Sunday, May 27, 2018

Pole Dancing for Heretics

The sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday, 2018.
We don’t have to re-invent the wheel. It’s what we often say when we’re starting out on a new venture. We look at what other people have done who have faced similar challenges and use what they’ve already figured out. But once upon a time, before there were wheels, there were actually people who invented them. Can you imagine what that must have been like?

2,000 years ago, when the followers of Jesus formed the church, it was a lot like re-inventing the wheel. They did have their Jewish roots, but the notion of a monotheistic God, like the God of Abraham and Sarah, was no longer large enough to explain their experience of the divine. They were pretty much starting from scratch. There was no understanding of the Holy Trinity, and it wasn’t spelled out in the scriptures, anywhere.

The questions that were long ago answered for us were all up for grabs in those early years. Who was Jesus, really? Was he God, was he a human being? How did Jesus relate to God the Creator? Did the Creator create Jesus? And how does the Holy Spirit that came to Jesus’ followers after Jesus wasn’t walking this earth… how does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this?

A variety of understandings were floating around, and things remained that way for about 300 years.

The early Church did finally arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was explained in the ancient creeds of the church. Those creeds have continued to define orthodox Christianity all these years later. We have three that we lift up: the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is also known as the Baptismal Creed. The Athanasian Creed is so long and weird that we rarely use it in public worship.

The Nicene Creed is the one that has the most interesting history. In a nutshell, there was a shady collusion between the Emperor Constantine and the bishops that was all about power. Each wanted to use Christianity for their own purposes, and it culminated at the Council of Nicea in 325. That’s how we got the Nicene Creed.

The original purpose of this creed was to unify the empire by weeding out anyone who didn’t agree. It became the standard that led thousands of heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.

Over the next 1500 years, although most Christians quit executing those who disagreed with them, Christianity became all about believing in the right way.

Lutherans have been no exception. Most of us lifelong Lutherans, educated in the faith way back in the 20th century, were taught by memorizing the right answers. We weren’t nurtured into the life of faith so much as told what to believe.

This feels like a different flavor of fundamentalism to me. Fundamentalists have the definitive answer to every question. Fundamentalists must have certainty and they can’t deal with ambiguity. Fundamentalists tell us that there is only one right way to believe. Reciting a creed can feel that way, too. It’s like we’re saying, “Here’s what you gotta believe about God.”

As an educator, I have to push back against this. Faith isn’t cast in stone. It develops throughout our lives. A basic level of faith takes everything literally. It’s a right and wrong, law and order way of looking at the world. Something that’s typical of a person in elementary school. Unfortunately, some people get stuck there. But if all goes well, a more nuanced faith develops in our late teenage years, when our brains have grown large enough for us to think abstractly. As our faith continues to grow, we allow for ambiguity and mystery. Later in life, some people pass into a universalizing style of faith that goes beyond all of this. That’s the process of faith development for us. And this is the reason our rigid creeds may not be all that helpful.

But before we throw them out completely, let’s back up a bit and consider how they might serve us in the 21st century.

Creeds are not about faith; they are clusters of beliefs. There’s a big difference between belief and faith, although most people seem to use those words interchangeably.

In Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, he does an excellent job of making the distinction. He cites a story by the Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno, that goes like this…

A young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son doesn’t answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in the story recognizes the difference between faith and belief. Faith is more at the core of our being than belief. Beliefs, you can argue about, but not faith. Faith is putting your trust in someone. It’s a way of life. It’s a relationship. It’s of the heart. It’s fluid. It grows. A belief is more like an opinion. It’s of the head. It’s concrete. It’s possible that it may one day be discarded, but it never changes. Again, creeds are not about faith; they are clusters of beliefs.

In his book, Cox separates Christian history into three eras. First, there was the Age of Faith which stretched from Jesus to the time of Constantine in the fourth century. 

Then, from the time of Constantine until now, we’ve been in an Age of Belief. But now, Cox says, we’re entering a new age, the Age of the Spirit. Much like the early church, it’s an age of faith.

We’re returning to a time when doctrinal questions aren’t all that important. There were lots of different beliefs about God floating around in the first centuries of Christianity, and no need to agree on every point. The important thing was not belief, it was faith. No longer identifying correct doctrines but experiencing a relationship with God. In the early church there was never a single Christianity. There were many. It wasn’t until the time of Constantine that we got so hung up on our beliefs and rooting out heretics.

The fact is, despite the church’s attempts to root out heretics, they have always been with us. Thank God! For without them, where would we be? Heresy is healthy for the church. It’s always been the heretics, the ones traveling on the fringes of orthodoxy, who have moved the Christian church to a new place. Martin Luther is the most notable. Heretics have been God’s agents of transformation.

It seems to me that if there is any purpose for our ancient creeds, it’s that they give us a center. We don’t have to agree about everything. But the Trinitarian creeds remind us where the center has been for the Christian church over the past 1600 years or so. That center remains significant for us as we find our way on the journey of faith.

Some of us may be far from the center, but there’s value in knowing where the center is because it’s that center that holds us in community, even as it holds us in God’s presence.

Our Trinitarian understanding of God isn’t the only way God is experienced in the world. For us Christians, it’s our center, but there are other centers for other peoples. And while our centers may be different, often our circles overlap so that those of us who have moved far from the center may find ourselves in more than one circle at the same time.

Way back before the Nicene Creed, the metaphor of the dance was used to describe the Triune God. It’s a dynamic faith image. It’s relational, it moves, it grows, it includes. Father, Son, and Spirit are inviting us to dance with them. And maybe, that’s the key to saying the Creed together on a Sunday morning. It invites us into a circle dance. Perhaps it’s something like dancing around a maypole. None of us is required to stand in the center and make a statement of belief that’s a litmus test for God’s people. But we can dance around that center, some close to it, some way out on the fringes, some weaving in and out.

The important thing is that we all share the same center, we’re all in the circle; we’re all in the dance.

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