27 October 2013

Beyond Belief

Reformation Wall, Geneva
2 Corinthians 5:16-6:10

A Sermon for Reformation Sunday

27th October 2013

First “Hilltop” Presbyterian Church, 
Mendham, NJ

Sola scriptura.  Sola gratia.  Sola fide. Solus Christus.  Soli Deo gloria. These are known as the Five Solae, five Latin phrases that together sum up the core theological vision of the Protestant Reformation.  Scripture alone.  Grace alone.  Faith alone.  Christ alone.  Glory to God alone.  They’re the pillars of the Reformation.  They’re not found in one particular text, but represent the broad theological tenets that emerged throughout the Church’s Reformation in the early sixteenth century.  Each one is a counter claim, a rejection of prevailing theological views of the Roman Catholic Church at the time.  Scripture alone has authority, not tradition.  Grace, faith, alone, not works righteousness.  Christ, not the Pope.  God’s glory, not the glory of the Church or the glory of humanity.  These were the beliefs that rocked the Church in the early 1500s, which split the Church, which unleashed a movement of reform that the Church had never witnessed before or since.

            Today, as Presbyterians, as a people reformed, we are heirs of this movement.  When on the 31st October 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, Martin Luther (1483-1536) posted ninety-five reasons why the Church should not be involved in the sale of indulgences he never dreamed we would be remembering him these many years later. Indulgences were basically certificates one could buy to release a loved one from the confines of purgatory. One of the indulgence sellers, Johann Tetzel (1465-1519) even came up with a little jingle:  “When the coin in the copper rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  The proceeds were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When Luther protested the sale of indulgences, he didn’t anticipate that centuries later we would be honoring his act of conscience.  Hence, on this Reformation Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 31st October, Protestants around the world celebrate today, we remember the reformers, such as: Luther in Germany, Jean Cauvin (1509-1564) in Geneva, Ülrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1574) in Zurich, John Knox (c.1514-1572) in St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland—we remember their passion, their commitment, their courage, their love for the gospel and need to reform the church.

            Whenever I’m back in St. Andrews (which, as many of you know, is, thankfully, often) I always walk past the ruins of the bishop’s castle and the entrance to St. Salvator’s, the university chapel.  If you look down in the road outside the castle and in the sidewalk near the chapel, you’ll find the initials of the men who in the 1500s were burned at the stake for their beliefs, at that location, martyred for their reforming spirit.  One of my favorite places in St. Andrews is the hill situated along the North Sea where the Martyrs Monument stands. Inscribed there are the names of the reformers who died for their faith in St. Andrews.  (When I was there in June I was happy to see that the base of the monument was recently restored.)  I often think of them, what they experienced, consider their courage, their dedication to the gospel, their commitment to these beliefs—sola scriptura, sola gatia, sola fide, solus Christos, soli Deo gloria—could I, would I do the same? Would you? Could you?

            In four years, 2017, we will witness the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  Almost five hundred years on, the spirit of reform is still moving through the world, particularly in China and many nations in Africa.  The Protestant movement is still moving. But, to be honest, in the West, it’s losing steam.  I’ve been to Geneva, twice, the city of Calvin.  The Protestant ethos is there in the people, but the churches are empty.  Iain Torrance, former president of Princeton Seminary, former moderator of the Church of Scotland, and now professor at New College, Edinburgh, recently commented that Reformed Christianity (the heirs of Calvin) has lost its way. We have lost our vision.

            For several years now I’ve felt that something is seriously wrong with the Reformed tradition.  It’s been difficult to put a finger on it.  It’s more a sense, an intuition that something is missing.  Personally, I’ve come to feel that Christianity is in trouble.  Yes, there are healthy and vibrant churches around.  I give thanks to God for churches such as Hilltop and the Catonsville church that I serve, and so many others, churches that are vital, engaged, alive.  I don’t want to be pessimistic or negative, but you need to know this isn’t the norm.  So many churches are struggling to survive, plagued by conflict (just ask the presbytery executive or the chair of the Committee on Ministry), pastors are burning out, seminaries are struggling as enrollment continues to decline. 

            The associate pastor at the Catonsville Church just returned from a visit to London.  She spent a day visiting Oxford and showed me a photo of a sign situated at the entrance to the chapel of Christ Church College.  It reads: “What is the church?”  The sign provides a description of Christian worship and beliefs.  Now, you don’t have to explain what a church is if people already know, you don’t have to explain what goes on in church if people are going to church, if they’re part of a church.  The sign is itself a symbol, a symbol that points to the deeper, pervasive reality that the church is becoming (has already become?) a relic from another time. 

I’m not trying to be negative or pessimistic. Believe me, I wish the opposite were true.  What we need, though, is a healthy dose of realism. So what do we do?  We can celebrate our past, I guess.  We can commemorate the Reformation, reaffirm our beliefs—teach our children well—remember what makes us Protestants. 

There was a time when I thought knowing what we believe and why was enough. There was a time when I thought getting the ideas right, getting the theology right was the cure for what ails the Church.  After twenty-three years of ministry, I’m not so sure.  Don’t get me wrong, ideas matter, theology matters.  But there’s a lot of loopy theology out there in the Church these days.  What I’ve come to know is this:  Tending belief is high-maintenance.  Beliefs require verification, right? And defense, right? And proof, right? And argument. And then they require protection, right?  We have to defend them.  Welcome to the belligerent world of beliefs!  What I’ve found in the belligerent world of beliefs is that very often these beliefs have little to do with the reality of God. Instead we’re often dealing with are embattled egos, beliefs as extensions of frightened egos, beliefs used as weapons by frightened egos against people who appear threatening.  All of this has absolutely nothing to do with the gospel.

The world has grown tired of beliefs.  The world knows the costly price of dogmatic assertions and fundamentalisms of every kind.  And the world has lost faith, is losing faith, in what the Church believes because the Church has failed to really embody it—incarnate it, enflesh it—in its practice.

I, too, have grown tired of beliefs.  Sounds odd coming from a preacher, right?  For those who know me well, this might sound very odd coming from me.

The first Jesus followers did not have a “belief system.” Jesus called people to follow him, which meant more than believing in him, more than simply confessing certain theological ideas about him, and certainly more than attempting an anemic ethical do-goodism (which often passes as “Christian” these days). The first followers of Christ had an experience of the holy, an encounter with the divine, and they participated in the power and grace and intensity of God’s Spirit unleashed upon the world in a new way, gospeling creation in the flesh, in a person, in Jesus Christ, calling humanity to embark, like him, on a heroic journey of divine dimensions and cosmic proportions. That was the Apostle Paul’s experience too.  Whatever Paul came to believe about Christ was first experienced in and with and through Christ and what he continued to experience through the Spirit.

These are rich, theological claims we find in 2 Corinthians.  This is Paul as his finest, with soaring rhetoric and sublime theology.  “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:17-19).

Now we can dissect this text, isolating all the theological claims, the beliefs of the church: new creation, reconciliation, ministry.  We can go deeper and say something about God’s relationship with Christ, Christ’s relationship with God, something about the doctrine of atonement, how God dealt with sin.  Implied here, too, is Paul’s understanding of the cross, salvation, resurrection.  All of this (and more!) is going on in 5:16-21.  We can “mine” these verses for their theological claims, come up with a list of what one might believe about the faith.  But all of this misses the point.  It misses what’s behind these claims, what’s behind the text, which is Paul’s own life-experience, what he came to know through his own encounter with the Risen Christ.  And this encounter didn’t happen once but again and again, it was ongoing.  Hear again verse 21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Did you hear that?  “…that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  And now listen again to 6:1, “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.”  Did you hear that?    “...As we work together with him, we urge you …not to accept the grace of God in vain.” And then Paul continues to talk about the nature of his ministry, a ministry, a life that flows from an experience of God’s grace, not from trust in ideas or beliefs.  The ministry does not consist of defending ideas or beliefs, but a ministry urged on by the love of Christ.  It’s a life, a ministry that is, right now, participating in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Participating in Christ enabled Paul, led Paul to encounter, to undergo “great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger: by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:4-7).  And I should note that “knowledge” here is not “theoretical understanding of theological propositions” but a deep, personal awareness of what Paul is being called to do.[1]

The Reformed tradition has never been comfortable with personal experience. We prefer our rational, theological systems; we prefer to think our way to faith.  We are a people of creeds and confessions.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for all of these. So please don’t call out the Church Heresy Police on me.  But if beliefs hinder us from actually experiencing the grace we says, as Protestants, actually saves, then something is missing, something is terribly, seriously wrong.  Even Calvin, known for his methodical, systematic thinking, developed as his personal symbol the image of an upturned hand, an open palm holding a heart with a flame above it: a heart set on fire offered up to God, “Promptly and Sincerely.”[2]  Even Calvin, Mr. Cerebral Theologian that he was, knew that unless the gospel is inwardly digested, made real in hearts, as well as minds, then the gospel is distant from us and far away.  It needs to penetrate the psyche, become part of who we are, shape how we see the world; it needs to be embodied in our lives.  Without this our theological beliefs are just crafty cerebrations that do little to transform our lives. And if our lives aren’t transformed, if we ourselves aren’t reforming and always being reformed by the Spirit of God, then how on earth can we be expected to help reform the world?

That’s why these days I’m reading less theology and more psychology, specifically the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung (1875-1961). He has a lot to offer the contemporary Church; he has a lot to say about how we view Christian experience.  Jung was truly one of the seminal geniuses of the twentieth century. The reason why I think he has a lot to teach us is because he himself was a child of the manse.  His father was a Reformed pastor. Carl came from a long line of Reformed pastors and professors.  Carl learned the catechism from his father; he read widely from his father’s library, he was confirmed in the church. But when he first joined the church, when he first partook of Communion, it was a lifeless experience, both for him and seemingly everyone else sitting around him.  Jung knew that his father lost the zeal of his faith.  His father knew the creeds, knew the beliefs of the church, regurgitated them in sermons week after week, but they didn’t touch the depths of his soul. Carl, himself, had profound religious experiences as a child.  He always had a fire in his belly for the divine.  Jung eventually collaborated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the emerging field of psychoanalysis, but in the end it was the question of religion, the experience of the holy, the numinous, that led to their break.  Freud wanted nothing to do with religion (he saw it as a source of neurosis); for Jung, the psyche was and is essentially religious.[3]

The last thirty years of Jung’s life were spent exploring the psychological aspects of Christianity.  And he was very critical of theologians.  Jung knew then, in the 1930s, that the church was in trouble; he knew that Christianity was in trouble.  So he approached Christianity as if it were a patient in need of therapy, in need of healing.[4] He wanted to help heal the church, heal Christianity, because he saw it as the best hope for humanity.  And he wanted to help heal the Protestant soul, which he knew was sick in Europe, especially after the Second World War.  The Protestant soul is still in need of deep healing.

In a famous interview with the BBC in 1959, Jung was asked, “Dr. Jung, do you believe in God.”  After pausing for a moment, he said, “I don’t believe.  I know.”[5]  I know—knowledge rooted in experience.  Jung said, “The Churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of its adherents are no longer based on their own inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.”[6]  This is why Jung insisted that “Christian civilization has proved hollow to a terrifying degree: it is all veneer, but the inner man has remained untouched and therefore unchanged.  His soul is out of key with his external beliefs;….”[7]  The strongest indictment of Christianity was the fact that so-called “Christian” Europe tore itself apart, and the world with it, in not one but two cataclysmic world wars. “Christian education has done all that is humanly possible,” Jung wrote, “but it has not been enough.  Too few people have experienced the divine image as the innermost possession of their own souls.  Christ only meets them from without, never from within the soul.”[8] 

Jung wrote, “The advocates of Christianity squander their energies in the mere preservation of what had come down to them, with no thought of building on their house and making it roomier.”[9]  Jung is right. The church of Jesus Christ is not a museum, preserving the past.  We’re called to reform, reformed by the Spirit who is calling us to a new day.  We need to become roomier, to build new homes for the human spirit to thrive in.  We’re not called to preserve the past or live in the past. Christ is alive. Christ is at work within us, now. 

It’s in the soul, in the heart, in the core of our being where the reformation of God’s love and grace must be experienced in radically new ways, in order for it to be seen in the world, in order for the world to be reformed all for the glory of God. “In Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Reformed and always being reformed.  When we experience the ongoing reformation of God’s grace—not just believe in it, but know it, feel it, experience it—then the Church will really have something profound and meaningful and relevant to offer the world again.  May it be so. Amen.






[1] Ernest Best, Second Corinthians-Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1987), 61.
[2] Calvin’s personal motto was: “I offer my heart to thee O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” (Cor Meum Tibi Offero Domine Prompte Et Sincere).
[3]  See Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Aniela Jaffé, editor (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).
[4] See Murray Stein, Jung’s Treatment of Christianity: The Psychotherapy of a Religious Tradition (Chiron Publications, 1986).
[5] The 1959 BBC interview on “Face to Face,” may be viewed here.
[6] C. G. Jung, “The Undiscovered Self (Present and Future),” CW 10, cited in Anthony Storr, ed., The Essential Jung:  Selected Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 366.
[7] C. G. Jung, “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,” Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, cited in Storr, 261.
[8]  C. G. Jung, cited in Storr, 261.
[9] C. G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, CW 9, II, par. 170 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 109.

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