Ask the Pastor

Acts 11:19-26
June 23, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

This past year in book group, we read a book called “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” and each week as we went through three or four chapters, Sally Hopkins would try to find a unifying theme between the works covered in those chapters.  Sometimes it was easy to see how each work wrestled with a similar philosophical issue — the problem of suffering, for example — but other weeks Sally had to admit she couldn’t find any theme that bound those works together.

I felt a little like Sally this week.  For my “Ask the Pastor” sermon, I invited people to send me their biblical and theological questions and I worked hard to find a unifying theme in those questions; I even momentarily thought I had discovered one until some additional emails arrived that threw a wrench into the neat outline I was developing!  Consequently, we will all have to cope with a sermon that skips around a bit as I address the issues you raised, though at the end, I will still try to pull this all together with one profound insight or at least a perhaps not-so-profound conclusion.

Let’s begin then, with a question that goes back to the beginning of things.  Someone asked me to explain the story of the Tower of Babel saying that the story has always bothered her because, “God sounds like a little kid trying to cause trouble by mixing up the languages.”  For those unfamiliar with this story found in Genesis, the story teller tells us that originally everyone spoke one language but when people decided to build a tower up to heaven, God became worried that the people were getting a little too full of themselves thinking that they could be equal to God, and so God confused their tongues; suddenly no one spoke the same language.  They were so dumbfounded by this change of circumstance that they had to abandon their project.  The story of the Tower of Babel is found in a collection of stories at the beginning of Genesis which I call “teaching stories:” these stories are not to be read as historical fact but were told by the ancient Hebrews to teach their listeners about our relationships to one another, to the natural world, and to God.  In the story of the Tower of Babel, the Bible is warning about the dangers of the human ego and the temptation for us to think of ourselves as god-like.  Though the people in the story believe that they are capable of reaching heaven, God demonstrates just how flawed and weak human beings are compared to God.  

“Look you silly children,” God in effect says, “You are not even strong enough to overcome the smallest obstacle between you like speaking different languages.”  The human beings in this story are like the little child who struts around saying, “No one can tell me what to do,” while God is the parent who calmly walks over, picks up that arrogant child, and deposits him in the time out chair.  The child’s swagger is revealed to be empty bluster in the face of true authority.  The Tower of Babel story is thousands of years old and yet its teaching lesson remains surprisingly relevant today: in the 21st century, we have space stations orbiting the earth, we can split the atom, and shoot messages across the internet in the blink of an eye, but we still can’t figure out a way to get along with those neighbors who insist on putting umlauts over their o’s.  We make the mistake of believing our intellectual and technological prowess makes us equal to the gods while in reality we are still only weak messed up human beings who are felled by the simplest of differences between us.  

A second question asked me to describe what was going on in Israel during the time of the prophets that caused Isaiah to write words such as those we find in today’s Responsive Reading assuring the people that God’s purposes will be fulfilled and God will lead the people to peace.  This obviously implies of course that when Isaiah was active, the people were not at peace and God appeared to be missing in action, and this is not the only passage in the books of the prophets that point to a tumultuous time in Israel’s faith.  What was going on for them?  

This question allows me to geek out for a minute on Biblical history, my first love.  The prophets were active during one of the pivotal moments of Israel’s history and before I talk about their times, I want to back up and set the stage.  There are in the Hebrew scriptures — our Old Testament — three foundational events that formed and continue to inform the identity of the Jewish people.  If you learn nothing else about the Old Testament, you should learn about these three events because they affected how the Jews came to understand themselves and how they thought about God, and ultimately these events thus also affected the self-understanding of the Christian church since Jesus and all of the apostles were Jewish.  

The first identity forming event for Judaism, described in the second half of the book of Genesis, was the call of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Sarah lived during the bronze age, nearly 4000 years ago, in Mesopotamia which, as you probably learned in Junior High, was “the cradle of civilization.”  The Bible says that Abraham felt an unknown God calling him to leave his home and travel south with his family to the land of Canaan, which we now call Israel.  Abraham and Sarah obeyed, had many adventures and misadventures along the way, they came to know more about this God who had called them, and their descendants thrived and became, the Bible says, as numerous as the stars.  This is the starting point of Judaism and all Jews feel bound together by this common ancestral heritage.  They see themselves as the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah.  As an aside, Muslims also trace their lineage back to Abraham but to a different mother — to a son given to Abraham by Sarah’s maid servant Hagar which is why Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the Abrahamic faiths.   

The second pivotal event for the Jews occurred around 1200 BCE.  The Bible reports that a famine forced Abraham and Sarah’s great-grandchildren to take refuge in the land of Egypt where eventually they were enslaved by one of the Pharaoh’s.  As you know, God sent Moses to free the people from slavery and Moses led the people through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai, where God gave the Hebrew people a set of laws by which to govern themselves as a nation.  This is the second pivotal event because now, instead of being only an ethnic group bound together by a common ancestry, the Hebrews become now a people also bound together by religious and political law.  From 1200 BCE all the way up to today, the word Jew can refer to either or both your ethnic identity as a descendant of Abraham and Sarah and to your religious and cultural practice given to your people on Mount Sinai.

Much of what we see in the rest of Hebrew scriptures — our Old Testament — is the tension between those two aspects of Jewish identity.  Once the people of Israel established a monarchy, the ethnic and national identity often took precedence over their religious identity and so we see the prophets constantly calling the kings to task for ignoring the dictates of the Mosaic law.  Historians are often more forgiving of the Israelite rulers than the prophets were, recognizing that the Israelite kings were in a difficult position were trying to rule a tiny nation sandwiched smack dab between several very powerful and violent empires:  Egypt to the south, the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to the north.  Compromising some of their moral scruples may have felt to the Israelite kings like a small price to pay for national survival.  Nevertheless, Israel was ultimately doomed, which led to the third foundational event for the Jews: the Babylonian exile.  In the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar swept in and ransacked the nation of Israel.  He captured its people and hauled them off to live in Babylon exiled from their land and their homes.  (Assyria had already destroyed the northern part of Israel and ten of the 12 tribes about 200 years before.  The Babylonians annihilated what was left of Israel — the southern Kingdom of Judah and the two tribes living there.) Isaiah writes to the people during this dark period of their history and assures them that God has not abandoned them but will help them to once again know peace.  One could argue, in fact, that the Babylonian exile helped make the Jews Jews because without a land or a nation of their own, they had only their religious laws and their customs to forge a sense of community.  As the Buckwalters pointed out last week, sometimes persecution ends up strengthening faith instead of killing it, and certainly when the Jews came out of the exile, they were much more self-consciously people of the Torah than they were going into exile.  Though the Jews were allowed to return home, they were not allowed to re-establish their own government so instead they focused on re-building the Temple and by the time of Jesus, the Temple had become the central focus of the Jewish identity. 

I’ve taken some time to go through this history with you because most of the rest of the questions that were sent have to do with how you answer this basic question:  what makes a Christian a Christian and who gets to decide?  This was the struggle of the early church because those first Christians didn’t intend to start a new religion.  They saw themselves as Jews.  Paul, for example, extols his Jewish pedigree and says that he, more than most, was vigilant in his practice of the Jewish religious law.  As Jews, all of the apostles had once prayed for the coming of the Messiah and they came to believe their prayers had been answered in the ministry and resurrection of Jesus.  Initially, then, the apostles reached out to their fellow Jews trying to convince them that God’s promise to the Jews had been fulfilled, and so the arguments that we see in the pages of our New Testament are “in-house” arguments, similar to the kind of debate we might hear today if a Catholic and a Methodist were to discuss the authority of the Pope.  The Methodist and the Catholic would vehemently disagree about the Pope’s importance and they might even get so impatient and angry with one another that there would be unpleasant name calling, but they would, one would hope at least, both accept the other as Christian.  In the same way, when Paul, or the gospel writers, say nasty things about “the Jews,” we should read it as “those other Jews.”  The Greek can be read that way. (I go into this and the relationship between Christianity and other religions more fully in my Sept 17, 2017 and Oct 9, 2016 sermons.)  When their fellow Jews proved to be less receptive to their preaching about Christ than the Gentiles, the apostles began to carry the gospel beyond Judea inviting non-Jewish people into the church and suddenly things got very messy.  Because Judaism had always been both an ethnic designation and a religious designation, even when Jews disagreed over beliefs, they still knew they were all Jews because of their genealogy.  This is true even today — all of us know men and women who consider themselves Jewish even if they never go to synagogue or even if they don’t believe in God because Jewishness continues to be an ethnic definition as well as a religious one.  When the apostles began inviting Gentiles into the church, however, people came from a variety of cultures and ancestries.  Because the apostles didn’t even require the new Christians to convert to Jewish practices first, it was no longer clear what bound those Christians together in community.  It wasn’t their ancestral lineage; it wasn’t their acceptance of Mosaic law; it wasn’t the Jerusalem Temple; it was only a shared belief in Jesus as the Messiah.  Circumcision, genealogies, and Temples are tangible physical marks of identity, but belief is intangible and apt to shift and open to lots of interpretation.  From the very beginnings of the church, that question:  “What makes a Christian a Christian and who gets to decide?” was the subject of arguments, persecutions, schisms, and even wars.  

So it is that when someone asked me, “Do you have to be baptized to get into heaven?” my answer has to be, “It depends.”  It depends on whether the person you are asking is a Methodist or a Roman Catholic or a Baptist and furthermore whether you are asking that question in the second century or the 17th century or the 21st century.  My answer is no, baptism is not necessary to salvation, because I was raised as a Baptist and I was taught that baptism is simply the public sign of an internal commitment but that God will know the state of your heart with or without the water.  Nevertheless, there are other Christians who would vehemently disagree with me and if I had made such a claim back in the 1600s, I might very well be hauled off to the lake by those other Christians and drowned for such heresy.  As Christians, we don’t share an ethnic heritage; nor a Temple; nor a land; nor an identifying physical mark, so what makes a Christian a Christian and who gets to decide? 

Someone asked, “Why did Martin Luther not like the book of Revelation?”  Luther thought the book of Revelation was a wild book with little of Jesus or the gospel of grace in it.  He debated leaving it out of his German translation of the Bible and frankly, I’ve always wished he had because I think it has been misused badly by some, spawning versions of Christianity that have more brimstone than grace about them.  Luther finally left it in but did leave out a bunch of other books that were found in the Latin Bible and which are still used by the Catholic church today which means that as Christians, we don’t share an ethnic heritage; nor a Temple; nor a land; nor an identifying physical mark, nor even the exact same set of sacred scriptures so what makes a Christian a Christian and who gets to decide?     

And finally someone asked, “What is the difference between a spiritual seeker and a Christian because as Christians aren’t we always supposed to be seeking God?”  I agree that as Christians we should always be seeking God.  We are called to engage in prayer and reflection to try to apprehend the working of God’s Spirit in our lives, to open ourselves to moments when God might speak.  As Christians, like spiritual seekers, we are fully aware that there is much of life and of God that remains a mystery to us, that we will go through times of doubt and change, and that just when we believe we have arrived at a place of peace in our faith, something will happen to throw it into turmoil again.  Whatever a Christian is, any person here who has tried sincerely to live a life of faith will know that being a Christian does not mean having all of the answers nor does it mean that we live in a constant state of elevated enlightenment.  As Christians, we don’t share an ethnic heritage; nor a Temple; nor a land; nor an identifying physical mark, nor a concrete set of sacred scriptures nor an experience of constant enlightenment; so what makes a Christian a Christian and who gets to decide? 

The answer is you – you get to decide.  For the first Christians, the word faith didn’t mean what a person believed; it meant who a person trusted and so for those very first Christians who actually still thought of themselves as Jews, being a Christian simply meant that they had chosen to put their trust in Jesus.  They trusted Jesus to lead them to God and to wholeness, salvation, and peace.  And since that time a lot of religious leaders and theologians have tried to describe exactly what trusting Jesus looks like in a person’s life.  The apostle Paul told you what he thinks trusting Jesus looks like.  And Augustine told you what he thinks trusting Jesus looks like.  And Julian of Norwich told you what she thinks trusting Jesus looked like.  And Martin Luther told you what he thinks trusting Jesus looks like.  And your neighbor next door can tell you what she thinks trusting Jesus looks like.  And I certainly will continue to tell you week after week what I think trusting Jesus looks like.  But ultimately, you cannot escape it; the one who decides what a Christian is; the one who decides what it looks like to trust Jesus in your life is you. And so I want to end this sermon with perhaps the best advice Paul ever gave in his letters which was these words that he wrote to the church at Philippi:

“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”