Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
January 22, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Christianity is about believing in Jesus, right? It’s about believing the right things about Jesus, right? Christianity is about believing that Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate who came to earth to die as an atonement for human sin so that we could go to heaven when we die, right? Christianity is about creeds, about complex statements of right belief To be a Christian you have to be able to recite the Apostles’ Creed without mental reservation. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ his Son our Lord” etc etc. We get saved when we say that we believe that Jesus is our personal Lord and Savior. Isn’t that pretty much what we were all taught? That Christianity is about belief, and that belief means taking certain statements about Jesus to be factually true? I know that at least quite a few of us were once that all of those things about what Christianity is.
Whether we see Christianity that way, or ever did, or not, Christianity as belief is certainly the most common way the faith has been understood for a very long time. The foundational document of orthodox Christianity is the Nicene Creed, that formulation of the tenets of the faith composed by bishops in 325 CE under the watchful eye of the Roman Emperor Constantine. That creed, like the Apostles’ Creed before it, says a lot about what we are to believe and essentially nothing about anything else. It talks a lot about who Jesus is, or was, and says nothing about what he did or what he taught. And that’s the foundational document of Christianity. So Christianity must be about believing things about Jesus, right?
Well, certainly Christianity has been mostly about believing things about Jesus for a very long time. That way of thinking about Christianity actually does have Biblical roots. It’s found in the New Testament mostly in the Gospel of John. In John Jesus talks and talks and talks about himself, about who he is, and about how people need to believe that he is who, in John, he says he is. The most famous verse in John, which is I think the most famous verse in the Bible, reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 Christians hold up signs at football games that say John 3:16, so that must be what Christianity is about, right? Indeed, it has been what Christianity has mostly been about for a very long time.
It was not, however, what Christianity was originally about. Those creeds that so many think are what Christianity is about aren’t in the Bible. They were developed long after the life of Jesus, indeed long after that last of what became the New Testament writings were written. The Gospels that were written before John, that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are a whole lot less about believing in Jesus than John is. In them Jesus doesn’t preach himself the way he does in John, he preaches the Kingdom of God. The earliest term for what became Christianity wasn’t The Belief, it was The Way. In Acts, before Paul’s conversion, he gets authority to go to Damascus and to arrest any followers of “the Way.” Acts 9:2 Not the Belief. The Way. Originally Christianity was mostly about following Jesus and only secondarily believing in him. The original Christian belief wasn’t one of the long creeds, it was “Jesus Christ is Lord.” And believing that was supposed to lead people to follow him, not to believe a bunch of obscure stuff about him.
Consider for example our Gospel reading this morning from Mark, the oldest of the Gospels. In that reading Jesus is just beginning his public ministry, and he is putting together his ministry team, as we would call it today. He is calling his first disciples. He walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and sees some men fishing. He calls to them. Look at what he says and what he does not say. Does he say “believe in me?” Does he say “believe a bunch of obscure stuff about me?” No. He says none of that. Rather he says: “Follow me.” It’s practically the first thing he says in the oldest of the Gospels. It’s first thing Mark reports him saying to any specific people. In these words of Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry we see that original Christianity was about following Jesus, not about believing in him.
Today there is a large and growing movement afoot in American Christianity to rediscover and to reclaim the faith as following Jesus rather than believing in him. We see it in much of the more popular, progressive Christian literature that many of us have read. We see it in Marcus Borg, that ubiquitous popularizer of liberal Christianity. We see it in Robin Meyers, the author who is pastor of a large, progressive UCC church in Oklahoma City with whose work some of us spent some time last fall. Robin’s whole message is: “Stop believing in Jesus and start following him.” I’m currently reading a book by Harvey Cox, a prolific writer and theologian from Harvard, with the title The Future of Faith. Cox’s thesis is that the future of faith lies in reclaiming original Christianity’s emphasis on following Jesus rather than believing creedal things about him. These are just a few examples of a very broad movement in good American theology today. Christians today are rediscovering Christianity as discipleship rather than as mere belief.
OK. So Christianity today is rediscovering what the first Christians knew, that the faith of Jesus Christ is much more about discipleship, about following Jesus, than about belief. Our call is less to believe in Jesus than to follow him, but we have to ask. What does it mean to follow him? That is a big question, certainly not one that we can answer in one short sermon. How we answer that question will vary depending on our individual life experience, where we are on life’s journey (near the beginning or nearing the end), our socio-economic status, and many other factors. There is no one answer that suits all Christians. Still, there are some core principles that must inform any answer to the question of just what it means to follow Jesus. Those principles come from Jesus himself. That is, they come from the core teachings of Jesus that we find in the Gospels, or at least in first three of them, the ones that are about following Jesus more than believing in him. They are the principles of love, compassion, justice, forgiveness, and peace. How these principles apply to each of us in our particular life circumstances is sometimes difficult to discern, but that discernment is our call if we are truly to follow Jesus, not just believe in him.
The movement in Christianity today away from faith as belief and toward faith as discipleship is strong and wide-spread. Harvey Cox, the author I just mentioned, says that it is particularly strong is Latin America, Africa, and Asia, places where Christianity is growing rapidly. In those parts of the world, while Christianity is surely not homogeneous and contains many sometimes conflicting voices, much of the vitality of Christian discipleship is employed in the struggle for justice for the poor. It is not concerned with hierarchy or institutional authority. It tolerates diversity of opinion—or at least some of its manifestations do. It is unconcerned with uniformity of ritual or liturgy. Cox says it is much more like the early Christian communities of the first three centuries of the Christian movement than it is like what Christianity became after it was established as the religion of empire in the fourth century.
And this is all very exciting. Nonetheless, I need to add a caveat. I remain convinced that how we think about Jesus and about God is more important, is more foundational, than do many of the authors in whose work I have read about this global shift from belief to discipleship. After all, how we believe about God and about Jesus is going to shape what sort of discipleship we are going to follow. As Elizabeth Johnson, the great Catholic feminist theologian, so powerfully says, the God symbol functions. It makes a difference how we see God. So I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as I fear people like Robin Meyers sometimes do, and give up concern with the content of our beliefs altogether. How we believe still matters.
How we believe matters, but here’s what I think is true in this movement from belief to discipleship in contemporary Christianity. To paraphrase a famous line from the Letter of James, belief without works is dead. Belief without works doesn’t change the world, and Jesus calls us to change the world. Jesus said to those first disciples that we heard about in our Gospel reading this morning, follow me, not believe in me. Early Christianity, before it was corrupted and debased by empire, was more a way of life than a belief system. It has been more a way of life than a belief system for many of the saints of faith—Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and so many others. Our call today is to rediscover Christianity as a way of life. Our call is to rediscover Christian discipleship, to rediscover what it means for us to follow Jesus. Jesus says “Follow me.” Are we ready, like those first disciples, to do it? Amen.