This morning, I’d like to ask you to think about something a long time ago—perhaps as far back in your memory to your childhood—of what you thought about God. And in your idea—it was in mine—that beyond the sky and the stars, beyond all that we could see or imagine, was a place called heaven. We might have thought of heaven as a perfect place—a geographic place where God lived.
Next, try, for a moment to think about what God looked like in this picture of yours. Perhaps you thought of God as an old man with a long white beard, sitting on a magnificent throne, and maybe there were throngs of angels all around. And on either side of this huge, impressive throne were two smaller thrones. Jesus was sitting in one of them (at least according to the Bible Jesus sits at the right hand of God) but perhaps the other throne was empty, or maybe you had the idea that the Holy Spirit sat on that side. And from this throne-like empire all kinds of decisions about the world were made—even decisions about you—what you were going to look like, how smart you would be, what the pathway would be for your life, whom you would marry (because after all, it’s said that marriages are made in heaven) and, even, how your daily life would work out?
Does this fantasy picture have any resonance with you? More importantly—even secretly and privately—does it at all seem like the picture you have today—even now?
Every year or so for more years than I can now remember, I have preached a series of sermons during Lent—you know, sermons that build on each other—and this year I want to discuss the topic of God—at least I want to investigate the concept of God with you from an understanding of the Christian faith. I want to quickly add that others may understand God the same way I do—or see God quite differently than I do—that’s what makes Episcopalians an interesting bunch of folks. But, simply, I’d like to concentrate on this question of God and see where we go.
Over the years I have thought a lot about this topic of God, and years ago when I was recovering from some surgery with a bunch of Vicodin, I had a lot of other sermons topics in mind—in fact they were glorious sermons—but since I am no longer on drugs, you may have to just put up with this “easy” topic of God.
If we are asked to talk about God today in the context of what we should believe and what the road to belief is all about, then we have to face up to the reality that in our time, there are a whole lot of opinions about God. There are scholars who make a lifetime of studying concepts of God. I have read the book, The History of God by the noted author Karen Armstrong a number of years ago and she presents some very pointed arguments about how we need in our time to reassess the reality of God—not the existence —but the reality at least in the way we talk about and how we view the images of God as we have known them for centuries.
It seems to me that there is only one decisive reason for believing in God, namely the reason that God is. The only satisfactory reason for believing in God must be because in the last analysis, the attitude, the commitment and the context of believing is a response to what is there, to what is given. And the basic question is whether believing in God is a response to the One who is, to Truth as it is given, and to Reality as it exists in our world.
When I was in seminary—more years now than I can almost remember—we were encouraged to ‘rediscover’ the church of the first century. And periodically over all the years in Episcopal seminaries, and probably a whole lot of other seminaries, the church has attempted, to rediscover that first century.
What we discovered back in the 1960’s was an inviting parallel between our world and the world of the first century. There was a vividness to that time and our timeas presented in the New Testament—to the people, to our choices and problems—to the aimless and opaque difficulties of the world in both the 1st century and ours—and it seemed that all of this fit into a scheme of things that we could understand. The idea was if the world of the writer of the New Testament could explain and illuminate our world, then we could identify the things that needed to be changed—that needed to be different in the world—and we could then understand the pain of the times and how the church in our time could point to a new future and new vision.
That discovery, so many years ago, had a great catalytic value for me and even though I recognized the need to qualify those values, still it precipitated and crystallized an understanding for a whole generation of my seminary colleagues and gave to us a perspective within which we could place and see the mission of the church in our time.
The world of the first century had a certain “feel” about it; and much about the true nature and mission of Christianity was clearer and sharper against the nature of those earliest believers. We learned to examine the Gospel against that background.
But there were ways in which we were misled as well. Just as those early Christians had to be defensive of their beliefs with the Jews and Romans, so we have become defensive in our beliefs. Many of our liberal and conservative arguments, many of our disagreements about the interpretation of scripture, can be attributed to how we view that first century church—how that early church understood God and how it proclaimed who Jesus was, and how we were to go about convincing others of our present faith experience. In our time we see this acted out when religious pride is mistaken for Christianity, or when personal eccentricities try to mask themselves as “a return to the real or the authentic gospel.”
So let’s begin with an important point that we need to agree on: we live in a time where there are many questions about God and about Christianity. The most important thing that differentiates us from the first century is that we live in a time in which the Gospel is not nearly as clear as we would like it to be or as the New Testament pictures it. In our time (religiously is what I am talking about) our enemies have turned out to be friends; old allies have become people we no longer trust; ancient issues suddenly seem to be of little importance; we have forgotten, all too often, what we are to be about; new causes and new programs have deflected and interrupted us. These are the peculiar problems of Christianity in our world today.
A pressing question then faces us: “How do we believe and what do we believe?” And “what does it mean to believe?” There are so many different ways in which people get to know God and it isn’t possible to say that one way is necessarily better than another. But I want to suggest what I think are four ways that seem to me to be helpful.
The first is the study of human beings. There is a strong case for saying that in whatever way we study human beings we always find that in the end we need one more dimension in order to do justice to all that’s involved in human life and experience. And that dimension has to be something greater than you and me.
The second area of believing is what we might call the “exploration of commitment”. We need to ask the question “who rules my life?” Might it make sense, somehow, to learn and experience the One who rules our lives –and I mean here that it is God?
These two questions bring us to a third—in what way is it possible to be led and sustained in believing because we participate in a believing community—a church congregation-- that practices their beliefs? And here we’re thinking about how we share in the response to worship and prayer—often times dimly and fleetingly—but what can our response to belief in God be when we worship and when we pray?
Finally, I think we can move from being a community of believers to being one more source for belief in God. And this source is Jesus. The man from Nazareth who unquestionably lived and unquestionably was a person for God. Jesus is a given in history—whether it’s religious or secular history—and the pattern of his living has to be considered when we are looking for belief in God.
To believe in God is to be committed to an ever-open exploration, to be open to the possibility of being able to meet a never-ending human demand. In fact, to believe in God is to know that we are called to enter everlasting and infinite possibilities.
But to keep you from feeling that we have opened Pandora’s Box and then haven’t come up with any specifics, I’d like you to try something over this coming week.
Remember back to what I said at the beginning of this message—what is your earliest recollection of God. This week I would like to have you consider two questions:
“what do I believe about God now?”
“given what I now believe, has it made any difference in my life as I presently live that life”?