What It Means to be Christian, Part 1: Faith is a Journey Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (July 5, 2015) I’ve been thinking a lot for the last week and half about the journey we have been on as a nation. The United States was founded with rhetoric glorifying freedom, equality, and opportunity. Those are lofty […]
What It Means to be Christian, Part 1: Faith is a Journey
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (July 5, 2015)
I’ve been thinking a lot for the last week and half about the journey we have been on as a nation. The United States was founded with rhetoric glorifying freedom, equality, and opportunity. Those are lofty goals and well worth being lifted up as national values and ideals. However, living into those goals, those values has been a process, and the process isn’t over yet. It may never be over.
We don’t need to rehash the internment of Japanese Americans, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement and later segregation of African Americans, the fact that for almost the first hundred years of our nation’s history women couldn’t vote, that to this day there isn’t an Equal Rights Amendment, that In our nation’s history only 1 of our 44 presidents hasn’t been Protestant, only 1 of our 44 presidents hasn’t been Caucasian, and all of our 44 presidents have been men. Or maybe we should rehash those realities, so that we can continue to make improvements, continue living into our vision and values of all people being created equal and treated equally.
The Civil Rights Act, what’s left of the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the end of DOMA, the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the abolition of intrusive Sodomy Laws, and the recent court decision making marriage equality the law of the land all show that when we work together, caring about one another, we can peacefully make positive change happen. We can not only say, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal,” but we can live as if we really believe it.
Our country has been on a journey, but so has the Christian tradition. We may have different definitions of the word “Christian”…let me tell you what I mean when I say Christian. I mean that it is in the name of Jesus that we behold the sacred value in all people, the divine light in all people, and in memory of Jesus we call “whosoever will” to come together to explore the mystery many of us call God, to share community and hope, love and goodwill, and to be partners in the work to heal our world.
“Christian” for us means to try as best we understand to follow Jesus’ example, Jesus the faithful Jewish practitioner, Jesus the friend of Samaritans, Jesus the healer of Canaanites and Roman pagans, Jesus who said of other healers, “if they aren’t working against us, they are actually on our side” (no matter what tradition motivates them to do the healing) – Mark 9.40.
So we are a Christian church where most, but not all, of our members and supporters call themselves Christian. How very Christian of us!
And we are Christians who know that Christianity has always been diverse and has always been evolving. It started out as a counter-cultural, messianic Jewish movement. It grew to include Gentiles, and later became sanctioned and even co-opted by the Roman Imperial government. It went from observing the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night and then also gathering on Sunday mornings for a Love Feast, to, for the most part, simply gathering on Sunday mornings (ignoring the commandment to honor the Jewish Sabbath). Christianity went from meeting in secret in people’s homes and in underground burial sites to having their own publicly displayed meeting houses. Christianity has been on a journey.
Christianity went from having women leaders like Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Lydia (almost certainly a lesbian), to preventing women from having leadership roles, to granting women leadership roles again, but not in every denomination.
1000 years into Christianity the Eastern and Western branches of the faith split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and half a century after that the Protestant reformation took place, and since then more denominational splits and mergers and new denominations and reorganization of denominations have taken place than you can shake a stick at; and, of course, in that great mix included some of the most recent developments within the Christian movement…the founding of the Christian Science church, the New Thought movement, the Latter Day Saints, the Wesleyan revivals, the Azuza Street Revival which gave birth to Pentecostalism, and let us not forget October 6th, 1968, the day Metropolitan Community Churches were made manifest in the world. Christianity has been on a journey.
The first Christian creed was simply, “Jesus is Lord.” That was a subversive statement, proclaiming an illiterate peasant as the lord of the common people over against mighty Lord Caesar. Those three words, “Jesus is Lord,” convey that God is with the least and the lowly, that in God’s kin-dom, the anti-empire, the counter-kingdom, the last are first and the first are last, everyone matters and everyone has sacred value. If a carpenter from the backwater with questionable paternity can be “lord,” then no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.
Originally, Christians read the Jewish bible, or the Greek version of it anyway…well, those elite few who could read, read it. Eventually some churches started using other texts, and within a few hundred years, a “New Testament” was added to the canon of scripture by politically motivated church councils. And we’ve been studying, wrestling with, arguing over, and constantly reinterpreting those texts ever since. Christianity has been on a journey.
And we, as people of faith, have been on a journey, haven’t we? We’ve moved through a variety of religious experiences, moved through doubt, moved through resentment at how religion was often used to control or vilify or diminish us; we’ve moved to a point where religion is our tool of empowerment. We have come to realize that religion is a human invention, a social institution, it is for us to use, not for us to be used by it. We are not religion’s captives; religion is our gift to ourselves to help us form community and ask the big questions and explore the depths of life. We’ve been on a journey. And people on a journey together is what religion is; and people on a journey together, motivated or inspired in some way by Jesus, is what Christianity is.
Christianity isn’t fire insurance. It isn’t about getting God to help us win wars or football games. It isn’t trying to get God to smite the people we don’t like. Christianity is the effort to build community wherein we can love and laugh and even cry together, where we can let our hands be God’s hands, were we can follow Jesus’ example of trying to build a world where everyone has enough food, adequate shelter, medicine for their healing needs, and affirmation of their human dignity. In fact, Christianity is, as are most religious traditions at their best, the religious means to help us create a world where there is, as our nation’s pledge of allegiance says, “liberty and justice for all.”
Jesus was always on a journey. Today, we see Jesus returning home in Mark chapter 6. And notice, those who haven’t been on a journey have gotten stuck. Jesus has grown, had experiences, met people, learned new things. Those who have been stuck in the same old same old don’t even know how to respond to this more worldly, more thoughtful, more experienced Jesus. He still helped some sick folks, but he couldn’t do much with people who weren’t willing to be on a journey. Faith is a journey, and if we aren’t growing, learning, changing our perspectives, broadening our views, then we are probably stuck, not getting much out of faith. We have to keep challenging ourselves to see things in new ways, to experience new thoughts, to have new encounters of grace, new experiences of divine power, new ways of understanding our world and our place in it. We have to stay committed to the journey.
On our journey, there have been setbacks and disappointments. Marriage equality is the law of the land, but same-gender loving people can suffer discrimination in other areas, and sadly, in the name of religion. Some of us have suffered demoralizing and painful verbal attacks by families or former friends. Some of us have been abandoned by families. We’ve had thorns in our flesh, but as Paul discovered, we are discovering that grace is sufficient. Even when there are setbacks, even when there are challenges, even when things are unfair for a while, we can know we are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake, we can know that we each have sacred value and that can never be taken away, we can know that we are as resilient as we are fragile, and we can know that we are building a community that will always build us up; we need never be alone. We know that even when there are thorns, there is also grace and grace is sufficient.
Are you on a journey? I hope so. A journey where you are learning to go to peace instead of to pieces? A journey of self-discovery? A journey of self-acceptance? A journey of celebration? A journey of spiritual growth? A journey to new insights? A journey of forgiving and releasing past offenses so that you can be free and whole today? If you are on a journey, then you are in good company. You are following the example of Jesus, and that is, after all, what it means to be Christian. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
I am on a sacred journey.
And on my journey, grace is sufficient.
Grace equal to every need is blessing me.
I receive it with gratitude.
And so it is.