Rev. Richard Chrisman
Nov. 17, 2019
Our theme is belief—the creed—this morning. The word “creed” comes from “credo” in Latin, meaning, I believe. You will be hearing in the first passage from Paul a creed he quotes from a hymn, one of the earliest. In the second passage, from the Gospel of John, you will hear a personal statement of belief in its most concise form.
Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts give wings to the faith in you that lies so deep within each of us here this morning, my Strength and my Redeemer.
I. My Complaint A couple of Sundays ago, I proposed in this space that churches throw out the concept of church membership. You probably started wondering who you had called as Interim Minister.
Today I propose that we dispense with belief. Now you’re sure there has been some mistake in the hiring process!
But, yes, I wish we could dispense with the whole idea of “belief,” belief as received. It is a nuisance concept to get around on account of misunderstandings about what beliefs are, distortions in the definitions of beliefs, and abuse of creeds in the church practice over two millennia.
Here, very quickly, is the problem. You are familiar with the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian), the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran), the Thirty-nine Articles (Anglican), etc. But behind these contemporary usages, there lies a lethal history when the creed functioned as a kind of loyalty test in the era of Christianity’s drive for religious hegemony. The creed was the litmus test of faith—it determined whether one was in or out of the community, for or against Christ. The community expectation was uniformity of belief. Assent now, understand later (if ever).
Worst of all, the hidden presupposition was that believing could be a willed act, that belief could be subject to individual command, that a creed could be imposed upon the soul.
That is just contrary to our basic human experience. Take a saying like, “I believe in you.”—which can’t be willed. Or, “I believe in the almighty dollar” Or, “I believe in a good education.” Or for that matter, “I believe in Eliot Church.” None of these statements can arise anywhere but from a voluntary expression of the heart.
“Belief” is a plastic word—more like silly putty, which takes on various shapes and postures—grow and shrink, evolve and even regress during certain stages of life.
II. The Remedy I give you this morning a man who lived in the early part of the 20th century, and who had a white mane of unmanageable hair, a big white moustache, dressed in a rumpled short sleeved dress shirt with a bowtie, standing by a makeshift barracks converted into a clinic, by a big muddy river in Africa. Can you picture him?
It could only be Albert Schweitzer. He spent fifty years (off and on) in Lambarene (Gabon in West Africa) where he took his young wife Helena in 1915. This he did after a career as a world-class organist. During the Africa years, he traveled extensively to raise money for his hospital by giving organ recitals. In the course of his healing ministry, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1955. All this he did after having published in 1905 what was to become a landmark work of biblical study that is still read and studied today: The Quest for the Historical Jesus. S had a theological doctorate and considered being a Lutheran preacher while teaching at Lausanne, France. Yet he wrote a book of as yet unsurpassed scholarship—and imagination.
Yes, I hold up his work for you this morning as a testament to the imagination. The prime religious faculty is the imagination. What is the imagination? The imagination conceives a coherent whole made from many disconnected parts.
This is what Schweitzer (and all the biblical critics, for that matter) does with the Jesus of scripture—has made a coherent whole of Jesus for himself out of the fragments of the gospel record, that is, to imagine him. Schweitzer fashioned a Jesus of his own, and not somebody else’s.
To do this, in his case, was to reconstruct what can be reliably known about Jesus from the gospel texts and corroborating history. Schweitzer was the original of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. What he produced, of course, was a work of advanced scholarly erudition, but without the imaginative faculty, it would have been nothing. And he wasn’t the first.
Besides his own imaginative reconstruction of Jesus, Schweitzer goes on to chronicle the works of other writers in the 19th century who also attempt their own reconstructions, some 20 such. He devoted entire chapters to “Imaginative Lives of Jesus.” Some of these imaginings are historically based, but many are not, being works of “fiction” that portray the Jesus that emerged for each of them from the New Testament. Each reached into the gospel story and extracted a Jesus of his own, and not somebody else’s.
Schweitzer ends his book with a beautiful paragraph stating the most basic existential reality for all who read the NT.
“Jesus comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “follow me!” and set us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple [scholars or church members], Jesus will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”
The task for Schweitzer was to extricate his own Jesus from the gospel texts. His tools were scholarly, but his method was imaginative.
Now I give you another figure, this one from literary history, from about the same period. This man comes from the English intelligentsia, a boy genius who gained great erudition as a classics student at Oxford in the 1870’s. By his own description, he was a high flying hedonist and sensualist, also a homosexual in a time when it was seriously illegal. This man wrote some famous novels and plays, among them The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Ernest. His name is Oscar Wilde, and he was a wild man indeed, both in his social carousing and in his almost athletic participation in the intellectual and artistic debates of late 19th century England.
This unconventional, nominally Anglican, self-proclaimed agnostic wrote a wholly unexpected testament to Jesus and he wrote it—in prison. Oscar Wilde got into a public fracas with his society which led to his suing the father of his spoiled, aristocratic boyfriend for libel. This backfired and resulted in his being counter-charged with homosexual acts. He was tried publicly with disastrous effects to his reputation, then convicted and was sentenced to two years of hard labor.
While in prison, he wrote a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, this very young dandy who had been Wilde’s lover. This letter contains the confession of a very different kind of love affair, if you will, a genuine one with Jesus whom he re-imagined out of the depths of his remorse and suffering in prison.
For Wilde, Jesus was the Man of Sorrows, because “sorrow and all that it teaches me, is my new world.” He goes on--
There is still something to me almost incredible in the idea of a young Galilean peasant imagining that he could bear on his own shoulders the burden of the entire world: all that has been already done and suffered, and all that was yet to be done and suffered: the sins of Nero, of Caesar Borgia, of Alexander Vi, and of him who was Emperor of Rome and Priest of the Sun; the sufferings of those whose name is Legion and whose dwelling is among the tombs, oppressed nationalities, factory children, thieves, people in prison, outcasts, those who are dumb under oppression and whose silence is heard only of God: and not merely imagining this but actually achieving it, so that at the present moment all who come in contact with his personality, even though they may neither bow to his altar nor kneel before his priest, yet somehow find that the ugliness of their sins is taken away and the beauty of their sorrow revealed to them.
All this came to Wilde as he worked out his two-year prison sentence. Pain and suffering are not a virtue, nor do they lead to virtue. They are not to be sought, or wished upon anybody. But if they are your fate, if you can meet them with Christ, they will yield a clarification of yourself.
But does it take going to PRISON?? My life as a minister never entailed that kind of suffering, of course, and yet I know what Wilde meant by the simple self-development, spiritually and morally, which comes from bringing your struggles under the light of Christ. But it takes having a Jesus of your own, and not somebody else’s.
With only the tools of memory and imagination, Oscar Wilde was able to shape his own image of Jesus, and not somebody else’s.
How are you doing?
III. Your Prescription It’s up to participants in Christian communities to sort out for themselves who God is and who Jesus is and what they have to do with each other. Do you have a Jesus of your own, or somebody else’s? Jesus is yours to imagine –and believe in.
And have you ever been given permission before to sort that out? I am giving it to you now. Let Eliot Church be the church of exploration, or discovery, of imagination-imagining Jesus for yourself.
Not everything that can be said about Christ has been said. It doesn’t have to be said by the ordained, the trained, the scholar, the sanctified, the blessed or the beatified. It can and must be said also by you—or God is not glorified. You must take your place among the thousands and thousands of angels who sing before the Lamb.
Here are some things you can do at home—I give you part I today, the part you can do privately, and I will give you Part II during Advent when I will speak about the part we can do as a church through our Sunday School, adult education, program and worship:
Look out the window, not your front window.
5 minutes a day for one week, let’s say.
Have the Bible open beside you, but not read it, though.
Have some paper handy.
Put down Jesus’ name (have you ever written it?)
And see what comes to your mind.
Whatever happens has led to your meeting Jesus as he emerges from the pages of the Bible using your memory and the imagination. It is like a prayer—it is prayer. But more, it will be an experience of salvation. It will produce a moment, perhaps like the one experienced by the early Christian community which spontaneously, through the activity of the Holy Spirit, imagined a Jesus of the cosmos and came to believe in him.
And so, too, you will be among those whom Jesus referred to, when speaking to Thomas, as having believed without seeing.
Just take a lesson this morning from Schweitzer and Wilde who in their very different ways, as they walked very different paths, imagined Jesus for themselves.
You can too, I believe. Because, I believe in you.
--Richard Chrisman, 11/17/2019