I Herby Resolve…(12/28/03)
Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
You have probably read the title of this morning’s sermon—I hereby resolve—and assumed I am going to talk about New Year’s resolutions. That’s a common subject over the final week of the year. The most serious New Year’s resolutions begin with that phrase—I hereby resolve. It just doesn’t mean all that much to make a New Year’s resolution that you don’t share with others, or that you tell only to you spouse or best friend. They know you well enough to understand you’re going to break it within a few days anyway, and love you enough not to care.
But when you put it in writing—when you get out pen and paper and state as officially as possible, “I hereby resolve to quit smoking with the arrival of the new year,” and sign it with your most legible John Henry, then it’s clear you mean business.
But I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions, because I made one of those “official” I herby resolve resolutions many years ago. After having managed to make resolutions with the arrival of each new year, and having succeeded in breaking each and every one of them within days, if not within hours, I got out the pen and paper and made one final resolution, which read, “I hereby resolve to never again make another New Year’s resolution.” I’m thrilled to say that, over the years, I have succeeded in keeping that one.
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Now, it’s not that I think I have become a perfected being. It’s not that I don’t believe there are a few thousand areas in my life that have plenty of room for improvement. I just got tired of breaking promises to myself. Like most people, I feel more obliged to keep promises to other people than I do to keep promises to myself. And promising yourself to change—that’s a tall order. I mean, we are who we are. We act like we do, and we do the things we do, because…well, that’s just us—that’s who we are.
To think we need to change—that would mean we think there is something wrong with us. And here’s where the theological rubber meets the road. According to every religion in the world, there is something wrong with us. Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism say the problem is ignorance; and Western religions, such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam say the problem is sin; but they all agree that things aren’t going exactly according to the way God wants. There is something wrong, and that something has to do with us.
Now, I’m not going to launch into some televangelist scare tactic by summoning up my best stained glass southern accent and shouting, “You’re all a bunch if vile sinners,” and then tell you that your condition is easily overcome, if you send enough cash to my ministry. Make that check out to Jesus Saves and So Do I Ministries Incorporated.
And I have real problems with some of the thinking that came out of the Reformation. By and large, Calvin and Luther had some wonderful insights, but I just can’t go along with the idea that we human beings are “totally depraved.” I can’t go along with the idea that everything inside of us is evil with the exception of the Spirit of Christ.
I think we’re basically good. I believe there’s something wrong with us, and that we fall considerably short of the glory of God. But I believe the fallen goodness in us is healed—restored—when we let the Spirit of Christ into our lives.
And I honestly believe that is what Christianity is all about. It is about allowing the Spirit of Christ to enter our lives. Of course, the question is obvious: how do we do that? What does it mean to say, I want the Spirit of Christ in my life?
I find it frustrating that so much of the church regards this as some sort of mechanical, legalistic process. It is sort of like a New Year’s resolution that is irrevocable. You say the right things—you claim belief in the proper ideas—and it’s a done deal. You’ve got Jesus for the rest of your life. You don’t have to actually change—you just have to give an intellectual assent to some ideas.
Modern fundamentalism spells things out quite clearly for the would-be Christian. Typically, there are five or six ideas that one has to claim to believe, and it is the belief in those ideas that makes a person a Christian. Those ideas are: that Jesus was born of a virgin; that Jesus performed miracles; that Jesus was physically raised from the dead; that Jesus will come again to judge those who have not accepted the proper beliefs; and that the Bible is infallible and literally true in all respects.
If you accept each of those ideas, then the Spirit of Christ is in your life, and you will go to heaven. If you fail to believe in any one of those ideas, you are among those who Jesus will damn when he returns. I have no problem with people who accept these ideas as true—people who have been raised to believe that is what Christianity is all about. They are going to church, and trying to lead faithful lives. I do have a problem with the preachers and theologians who teach those people that fundamentalism is the only way to approach the Christian faith.
And the reason is simple. I know a lot of wonderful Christians who do not believe each and every one of those fundamental teachings. In fact, there are some of the so-called fundamentals—such as the notion that the Bible is infallible and literally true—that fly so directly in the face of reason, and so contradict the obvious truth, that they basically tell people they have to believe things that are obviously not true in order to be a Christian.
I think the real power of the Christian faith—the real power of the Spirit of Christ—is found in the fact that most of these people who have been provided with a distorted image of what Christianity is all about still manage to live beautiful, faithful lives. But it seems to me that they live these great lives not because they believe in all of the fundamentals, but in spite of the fact they believe in all of the fundamentals.
So what does it mean to let the Spirit of Christ into our lives if it has nothing to do with giving an intellectual assent to a series of ideas? If Christianity isn’t about believing the right things, then what is it about? This is an important question, and the best place to look for clues regarding the answer is the Bible—specifically the New Testament. Of course, the New Testament contains two basic types of writings. The four gospels tell us about the life of Jesus. The other 23 books tell us about the people of the early church who were trying to understand what Jesus was all about.
Another way of looking at it is to say the gospels tell us about Jesus of Nazareth, and the other books tell us about the Christ of our faith. By the way, those of you who have been around this place for a while know that the Gospel of John is not so much about the historical Jesus as it is about the Christ of faith, and that most scholars tell us that only Matthew, Mark and Luke are really concerned with the facts of Jesus life. But that is a subject for another time.
When we look at the gospels to find out about what it means to have the Spirit of Christ in our lives, we have to assume that it is not so much a mystical thing as it is a way of life. In the gospels—in Matthew Mark and Luke—Jesus talks in parables. He tells stories. And while those stories make us think, they are very much grounded in the real world. They deal with everyday life in the everyday world. Jesus doesn’t tell us to run off to some distant mountaintop and spend our days in silent communion with Eternal God. He tells us to get our hands dirty. Feed the poor; clothe the naked; visit the sick; love even your enemies.
For Jesus, life in this world is all about life in this world. It’s not about the future kingdom; it’s about the kingdom of God that is all around us. And while Jesus believed we live on after we pass beyond our years in this world, he didn’t spend much time talking about that fact. Actually, he told us there was something after this life; that it is different from life in this world; and that he was going to prepare a place for us. But that’s about all he had to say on the subject. And in the judgment stories from the gospels, Jesus never indicates that what a person believes has anything to do with their fate beyond this world. It all boils down to how you lived in this world.
So if we were to go by the evidence we find in the gospel stories, I think we could say that the way to have the Spirit of Christ in our lives is to follow Jesus—not to believe certain ideas about Jesus, but to follow him—to live the type of life he demonstrated for us. And if we live life in that manner, we can certainly say we have the Spirit of Christ in our lives.
But what about those other New Testament books? They do indeed talk about the Risen Christ, and believing in the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the world, and of accepting the Spirit of Christ into our lives in spiritual way. These writings are more mystical than the gospel stories. They ask us to open our hearts, and to open our minds, to the possibility that there is much more to Jesus of Nazareth than them man who walked the earth two thousand years ago.
I think it is of great significance that the early Christians were not called “Christians.” They were called “Followers of the Way.” The Way. We don’t hear an explanation for this in the Bible—only that the movement was called The Way. Another thing we know from reading historical documents outside of the Bible is that these followers of The Way confused a lot of people. And people were confused not so much by what they believed, but by how they lived. They loved each other. They took care of each other. They were, to put it in the purest and simplest terms, good people. They weren’t called The Belief. They were called The Way. And they were identified not by what they believed, but by a way of life.
Some people insist that Christianity is all about a mystical relationship with God—with Christ. And there is certainly a powerful mystical side to Christianity. But turning once again to the Bible, we see what that mystical side is all about. Colossians is considered one of the more mystical books of the New Testament. It doesn’t mention anything about the life of Jesus. It is all about the supremacy of Christ, and new life in Christ, and the fullness of life in Christ.
One of the reasons it is considered such a mystical masterpiece is the way it talks about being raised with Christ. In most books of the Bible, being raised with Christ is something that happens after a person dies. But not in Colossians! Colossians is the Zen Buddhist book of the New Testament! It says that we have already been raised. When we open our hearts to Jesus, Jesus really does come into our lives. Jesus heals us. Jesus makes us a new person—the person God wanted us to be in the first place.
Colossians tells us what we must do when we resolve to allow Jesus into our lives. I’ll quote the passage: Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). You must get rid of…anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. You have stripped off the old self…and have clothed yourself in the new self, which is being renewed…in the image of its creator.
That is a powerful image—the image of clothing ourselves in the image of God. It sounds so mystical, so surreal, so unattainable. What is this image of God? How can we “clothe ourselves” in such an image? Ironically, by acting like those people who approach the faith with a less mystical bent. We don’t clothe ourselves in the image of God by acting pious, or holy, or by putting bumper stickers on our cars telling people to get saved, or by loudly praying before meals in public places.
Listen to Colossians. Listen to what it means to clothe ourselves in the image of God: Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience…Forgive each other…Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony…And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.
I love that passage. As a person who seeks a deep spiritual relationship with Christ, it makes me recognize that what really matters is the way we live. I have not really accepted the Spirit of Christ into my life if I wrap myself inside my devotion and live life in a self-centered spiritual daze.
So as we look at the modern spectrum of Christians, it seems to me we can probably place them in two broad categories. First, there are the social Christians. These are people who do not have a particularly mystical bent, but who are sincere Christians because they live their lives according to the teachings of Jesus. Second, there are the mystical Christians. These are the people who have a deep and heartfelt relationship God, and that mystical relationship is revealed in the way they live their lives in the world.
The fact is, if a person’s faith doesn’t result in some concrete good for others; if a person’s faith doesn’t result in the world being a more loving place; then it is hard to imagine how that person can be called a Christian. It’s not so much about what a person believes as it is about how a person lives.
This doesn’t mean we should all quit our jobs and become missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa. Remember, those early Christians were identified not by what they believed, and not by what they did for a living; they were identified by what good people they were. They were good doctors, and lawyers, and merchants, and craftsmen—they didn’t change what they did for a living when they let the Spirit of Christ in their lives. They just started doing what they did with love.
And that is why I believe all the people of this amazing congregation are Christians, even though our belief systems cover the entire spectrum of the Christian faith. Because it’s not about what we believe. It’s about the way our differing beliefs combine to make this world a better and more loving place. And from the most pragmatic and scientific among us, to the most idealistic and mystical, I see Christ within—and at work—in each and every one of us.
And so, I herby resolve…to watch with joy and thanksgiving as that presence grows within and among us.