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 Who Do You Say?

Sermon - 8/21/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 16:13-20

The very familiar text from the 16th chapter of Matthew's gospel, I'm going to read verses 13 through 19:

Now 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.’


Just before I began my vacation, I came across an article in the Christian Century that I shared with our Spiritual Development task force, from a Methodist pastor in Tennessee (the heart of the Bible Belt) who said he regularly received postcards from other churches in the area, most of them very conservative and fundamentalist, advertising this particular great truth in an upcoming sermon series, you know, anyone can relate, have seen those kinds of postcards. And it got me to thinking, what would happen if we sent out a postcard from a more progressive, mainline perspective of our church? What would that look like? How would that work in the heart of the Bible Belt?

About the same time, he met a man who said to him: "Preacher, you need to know, I am an atheist. I don't believe the Bible, I don't like organized religion, and I can't stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians". The preacher thought, well, OK, that works for me :).

And so the two became good friends and had many conversations about faith and belief, and things that are really important in life. One day he announced to the preacher: "I've decided to upgrade from being an atheist to being an agnostic". From not believing in God to being ambivalent about God. And then later he said: "I've had an epiphany. I've realized I don't reject Christianity, I reject the way intolerant Christians package Christianity". And then finally, a couple months later he said: "You've just about convinced me on this religious stuff. So what's the least I can believe and still be a Christian?".

And that question became the title of the sermon series that they put on the post-card and sent out to the community -- what's the least I can believe and still be a Christian? It eventually became a book, that has recently been published by the pastor, Martin Thielen. I haven't read the book myself, but I'm very intrigued, probably will get it soon.

In that series, Thielen debunked many of those things most people in his Bible Belt community assumed were just part of the 'package' of Christianity. Things like believing in literal interpretation of scripture, six-day creation, virgin birth, inerrancy of scripture, literal hell, whatever the case may be. His message was that being Christian was not about a closed-minded faith that damns everyone else, but it is about following Jesus and a life of love. And that we don't have to read the Bible literally, but we do need to take it seriously.

What Thielen discovered is that such a message not only preached well in his very conservative community, but there were plenty of people who didn't even know that such a church existed. And when they came came and checked it out, discovered that they liked it, and many of them stayed and church more than doubled in size over the next 10 years.

Well, we want to get that kind of message out, that such a church exists here in the heart of Eugene, which is one reason we're going to be in the Eugene Celebration parade, with that song "Raise the Roof", the theme of the parade.

But the answer to that question -- what is the least I can believe and still be a Christian? -- is found right here in this text. "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God", Peters says to Jesus.

Now, note that Jesus does not respond: "OK, now the next question is. . . ". You know, explain to me the three manifestations of the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ. And then the bonus question: described your beliefs on evolution vs creation in 25 words or less.

You can believe in those things, and anything else in the Bible, or outside the Bible. But the fact is none of those other things Christians often fight over, creating all kinds of divisions in the church, none of them make us more or less Christian. Strip Christianity down to its basic, bare essentials, and you have two things: first, belief in Jesus as the Christ, God's Messiah to the world. But that alone does not make one a Christian. Even Jesus says "Even the demons believe, and shudder". Now, of course, whether or not you believe demons are actual entities capable of belief gets on that list of things you don't have to believe, but that's another question. The point is, belief alone is not sufficient, it takes more than that. And so, second, to use the phrase of Jesus to describe a life of discipleship, "to take up the cross and follow Jesus". That is, to put your belief into action. To adopt the teaching of Jesus as a way of life.

Marcus Borg sums it up so well in his wonderful book "The Heart of Christianity" when he says: "Being Christian is not about meeting requirements for a future reward in an afterlife, and not very much about believing. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present. To be Christian does not mean believing in Christianity, but a relationship with God lived within the Christian tradition".

Borg goes on to note that there's not single, "right" way of being Christian. And so the traditional way that has worked for millions of Christians is all good. But for many other Christians, that traditional way no longer works. And so we have what we call the emerging church, that is experimenting and discovering new ways of doing that.

So lest anyone thinks, well, then anything goes, Borg names three key elements, or affirmations. First, the affirmation in the reality of God. Or, if God language is uncomfortable, the reality of the sacred, the spirit. That there really is something more to this life than just the physical world that we can see and touch. The centrality of Jesus, and the story of Jesus. And the centrality of the Bible, which of course is completely different from taking the Bible literally.

Case in point, if you read your paper yesterday, this story on the religion page of this guy in Tennessee who wants to build a theme park, a Christian theme park, around a full-scale, life-sized replica of Noah's Ark. His point is he wants to do it to prove that you can trust the story of Genesis as being factual history. It really was possible to build this big, huge boat for all the animals (2 of each).

Now, if he's serious, I would suggest that there are three conditions he's got to meet to do that: first of all, no power tools :). Now, evidently, from the story, that may be the case, that he intends to do that, because he intends to use Amish carpenters, and of course the Amish don't use power tools. Number two, only he and his family can build it. Remember the story, it's Noah and 3 sons, and their wives. Eight people. And number three, once he gets that boat loaded with two animals (and I've skipped over the fact that Noah was over 600 years old -- I'll spot the guy 550 years :), how long does he have to keep those animals alive?

40 days and 40 nights, right? That is absolutely WRONG! That's what we all think, right? That was a trick question. 40 days and 40 nights is how long it rained. But the rest of the story is the sending out of the bird to go and find dry land, and it takes 10 and half months before the rain subsides. 10 and a half months -- you've got to feed the animals, clean out the cages, do all that work, and you've got 8 people to do it.

I went and looked it up -- a Cheetah eats 5 pounds of meat a day. Alright, 10 and a half months, 300 days, times 5, times 2, do the math -- that's a lot of meat. You've got to figure those Gazelles were very nervous :).

My point is there are good reasons why so many people have doubts about some of the claims of those stories. And we accept those doubts, right? Many of us share those doubts, and add a few of our own. When you enter the doors of the church, you don't leave your doubts outside, you bring them with you, that's part of who you are, it's part of your faith.

So, I want to make a full confession here. I have no doubts. No doubts at all, about Noah and story of the flood. Absolutely none, whatsoever, no doubt that it is a mythical story meant to be understood as a metaphor about life in the inhabited world. And how we're all in the same boat together, right? It's a great story, much we can learn from it.

The only problem I have with the story is when people insist on reading it as history, and thereby turn God into a petty, vengeful dictator of the world who makes Colonel Gadhafi and President Assad of Syria look like humanitarians of the year.

Indeed, the moment you make God into a mass killer, be it with a past flood or a future rapture at the end of the world, that is the moment I become an atheist. I have never, and never will, believe in such a God.

I believe in a God who loves humanity and the whole earth so much, as it says in John 3:16, God sent God's only son to the world, to show us the way to live. So let's talk about those bare essentials, the essence and the heart of Christianity.

What does it mean to say you 'believe' in Jesus? And I can't tell you how many times I've had conversations with people about this very question. They'll say, well, Pastor, I believe this but I don't believe that, I'm having trouble with this divinity thing, or whatever the case may be.

So, since I'm making confessions, I'll make another confession: I have openly and knowingly welcomed into membership people who have doubts about the divinity of Christ, about the accuracy of scripture, about even the existence of God. And I say "you're welcome here".

My Dad tells a great story, about growing up in Albany, my Dad was the pastor of the church there, and he welcomed into membership someone, and gave them the standard language 'do you accept Jesus as the Christ, son of the living God, Lord and Savior of the world?'. And the guy says "uhhh. I'm having trouble with that 'God' bit, but I really like Jesus!".

I've always liked that story, it's not just that I'm my father's son, it's because we are a community that really likes Jesus. So you can be agnostic, not sure about God. You can even be atheist, that is, you don't believe in some of those traditional images of God, and still be a follower of Jesus. Absolutely.

There's a great story from the early days of the movement that became this church. There was a controversy, a certain brother Rains, a preacher, who advocated the doctrine of universalism--everyone will be saved by God, regardless of belief. And Thomas Campbell, one of our founders, was a Calvinist, who believe in predestination--some people are just doomed, that's just the way it is. That's a simplified version of Calvanism, you understand :). And at the convention of the church in 1828, Thomas Campbell put and end to the debate. He got up, and he said that he'd spent several months in conversation with brother Rains, talking about these things, he said: "Though brother Rains is a Universalist, and I am a Calvinist, I would put my right arm into the fire and have it burned off before I would raise my arm against him". Ever since, you see, we Disciple (of Christ) have been very tolerant of diversity.

What we do believe, and insist as essential, is that we see Jesus as our standard, the teacher of our faith, the one who shows us the way to live. The way, if you're comfortable with God talk, that God wants us to live. We are, after all, Disciples of Christ. And that phrase, it's so much more than a parenthetical phrase that occurs after the name Christian Church. It's more than something to distinguish us from generic Christians. It is a statement of identity, a claim of affiliation, an affirmation of loyalty. This is the one to whom we belong.

To be a Disciple is to be a learner, one who studies the way of Christ, seeks to live by that. And that includes participating in the community of disciples. That's why Jesus had more that just one or two, he had twelve. And that's not just an ideal number for small group discussion, right? Twelve is a symbolic number of the nation--12 tribes of Israel. To have twelve is a way of saying this is about a much bigger group than us, folks.

In that Christian Century article, Reverend Thielen tells a story of a Northerner who comes to a southern restaurant and sees this pile of white gooey stuff and says "What's that?". And the server says "Why sir, that's grits". And he says "What's a grit?". And the server replied: "Honey, they don't come by themselves" :).

Neither do Christians. Following Jesus may not require you to join an institution, but it does require you to be a part of a community of followers of Jesus. That's why Jesus says to Peter, "upon this rock I will build my church". This is the foundation of Christian community, commitment to Jesus as the one guides us, teaches us, comforts us, challenges us.

Well, there's been a group of our members from both of our services at work to develop a 'covenant of membership' to bring this all together. Who are we? What's essential? Who do we seek to be as a community of people? We want to take it to our Board to be adopted in October. It's not a doctrinal statement, it's not a list of 'these are the things you have to believe'. Rather, it's the kind of a statement that says this is who we are, this is what we are about as a community. It's what you would give to a new person to let them know what it means to be a member here.

What I would like to invite us to do this morning is to read it together, out loud, to hear it, to see how it sounds, and how it feels. And we welcome your feedback before we take it to the Board. And so let's share this together:

MEMBERSHIP COVENANT for Disciples of Christ

Desiring to continue in my/our journey of faith,
            And having been baptized in the name of Creator,
            Christ, and the Holy Spirit;
            I/we do now in the presence of God and this assembly
            joyfully enter into covenant in the One Body, the Church.

I/we engage, therefore, to walk in Christian love;
       Ever mindful of the welfare of all our members,
       regardless of our differences or circumstances.
       I/we promise to walk with each other as equals
       in Christian faithfulness, forgiveness, and love.

I/we promise to share in the worship of the church;
       by regularly attending the services of the church;
       by participating in its sacraments, ceremonies, and celebrations;
       by being growing stewards of God’s blessings
       in support of the church’s vision and mission.

I/we agree to participate in the life of the church;
       in leadership, teaching, service, and duty
       within the range of my/our talents and ability;
       to open my/our heart and mind to the Sacred
       through the spiritual practice of prayer and discernment.

I/we celebrate the diversity of God’s creation;
     by embracing and supporting those who experience rejection
     and find themselves to be in exile from the spiritual community,
     by truly endeavoring to be an active part of an inclusive, loving family
     where all of God’s human creation are included.

I/we pledge to pray, study, and stand together;
       as I/we work to alleviate injustice, exploitation,
       and the denial of human dignity wherever I/we find it
       in the nurture and ministry of Christ’s Church –
       a light to the world from the heart of Eugene.


And let the people say "Amen".  Amen.


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