Monday, April 23, 2012

Forget the church?

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Delray Beach, Florida
3 Easter – Lectionary Year B (RCL) – April 21/22, 2012
Acts 3:12 – 19; Ps. 4; Luke 24:36b – 48
Preacher:  The Rev. Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

Forget the church?

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  (Luke 24:36 – 38).
            “Forget the church, follow Jesus!”  Those disquieting words were on the cover of the April 2 issue of Newsweek Magazine.  Anyone see or read it? 
Inside the issue was a provocative essay by Andrew Sullivan, British self-described conservative who is the former editor of The New Republic and current author and editor of the blog The Dish.  The Dish, which Sullivan describes as “biased and balanced,” is featured on The Daily Beast website, a partner of Newsweek.[1] 
Sullivan takes Thomas Jefferson and his famous Jefferson Bible, which is currently on exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, as his point of departure.[2]  As Sullivan reports, Jefferson created his Bible himself taking a razor to traditional Bibles.   “Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants.”[3] “What did he edit out?”[4]
Sullivan writes, “He removed what he felt were the ‘misconceptions’ of Jesus followers, ‘expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.”[5]  Sullivan says that it wasn’t hard for Jefferson.  “[Jefferson] described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as ‘diamonds’ in a ‘dunghill,’ glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…”[6]  Sullivan states, “this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy.”[7]  Sullivan quotes Jefferson as asserting, “I am a real Christian…That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”[8]
            “What were those doctrines?” Sullivan asks rhetorically, answering, “Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, programs, reformations and counterreformations.  Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.”[9] 
Sullivan continues, writing, “Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection – and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday – Jefferson’s point is crucially important.  Because it was Jesus’ point.  What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?...If we return to what Jesus actually  asked us to do and be – rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was – he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.”[10]
Disregarding the obvious contradiction of Jefferson definition of “being a Christian” and the fact of his having been a slaveholder and someone who never wealthy person who never gave up his material wealth, it is in this last paragraph that Sullivan’s essay reveals the difficulty and conundrums of both his and Jefferson’s project.  Determining what sayings of Jesus have not been affected in transmission by one of the four evangelists we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all of whom came decades after Jesus, is enormously difficult and challenging.  Biblical scholars and critics have been wrestling with this question since the Enlightenment and before.[11]  Discovering the “real Jesus” or what that term “the real Jesus” even means is no easy task and especially if he is divorced from such key doctrines as the incarnation and the resurrection.
 In the remainder of his essay, Sullivan turns his eye to what he labels “the crisis of the church,”[12] offering a scathing critique of both the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy and the current expressions of  Evangelical Protestantism which have become so dominant in the United States.[13]  Interestingly, Sullivan ignores traditional mainline churches, like the Episcopal Church, noting in passing, “For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years.”[14]  
This past Thursday, a rejoinder piece to Sullivan’s essay titled “Returning to the Sermon on the Mount” was published in the on-line Opinionator section of the New York Times.[15] It was by regular Opinionator columnist Gary Gutting, Chairperson of Philosophy at Notre Dame. 
Gutting observes that Sullivan’s idea of following the moral code of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “freed from dubious theology and corrupting politics that have plagued the history of the institutional church,” is “widely attractive.”[16]   But Gutting also points out the challenges of trying to accomplish this.  “What is this code [of Jesus]?” he asks.[17]   
“There is no doubt,” Gutting writes, “that the core message is love.” “But what does it mean to love someone?” he asks provocatively and appropriately.[18]  He follows up by citing Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, “to love is to will good for someone; that is, to do what we can, to see that a person has a good life.”[19]   As philosophers are want to do, he then he asks another question, “But what is the good life?”[20]  “We might, thinking of the core message of Jesus, say that it’s a life of loving others.’  “But this response,” Gutting writes, “just takes us in a circle. Jesus tells us that to lead a good life we should love one another, but loving one another requires helping one another lead good lives.  Unless we first know what it is to lead a good life, Jesus’ law of love gives us little guidance in how to live.”[21]
“The Sermon on the Mount…does not offer a clear view of what makes for a good life…” he observes, then continues, “Many seem to think Jesus is saying little more than be nice to everybody.  Others see a call to heroic life of total non-resistance or self-sacrifice.  Still others hear him as requiring little more than an enhanced version of The Ten Commandments (e.g. avoiding not only murder, but also anger, not only adultery, but also lustful desires).”[22]
            “Almost all Christians ignore many of the things Jesus said on the Mount,” Gutting writes.  “Who literally takes no thought for their lives or for tomorrow?  Who never resists evil?  Who gives to anyone who asks?  Who says, ‘Hit me again’ to an unjust attack?’  “There may be ways of integrating such injunctions into our morality without reducing them to banalities,” he notes, “but the bare text of Jesus’ sermon doesn’t tell us how to do this.”[23]
            He later observes, “None of this is to say that the Sermon on the Mount is not a source of profound moral truth.”  “But,” he states, “this truth is accessible only by reading the sermon in light of 2,000 years of interpretation and development.  Much of the history of Christianity consists of trying to develop a viable way of life from Jesus’ puzzling sayings.  These efforts, moreover, had to go far beyond interpreting Jesus’ words in their own terms.  Augustine and Aquinas, for example, used ideas from Plato, Aristotle and other pre-Christian thinkers to help them understand the ‘law of love.’”[24]
Returning to Sullivan, Gutting observes, “Sullivan is right that Christian churches, as fallible human institutions, have often been obstacles to fruitful understanding of Christ’s moral message.”  “But, he writes, “these churches have also been central in sustaining the traditions of thought and practice that transformed Jesus’ passionate but enigmatic teachings into coherent and fruitful moral visions.  They have been the air – however polluted – that has fed the fire of his message.”[25]
            Gutting concludes, “Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.  To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through the traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity.  This does not require membership in any church,” he adds, “but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world.  In this sense, to forget the church, is to forget Jesus.”[26]
            Two essays, both timely…both provocative…both providing lots of grist for the mill and food for thought…Needless to say, I appreciated the challenge of Sullivan’s critique, but, as you might expect, I land with Gutting and his conclusion.
            In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus appears to the disciples who are gathered together, presumably in the same fear-filled locked room in which we saw them last week in John’s Gospel (See John 20:19).  It is one of the stories and scenes that was inconvenient and uncomfortable for Thomas Jefferson and which he excised from his Bible.  
The gathered disciples are being debriefed by two of their number who had just had an encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (See Luke 24:13 – 35).  While they were they were talking, Jesus stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”(Luke 24:36).  The text tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37).
 There is something compelling about the Christian narrative which doesn’t sugarcoat or gloss over the fear of these disciples…After all, the portrayal could have been cleaned up, made them look much more faithful, much more believing.  But the text doesn’t shield them or sugar coat the portrayal…It preserves their fear and it preserves their doubt…
In fact, the text insists on their doubt…While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"  They gave him a piece of broiled fish,  and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:41– 43).   With its vignette about Jesus eating a piece of fish, The Oxford Bible Commentary acknowledges that Luke’s account is the most “unashamedly materialistic” of all the resurrection appearances.[27]  It was likely shaped to counter evolving accounts of Easter, especially in Gnostic circles, that suggested the resurrection was merely a vision or a spiritual experience that was absent the “real Jesus,” however you want to grapple with that term.
Today’s gospel reading is about mysterious, enigmatic, things:  the proclamation of the resurrection itself;  the meaning of Jesus’ messiahship; the insistence on his suffering and dying; the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins…  Even those disciples needed continuing explanation, continuing conversation with Jesus; needed Jesus to unfold the scriptures for them. That would not end. 
Jesus would promise the gift of the Holy Spirit so that his message and presence and teaching could continue to be mediated to them and to those who would come after them…At times the Church has been true to the Holy Spirit and done wondrous and sublime things, produced saints, Francis of Assisi (who Sullivan makes reference to in his article[28]), Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu…At other times, it has been sinful and disobedient and been guilty of great sin…
I love Christ and his Church…The Church has nurtured me in my awareness, love and understanding of God…In many ways, I was raised by the Church…The community of parish churches I have been associated with from the time I was a child has held me in its arms all my life, from Barbara Trippel who taught me in Sunday School as a little boy at St. Luke’s Church in Forest Hills, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach today…
Without the Church and its role as the repository, the glorious repository, of the story of God in Christ, as a repository of the sacraments, as a repository of the faith, I do not believe I would know or love Christ…
            To be sure, I am not uncritical of the Church, nor am I naive about its history… As I have said already, the Church has been guilty of great evils and great sins throughout its history, and this does continue, as Sullivan made clear in his article… We need to always challenge the church and hold it accountable to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to challenge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the Church, which is, after all, made up of all of us…The Church is always about the business of reformation and will be until the end of time. 
I am also critical in my approach to the scriptures.  A historical/critical approach to the Scriptures has been a gift to us all since the Enlightenment.  I’m thankful that I am part of a church that places a high premium on reason and critical thought
But again, I love Christ and his Church.  The Church provides what to me are essentials for living:  an encounter and experience of the living, risen Christ and an awareness of my story as a Christian.  The church has given me the disciplines and rhythm for regularly engaging in the Christian life which I suspect I might not maintain without the Church’s cycle of worship, prayer and the liturgical year.
            The Church has always provided me with a rich expression of deep community…the generations gathered, praying for and caring for one another…We are, as I have often pointed out before, the only place in society where four generations regularly interact with one another...And there is deep need, and deep hunger, in our culture today for genuine, caring community…
            Through its focus on mission and outreach, the Church provides me with means by which I can try to live out the command of Jesus to love – to care for others – to try and help others have and lead a “good life.”  And so, at St. Paul’s, through Paul’s Place, our after-school program, very at-risk children and youth are given a leg up in a society where the deck is stacked against them. Families who are homeless are provided with shelter and food…A village is being built in Bondeau, Haiti and children are being educated and fed. 
            Today, we are going to commission three new Stephen Ministers…These are people who have given up 50 hours of their lives in the past few months to undergo training in how to offer distinctively Christian care to fellow-parishioners and others who are hurting or grieving…They will sacrifice more of themselves as they give time to meet with those who have lost a loved one; or who are terminally ill, who have lost a job, or divorced, or who are going through some other crisis which life inevitably throws at us…
Why does this Church do this? Why does any Church do these things?  Because Jesus commanded us to love and in our 2000 years of wrestling with his teaching and trying to live it out, we believe these things are important, just as we believe our life together as Church is important, even when the Church screws up, as we all screw up in our lives…But then, this is part of Jesus’ core teaching, isn’t it?

Repentance, and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in my name, Jesus said to those disciples so long ago and says to us today (Luke 24: 47).  God in Christ is always calling us to turn again to him, to turn again to him anew….”You’re not quite there yet,” he always seems to be saying to us, as the Church, and as individuals…
“Keep listening to me….Keep reading what I said and what others think I said…Keep wrestling with it all….Keep trying to figure it out…More important, keep striving to live the life I commanded you to live, my kind of life; the life of love, sacrifice and service…I know you can do it…Remember, you need one another, and you need me…Oh, and remember that promise I made to you…Thomas Jefferson didn’t include it in his Bible, but I said it…
“I am with you always, even to the end of the ages” (Matthew 28:20)…You can count on that!”

[1]  See website at .  Biographical information from Wikipedia “Andrew Sullivan.”
[2]  Sullivan, Andrew  Christianity in Crisis, April 2, 2012 found on the Daily Beast website at
[3]   Sullivan – printer friendly edition (pfe) – p.  1
[4]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[5]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[6]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[7]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[8]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[9]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1 – 2.
[10]  Sullivan (pfe)  p. 2. 
[11]  The quest for the “historical Jesus” was an Enlightenment project of the 18th century and began in earnest with Hermann Samuel  Reimarus, a German philosopher and Deist.  Albert Schweitzer is a significant figure in detaling the quest in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus published in 1906.  His modern succesors are members of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” founded in 1985 by scholar Robert Funk and including biblical luminaries John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.   The Jesus Seminar has also been the object of scholarly criticism for its “reductionist” tendencies, tendencies exhibited by Jefferson  and his Jefferson Bible.  This was well artcilulated by Roman Catholic layman and author Gary Willis who wrote,  “This is the new fundamentalism.  It believes in the literal sense of the Bible—it just reduces to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size...the sayings that meet with the Seminar's approval were preserved by the Christian communities whose contribution is discounted.  Jesus as a person does not exist outside of the gospels, and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors' faith in the Resurrection. Trying to find a construct, ‘the historical Jesus,’ is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”  (from Willis, Gary What Jesus Meant, New York: Viking Press, 2006) p. xxv – xxvi – quoted in Wikipedia “The Jesus Seminar”)
[12] Sullivan (pfe) p. 3. 
[13] Sullivan (pfe)  p. 3. 
[14] Sullivan (pfe)  p. 3.  For a thorough, thoughtful and well-research treatment of this decline and theory for the reasons behind it  see Putnam, Robert D. and Campbell, David E. American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York, London, etc:  Simon & Schuster, 2010).   
[15]  See Gutting, Gary “Returning to the Sermon on the Mount”, April19, 2012 Opinionator – The New York Times at 
[16]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[17]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[18]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[19]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[20]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[21]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[22]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[23]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[24]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[25]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2 - 3.
[26]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 3. 
[27]   In the oral delivery of this sermon I mispoke and attributed this quote to Fred Craddock.  It was actually written in The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001). P. 958.  
[28]  Sullivan (pfe) p. 4 ff. 

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