“The Spirit of Truth”
Ephesians 3:14-21 ; John 16:12-15
This sermons concludes a month of looking at the decline of mainline churches and denominations and what we can do about it. Your thoughts and comments would be most helpful to me as I continue to work on my research and book. Even (especially!) if you disagree! Just tell me why as best as you can. Use the “comments” link at the bottom.
What you need to understand this sermon is the Sermon Guide, which you can click on here: Sermon guide It gives you my 8 theses for adjusting the church’s message.
We experimented with a five-minute pew discussion in groups after the sermon. It sounded great! Look for my next post discussing the notes from this session. Thanks to all who participated; please continue the conversation using “comments” below!
We’ve spent four weeks looking at the decline of mainline Christian denominations, including our own United Church of Christ, over the last 50 years. We looked at it from three very different angles, each of them biblical. The first angle offered a strong and clear response: we are doing some good ministry and work as a church and should persevere in it, and if anything, we should confront more assertively the outside forces that have been chipping away at us. The second angle was also clear and strong, but exactly the opposite: we have failed to be a faithful church; instead we have become a clubby, conformist church that has little compelling to say to newcomers or our own youth. We should repent our lukewarm commitment and embrace a serious faith that is worth coming to church for.
Now, although there is truth in both of these first two pictures, I tend to think that I had it most right last week. Many of our problems, so I said, originate in the good things about our way of being mainline Christian churches: our intellectual openness, our progressivism, and our pluralism. But because of our weakness in the face of the great challenges to being faithful in our day, these good qualities end up working against us. The response is not to continue just as we are, nor become a different church. Instead, we need to live into being mainline Christians in a revised, more nimble way. I have some fairly straightforward proposals about how to do this, but I’ll save those for the end.
Because the real and total cause of the problems from last week—our problems with authority, with politics, and with asserting our faith—runs very deep. The factors that make us turn a right and good way of being Christian into something kind of lame and, O, namby-pamby, are deeply engrained in us and not easily changed, although I do think we need to try. What I think needs to happen in the long run is fundamental change in the way we think, and the way we pursue truth for ourselves. In fact, I tried to make this whole month-long series into an example of a better way to pursue the truth than our normal way. Let me explain.
When we hear talk about problems and solutions today, we usually either get some TED-talk guru who thinks he has all the answers: he’ll confidently tell you the one cause of the problem and the one solution. That makes it all seem so clear and easy, and we feel like with just a minimum of effort, we can understand something and fix it. Or: we watch the pairs of pundits on one of the many crossfire TV shows who very colorfully lay out what are supposed to be “both sides of the issue.” As if every single matter of importance just happens to have the same number of “sides” as we have political parties. And of course most of us already know which side we are going to agree with. So we’re not really getting a broader perspective on the truth from our “fair and balanced” TV pundits.
Whether it’s the TED-talk guru or the left/right pundits, the appeal is the same: laziness of mind. Our media culture is playing on our natural tendency to settle for the simplest solution. We want something easy to grasp that doesn’t challenge us, but makes us feel like ‘we really get it. Now we know the score.’ Well, for most things, we don’t. The world is increasingly complicated. Truth is rarely easy and simple. But the easiest way for the media to make money is serve up click bate, and we like this intellectual fast food.
Why are we hungry for cheap fare? I think we are frightened by all the diversity out there. No truth seems self-evident and reliable, because there’s always someone or some group who believes something very different. And there’s no authority that everyone recognizes and can agree upon. It makes sense that we hunger for the taste of cheap calories that make us feel satisfied, make us feel like we are grasping something reliable and useful, something that gives us power. So we didn’t exactly choose to have lazy minds. We were seduced into it by those who stand to make money or acquire power. Our fate was sealed once we made truth into a commodity, a consumer good./ This whole mess is typical for the way sin works. No one chooses all by himself to be a sinner. But we are still responsible for it, because we can acknowledge and resist it. (For instance: Remember that chart on media bias? It’s posted in the fellowship hall. You don’t have to watch badly biased news. But we like how it tastes.)
I’ve tried to give you a different way to approach the truth in this series on mainline decline. I didn’t play the TED talk guru, boiling everything down to one cause and one cure. Nor did I pretend that there are two familiar sides: a liberal view and a conservative view. Instead, drawing on many different studies, we looked at three different ways to tell the story of mainline decline; each one was biblical, and each called for a distinct response. And I hope it has been a richer and truer presentation of our problem than the kind of stuff you get on TV or Facebook.
Because of all this information fast food, we have lost patience for profound but difficult truths. That’s a problem, because the great truths of Christianity are profound but difficult. Take the Trinity, or the traditional doctrine of Jesus: fully human, fully divine. If we can’t get these truths in five minutes, we’re done and conclude there mustn’t be anything there worthwhile anyway. We like having our right to an opinion, and things that we can’t easily grasp annoy us.
How do we break this cycle? Actually, this one is pretty simple. For at the center of our life as a church is God, and we all should realize that we can’t grasp God. God is never click bate. We never fully understand God. Belief in God should teach us to be humble about the truth, not so that we give up on the truth, but so that we are always searching and hungry for what is higher and better.
Jesus told his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” It’s not as though his disciples knew nothing. But when God is revealed to us, we are given an identity and a purpose and a way forward, but we are not satisfied or filled. We are filled only with a desire for more and more. The revelation we have received will continue to unfold. So Jesus tells us, You must wait for the Spirit to “guide you into all the truth; …he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Jesus is telling his disciples to humble their minds, be patient, and count on the Spirit to lead us. But if we are content in our opinions, then we will never learn and grow together, and there will be nothing higher that we are striving toward together. In one poll, 81% of Americans agreed with this statement: “One should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of a church or synagogue.” That’s stunning, and maddening to me. It makes no sense. “One should diagnose oneself before arriving at the doctor’s office; just sign the prescription for me, doc.” If we aren’t here to learn anything together, how then are we supposed to grow together in the faith, to strive toward a common accord?
I can’t see God. I can’t comprehend God. The more I come to understand God, the more I see that God is beyond my understanding. But that doesn’t leave me thinking, ‘No one can know anything about God,’ or ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ The problem isn’t that there is too little to understand about God; it’s that there is too much. So what I rely on and humble myself before are these wonderful repositories of wisdom about God that we share at the center of our worship. Scripture is one. You never understand all of Scripture at once; there’s too much. You have to attend to each little part, sometimes just a single word, knowing that there is much more for another day. Our great creeds are like this; they give us the whole scope of who God is, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, without explaining how all of that goes together. But my current favorite is our liturgical church year, and that’s what the rest of my book is about. Our liturgical year presents us an orderly series of different portraits about who God is and who we are before God: humble witnesses to the incarnate baby, confused disciples called by a commanding Jesus, sorry penitents before the merciful judge, wondering and awestruck witnesses to the resurrection of the crucified, a new family gathered seeking guidance by the Spirit of truth. You never comprehend all that in one glance. You dwell in the fullness of each present season, knowing that there is much more for another day. We can trust ourselves to the inexhaustible riches of our liturgical year, more than we can trust our own opinion about this and that, or anybody else’s for that matter, mine included. Trusting ourselves to the cycle of the church year means having faith. But for many people, “you have to have faith” means trusting only my own experience of God. Well try something bigger. Try trusting in this encompassing wholeness of the liturgical year as a better mediator of God for us.
If you can trust yourself to the rhythms of the liturgical year, and to the ever new interpretation of Scripture that we do together, you can start weaning yourself off of the junk food diet of instant gratification with easy truths. That’s the long-term strategy I offer to all of us for the healing of our mainline problems with truth and authority.
But in the short term there are specific changes we can make that go to the problems we discussed last week, namely, the lack of balance in our mainline identity. I’ve set out eight proposals or thesis statements—far fewer than the famous 95 theses of Luther, and hopefully more manageable. They are a work in progress, so I look forward to your thoughts. I’ve put a brief version of them on your sermon guide. I want to comment on a few in closing.
Starting with the first. I’ve talked about God’s holiness and beyondness (or transcendence) already, both today and on July 15. I have come to think that, even though our affirmation that God is love is the highest truth, even love can lose its revelatory power if it becomes one-dimensional and unbalanced.
Second, I think mainline Christians sometimes don’t see a real reason to gather in public worship of God. We get good works, we get fellowship; because these are also secular goods that anyone can appreciate. /We don’t get why worship is necessary. But orienting ourselves in worship toward God as our sole truth and ultimate reality, while not easy, is absolutely vital to our future as a church.
Third, recovering sin and grace. I maintain that sin is an indispensible biblical word for naming everything wrong with ourselves and the world that calls out for God’s salvation. Now, all of these terms—sin and salvation—have been very poorly employed by many Christians, and that is why we are often uncomfortable with them. You will hear me use them very differently, but I would argue, even more biblically than supposedly old-time religion Christians. We need to recover the drama of sin and salvation, with great sensitivity. But if the world needs no salvation, and we aren’t offering any, then I’m not sure we have a compelling reason to be here.
I mentioned the fourth proposal last week: many of us have trouble articulating how Jesus is divine, but this belief is deeply imbedded in our sacraments, our liturgy, and our hymns. We had an adult confirmation series here that took Jesus the Christ as its theme. The participants were patient and enthusiastic, but I’m not sure if we got very far, and I’m not sure why, but I am committed to keep working on it, because I believe this is critical.
The fifth proposal asks: what is the point of being a Christian? What is the goal? Is it to be a better person, or to get closer to God? Does the goal concern me as an individual, or us as a community? Is the goal found in this life, or in a life beyond? We have differing views about this. Mostly I want to include all of these into a rich, multi-dimensional sense of the purpose of being a Christian, and our liturgical seasons help us bring out the different ideas mentioned.
The sixth proposal may sound dense, but it speaks to our need to serve a role in supporting both our community, our families, and our personal needs, while also creating a distinct way of being God’s own people, set apart from the world. It’s a balance that requires great care.
I preached about politics, number 7, in June, and talked about authority, number 8, today.
I’ve already given you a lot of my ideas. I have more than probably anybody needs—plenty of putative answers to at least the questions that I have posed. But my answers are largely untested and unproven. I believe that we can craft and put into practice a mainline message that is different in some important ways from what we’ve been saying, but still recognizably mainline—true to our best commitments. It’s a message that will be more biblical, but not agreeing with everything in the Bible; more classical or in keeping with the long tradition of the church, but in some ways very modern and new. It draws on the work of many of my colleagues in theology, but for the time being is claimed by no one but me. I want it to be ours, because we need a shared way forward. And that of course means, you will change it. You already have changed me. May the Spirit of truth guide us into all truth, and declare to us what are the things to come.