judi, we’re happy to have you here, I said.  And you participate as you feel comfortable.  Make yourself at home.  At first Judi just sang with the choir, but didn’t do anything else in the service – no prayers, no communion.  Then she began reading the prayers with us.  Then one Sunday I was putting bread in people’s hands for communion, and there was Judi with outstretched hands, a wary expression on her face.  Judi, the Body of Christ, for you, I said.  A few months later Judi asked if she could sit in on the new members class.  I’m not making any commitments, Judi warned.  I just think that if I’m going to be around here, I should know what it’s about.
After being in the new members class, Judi came up to me on Sunday after worship and said,  Let me see if I have this right.  You believe that when you look at Jesus, that’s what God is like.  And when you look at Jesus, you believe that’s what human beings are supposed to be like.  And so, what you’re supposed to do is to be like Jesus.  I smiled and said, That’s it.  After a long pause, Judi said, I can do that.  Can I be baptized?  And one Sunday morning, I baptized Judi and her daughter and her two granddaughters.  And this morning Judi is directing the choir and playing the organ at Franktown United Methodist Church, and she has become a Certified Lay Speaker.
Since the dawn of time, people have speculated about what God is like.  Is God like a tree, or like a mountain?  Is God angry, or distant, or vengeful?  What does God like, and what does God hate?  What, and whom, does God love?
And all that same time, people have wondered what they were supposed to be like.  Why are we here?  What’s the purpose of life?  How are we to act?  What and whom are we supposed to love?  If we were at our best, what would we be like?
There have been good answers, and bad answers to those questions for thousands of years.  We’ve had good models for humanity, and we’ve had lots of bad models, forever.  We’ve had hints and glimmers and glimpses of what God is like, and what we, and our best, might be.  But we’ve only known in part, and the glimpses have been blurry, foggy, and dim.
Philosophers and theologians have concocted precise and brilliant formulations to describe God and to prescribe humanity.  But when, on a dark night two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, on the eve of an execution, Philip asked Jesus what God was really, really like, Jesus cut through all the speculation and said, God looks like me.  When you see what, and how, I love,  you see what and how God loves.  When you see what and how I hate, you see what and how God hates.  When you see what drives me to tears, you see what God weeps over.  And when you see what I do, you see what God is doing.
More than that, when we look at Jesus we see what you and I, at our best, were created to be.  Honestly, wouldn’t you like to be like Jesus?  Wouldn’t you like to take little children and bless them, to tell off the hateful and manipulative scoundrels of the world, to weep over lost friends and be able to restore them to life, to heal the sick and to befriend the friendless and to feed the hungry?  Wouldn’t you like to be so close to God that you could hear God’s voice of love?  Wouldn’t you like to be able to say no to all the temptations to selfishness and power?  Wouldn’t you like to have enough love and enough courage to lay down your life for your friends?  Wouldn’t you love to laugh and party with your friends, making new wine when the old wine ran out?  Of all the heroes on the world’s stage that you could copy, wouldn’t you really most want to be like Jesus?
The proof that Jesus is the model comes on Easter morning.  When God raises Jesus from the dead, Keith Miller says that is like God’s signature scrawled across Jesus’ life, saying, this is mine.  No other hero, no other role model, no other philosopher, no other teacher about God was ever resurrected and lifted to heaven.  That is the proof that there’s something different about Jesus from anyone else who ever lived.  Buddha didn’t rise from the dead.  Mohammed didn’t walk out of his grave.  Neither L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology, nor Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism, nor Frederich Nietsche, who said God was dead, has risen from the dead.  This one, this carpenter of Nazareth, God says, is eternal.
Who is Jesus, and why is he so important?  Judi got it right:  when we look at Jesus, we believe that’s what God looks like.  And when we look at Jesus, we believe that’s what we’re meant to look like as well.  When we follow Jesus, we discover that God really has come down from heaven and lives right here in the midst of us.  That’s why the angel said to call him Emmanuel:  God with us.
That’s what Christians believe, and why.  When we look at Jesus, we see God, and we see what we, with God’s help, could be too.
Could we do that?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Does God Exist?

Epiphany 4B

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

There is a time-worn sermon joke about an atheist who falls off a high cliff and, as he is hurtling to his death on the rocks hundreds of feet below, manages to grab a root sticking out of the cliff. It halts his fall, but it begins to tear under his weight. Terrified, the man calls out, God, if you really exist, save me, and I will believe in you! A voice answers from everywhere and nowhere and says, Trust me, my son. Let go, and I will save you. After a long silence, the man calls out, Is there anyone else out there?

From now through Easter, I’d like us to look at the essentials of Christian belief – those things mainstream Christians affirm together. We’re going to use the Apostles’ Creed as a template for these sermons, because that creed has origins in the second century AD. It deals with the heart of our faith, and not with how much water must be used in baptism, or what happens in communion, or how the church should be organized. Of course, I’m going to point how United Methodists season each course, but let’s keep the main thing the main thing every week.

So, we begin at the beginning – I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. The first question of faith, and of life, is whether God exists. The seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal formulated something that has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager:” If you bet your life that God does not exist, and He does, then you have lost everything. But if you bet your life that God does exist, and He does not, then you’ve lost nothing. Therefore bet your life that God does exist, because if He does, then you have gained everything. What lies behind Pascal’s wager is the assumption that we cannot know in this life for certain whether God exists. All we can do is bet. And Methodists are opposed to gambling, except for farming and the appointment process.

Can we prove the existence of God? People have tried for thousands of years. In philosophy and theology there are approximately four classic proofs for the existence of God. It’s approximate because it depends how you lump the arguments together. They are:

1. The cosmological argument, which says in different forms that something had to get the universe and everything within it started. There must be a first cause, a Prime Mover, a first necessity.

2. The ontological argument, associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury, who said that if you can imagine something greater than which nothing else can exist, then there must be something which really is greater than anything you can think of. That could only be God.

3. The teleological argument, from the Greek word for purpose. This is also called the argument from design: the world is so complex and finely tuned that only a Divine Intelligence could have created it. Just as a watch doesn’t happen by accident but requires a maker, so the infinitely detailed Universe also requires a Creator.

4. The moral argument, which says that most human beings have a basic sense of right and wrong. Most – not psychopaths, sociopaths, and NFL referees. That conscience had to come from somewhere – from a moral authority somewhere else in the universe.

These four arguments and their extensions were used and debated for thousands of years, and used to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that God exists. In fact, they’re still used by philosophical and theological conservatives, and well-intentioned preachers and Sunday School teachers. They’re persuasive and tidy. The problem is that in the late 1700’s a German philosopher named Immanuel Kant blew all such proofs out of the water. You can remember Kant because he said you Kant prove the existence of someone who is pure spirit and beyond all categories of human understanding by using physical and philosophical arguments. You may have proved the necessity of something, Kant said, but you haven’t proven God, because God is beyond all our reason and categories and necessities. And so, since 1781 theology and philosophy have given up on trying to prove the existence of God, except among fundamentalists and their schools, who pretend that Kant doesn’t count.

So, does that mean that Pascal’s right – that all we can do is bet, not knowing until we die whether we’ve won or lost?

The Bible not once tries to prove the existence of God. That ought to tell us something – especially all those folks who claim they are Bible-believing Christians. The Bible begins, literally, with God: In the beginning, God created . . . It proceeds through sixty-six books and 1189 chapters and 31,103 verses assuming that God exists, never once making the argument that it’s true. And, in our readings today, both of which quote the Shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One, and you shall love God with every ounce of your being – there is no argument first for God’s existence. Why?

The Bible is the story of people’s experience with God. It’s not a philosophical or theological argument. It begins with stories about people who encountered a divinity who loved them, called them, rescued them, corrected them, protected them, healed them, led them. We come to know God not through elaborate arguments and philosophical proofs: we come to know God by listening to stories at the knees of family and teachers and friends. We hear Bible stories, but we also hear stories from family and friends about answered prayers, about forgiveness given and received, about love shared and multiplied, about lives changed by a power greater than from within, about hopes confirmed when there was no longer any reason for hope.

While there have been Christians who have been converted largely by intellectual arguments for the existence of God and the Lordship of Jesus, even those saints – people like Malcolm Muggeridge and C.S. Lewis and Aurelius Augustine – finally came to faith by an act of surrender of their minds and wills and hearts. We are saved by grace, the book of Ephesians says, through faith: ultimately the only real proof for the existence of God is, to return to the joke about the atheist, to let go of our attempts to save ourselves and free fall either to death on the rocks or into the arms of a loving God. What we read in the Bible and hear around the table and at our parents’ and teachers’ knees are stories of people who let go and found themselves not just rescued by God, but lifted up on wings of love to heights they never imagined possible. In the end, there is only one proof of the existence of God, and that is love. And anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you that you don’t talk or think or reason yourself into love – you fall into it.