Acts 19 : 1-10
Here’s Paul in a highly charged missionary situation, arguing for his understanding of faith; the faith inevitably built on the life and insights of Jesus whom he never met in life but whose spirit accompanies and inspires him. He was there in Ephesus for 2 years ‘arguing daily’ with ‘stubborn’ people who wouldn’t see things as he did. There it is again in John’s account of a typical conflict situation as Jesus presents himself to the 12 and the curious crowds who press in on him. ‘We have come to believe’ – say the 12 – ‘that you are the holy One of God’.
But not everyone did. Both events point to the truth, that where there is belief there is argument.
There has been a continuing struggle within the Christian tradition to define what it is that we believe. The great councils of the second and third centuries were devoted to summarising faith in words – in creeds. Partly due to the influence of the traditions of imperial Rome with its emphasis on order and partly in defiance of the eastern and Greek love of happy disorder, and always in an effort to keep the great ship of Church from getting broken on the rocks, it was seen to be essential for beliefs to be certain and clear. So clear that in the end people were expected to stand up and, according to what the fathers ( never the mothers ) of the Church had decided, to say plainly and bold ‘I believe’.
We do it in our hymns every Sunday, and at the Eucharist in the very words of those ancient formulae of faith. Except that now, if we make reservations, no one threatens to kill us which is what once happened as a matter of routine. The stories of burning, beheading, flogging dissenters will remain as a shameful scar on the Church’s inheritance.
I was reminded of this as I reflected on the number of times in recent years, political leaders have said ‘ we are doing this because we believe it is right’- or that new mantra ‘ we are doing this in the national interest’. It is as if the strength of personal belief is enough. It doesn’t have to be argued for. It is unassailable and people who may not share the belief are silenced not by the argument which may or may not undergird it, but by the very statement itself. Politicians of conviction, I suggest, can be exceedingly dangerous and may do nothing to encourage the democratic process.
A good response to the national leader who says ‘ this is what I believe’ could be, ‘why?’ But even should you ask it, it is probable that no answer will be given other than a repeated and passionate response that ‘I am doing this because I believe it to be right’
Authoritarian religion of any faith can be the same. And if doubts are expressed, such leaders end the possibility of discussion and conversation, by saying ‘I know this is true because of my own Christian experience – what’s happened to me must happen to everyone’. Personal experience is so important, but expecting everyone to have it as you have it is puts you on a pedestal and negates the ability of God to enter people’s hearts in a way that makes sense to them. Or they acknowledge that any others who may not share their belief, in the end will be proved wrong.
How it all began
Of course – to use again the analogy of the church as a ship on the sea – there never was a ship but loads of them; all sailing more or less in the same direction but all sailing from different ports. The various books of the N.T. were written for and from different early Christina communities. To change the analogy, nothing can be grown without soil, and the plants that grow in different places are affected in shape and size by the earth beneath them and the climate surrounding them. For the first 150 to 200 years there never was an official Christian faith and tidy-minded people like Paul and those who followed and were influenced by him spent much of the time trying to do something about it. ‘The Church’ in those first centuries was very much like a modern political party – a collection of people with similar objectives but dissimilar views on how to achieve them.
And then came the Emperor Constantine and belief was associated with – dictated to you – by law. To be a citizen was to be Christian or you would be in trouble. Argument – which can be the oxygen of religion – was over. ‘Believe as the state tells you to believe or you will be in trouble’. Very different to how we might describe our belief today. I was present at the induction of Bath’s new U.R.C. ministers last October. In a formal statement of faith there were these splendid words : ‘We believe that Christ gives his Church a government distinct from the government of the state. In the things that affect obedience to God, the Church is not subordinate to the state but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ its only Ruler and head. Civil authorities are called to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind.’
How about us as a church?.
How do we join the debate that Paul started? If we are today guardians of belief, what are we holding on to and protecting? Each of us, but all of us together as well. ‘ I go to the Horizon Church’ we might say and the response could be ‘what do that lot of Christians believe’? ‘Are you like the Bath Church at the Forum or the Moravians or the Catholics at St.John’s or the U.R.C. at Rise Hill or the Quakers in town?
I can’t answer for you but it seems to me that we might answer by saying we are a liberal church, that is we are not absolutely certain about everything, we have room for dissent and we have different priorities, each of us have our own version of the basic story, we want to share our faith but we want to do so in such a way that it can be gently received. We don’t want to throw it at people like a weapon. Together we hold aloft our banner of faith as members of Horizon, but the things that unite us would be simple and straightforward. We can’t ignore the doctrines but it’s the cleaving event of history – the coming of Jesus – that matters most and about which each of us makes our own personal response.
Some of us may have come to faith through the burning conviction of a friend or a member of our family or an evangelical campaign – there are people who still trace their belief back to the days when Billy Graham was a major influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Others, almost accidently –drifted into a culture of belief without perhaps examining it too closely. All of us have our faith pilgrimage with its ups and downs, and its plateau of calm and joy sustaining us through the years. All of us perhaps are uncomfortable about the presence amongst us of other beliefs, notably Islam which for some of its adherents is so single-minded as to make peace between our two religions difficult and leaves us with many questions about our own. And for some of us there is a latent fear –we don’t want to talk about belief too much in case what we have we might lose. ‘I don’t know how to explain my faith but I am a believer’ someone once said to me.
So, how about you as you?…..
Faith begins with the intimation of something more than ourselves, the sense of wonder and awe at the immensity of things. We want to identify the source of all that wonder in words, but finding the right ones is the challenge, so right that we have him alive and always more than the words. There’s that key phrase in John’s gospel. The word became flesh. I see it like this. First there is this intimation of something more than ourselves. It is natural – not supernatural – for people to be aware of a presence beyond themselves. That’s how we are. Otherwise the human condition would be one of intense loneliness. For Christians that religious instinct has drawn us to an event – the birth.life, death,. resurrection of Jesus. The event – lost in time –is continually rediscovered by the story we have woven around it– we recite it, we remember it, we are bathed in its truth every time we meet together as church, we want to be known by it. The story is part of the way in which we identify ourselves. We explore it; the story has become our own story. Because we are rational, because the fathers of the faith (never the mothers who might have been more sensible, more aware of feeling) wanted to make it all neat and tidy, wanted everyone to think and believe the same, the story was turned into doctrine. And for me – though of course I understand why it happened, that’s where the trouble began for I believe the story matters more than the doctrine.
This is how one man – the philosopher Terry Eagelton sees the story.
‘Jesus…appears to do no work and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts .careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. Though he was no revolutionary in the modern sense of the term, he has something of the lifestyle of one. He sounds like a cross between a hippie and a guerrilla fighter. He respects the Sabbath not because it means going to church but because it represents a temporary escape from the burden of labour. The Sabbath is about resting not religion.’…
I find that a good summary but it ends where we would want to continue – the sensational heart of the story of this non-conformist travelling teacher is that he stands with God, God stands with him and the ultimate statement of faith: there is an infinite, eternal connection between the two!
It’s something – a good start – but it is never enough to say’ I believe’. Nor I suggest is it enough to assume that we have reached where we want to be. Faith is fluent, affected by all sorts of influences and experiences open to possibilities. It’s an ongoing story. How do you see it, how do you tell it at this moment in your life, how are you part of it?