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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
where all of God’s human creation are included.
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