The Four Pillars (10/17/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The passage you heard read from the lectern this morning is from the Book of Jeremiah, and involves a covenant. A covenant is an agreement. University Congregational Church is a covenantal church, as opposed to a creedal church. Most churches are creedal churches, meaning they define themselves by certain creeds—certain beliefs—that differentiate them from other denominations.
Church history is filled with lots of confessional statements. There is the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, to name some of the more famous creeds and confessions. Because we are a covenantal church, we choose to live by an agreement instead of a specific confession of faith. Our agreement—our covenant—is written on our bulletin, and says: In the love of truth, and in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ, we join with one another to worship and to live so that peace, justice and brotherhood may prevail in the world. There is nothing in that covenant that tells a person what they should believe about the Christian faith. It is a simple, and powerful, agreement to live and worship in the spirit of truth.
The Old Testament has several covenants that are agreements between God and human beings. One of the first covenants is found in the story of Noah, when Noah obeys God and agrees to build the ark. After the flood, Noah builds an dedicates an altar to God, and God says, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
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The two most important covenants for the Jews are the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant, agreements God makes with Abraham and Moses. The Abrahamic Covenant is God’s promise to Abraham, in exchange for Abraham’s strong faith, to make a great nation of his descendents, and to give them a land to live in—Israel. That is why Jews call Israel the Promised Land.
The Mosaic Covenant—the agreement between God and Moses—had some conditions. God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, and makes an agreement to watch over the Hebrew people… provided they follow the commandments. Years later, when the fledgling nation of Israel was being overrun by the Egyptians, and Syrians, and Babylonians, the Hebrew prophets explained those tragedies by saying the people had broken the covenant—they had not obeyed the commandments—and hence God was punishing them by allowing those outside powers to conquer them.
And then we have the covenant in today’s passage, as God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah and says, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they will be my people.”
Is God’s law written on our hearts? And what are we talking about when we talk about our heart? One thing is certain. When the Bible talks about a heart, it doesn’t have much to do with that amazing muscle that pumps blood through our bodies. Jesus spent no small amount of time talking about people’s hearts. Consider some of these sayings of Jesus:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart.
And it may be that the words of Jesus from the 15th chapter of Matthew give us the greatest insight into what Jesus means when he talks about the human heart. Jesus says, What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.
Our words come from the heart. Jesus also says in Matthew 15 that evil intentions come out of the heart! So this heart—this is not something all good. It is something at the very center of who and what we are that drives us. The heart we speak of is different than the mind. Our words may appear to come from our minds, but how do those thoughts develop in the first place. What makes one person think to himself, “I will spend the morning at church,” and another person think to himself, “I will spend the morning devising a con to separate some elderly folks at the nursing home from some of their money.” Whatever that invisible, indefinable, mysterious inner force is that directs our lives—that is our heart.
In today’s passage from Jeremiah, the claim is simple. The claim is that God’s law is written on our hearts. The claim is that if we dig deep enough; if we look beyond the horizons we pretend are the limits of our vision; if we are willing to knock down the walls of excuses we have built in order to justify the way we live our lives almost exclusively for our own benefit; if we can push past all of those things and arrive at our heart, we will discover God’s truth. Human beings have been given a gift almost beyond our ability to comprehend it. If we really want to—if we truly desire to have the knowledge—we can know the difference between right and wrong.
I believe that. I believe that with all my… well, with all my heart. And the reason I believe that is personal experience. And I think most people who dedicate some part of their lives to prayer have had this experience. There are those moments—very rare moments—when through prayer God allows us a glimpse beyond our selfish nature, and we experienced what the universe looks like when the selfishness of our own vision has been lifted. I haven’t been able to hold that vision for long, because I soon recognize it is not in my best interest to do so. Jesus maintained that outlook throughout his life, and look where it got him—hanging from a cross while his friends ran away and his enemies laughed and spit at him.
But that rare experience—that momentary glimpse into the heart—is the centerpiece of my faith. It is the strongest pillar of my faith. And that brings us to the title of this sermon: The Four Pillars. The Christian faith is built on four pillars. The way each individual Christian views these four pillars—the weight a person places on each of the four pillars—determines his or her approach to the faith. My personal faith journey has led me to place a lot of weight on the experience pillar. The notion that God’s law is written on our hearts, and that we can access and experience God’s truth within ourselves—that is the cornerstone of my faith.
But that is not enough. What if experience was the only pillar of the Christian faith? There are somewhere around two billion Christians in this world. If personal experience was the only pillar of our faith, I suppose we would have two billion forms of Christianity. Fortunately, our faith is built on four pillars. Those pillars are scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.
We’ve spent some time on the “experience” pillar, so let’s take a look at the other three. The final class seminarians take when working on their Master of Divinity degree is systematic theology. In that class one must attempt to state, as precisely as possible, exactly what one believes about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, the Bible, the condition of humanity, and the nature of the Christian life. And one must identify the reasons for one’s beliefs. This is where the four pillars come into play. And there is one pillar that most seminarians, and most seminary professors, believe holds more theological weight than any of the others: scripture.
The Bible. One of the driving forces behind the Protestant Reformation was called solo scriptura, meaning scripture alone. Through the Middle Ages the church insisted that the Vulgate was the proper Bible. The Vulgate was the Latin version of the Bible. And this was handy for the priests, since they were the only ones who could read Latin. If you wanted to know what the Bible said, you asked your priest.
The church was pretty serious about this, and the penalty for translating the Bible into a language that people could actually read was death. But at the heart of the Protestant Christian tradition is the idea that the Bible is the first and primary pillar of the faith. Anything that claims to be Christian truth must be weighed against the Bible. It is thought to be the Word of God.
Now, I’ll be honest. When I see the way the Bible has been twisted and turned for any number of less-than-noble causes, there are times I almost wish we had left the thing in Latin. Do we want to justify slavery? No problem. The Apostle Paul says, quote, “Slaves, Obey your masters.” End of discussion. Do we want to justify the discrimination against women? Easily done! “Wives, graciously submit to the will of your husband.” Once again, the Apostle Paul providing biblical authority for abhorrent behavior.
But I have finally come to the conclusion that our problem isn’t that we take the Bible too seriously. The problem is we don’t take the Bible serious enough. We don’t take it serious enough to look beneath the surface and really study it. We would rather treat it superstitiously—as the miraculous handwriting of God, infallible and pure, never to be questioned—than we would treat it as what it actually is: a wonderful collection of books written by human beings who were inspired by God.
When we understand what it actually is, Paul’s words take on new meaning. Paul was certain that the end of the world was coming at any moment. He was not concerned about the unfairness of the existing social order. He wanted people to get right with God—now! Slaves should not rebel, women should not complain, because as Paul states in Galatians, “In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, slave nor master.” Get your soul right with God. Don’t worry about this present injustice—it is soon to disappear.
Now, our Congregational forebears thought a lot of the Bible. And they considered it a living document. When the Pilgrims were preparing to set sail for the new world aboard the Mayflower, their religious leader, John Robinson, said these words: I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.
Those men and their families hoped to found a society where there would be liberty for them to follow the Lord in the things that had been revealed to their hearts and understanding. John Robinson and the Pilgrims believed strongly in the Bible, but Robinson spoke out against those who thought human beings could not use their minds and their hearts to dig new truths out of the Bible.
And that leads us to another pillar of the faith: reason. I think this is the missing element in the faith of fundamentalists—Christian, Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists. Each religion has its book—its scripture. Jews have the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, Christians add the New Testament to the Jewish scriptures, and the Muslims have the Koran. And each group points to their book and claims it is the ultimate and unchallengeable authority.
Gee, that won’t cause any problems, will it? Reason is an essential ingredient to religion. Of course, since this church claims to be a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith, I would have those positive feelings about reason. But irrational devotion to the scriptures of one’s faith is dangerous, especially when every religion has lots of competing political factions willing to interpret their scriptures in ways that benefit their personal agendas. If we are going to read the Bible, we had better do so with fully functioning brains.
Scripture and reason—those two pillars form a powerful combination. But there is another pillar that served as the primary pillar of the church for most of its history: tradition. Tradition, simply put, is the historic teachings of the church. When the church of the Middle Ages fought against the Bible being translated into languages other than Latin, it was because the church had a tradition of interpreting the Bible in a certain way. And even today, the largest branch of Christianity—Roman Catholicism—continues to consider the authority of the church in the world—the tradition of Christianity—to be the most important pillar of the Christian faith.
And we turn away from church history at our own peril, but this is one of those areas where I am a Congregationalist through and through. Power corrupts, and whether we speak of church or state, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Unity is important, and something to be desired. I pray the day will come when Christians of every stripe will be unified in their devotion to Jesus Christ, and their willingness to try to live out their lives by following the teachings of Jesus. But uniformity is not something to be desired. It is good that we have all these variations of the faith. It keeps us honest. It keeps any one tradition, including our Congregational tradition, from claiming it has arrived at the ultimate truth for all Christians.
And so, those are the four pillars of the Christian faith. Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. What makes Christian denominations different, primarily, is the way they view the importance of each pillar. Catholics place most of the weight on the tradition pillar—the church. Baptists place most of the weight on the scripture pillar—the Bible. Charismatics place most of the weight on the experience pillar—the direct experience of the Holy Spirit.
But we need all four of those pillars. In this place we each get to choose which ones hold the most weight, but if we try to build a faith and leave any one of them completely out of the picture, we end up with a religion that is out of balance.
And what are we building, really, when we build our faith? Where is this structure, this four-pillared temple we call faith? Isn’t that structure, in reality, our life itself? Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians that our lives are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone that holds it all together. Paul tells us that it is in Jesus that the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple—a dwelling place for God.
God lives in here. And God lives in each and every person here this morning. So we should be careful about how we construct our faith. We don’t want our temples to be missing any pillars; after all, we’re building the place where God resides. It’s an amazing thought! With the living of our lives we are building the place where God resides.
May the carpenter from Nazareth teach us all to be master craftsmen.