What do we need a Messiah for? What does it mean to be Christian? How is being Christian different from being alive? Can we be alive without being Christian? Why would we be baptized or pray in Jesus’ name? These are the questions that beg to be answered as we think about our future here. We gather in this sanctuary, in this building, that houses a congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA), as Christian a denomination as it gets. What does that mean for us?
It doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. Thelma Foster says, “Each generation must find its own way to God.” K. Misenheimer says, “God doesn’t have grandchildren.” You can’t take one generation’s (or one person’s) meaning and apply it to another generation (or to another person). We find our own meaning. What something means is what it means to us at a particular time and place in our lives. This means we are always remaking meaning. We are always saying again what something means at this time and place of our lives. Meaning changes over time.
We cannot think about God the way they thought about God 2,000 years ago. We cannot think about God the way Abraham thought about God. We cannot think about God the way Moses thought about God. We cannot think about God, get ready for this one, the way Jesus thought about God. Can’t do it. The world is a different world. God is a different God.
Now, that’s an idea that will flat take some sitting with. We have the idea that the world is one thing and God is another. God is, as it was told to us, “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his (sic) being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 4). God can’t be different. Well, think about it. God used to be strongly in favor of animal sacrifice. God is no longer in favor of animal sacrifice. God used to be in favor of slavery. God is no longer in favor of slavery. God used to be quite in favor of warfare and genocide. God is no longer in favor of warfare and genocide. Need I say more? God changes as the world changes. It only takes thinking about this to see that it is so.
Of course, recognizing that it is so changes everything, and has significant implications for us all. For example, The Presbyterian Church is proud of its Reformed Theology. Presbyterians stand tall and puff out their chests and say, “Our theology is Reformed Theology.” But, we haven’t reformed our theology in nearly 500 years, and that was with Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion—and there were no fresh ideas about God there. The Westminster Confession of Faith was written about 360 years ago, but there were no fresh ideas of God formulated then. We haven’t recognized a fresh idea about God since Jesus.
How reformed can your theology be if you never actually reform it? And, when the world changes as radically as it has in the last 2,000 years, and you insist on thinking about God the way they thought about God 2,000 years ago, how can you think that anyone else will think that the way you think about God is the way to think about God? And, if they say you are “irrelevant,” how can you be surprised, or offended?
All of which is to say that it is well past time for the church to reform its theology and change it’s thinking about God. Here come a couple of suggestions for doing that: The word “Christian” means “Little Christ.” To call ourselves “Christians” is to recognize that Jesus had the idea first, and that we are all cut from the same cloth. We have the same spirit within us that Jesus had within him. If Jesus could say, “The Father and I are one,” we can, too. But, what does it mean to say, “The Father and I are one”? It means that what we might call “God’s will,” or “God’s way,” and what we might call “the life that is our life to live” are the same thing. “God’s will” is “my real life.” When we find and live the life that is ours to live, we and God “are one.”
This is also called being true to our best self—to the self that might be characterized by those wonderful old values, “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, goodness, faithfulness, and self-discipline”—within the context and circumstances of our lives. To live like this is to take up our cross every day, and follow Jesus, who also lived like this.
To say that we are Christian, then, is to say that we have taken up a particular path to being awake, aware, and alive. It is the path of recognizing and bringing forth the best that we are capable of and employing that in the service of what is truly important, of what truly needs to be done, no matter what. How is that different from what other religions espouse? I don’t have to know or care. I believe that is what Jesus did. I believe that is what we are called to do in order to be fully alive. And, I believe it is quite legitimate to do that “in Jesus’ name,” because he sat the standard, showed the way.
To call Jesus “the Mediator,” is to understand his mediation as being between us and true life, abundant life, the life that is ours to live. Life lived in the service of what it takes to sustain life on a physical, biological, level is necessary, but if that’s all there is to it, it is “a waste of life.” Life that is true life, that is found at “the wellspring of living water,” is lived in the service of what enables us to be most fully, completely, joyfully, wholly, alive. Jesus, as Mediator, stands between us and the life that is ours to live, and invites us to follow him into the fullness of life, of our own life, of that which brings us most fully to life. Jesus offers us the gift of life. The catch is that the gift comes at the expense of life. Death and Resurrection, you know. New birth. “We once were lost, but now are found, were blind, but now we see.” We pay a price to live like that, and we pay a price to not live like that.
Baptism remains a beautiful metaphor, or sacrament, of this transition from life that is death to life that is life. The waters of baptism are the waters of birth. It is a new birth into a new life that we experience as we begin the journey of living the life that is ours to live. The table remains as another central metaphor, or sacrament, of our life together, in all of the ways we have talked about before. And, it’s all about seeing and hearing and understanding. Eyes that see, you know, ears that hear, and a heart that understands.
What we see when we see, what we hear when we hear, what we understand when we understand is what is truly important, what truly needs to be done, what we must do in order to be who we are, in order to bring forth the best we are capable of within the context and circumstances of our life. Wherever life is most fully lived, most fully experienced—wherever life is most raw, most real, most imminent and undeniable—wherever we are most alive, most awake to, aware of, immersed in, the moment of our living, there is God. God is most real when we are most alive. If you want to know God, go where the life is. If you want to find God, find life.
There is a numinous quality about life when we are most alive. These are the “thin places” Parker Palmer speaks of, where we sense, and feel as though we can almost see through to, the “other side.” There is no rule governing where these places are to be found.
Ray Martin says that his sense of the numinous, of the ineffable, of the wonder and grandeur that which cannot be spoken is as real for him in his grandfather’s corn crib, with the sunlight coming through the cracks in the wall to light the floor and highlight the dust particles floating in the air, as it is in Chartres Cathedral. “Thin places” can be any place, but they are not every place, and we have to be alert to them, available to them, or we are likely to pass through them unseeing and unknowing, unaware of the mystery that is within our reach, yet exceeds our grasp. In the times and places when and where we are most alive in this world, we sense the presence of another world, and life takes on a spiritual dimension it did not have a few minutes before, a few feet away.
The physical world is the world we can see, and count, and weigh, and measure. It is a world of quantities. The spiritual world is the world where qualities like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, goodness, gentleness, grace, mercy, and beauty predominate. When we encounter the spiritual world, we experience a wonderful, peaceful, okay-ness which seems to flow from, and lead to, a profound sense of oneness with all things. A unity of being and being-with is perceived as the foundation of reality. When we experience the wonder of life, it is not just “my” life, but OUR LIFE, it is Life Is One, that we experience.
And then, the vision fades or disappears in an instant, and we find ourselves back in this world of space and time. But the memory lingers, and we strive to make sense of things, to explain it to ourselves and others. And, we may come up with “God.” And the further removed from the experience we are, as we talk about it, the more words begin to substitute for the experience, and the more “lost in abstraction” we become, until we find ourselves saying words about words, and arguing about words, and fighting about words, about whose words are the right words, and the unifying experience of oneness of being and being-with becomes a source of hostility and division, hatred and war.
God is a word we use for what we don’t know, for more than we can say. We experience the numinous, the ephemeral, and say, “God.” And, believe we have said something. And, act as though we have said something. We would be better served if, instead of “God,” we said, “Wow!”
Once we say, “God,” we add insult to injury by saying what “God” is, and isn’t. We conjure up a theology—we actually talk about “the nature of God.” We create doctrines and creeds and catechisms. We no sooner say, “God,” than we find ourselves awash in a sea of abstractions. And we go to war over whose abstractions are the True Abstractions, over whose way of thinking about God is The Way To Think About God. All because, in the beginning, we said, “God,” instead of “Wow!”
And so, we might make a rule about words: No words! Just seeing, just knowing, just being. No talking! Guidance into God might be as simple as: Present yourself to a scene, a place of beauty and wonder, and empty yourself of all thoughts, desires, concepts, ideas, beliefs, and opinions. Open yourself to the wonder of being, to the beauty of the moment, and silently wait to see what opens itself to you.