January 22, 2016
Music from the Bell Choir this Sunday
Holy, Holy, Holy
‘Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’
I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.
‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’
Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’
‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
James 2:17-19 CEV
Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!
Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.”
I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.”
You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear.
The modern meaning of believe is very different from its meanings from Christian antiquity until the seventeenth century. In English, prior to about 1600, the verb believe always had a person as its direct object, not a statement. It did not mean believing that a statement is true, with varying degrees of certainty, but more like what we man when we say to somebody, “I believe in you.”
Note the difference the preposition makes. To believe in somebody is not the same as believing somebody. The latter refers to believing that what the person has said is true—that his or her statements are true. But “I believe in you” means having confidence in a person, trusting that person. In a Christian context, it meant having confidence in God and Jesus, trusting God and Jesus.
The meaning of believe prior to about 1600 includes more. It comes from the Old English be loef, which means “to hold dear.” The similarity to modern English word belove is obvious. To believe meant not only confidence and trust in a person, but also to hold that person dear—to belove that person. Believing and beloving were synonyms.
Thus until the 1600s, to believe in God and Jesus meant to belove God and Jesus. Think of the difference this makes. To believe in God does not mean believing that a set of statements about God are true, but to belove God. To believe in Jesus does not mean to believe that a set of statements about him are true, but to belove Jesus.
I have been trying to start a new religion.
It isn’t easy.
But I keep whittling away at it. It will be interesting to see if I get any converts after today’s sermon.
It is a bit of a hard sell. A first question might be:
“What are the beliefs of your new religion?”
My religion has no beliefs. There are no beliefs in my new religion. You don’t have to believe anything. No beliefs whatsoever.
However, you can believe whatever you want. If you do have beliefs you are not excluded from my religion. You are not required to have any beliefs to be in my religion.
Beliefs are not required. Having them does not exclude.
So for example, to be in my religion you can believe that Jesus walked on water and turned water into wine. You can believe that if you want. Believing that does not exclude you from my religion.
If I had any members in my religion some of the finest ones would believe that Jesus walked on water and turned water into wine. Some of my best members if I had any would believe that about Jesus.
If I had any members in my religion some of the finest would be doubters about the water stories. Some would even say, “I don’t believe he did either of those things.” They would be good enough to be members in my religion.
In my religion, if I had one, and had any members, you would find people who believed Jesus walked on water and turned water into wine and people who didn’t. Both in the same religion. Hanging out together. Doing stuff. Being friends.
In my religion, beliefs are not forbidden items to discuss. The religion is not about not talking about beliefs. In my religion people talk about beliefs a lot if they want to do so. Sometimes, in fact, often, people modify their beliefs because of their conversations with other members who have a different belief.
Some times, people are challenged by the beliefs or lack of beliefs of others. In fact, there are times in which it is downright uncomfortable to be members in a religion in which people believe different things and talk about it.
In my religion, if I had one, and anyone bothered to join, people can change their beliefs. And that is perfectly fine. They don’t have to report to anyone about it or worry that they might get excommunicated. But in my religion, people are free to talk about how their beliefs have changed and are in the process of changing if indeed that is the case.
People might challenge me and say, I can go along so far, especially about beliefs that aren’t that important. What about the big ticket items? What about beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, or God? Aren’t there some things you have to believe?
My answer is that yes, in some religions, there are beliefs about these things. There are many religions who spend a lot of time defending a certain set of beliefs and trying to get other people to believe like they do.
But in my religion, a religion without beliefs, a religion in which I have so far, no members, there are no beliefs you have to have about anything. But you can believe anything. And you can change your beliefs about anything as you go along.
In the Christian religion there are beliefs about many things. There are so many beliefs about different things and different ways about believing the same thing that there are estimated to be about 40,000 different Christian denominations in the world.
Nearly all of these groups require their adherents to assent to some kind of system of beliefs. Some enforce this assent more rigorously than others.
In my religion, in which there are no members, but I am hoping to recruit, there is no requirement to assent to a system of beliefs or even to assent to one single belief. Belief-less. A belief-less religion.
Some will say I believe Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead and is the second person of the Trinity.
They are excellent members of my religion, if I had any members.
Others will say, I think Jesus was a wise teacher and I like what he had to say and what he did, although I don’t really believe the theological claims.
They, too, are fine members, if I had members, of my religion.
Some will say, “The Bible is the Word of God. Not every story is accurate but as a whole is God inspired and communicates what we are to be and do.”
Those are marvelous members of my religion. Many serve on committees.
Others will say, “I think the Bible is a classic literary work and talks about what the people who wrote it believed about themselves and God.”
Those members are swell. Some of them even serve communion.
In my religion, there are people who will say, “I believe in God.” There are people who will say, “I don’t believe in God.” They are both fine members, if I had members, of my religion. Sometimes these folks won’t just leave it there but will explore it further with each other.
Some will say things like, “I feel and believe that God is with me and loves me and God holds everything together for me. I can’t explain it, but I believe it.”
They are some of my finest members, if I had members.
Others will say, “I feel that the universe moves by a combination of natural law and chance and I am not sure that God has meaning in my understanding of the universe.”
Those are some of my finest members, too, if I had members.
The first might respond, “But how do you account for it all, and how do you account for you and me and for beauty and hope? I believe, trust, and sing to God because doing so brings me joy.”
The second might say, “But how do you explain the harshness and coldness of so much of our existence? The meaningless suffering and the indifference. I prefer to think that life is a mixed bag and we make the best of it.”
And on they go, throughout the night, perhaps sharing a bottle of wine, reminding them both of a story in the gospel about Jesus that some might believe happened and others not.
And it is a marvelous conversation. And both are members of my religion. That is if I had any members.
Members of my religion believe all kinds of different things about even the big ticket items. None has to believe anything. None is excluded from believing or not believing anything.
Another cool thing about my religion, if you would like to sign up, although I don’t have any forms, is that you can belong to another religion and belong to mine too. My religion is not exclusive. You can be a Methodist or a Jew or a Muslim or a Rastafarian or a Presbyterian and you can be a member of my religion, too.
As far as whether or not your other religion will allow you to be a member of my religion, you will have to bring that up with them, but from my point of view, you can join my religion and be a member of what ever else you like.
Now someone might challenge me and say, “Your religion did not arise out of nothing. It has a history. You talk about Jesus and the Bible. That is Christian stuff.”
My response is, “Yes, good observation. Yes, my religion is Christian-based. Probably it is more accurately a Belief-less Christianity as opposed to a Belief-less Religion. It has roots. It is on its own journey. I don’t know where it will end up.
It draws from the long history of Christianity but it doesn’t insist on its beliefs. It is a bit messy and unorganized in that way, but in my religion, that is a better option than being too orderly, organized and certain.
Not only does my religion draw from Christianity, but it also draws from other religions and from science and whatever else is out there.
My religion also draws something specific from Christianity and other religions, and that is an ethic of love. A bit vague, I suppose, but it is primarily a trust that this religion can work. It requires a commitment to listen and to be honest and to treat others as we would like to be treated, a principle that most religions have some way of articulating.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of love a great deal. In 1957 he preached a sermon entitled, “Loving Your Enemies” at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. This is one paragraph from that great sermon:
Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
That was Martin Luther King preaching about love.
Love is not a belief. It is a way of being. Engaging with respect and being honest about the times we are not as respectful as we might have wished ourselves to be and to give it another go. Love again. Love others and love ourselves.
That is my new religion.
It is a Belief-Less and a Belove-Full Christianity.
It is Christianity Minus.
My new religion is Christianity Minus Beliefs.
I am hoping to recruit people to my new religion this morning.
I don’t have any forms to sign or classes to take. I don’t have a list of members. That is probably why it is hard keeping track of who is a member and who isn’t. You don’t have to confess anything or say anything. You don’t have to participate in any rituals. You don’t even have to tell me you want to be a member.
You may want to think about it for a while.
You don’t want to jump into these things—joining new religions and so forth.
A Belief-Less and A Belove-Full Christianity.
Messy, unpredictable, disorganized.
I wonder if it will catch on?