St. Luke’s is blessed to have many gifted preachers. On Sunday August 12, 2018, Rev. Mark Wilhelm presided and preached this sermon:
In her sermon last week, Erin mentioned that the lectionary (the preset list of scripture passages to be read each Sunday at churches around the globe) would for several Sundays walk us through chapter six of the gospel of John, revisiting the debate each week about Jesus’ teaching that (1) he is the bread of life and that (2) those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will be raised up on the last day to eternal life.
So here we are for the second of – I think – four Sundays focused on John, chapter six, in which we hear that Jesus is like God’s gift of the manna that God caused to appear on the ground each morning so that the Israelites would not starve during the exodus. We are told that Jesus, having come from God, is the true manna, the true bread of life from heaven that we are to eat and thereby live.
During this summer when we are collectively reflecting on the scandal of Christianity, the sixth chapter of John gives us good fodder for continued focus on the theme of scandal (what could be more scandalous than a claim to eat Jesus’ flesh and blood!), but I am going to skip the central points of the text today on the assumption that Brooke and Erin will cover them later this month.
Today I want to focus on the premise or platform on which our reading from John’s gospel sits, namely, that Jesus calls us to believe in him. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Again, I am interested in focusing just on Jesus’ words that we are to have faith or believe in him (not all the bread of life or never being hungry or thirty references) because belief is at the core of the scandal of Christianity.
By the way, if it turns out that the next two Sunday sermons don’t discuss the bread of life theme and its connections to Holy Communion, call me on it, and I’ll host a Bible discussion at my house on the theme early this fall for anyone interested!
But back to the idea of belief.
Typically, belief means “belief that,” such as I believe that Donald Trump will not be re-elected. Belief expresses something that we cannot prove to be true, but that we are convinced is true and is important to us. But this is not Christian belief. Authentic belief or faith in Christianity is not “belief that” (such and such is true); it is instead a belief in someone; that a confidence in someone is true. Faith is not “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God,” but I believe in Jesus, the son of God.
The biblical understanding of faith or belief is a confidence in someone so profound that your confidence or trust includes a love for the object of your trust. In fact, the old English words from which our contemporary English word is derived reflect this perspective. The old English words are be lēof, which means “to hold dear.” To believe in someone is to have such trust in them that you hold them dear.
See how this is demonstrated by Jesus’ teaching about the great commandment. He did not say that you are to “believe that” certain statements about God are true. He said you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Belief is not thinking that something is true. It is to answer the questions: Whom do you love, whom do hold dear, whom do you trust? To what promises will you align your life?
The scandal of belief in Christianity is the scandalous, commonplace reversal of belief from belief in to belief that. To say the same thing differently, it is the scandalous reversal of Christian belief from trusting in the promises of God through Christ into an insistence upon adherence to right teaching.
I bumped up against a current example when I visited an old friend, Diane Jacobson, last week in St. Paul, MN. Diane is retired after decades of service as a professor of Hebrew scriptures on the faculty at Luther Seminary. During my visit, she related a story of her experience about writing an article for an ELCA women’s publication about the Ten Commandments. Diane’s article was on the commandment to remember the sabbath day, which she mistakenly identified as the fourth commandment. A reader wrote a letter to Diane, chastising her for the error. Diane responded, admitting that she was in error and that she regretted that neither she nor her editor caught the mistake. As the same time, she explained that she grew up in Judaism, which numbers the commandments differently. She also explained that, as an academic, she had experienced multiple numbering systems for the Ten Commandments and—of greater importance—she knew as a professor of the Old Testament that the commandments were not numbered in the scriptures. All the numbering systems are practical devices created over the centuries by Judaism and Christianity. This lifetime of experience left her vulnerable to forgetting the Lutheran numbering system. Nonetheless, Diane admitted that as a Lutheran and when writing for an ELCA publication, she should have accurately used the traditional Lutheran system and identified the sabbath commandment as number three, not number four.
Well, the woman would not let this go! She replied by stating, even more vigorously than in her initial letter, that Diane needed to issue a correction and that she was “destroying my faith” by claiming that the Lutheran numbering of the Ten Commandments was not absolutely correct and was to be necessarily followed!
Like Diane’s correspondent, many Christians have effectively turned Christianity from good news into an adherence to a list of right teachings that must be accepted, even down to the correct, albeit unbiblical, numbering of the Ten Commandments.
This reversal began very quickly in much of the early church. Faith was translated from belief in Christ into a body of knowledge that must be affirmed. Christianity became not a proclamation of having faith in Jesus and the gospel but a religion that had a set of rules and doctrines that constituted the faith. The rule of faith, a core set of teachings, is a term from the late second or early third century. Within a few decades after the resurrection of Jesus, the focus of Christianity was no longer a reveling in the freedom of trusting in God’s promises in Christ. It was a set of rules by which a person’s assent to “the faith” was measured. The Christian life became a struggle to learn and confess right teaching instead of a life lived to seek God’s justice in the world in response to God’s graciousness.
The churches have spent centuries fighting over the definitions of right belief. The names of our churches reflect this:
- The Orthodox Churches – the faith centers in correct dogma and doctrine.
- Catholic – the faith believed everywhere, by everyone, always.
- Lutheran – the faith is following the correct teachings of Martin Luther.
- Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational – the faith can only truly exist when the church is organized and governed according to biblical principles.
- Baptist – the faith requires baptism by immersion.
- And so on…
The Church has been defined by disputes over doctrine since shortly after Jesus exhibited the scene. The more pedestrian and everyday version of this great reversal among individual Americans is the translation of faith in Christ to faith in our own ability to believe the right things. We use the language of faith and trust, but my experience has been that people regularly exchange trusting in Christ for trusting in their own ability to believe, which they can in turn present to others and God as evidence that they are authentic Christians. This remains true even when expressed as a need to have a relationship with Jesus. Inevitably this supposed relationship, which you might think reflects a “believe in” perspective, is expressed as believing the right things and a decision to believe that Christ is your Lord and Savior. Again, the focus is on you and what you believe, not on trusting God in Christ. Faith no longer means trusting in God through Christ. It means having confidence in your ability to believe things about God.
Mostly we’re not troubled by this at St. Luke’s. Our emphasis here is, correctly, about right practice of a Christian life in response to God’s grace, not right belief. So, I have probably ranted on about belief’s scandalous translation into right teaching to the wrong crowd. St. Luke’s properly recognizes that Christianity is a striving for right practice, not an argument about the details of right teaching.
Nonetheless, knowing things is important, and we need to admit that St. Luke’s misses the mark on this important part of the Christian life. Beliefs, doctrines, knowledge and understanding matter, but (with the exception of Sunday School for children) we take little collective responsibility at St. Luke’s for encouraging an improved understanding of doctrine and other things Christian. This is unfortunate, because knowing things is a wise component of sound Christian practice.
An old medieval European Christian definition of faith can be helpful in recognizing the wisdom of knowing things. Those Christians described faith has having three parts: knowledge, assent, and trust. The easiest way for me to explain the three parts of this medieval European Christian teaching is to switch to a modern example. Let’s say you are nervous about getting into an elevator. Getting past the fear require three steps: first, you must know that the elevator actually works reliably. Knowledge is step one. But knowing that the elevator is in sound working condition is not going to be enough to get you past the fear. So, secondly, you need to give your assent to that knowledge. But even if you can agree the elevator works reliably, you can still be afraid of getting on board. So, third, you need to actually trust in the knowledge you assent to.
The point of this little exercise is to show the role of knowledge and the application of knowledge in the Christian life. Trust is central and the living source of Christianity, but knowledge is a valuable part of Christian practice and helps us keep trust in action.
Sound beliefs matters. Knowledge can help rid us of unnecessary stumbling blocks to being a Christian. Even more important, knowledge can shape us into our hope of being a people committed to justice for others. For example, knowledge was critical in St. Luke’s role in moving the ELCA way from its received heterosexist gender practices.
Beliefs matters – there is content to our faith in Christ. Nonetheless, we should never allow ourselves to fall into the trap that “believing the right things” is at the core of Christianity. Our core is much deeper and profound. It is an allegiance to and trust in God as known through Jesus.
It’s living in a freedom from fearing that you may have skipped something on the check list of things necessary to do or believe to ensure that God is on your side. You are freed from the guilt of failure before God, from stress of worrying whether your life matters to God, and from fear that your death will eradicate you. Faith is faith in someone…in Jesus who turns the world upside down by showing us that conventional understandings of religious striving don’t matter, that conventional understandings of power and prestige don’t matter, and that perhaps most important of all, that you do matter in the economy of God. That is the promise of the gospel and the trust we place in Jesus.