Monday, June 27, 2016

The new face of Christianity

From the mid-fourth century until the sixteenth century, Baptism defined the Christian faith. An individual's religious and civic identities were indistinguishable. Everyone who resided in a geographic area belonged to the same faith, that is, the same branch of Christianity. This ended with the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on doctrine. The meaning of the word faith shifted from denoting the community's religion to denoting belief in a set of theological ideas. Anglican's version of this approach to faith is the "Articles of Religion," found on pp. 867-876 of the Book of Common Prayer in a section devoted to historical documents.
Christianity is now experiencing another sea change. Pastor and author Brian McLaren has identified three aspects of this change. First, Christians are jettisoning the image of God as judge and embracing an image of God as the renewing Spirit who works for the common good. Second, growing numbers of Christians define faith not in terms of belief but as a life shaped by love. Third, Christians are identifying less with organized religion and more with organizing religion, becoming "spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice, and collaborating with other faiths to ensure a better future for all of us."[1] Collectively, these three shifts align Christians more fully with Paul's guidance in today's lesson from Galatians.[2]
The Christians in the churches in Galatia (part of modern Turkey) were Gentiles. After Paul left Galatia, other Christian leaders arrived.[3] They taught that in order to be Christian, one must obey the 613 commandments of the Torah, found in the first five books of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.[4] People who obeyed those rules pleased God; persons who disobeyed the rules displeased God; they were sinners who fell under God's judgment. The rules governed every aspect of life: when to work, what to eat, how to treat immigrants, regulated the economy, etc.
I meet very few individuals who try to please God by obeying all of the Torah's commandments. Instead, people in general, and Christians in particular, cherish the freedom that is ours in Christ. The God we seek is truly the renewing Spirit and not the Judge. Thus, the Episcopal Church welcomes absolutely everyone because we believe that (1) God created us to be an incredibly diverse species, (2) God expects us to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, and (3) nobody is ever beyond the reach of God's infinite love and healing embrace.
In the eleventh century, the Eastern Churches and Roman Catholic Church split over the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or only from the Father. The version of the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer, and the normative version for western Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, declares that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In recent years, as the Episcopal Church and the Orthodox Churches have drawn closer, some Episcopalians have omitted the phrase "and the Son" from the Nicene Creed.
From the time in seminary when I first learned of this controversy, my response has been, "Who knows or cares? This is a silly debate." No human understands the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Nor was anyone present to observe whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son or just from the Father.
These debates about the origin of the Holy Spirit exemplify the difficulty of establishing a credible foundation for many theological propositions in the twenty-first century. Historical, scientific, and other lenses cast doubt on some doctrines. Globalization, which increased our awareness of the diversity of the world's religions, casts further doubt on overly narrow theological claims. These largely unresolvable difficulties explain the shift from faith as belief to faith as action.
The shift from emphasizing theological beliefs to living a life shaped by love mirrors the shift from law to freedom that Paul described in Galatians. The Jewish law represents a deontological ethic. To connect with God, obey the rules. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – describe a virtue ethic in which a person's behavior is governed by who the person is rather than by a set of rules. Virtue ethicists, from Aristotle onward, have correctly observed that people seldom pause to list and then to weigh applicable rules before acting. Instead, our actions tend to feel more intuitive or automatic. That is, our actions emerge out of unconscious mental processes shaped by our values (or virtues) and are consistent with our habitual way of doing things. Rephrasing that in Paul's language, Christians desiring to act in a Christ-like manner should cultivate, intentionally and habitually, the fruit of the Spirit.
McLaren's third observation, the shift from organized religion to organizing religion, is apparent here at Holy Nativity. We no longer have the full pews, 2100 communicants, or our extensive 1950s organization. Recruiting people to serve on committees and boards can be difficult. Concurrently, persons who now attend Holy Nativity do so because they value the opportunity for spiritual renewal, they want to work at shaping their life in Jesus' image, and they expend considerable time and effort in trying to help others and to care for creation.
A solitary piece of sculpture sits in the grassy area near the side entrance of the magnificent old cathedral in Salisbury, England. The sculpture is the statue of a young woman in flowing black robes who appears to be walking away from the Cathedral and toward visitors. There is no identification with the statue. Visitors who want information about the statue must ask one of the cathedral's docents. They explain that the Walking Madonna's sculptor, Elisabeth Frink, specified that she had to be seen walking away from the cathedral. The church had become too self-serving, Frink said, and her Madonna symbolized the need to carry the message of love to a hurting world.[5]
Seek the living God, the renewing Spirit. Put Jesus' love and not theology at the center of your spirituality. And then join me, and all of God's people in this place, in loving our neighbors near and far. Amen.




[1] Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World's Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (New York: Random House, 2016).
[2] Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
[3] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 18-19.
[4] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

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