Is the Christian faith just for children and just for the child in each of us? Is faith robust enough to bear the weight of mature living? Or is faith just a pretend game of what might make the world right and good if wishful children drew the picture?
The Magi of the Christmas story have always been thought to be the critical thinkers of the Gospel story. Take them away from bathrobe dramas of Christmas and let them speak of the decisions and insights that drew them to Christ from other cultures and nations. What can they teach us about an intellectually rigorous and thoughtful life of faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ?
Some years ago, a physician in the congregation, who happened to sing in the choir, said to me: “You know, I don’t believe all that stuff in the Apostles Creed anymore – if I ever did.” Now, he was talking to me: “When you put the creed into the worship service, I used to stand there without saying anything. But, because I’m in the choir and everyone can see, I have started to mouth the words so nobody will know that I am not saying them along with the rest.” Then, he asked me his question: “Should he mouth the words or just stand there without saying anything? Which is more honest?”
I told him, “It’s not your creed. It is the church’s creed. It is one of many ways that we proclaim and teach this faith in Christ.” You don’t say the creed in church because you agree with every word; you say the creed to let it echo around your soul and sink into the deepest places in your heart. That way, you too will hear and be called to this faith that is greater than your own.
*I am a believer*. When I hear the Apostles Creed, I’m eager to join in the familiar words of the creed. Both the evidence for faith and the mystery around faith feed my soul. I have watched as miracles unfolded: I have seen hope in the face of overwhelming disappointment, I have witnessed generosity from people who gave no clue that such was hidden in their character, and I have been awed by contagious confidence in the face of loss and grief.
Yet, I know that many among us struggle to make sense of this Christian faith, and that others have withdrawn from church because they could not make sense of it.
1. We have spoken over the years of a *leap of faith* which was required when we reach the end of the evidence. For many, that leap is not just one intellectual leap which takes them to a green pasture of confident faith. Instead, religion seems to require of them one leap after another until they are not sure when they last stood on solid ground. Maybe this struggle to make sense of the mystery of faith is yours, too.
2. For others among us, the social battles in this country in which religion has aligned itself with political parties and offered a take-it-or-leave-it position have taken a toll on our faith. A list of such issues includes: abortion, race, creation and politics. You can probably name others.
3. Over the years, we have all been disappointed by some of the highest profile religious leaders in the nation who have proven to have feet of clay and appetites for the very vices they preach against. We who stand as leaders in the church bear a great burden. Like it or not, we are the public face of the church.
4. Illus: Does the Church Matter?
There was a small Midwestern newspaper which ran a story which began this way: “We are pleased to announce that the tornado which blew away the Methodist Church last Friday did no real damage to the town.”
Ouch! Perhaps our failure today is not that we will twist the mind of some vulnerable soul into doing terrible crimes but that we might be irrelevant and without impact (2).
The last twenty years have been difficult ones in which to be a thinking Christian.
[THE QUESTION ABOUT FAITH]
How do we hold onto faith when seemingly every religion has inspired the highest aspirations of the human spirit but also the cruelest punishments of human prejudice?
We are thinking people. How do we hold onto an ancient faith with its reliance on mystery and trust in the unseen when we have become grown ups with the modern, intellectual skills of learned people? This is the question I want us to explore today.
Let’s turn to the Biblical story of the Magi visit. Tradition holds that the Magi, who came to worship at the birth of the Christ, stand as faith examples for modern, thinking people. Tradition sees these Magi as representatives of the most learned of their day. They are not the conveniently handy shepherds, practically driven from the fields by the angels to visit the stable. With all the religions of their own nation and people at their disposal, the Magi left home and safety to follow this star, to worship this child, to honor this King. You might think of them as three professors on a road trip. Three professors, with all the credentials, with all their appointed chairs of learning, left home and university driven to find and worship this Child whose star they had seen in the east.
That they watched the stars and discerned the importance of one certain star is a sign of their learning. Like all non-Jews, who do not have the scriptures, they receive their revelation of God through nature. It is not much, but in their hands, it is enough for them to begin the journey to find the Child.
The stop in Jerusalem to consult the high priests and religious scholars was theologically necessary. Because they do not have the scriptures; they have to ask those who have the Word of God from scripture for the answers that nature cannot provide. The theological point is this: Saving faith does not come merely by observing nature; saving faith comes as we deal with the Word of God in scripture.
POINT: Notice the not-so-subtle correction here for those who claim that they can worship God just as well on a beautiful golf course or at the lake or hiking in the mountains. Like modern magi, we can see a witness to God in the majesty of nature, but nature can only take us part of the way. The full teaching which is required for faith comes only through the Word of God – in scripture, in worship, and in preaching. //
III. The learning of the magi is central to their role in the gospel narrative.
+The magi, because of their learning, saw and realized the importance of the star.
+The magi, because of their resources and place in society, were able to make this trip.
+The magi, because of their cultured ways, were able to move successfully between cultures and peoples that they met along the way.
All of these qualities are important to us and our self-image as well. But the first quality is the one I want us to linger over.
*The magi, because of their learning, saw and realized the importance of the star*. Their learning was a *necessary part* of their faith journey, not a hindrance to be overcome. Too often faith is offered as something outside of the intellectual work we do every day. You know the mind games we play:
+Believe this, but don’t think about it too much.
+Hold onto this idea, but don’t examine it.
+When you have gone as far as science and skill will carry you, it is time to turn to faith.
In contrast to these games, my hope is that we will offer a faith that requires the best intellect we can offer as we seek what it is to live as Christians. Because of their learning, the Magi saw and realized the importance of the star.
IV. Example: Two places where the Christian faith requires us to think deeply:
A. The human tendency is to focus on the problem or opportunities that lie in front of us. “Keep the main thing the main thing,” is the bumper sticker version of this. We specialize in professions; everyone is a specialist. The quantity of information we must master to do any given job is too great for one person to master and know everyone else’s job, too. So, we focus; we specialize. The downside of such specializing is that we focus to the exclusions of other matters that deserve our attention as well. We become . . .
+Single issue voters;
+The singer who only sings one style of music.
+The professor who only wrote one book and hasn’t had an original thought since.
In contrast to such narrow vision, life requires broad vision. We must see the big issues even as we excel in our personal fields of endeavor.
Walking with God teaches us to see the broad range of possibilities that God sees. Whenever we study the scriptures or pray, we realize that God keeps . . .
+seeing all the people and will not narrow the focus to any one nation, category, or race;
+seeing the poor stranger outside our doorways as well as the friends whom we welcome inside.
+hearing the cry of the voiceless for freedom and justice,
+stopping to heed the cry for mercy from the blindman along the road – even as we hurry on to meet our next big project.
To walk with God is to see people and issues broadly as God sees; to walk with God is to hear what we could conveniently skip. And this requires the greatest wisdom we can muster.
V. The second place the Christian faith requires us to think is at the point of sorting out the claims of others who already claim faith. We who stand within the faith must listen critically to the claims of fellow believers.
You see, certitude is not the same as well-informed insight.
[Jacques Ellul] described the posture of faith this way:
Faith is a terribly caustic substance, a burning acid. It puts to the test every element of my life and society; it spares nothing. It leads me inescapably to question my certitudes, all my moralities, beliefs and policies. It forbids me to attach ultimate significance to any expression of human activity. It detaches and delivers me from money and the family, from my job and my knowledge. It’s the surest road to realizing that “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything” (4).
The truth is that every one of us must be a theologian thinking deeply about life and faith and the commitments that shape our lives. A Twitter-based theology will not serve the present age. We must think carefully; we must simply think.
VI. A caution: We cannot make an idol of intellect. The third place Christian faith requires us to think is in setting the balance between intellectual rigor and heartfelt belief. These two must journey together. Intellectual effort alone becomes arid and lacking inspiration. Heartfelt faith without critical reflection grows unwilling to examine its implications. But, together they are a source of joyful strength. At its best, intellectual effort clarifies the claims of heartfelt faith. Heart-faith sends us passionately to the study to comprehend the height and depth and the width of the fullness of God.
Several years ago, while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, Bishop Will Willimon, wrote an article for Good News Magazine with the title: “While I Am (Even Yet) a United Methodist.” His third reason for remaining so speaks to our question today:
Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus Christ. Recently, [Willimon] spent more than an hour with a student who is trying to decide whether or not Christianity is worth believing or only a bunch of superstitious hooey. [He] explicated for him our major beliefs. [He] contrasted this faith with some other faiths. [He] pointed to the centrality of Scripture. Finally, [He] told him, “Look, when it comes down to it, it’s all about Jesus. It’s about being summoned by Christ to work for him and with him in taking back the world for God. The rest of this stuff is ancillary, subsequent, and secondary. It’s about trying to walk with Jesus.”
Among all the things that the infamous “Jesus Seminar” is wrong about, they got this one thing right: it’s about Jesus. Against all vague New Age spirituality, evangelical Christians know that we can’t make Jesus over into anything we want. Against all biblical fundamentalism that would remake the faith into a desiccated system of abstract ideas, we see our job as (in Wesley’s words) “to offer them Christ.”
Jesus never said, “Agree intellectually with me.” He said, “Follow me.” John Wesley’s heart-warming experience at Aldersgate is deep within our Wesleyan imaginations. That teaches us that we are at the heart of this faith when we can say, with Wesley, that “I knew that Jesus had died for my sins, even mine….”
[Willimon concluded his point with this story:] So last Sunday, a student emerged from Duke Chapel saying, “You are such a Methodist!” [He] asked this Midwestern Lutheran what he meant by that. “Lutheran preachers explain things to you. You never explain anything. In your sermons you always go for the gut, always expect the congregation to have some sort of experience, to get intimate with Jesus. That’s so Methodist!”
[Willimon smiled.] Guilty as charged, by the grace of God (3).
2. “Is the Church Important?” Illustrations Unlimited, p. 448
3. Willimon, Will. “Why I am (even yet!) a United Methodist,” Good News Magazine
4. Ellul, Jacques. Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a perilous World, translated by peter Heinegg.