Yes It Is, No It Isn’t

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings: John 14:11-13, James 1:22-25

When I began seminary my mother, a faithful and faith-filled Southern Baptist woman, told me in an ominous voice, “You’ll shipwreck your faith.” You see, that’s what happens when you go to school and question your faith. In my mother’s world, faith is unquestionable, absolute and above all, blind.

I scoffed at her concerns. To me, faith was something to be explored, not to simply be accepted. I believed that seminary would be the place where my faith could be deepened, and certainly not harmed. Well, mother knows best it seems. In my second semester of Christian history, I washed ashore on the craggy rocks of doubt. My faith looked like the S.S. Minnow and I felt like Gilligan, helpless to put things right again.

Now, you have to understand that I came from a particular strain of Southern Baptists that didn’t talk much – well, actually, didn’t talk at all – about the roots of our faith. The words “Christian” and “history” had never been put together before in my experience, so to dedicate two whole semesters to the study of such a thing proved that my mom was right, my faith was not strong enough to tolerate the strain.

What put my faith on the rocks wasn’t really anything in particular about Christian history. I can’t point to one event that sent me reeling. Instead, it was the overarching fact that from the death of Jesus forward, all the early church fathers (and yes, all we talked about were church fathers) did was argue about Jesus. They argued about such things as his mother’s virginity, whether he was fully human, fully divine, a bit of both, a bit of neither and whether he felt pain on the cross. They argued whether there were three persons in the Godhead, whether Jesus had literally, bodily rose from the dead and about why he had died on the cross in the first place.

Honestly, I couldn’t take all the arguing – it reminded me of the old Monty Python skit, the Argument Clinic, where a man pays to simply have an argument.

There you have it, church history in a nutshell. At the end of the day, Christian history is a lot of people saying “Yes, it is,” or “No, it isn’t.”

Let me just give you a quick Christian history lesson: Jesus is fully divine: “Yes, he is,” “No, he isn’t. Jesus was born of a virgin: “Yes, he was.” “No, he wasn’t.” Jesus bodily rose from the dead: “Yes, he did.” “No, he didn’t.” Jesus died for your sins: “Yes, he did.” “No, he didn’t.”

Now, of course, everyone had an argument – a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition – to prove their point, but in the end it all boiled down to, “Yes, it is.” “No, it isn’t.” Those who won the argument got to call their position “orthodoxy” and those who lost got called “heretics” and were usually killed for thinking such unorthodox thoughts.

What was missing from the arguments, I realized – was the work and life of Jesus. In the care circle I host here at the church we’re studying the history of the New Testament. In one of the last classes we learned about the Apostle Paul and his contribution to what we today call Christianity. Dr. Bart Ehrman, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor who is guiding us through the course in his recorded lectures noted that some scholars believe that:

“Paul transformed the teachings of Jesus to the teachings about Jesus’ death and resurrection. That what mattered for Paul was that Jesus died on the cross and had been raised from the dead and that this brought salvation. It’s interesting that when you read through Paul’s letters, Paul rarely talks about Jesus’ own ministry. Paul rarely quotes any words of Jesus. Paul almost never mentions anything that Jesus did during his ministry. The only thing that really matters to Paul is that Jesus was crucified and then raised from the dead. […] So, in the opinion of some scholars, Paul transformed the simple religion of Jesus into the religion about Jesus, thereby creating Christianity.”

It’s this distinction that must be noted. What we have today is a religion about Jesus – about what we believe about Jesus – and not a religion of Jesus – a religion that takes seriously his life and the commandments he gave to us. Let me be clear: I’m not disputing doctrines – they can be effective tools to bring you closer to God. What I am saying is that we need to shift our attention from believing rightly to rightly embodying Christ in the world – that’s how Christianity can be transformed back into a religion of Jesus.

Paul Alan Laughlin, in his book Remedial Christianity repeats this joke, and I think it makes the point:

Jesus turned to the disciples and asked them, “Who do people say that I am?”

And they answered, “Some say that you are Elijah returned, others say another of the prophets, and still others claim that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

“And who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.

They replied, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the Ground of Being, the incarnation of the divine Logos in whom we find our ultimate meaning over against the Angst and alienation caused by the existential predicaments and uncertainties that plague human life.”

And Jesus said, “Huh?”

I said that too in the midst of all that Christian history. But this is where the Christian history argument clinic has taken us – into a theological word soup that ultimately means very little in our day to day lives. Despite Paul’s popularization of a religion about Jesus, Jesus never said, “You must believe this and this and this about me.” Instead, if we are truly followers of Christ, we must do just that, follow Christ. Jesus tells us in John 14 that anyone who has faith in Jesus will do what Jesus had been doing – and even more astounding, they will do even greater things.

Can you imagine doing greater things than Christ did? Well, no, really we can’t because the religion we’ve been following all of our lives doesn’t teach us that. It teaches us that we are here – in a lowly sinful state, unable to do anything good, and Christ is way up here – far above us, holier than us, of the same substance of the Father, and of we can ask ourselves a million times, “What would Jesus do?” but we’re never going to do it.

So, my faith got shipwrecked. But, in retrospect, I’m glad it did, because it showed me that’s exactly the kind of faith that deserves a good shipwrecking. The kind of faith that calls us filthy, unworthy sinners and teaches us to cower in fear before a wrathful God deserves to be wrecked. Any faith that relies solely on a theological sniff test of beliefs deserves to go down in flames, because at it’s heart, it’s no faith at all – but is a limiting set of beliefs that keep us from revealing God’s glory in our own lives.

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that: “The problem is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it’s been found difficult and never tried.” What all the argumentation over this doctrine and that dogma means to me is that the early church fathers found actually following Jesus too difficult, so to distract themselves they began to argue about Jesus. They limited themselves, and in doing so, they have limited us down through the ages. We are not encouraged to follow Jesus and attempt to do good works like Jesus. In fact, my good Southern Baptist roots had a name for that kind of arrogance – “works righteousness.” They believed that going out and doing good works meant you were trying to curry favor with God, so they said, “you’re saved by faith and not by works.”

James tells us however, that we are not to be mere hearers of the word, but doers of the word. While it may be true that our works will not save us, James asks, “Show me your faith apart from your works.” We’re not setting out to curry God’s favor by working in the world, instead we are showing our faith through our works. It’s not “works righteousness” to want to follow Christ and in following Christ do not just the things that Christ did, but even greater things!

Ah, but how we limit ourselves. Right now, someone in the room is probably thinking, “How on earth can we do the things that Christ did – and not just that – but even greater things!” I’ll tell you how – stop limiting yourself. Stop believing that you are a worthless sinner who can do no good in this world. Stop thinking that Christ is so far above you that you’ll never measure up. Christ is here – working within each of us and if we give up our limiting thoughts, our limiting beliefs, we’ll be doing what Christ did – healing a sick and wounded world.

Nelson Mandela, in his inauguration speech in 1994 identified our deepest fear not as inadequacy, but that we are powerful beyond measure. Mandela said that our “playing small does not serve the world.” Instead, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Quoted in Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love p. 190-1)

And this is what Jesus taught – liberation from fear, liberation from our limited thinking and being. Only people who have set aside their limited thinking will do what Jesus did, and even greater things. It was this belief that got Jesus nailed to a cross, because it’s dangerous thinking. Think about it – if everyone overcame their limiting thoughts and believed that they were powerful beyond measure and able to do what Jesus did – and even greater things – what would happen to those in power? Those who have power over us count on us to think limited thoughts and live limited lives. They count on us to not protest when they lead us into wars and foment hatred in our names. They count on us to feel limited, helpless and hopeless.

Then comes along this Jesus fellow who tells us how powerful we are – that our lives can be limitless – that we can do everything he has done and even more. What if the people believed him? What would happen to those at the top who make their money off our limited lives? They had to do away with this Jesus fellow. He was far too dangerous, telling people that the kingdom of God was within each of them and they could do such greater things than he could. For those who wish to limit us, that spelled the end of their domination over us.

You know that limited life – we all do. We all have dreams and hopes and aspirations that keep us up at night. We all wonder what happened to those dreams we dreamed, those lives we wanted to lead but somehow we ended up with this life. We’ve all had those moments when we’ve told someone our deepest dream or desire and have been heard in reply, “Oh, you can’t do that.” And we believe them. We stop talking about our dreams, we stop thinking about our dreams and we go on and live a limited life, thinking, “Well, if I win the lottery, perhaps I can live my dream – until then though, I’ve got to do this.”

Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art calls these limiting thoughts resistance, and we all have it. He believes that if we all pursued our dreams then “every shrink would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff” (p. 3). Do you see how dangerous it is to our economy to ditch your limitations? You can understand why you believing you have unlimited potential would anger some people. Their very livelihood depends on us believing our limits.

Pressfield reminds us that Hitler’s true dream was to be an artist. He originally went to Vienna to study art, but have any of us seen paintings by Hitler? Pressfield says resistance beat him. He writes: “Call it an overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face an empty square of canvas.”

I’ll echo Pressfield. Call it an overstatement but I’ll say it anyway:

It’s easier to say Jesus died for our sins than it is to do God’s work in the world. It’s easier to say Jesus is fully human and fully divine than it is to manifest Christ in the world. It’s easier to say Jesus rose bodily from the grave than it is for us to resurrect our own dreams from the tomb of limitation.

So, how do we break free of a limited life? I wish I could tell you that it’s easy, but it’s not. It requires not only great courage, but great faith. As I related in a past sermon, I have cut back my hours at my job at the university, and my pay, to give more time to pursue my writing. The good news: I’m three chapters into my book. The bad news: I’ve literally been hyperventilating for over a month now. I simply can’t breath. I’m scared to death! I’ve stepped out and decided to pursue my dreams and it’s terrifying. But, I’m happier than I have ever been. I’m feeling God within as never before and working to embody God in the world as never before. Despite the anxiety, it’s fantastic.

I know of one other member of this congregation who took a giant step and quit their job to pursue their dreams. Are they scared? I’m sure they are in some ways, but when I see this person every Sunday, they literally glow. They have given up a limited life and you can see it in their face.

So, giving up our limited lives means facing anxiety and fear and giving up those limits anyway. It means giving up our limited ideas about what it means to be a Christian. It means giving up our limited ideas of what we can do in this world. It means giving our entire being to God to be used in God’s service – to embody God’s love in a hurting and dying world. Scary? Oh, yeah! But, the rewards are amazing – miraculous even. When we give up our limits, we become miracle workers – we do as Jesus did and look forward to God using us to do even greater things.

As we close this morning I ask you to join me in a prayer from Marianne Williamson’s book Illuminata (p.94):

Dear God, in this one moment we recognize that there is within each of us a perfect Self: A self that is not dysfunctional; A self that is not weak but strong; Not limited but unlimited; Not small, but huge; Not in pain but in peace; Not faithless and scared but all-knowing, all loving, serene and calm and happy through the grace of God.

We have been playing with the toys of death and weakness. We have been playing at sickness and playing at addiction. We have been playing at dysfunction and limitation and war. We have been playing at hunger and violation of ourselves and others. We have been playing with toys that are dangerous. But we desire to play the games of death no more.

In this moment, we ask you, dear God, to release us from destructive thinking. We take up now the mantle of your magnificence. Through your grace, dear God, may we be good and innocent and strong and pure, for this is what you would have us be.

The love that emanates from your mind to us, and from our minds to the minds of others, is a power so great. Within its embrace all negativity shall turn to good, all pain to peace, all fear to love.

We invoke your light. We receive your heaven, which replaces hell. We do not look back. We do not stop our eyes at the veil of horror that surrounds the world, but rather we extend our vision to the possibilities of love for ourselves and for others.

We step out of our childhood, into our adulthood; out of our weaknesses, into our strengths; out of our fear, into our love, out of our small selves, into you.

Dear God, please make us new. Amen.