A Spirit for Change

Pentecost is an ancient Jewish celebration. Pentecost means fiftieth day and there were several fiftieth days or Pentecosts in the tradition. From Passover to the Pentecost of New grain was fifty days. From that date to the Pentecost of new wine was fifty days and then another fifty days to the Pentecost of new oil.

In Acts 2, the disciples have gathered to celebrate the Pentecost of new grain. They are celebrating the way they do every year. There is nothing out of the ordinary. But suddenly there is a violent wind and flames have appeared out of the sky.

The crowd that has gathered is from many different places and they speak different languages but they can understand what the disciples are saying. Just like in this version of the Lord’s prayer. It sounds different but the words have similar meanings regardless of language. We can experience the Holy in multiple languages. We can speak of God, of Gitchi Manitou in several first nation languages, of Allah in Arabic but we end up in the same place…the Holy, the one who is creator and sustainer of life.

In this Pentecost experience, that creator sends a spirit of action and animation among people who have already had experience of the person of Jesus and of the risen Christ. This experience of Pentecost, of being filled with the spirit then sends them out into the world to act for the Risen Christ.

Skip forward about 60 years to the story of Paul. You might remember from a few weeks ago when we heard the story of Stephen’s stoning that Saul was watching and approved of the killing. Saul had an experience of the Risen Christ in which Christ speaks to him and asks why he is persecuting the Christians. It is an ah ha moment for Saul. He becomes Paul—a Christian missionary who travels around establishing churches everywhere he goes.

The second scripture is from Galatians and Paul is describing his life before and after the moment of his conversion. Before he met the risen Christ, he was devout in his belief. He was actively engaged in seeking to destroy any Jesus followers he could find. In Paul’s time, it was important to maintain the status quo. Change was actively avoided and Saul was part of that active resistance. The fact that Saul had an experience that changed him so profoundly would met with a healthy dose of skepticism. He would have to be able to justify the change. In the passage we heard this morning, that’s exactly what he does.

He says, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” When broken down this statement picks up various passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah. You might remember Jesus also picking up themes from the Hebrew scriptures and applying them to himself in order to find credibility amongst people who knew their Bible well.

Paul claims that this change within him was a result of his experience of the risen Christ and a call directly from Christ. He claims that God knew him before he was born and that God was revealed to him in his vision of the Risen Christ and the he is sent to proclaim God to everyone everywhere.

One of the things that is fascinating about this is that Saul/Paul’s sense of call went from maintaining the status-quo and removing anyone who threatened that status-quo to a call to change the world. He went from trying to keep people thinking, believing and practicing their faith in the same way as they had for centuries to being an voice that changed how people thought, believed and practiced their faith.

Paul didn’t start life as an advocate for Christianity. As new information presented itself, he was able to be open to a God that continued to speak to him and unsettle him. That God, completely changed the direction of his life. We need to be open to a God that continues to speak to us in many ways. We don’t always know how the Holy spirit will speak to us or touch us. We don’t always know what the spirit will say to us.

Things that we think are true and right, may not be so. People that we think are our enemy, may not actually be our enemy. The spirit turns our world upside down and inside out. It is difficult to remain faithful by maintaining the status quo, by keeping things the same. The world changes, our lives change. God calls us as individuals to different things at different points in our lives. We might have a moment where we can look back and say…it changed there. Sometimes the change is more gradual and we find that we are in a completely different place from where we thought we would be.

The church is no different. God calls the church to change over time. We are changed by people who come and go. We are changed by events in the world around us as we seek to respond faithfully. If Constantine hadn’t made Christianity the official religion of the roman empire, if Martin Luther hadn’t posted his theses, if no one else had challenged the beliefs and practices of Christianity, it would not have evolved into the faith we have today.

The Holy Spirit inspires and encourages us to be bold and faithful for Christ. It encourages us to seek ways of living that respond to challenges in our world and yet are grounded in who we know God to be. The spirit is among us—moving and faithful.

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Life after Death?

One of the biggest questions in life is often what happens after we die. Some people embrace death. Some people are comfortable with their own mortality. Some people resist death. Some people are afraid of death.

When the first Jewish scriptures were written there was no concept of an afterlife within the Jewish faith. Other faiths and cultures had a concept of an afterlife but the Jewish people did not. By the time of Jesus, the idea of an afterlife was being debated within Jewish culture but there was no consensus. Some Jews believed in an afterlife. Some did not.

For those that believed in a resurrection they had in image of an event sometime in the future. At that moment, all the dead would be returned to life. What that afterlife looked like was also up for discussion. No one knew for certain. No one knows for certain.

Jesus lived within the Roman empire and the early churches were established within that cultural context. The Romans absorbed the religious beliefs present within the empire. Corinth was a Greek city and many of the new Christians in Corith were Greek and so they brought their beliefs with them to their new faith. Within the Greek traditions, usually the after-life began at death with a trial and followed by a movement either to something like paradise or hell.

These traditions evolved into some of the Christian beliefs about heaven, hell and judgement day. These beliefs were absorbed and adapted from other religious traditions.

So Paul is putting his two cents into this conversation about what happens after death. Some of the new Christians believed that there would not be a resurrection of the dead. Paul argues that if there isn’t a resurrection for those who have already died then Jesus wasn’t raised either. The same rules apply for everyone. If Jesus could be raised, then others could be raised. If Jesus was not raised, then no one else could be raised either. Jesus must have been raised because there were witnesses to the resurrection.

Paul quotes from the Hebrew scriptures to ground the new Christians in what is already familiar to the Jewish Christians and what might bring a new word of hope to the Greek Christians. He quotes the prophets who believed that there would be some type of cataclysmic disaster—something terrible would happen. From that God would create something new that is more perfect than the world that has been. It wouldn’t be the end of the world but it would be a decisive moment where everything would change. In the same way, death is not the end but a moment where God’s action can change everything.

There continue to be many different beliefs about death within the Christian faith. Some Christians believe that the dead are sleeping and waiting for the moment when they will wake and be resurrected. Some believe that when we die we are judged and go either to heaven or hell depending on our relationship with Christ at that moment. Some Christians believe that God is a God of compassion and we are all welcomed into heaven. Some Christians believe that our spirit becomes part of the larger cosmos—no longer a distinct entity but one with God and all other spirits. For myself, I don’t know exactly what happens after we die. My faith tells me that there is a spirit within each of us that continues to exists separately from our bodies. I believe that God is present after death and that in some way my spirit will be united with God. Beyond that, I can say nothing with certainty but I trust that the loving and compassionate God will be present beyond death.

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Earlier in Corinthians Paul reminds us that love is at the core of our relationships with each other and our faith in God. In the conversation about death it seems important to hold love as central to our beliefs to alleviate some of our fear or discomfort. If God is love and we are united with God after death then there can be nothing painful, hurtful or evil—only love. The scriptures that we heard today remind us that death doesn’t have the last word but that God’s love overcomes even death. The New Creed ends with these words:

In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.

In my mind this is all we can know for certain.

Who Can Be Part of the Faith?

A few years after Jesus’s death, a man named Jewish man named Saul was travelling around the Roman Empire trying to stamp out the Jewish Christians. At this time most of Jesus followers were Jews who saw Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Messiah who would save the people from oppression and, specifically, from the Roman Empire. The Jewish Christians were trying to reform Judaism and Saul—along with others—was trying to maintain the Jewish faith as it was. The early Christians were afraid of Saul. They had all heard the stories of this man who was trying to capture or kill all the Christians.

As Saul was travelling, there was a moment when he saw a bright light. He fell to the ground and a voice said, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul was blinded and the people travelling with him took him into the city of Damascus. A disciple named Ananias came to him after three days and healed his eyesight. This experience was one that changed Saul’s life.

Saul became the missionary we now know as Paul and spent the rest of his life travelling around the Mediterranean. He started many churches and as Christianity split from Judaism he was an advocate for the non-Jewish Christians. One of Paul’s strengths was his vision of communities of faith where people were welcome regardless of their differences.

Paul started the church in the Greek city of Corith. Because Paul was a Jewish Christian he would go into the Jewish Synagogue to try and convince the Jews who were worshiping there that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. Some people were convinced and joined the Jesus movement. Some were not convinced.

After a time, Paul left Corinth and continued travelling—still setting up churches. While he was travelling Paul would write letters back to places he had already been. Corinthians is one of the letters that he wrote to the church in Corinth. He writes to the church there and tells them to get along. Some of the Christians in Corinth were claiming to follow Paul. Some claimed to follow Apollos or Peter. Paul points out that it isn’t about the individual leaders but about how those leaders help people recognize the Risen Christ and in experiencing the Risen Christ they experience God in their lives.

And Paul should know. Part of what made Paul’s ministry so powerful was that he spent the first part if his life trying to get rid of the Jesus followers. It wasn’t that he just didn’t like them. He tried to kill them. He was filled with hatred and violence towards followers of Jesus. Why should the Christians accept him as one of them? Why should he become someone that others looked to as a great leader? Why should he become someone recognized as wise? By our standards Paul should always have remained as an outsider in the faith. How can you trust someone who was out to kill your group of people?

And yet, there was something about Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus that changed his life. He had a mystical experience which opened him to God and then he went and learned from other Christians and from people who actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

We don’t have the benefit of being able to learn from people who actually knew Jesus. What we have are imperfect stories and letters recorded in scripture. What we have are the stories of many generations of faithful people seeking to follow Jesus in their lives. What we have are the stories of our own lives. All of these stories help us to recognize God in our own lives and the lives of people around us.

Paul has an unlikely missionary and yet the world was changed because of his ministry. Paul was imperfect. He didn’t get the first part of his life right but his life was more than his mistakes and more than it could have been on his own. We come to our own faith as we are in any given moment. We come with all the mistakes and imperfections of our lives but we trust that God can transform our lives and work through us. We come with all of who we are.

Part of what was happening in the Corinthian church was that people were wanting to create a unified group. They wanted a group of people who looked the same, acted the same and believed the same. But that wasn’t the reality of Christ’s body then. It isn’t the reality of Christ’s body now.

 

The Christians in the early church were squabbling over who followed the correct leader. They were squabbling over whether you could be Christian without being Jewish. They were squabbling over correct doctrine and practice. As people of faith, we continue to squabble over doctrine and faith. We continue to squabble about who is welcome and who is not. The details of who we are or how we come to the faith are ours and they are unique to us. Paul shouldn’t have been welcomed. He shouldn’t have led the early Christians because of his background—because of what he was before his experience of Jesus. In his letter he was reminding the church that we will always have difference among us and that God can work through imperfect (and all of us are imperfect) people. What holds us together in spite of our imperfections and our difference is the centrally of the Risen Christ in our lives.

 

Holding Beliefs in Tension

After Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity, he traveled all over the Mediterranean preaching the good news. In today’s story, he stopped to preach in Thessalonica, Greece and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath—three weeks in a row to preached about Jesus. It makes sense that Paul would go into a synagogue to preach since he himself was Jewish and most of the Jesus followers also identified themselves as Jewish. They understood Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah. They saw him as standing in the tradition of the prophets and as being the next political leader of the Jewish people. These Christian Jews lived the Jewish traditions and worshiped in the synagogues with their family and friends.

Paul convinces some of the listeners in the synagogue that his story of Jesus is true and so they also become followers of Jesus. The Jewish people who were not following Jesus weren’t happy about this so they stirred up a mob and started looking for Paul and Silas and attacked Jason and some other new followers and threw them in jail until they could make bail.

These events established the Christian church in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas escaped and continued their journey around the Mediterranean setting up churches but these events were not written down until later. In the meantime, Paul started writing letters to all the churches he had helped established to encourage them and to continue teaching from a distance. Thessalonians is the first of those letters.

Back to the story in Acts… There was tension in many Jewish communities between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not.  In many cases this tension became violent and the Jesus followers were forced to leave their synagogues and temples. There was also tension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. The Jewish Christians saw Jesus as an extension of the Jewish faith and felt that the Gentile Christians needed to convert to Judaism and follow Jewish customs in order to be considered Jesus followers. Paul was an early teacher of inclusivity and was clear in the churches he taught and established that Gentile followers did not have to convert to Judaism. All of these tensions eventually led to the establishment of Christianity as its own religion.

For the Jewish people, where they drew the lines of who’s in and who’s out was a big deal. Sometimes it split families and communities. Throughout the history of the church there is tension between groups of people who identify as Christian and yet believe differently. That’s part of the reason there are so many different denominations. Sometimes the splits are amicable but sometimes the splits are bitter and even violent. And in these splits, the body of Christ is broken. The debates over who belongs and who doesn’t continue within the Christian church and within the United Church.

There is often a tendency to want the people in our group, in our denomination or our congregation to believe and worship and behave in the same way we do. But the United church has a history of trying to hold in tension many different beliefs. There is currently a debate that is focused on a minister named Getta Vosper. She represents a movement within the United Church and many other denominations that identify themselves as Progressive Christians. In the video below, Gretta speaks about the congregation she serves which identifies itself as theologically barrier free.

Gretta Vosper

The point is not whether you agree with Gretta but how we choose to respond to people who disagree with us. We need to understand that there has never been one single set of beliefs in the Christian church. We have never all agreed on who God is, who Jesus is or how God calls us to live. Life is simpler if we simply assume that there has only been one way and that people who disagree with us are deviating from what God intended. Christians have never come to a complete consensus in their belief.

We could draw the lines around the church very tightly but then the question becomes which set of beliefs do we consider the standard beliefs. I know there are some who find what Gretta has to say very uncomfortable and would not want to participate in worship that she leads. And that’s OK. There are people who would come and worship here and find this congregation uncomfortable. And that’s OK.  Recognizing that there has never been a consistent standard of belief helps to put our own faith within a broad context that allows for many different perspectives of faith. We need to recognize that the spirit works through many different people and in ways that we don’t always understand or appreciate.

When we begin pushing people out—whether theologically conservative or progressive— the church as a whole suffers. We are no longer the whole Body of Christ. We need that variety of theological perspectives to help us grow and learn from each other so the Body of Christ can be healed.

 

The Gospel of Love

This is a very wordy passage needs some explanation. In order to understand this passage we need to go back to the exodus story. After the Israelites had left Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness, God gave the 10 commandments to help the people live well with God and with each other. When Moses came down the mountain with the commandments, he returned to find chaos among the people and most of the commandments already broken. He was so angry he threw down the tablets and they broke. The story goes that after a period of time, God was prepared to renew the covenant and so Moses went back up Mount Sinai and God remade the tablets. When Moses returned from talking with God his face shone and everyone was afraid him and so he had to cover his face.

Paul is writing about this story from scripture which his readers will already know and be familiar with. The exodus story suggests the reason for the veil is because Moses was glowing and the people were afraid. What Paul suggests here is the covenant that God made with the people in the exodus story was fading and along with it the glow that showed in Moses. The people didn’t want to know that the covenant was fading and so Moses covered his face to keep the knowledge from them.[1] The need for a second set of commandments so soon after the first bears out Paul’s assertion.

This original covenant was based on law and on the idea that there are particular rules to follow. And rules are helpful in giving structure to a culture and setting expectations for behavior. But Paul writes in Galatians that “the problem with the law is that it cannot provide life. The law serves to point out sin” (Carla Works) but it doesn’t have the ability to transform sin into something positive. And that’s where the gospel comes in.

Carla Works writes that in order “for Paul’s argument to make sense, one must imagine the argument backwards. With Christ, Paul sees God’s glory as he has never seen it before.” As a Jew, Paul would have known the law, known the stories and lore of its history, and understood its role in the life of individuals and community. Works goes on to suggest that the law is like a flashlight but Jesus is like the sun. They are both light and they both point to God.

For Paul the law is valuable but not as valuable as what Christ has to offer. The law allows us to live correctly but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to live abundantly. Paul’s letter is trying to help the people understand the distinction.

Paul suggests that the gospel is hidden and isn’t clear to the Jewish people who have lived with the law all their lives. Paul sees the gospel, not as something that replaces the law but, as something that continues it and makes it richer. The law by itself cannot give life but when it is enhanced by the message of Jesus it provides a richness of opportunities for new life.

Paul is always clear—as was Jesus—that the gospel is not about the messenger. The messenger always points to God. Jesus didn’t preach about himself. He taught about God and God’s message. Paul is continuing that message by pointing to Jesus who points to God. And we continue the message by pointing to Jesus who points towards God.

Paul describes humans as clay jars—something very ordinary, very practical and yet very fragile in the ancient world. It was also apparently common for people to hoard coins in clay jars and there have been many archeological discoveries of clay jars with coins. (Mark Wilson). Humans store their treasure in clay jars. God’s stores treasure in humans. The amazing things that we can do and accomplish as people of faith are not from us, the ordinary clay jars but from the treasure of God working in us. One of the passages that I have been carrying around in my head over the last few months comes from Ephesians 3: “My power and my spirit working in you can do more than you can ask or imagine.”

If we rely only on ourselves, our skills, what we think we are capable of, the results reflect our limited imagination. If we tie ourselves to the letter of the law we become limited to a rule based code of behavior which doesn’t necessarily bring life. Throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged many of the Jewish laws that had become entrenched in a way that harmed people. We see Jesus healing on a Sabbath and challenging the sacrificial system of the temple. We also have been handed rules—whether they come from the 10 commandments, or perceived cultural norms. We need to ask ourselves the intent of a particular rule.

Our image of marriage as heterosexual came from the Hebrew scriptures where women were considered property to be passed from one man to another. It was important to have many children for survival and love didn’t enter the equation. The intent of the Hebrew laws about marriage were to regulate the sale of property and to ensure the continuation of the Jewish people. We live in a different context. Women are no longer considered the property of men and survival is no longer at stake. Many of us are disturbed when we hear stories about arranged marriages because it is grounded in the idea of women as property. We recognize that the original intent of the law no longer applies.

Now we find ourselves in a place where love and marriage are deeply intertwined. Even within the early church there was a recognition that the original intent of marriage had changed and we know from historians that same sex marriages have been celebrated throughout the history of the church.

The gospel that Jesus proclaims and that we continue to proclaim is a gospel of love. It is a gospel that welcomes all of us. It is gospel that breaks down the walls that separate people. The legalization of same sex marriage continues to point towards this God that welcomes and loves all of us.

The passage that we heard speaks of a god of the world that “blinds the unbelievers.” We might think of the god of the world as greed, wealth that is hoarded or power that is abused. Sometimes the laws and rules blind us to the gospel. The gospel is love. The gospel of love is more powerful than hate.  It is more powerful than money and more powerful than abusive power. When we strive to keep people living by ‘our’ rules, we are living only by law and not by the gospel of love.

The gospel of love intentionally draws us into the path of Jesus. The path of Jesus leads us to welcome, to open our hearts and our minds. The path of Jesus also leads us to places of discomfort and death. The passage that we hard this morning closes by reminding us that “we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake.” We are given to death for the sake of the gospel. Sometimes following the gospel is scary because it upsets the law. Sometimes following the gospel is scary because it might put us in the way of physical or emotional harm.

Paul is quite clear that the potential for death is part of the risk of the gospel and of being faithful to it. We are people of the death and resurrection. We do not reach new life without having death in our lives. The death of rules that harm brings new life to individuals and communities. The death of hatred and violence brings love and peace.

In all our interactions with others, we need to be mindful of the intent of the rules and ask ourselves whether the rule harms someone or brings life. If we allow rules to overpower love then we have missed the point of the gospel and we need to relearn the meaning of love in our own lives.

[1]. Bruce J. Malina. Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Kindle location 2346-2348

A Kaleidoscope of Theologies

In this passage (Ephesians 3:1-12), Paul is writing to the Ephesians –  a group mostly made up of non-Jews. I love the book of Ephesians because it has so much to say about how we live together in a faith community in the midst of difference and conflict.  The Jewish Christians really struggled with how people who were not culturally, ethnically or religiously Jewish could still be God’s people. Paul is telling the outsiders that they are welcome and that they can be part of Christ’s body even though they think, look and act differently from the Jewish Christians. What connects and holds the faith community together is a faith in Jesus.

As a minister, I have had many opportunities to reflect on and learn about my faith. Sometimes where my belief has taken me is a natural fit. Sometimes it has been more of a struggle to change and let go of beliefs that no longer fit. In the passage, Paul has had an experience of faith which he has shared with the community. His belief that Jesus had come to all people, not just the Jews was radical. It was a departure from the belief of the early church. As a minister, I often find myself in a place where my beliefs no longer fit with what I was taught as a child or what seem to be common assumptions about Christian faith.

As a minister, I am called to share my faith with you from my own learning and reflection. This task is a gift but sometimes intimidating. There is a fine line between sharing and learning together and an arrogance that dismisses other belief. As I read this passage I hear Paul saying he knows something that no one else does. He has a new message that no one else has heard. He is clearly grounding this message within the context of Jesus message but reshaping it so it has meaning for the congregation with which he is corresponding.

Paul recognizes his own insignificance but that the Spirit is working through him. He also recognizes that there are many different strands of wisdom within the church tradition. What he is offering as a message is only one strand. This tension between many different beliefs has been part of the church since its earliest time and continues to be a part of our own context.

Throughout the history of Christianity there have been many different strands of faith. It seems a bit like a like a kaleidoscope with many shapes and colours. Everyone who looks at a kaleidoscope sees different things, is reminded of different things. What we see may depend on the what’s happening in our lives or world at any given moment. Our scripture and the theology we draw from it functions in a similar manner. This is why we have four gospels in our Bible—all of which are different.  They tell the same stories in different ways. They tell different stories and have different focuses and emphasis. There has never been a single right way of understanding the gospel message or of practicing faith. However, attempts have been made to force “right” belief at the expense of other strands of faith. That’s how our cannon of scripture—the books we now simply call the Bible—came to be. Marcion was raised as a Christian but disliked anything Jewish or material. Somewhere around 144 C.E. he organized a church following his own beliefs and using only Luke and Paul’s writings.

Other congregations used a variety of writings. We know of at least 21 known gospels that were in use in the early church. Because of Marcion’s beliefs and that of some other fringe groups like the gnostics, the mainstream church, decided that they needed to clarify what it was they believed and what was appropriate reading material for learning and instruction. Out that we end up with the canon of scripture (containing only four gospels) and the Apostle’s creed, the first draft of which appeared somewhere around 150 C.E.

Throughout the history of the church there have been different interpretations of scripture and theology. When one group goes too far one way or another, another part of the church tries to draw them back. There is a history of feeling so strongly about particular beliefs that groups leave denominations and start their own church. That’s how we have ended up with so many different denominations.

Within modern Christianity there is sometimes a tendency towards an assumption of common beliefs. As United Church people we are sometimes accused of believing in everything or in nothing. I think that the reason for this accusation is that as a denomination we have tended to not stay within the prescribed notions of single belief. It is hard sometimes for people who have been taught that there is a right way of believing to recognize that there are multiple ways of interpreting scripture, of practicing faith and of living faithfully.

I want to share with you some of my beliefs that I wrote in the form of a personal creed. Some of the things in it you may agree with. Some of it you may disagree with. Some of it may raise questions for you. I offer this recognizing that what binds us together in the body of Christ is our sense that God and Jesus are central to our lives.

I believe in a loving, just, compassionate God
who cries and laughs with us,
This God creates
and is beyond what we can know or comprehend
is within us and
we are within the Creator
All creation is God’s body,
When we harm creation, we harm ourselves and our creator.
The Wise Ones call us to dance and celebrate all life with this Creator.

In Jesus, this Creator was and is made known.
He was fully human and fully known by God as all of us are.
He cared about each person individually
and knew that all must be free for one to be free.
As Political Lord, he challenged structural violence
and empowered people for transformation.
Jesus is known as
prophet, guide, protestor, activist, healer, teacher, witness.
Jesus died because there is sin in the world
which separates us from each other and from God.
Jesus challenges that separateness.
There is witness to his life, his death and his resurrection.
It is because of this witness that he is known to us today.
Jesus calls us to continue the witness that points to a
God of justice, love and compassion.

The Holy Spirit gives courage and passion to continue the witness.
She is known in dancing life, in laughter and tears,
in grace and compassion.
She is the breath of God that offers creative movement in the world.

God calls all creation to live in justice and peace together.
Not in some distant time and place but here and now.
We live as though the Kingdom of God is already among us.
The Kingdom of God is made known:
in healthy, respectful relationships, in risk and in trust.
God is a God of relationship so in relationship there is hope for all creation.

What’s most important for me in my faith is that God is embodied in each of us. Sometimes we are very good at living faithfully. Sometimes we are more challenged in how we live. For me, belief is important in that it shapes how I live and how I see the world. I believe in a God of hope, a God of transformation therefore my life and speech and actions must reflect hope and transformation. If I believe in a God of hope, I cannot live in fear. If I believe in a God of love then I cannot spread hate. The belief points me in the direction of life that I want to live.

Over the Christmas break, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about hope and fear in the context of our own faith community. If we believe in a God of hope then many things are possible. If we believe in a God of fear, we are doomed. The Christmas angels remind us “be not afraid.” This is some of the best advice that our scripture has to offer.

We cannot live in fear of beliefs—Christian or otherwise—that are different from our own. God is bigger than our belief. Ephesians reminds us that we need variety in our belief. The variety challenges us and helps us grow in our faith. You won’t always agree with everything I say here and that’s OK but I hope that when you hear things that differ from your own beliefs it will deepen your own faith. Sometimes, it is tempting to only want to hear what affirms our own belief. It’s comfortable and in many ways easier but if our faith is never challenged by others then it doesn’t deepen and grow.  As we become grounded in our own faith—not necessarily more rigid or certain—it often becomes easier to tolerate difference.

This isn’t to say that we want to believe everything or nothing. What is essential is for us to be able to discern which aspects of our faith are most central and which we cannot compromise on. For me, these are my belief in a God of justice and compassion, that God works through all of us to transform the world and that we experience God through our relationships. These core beliefs are what give me hope and help to maintain my faith in a world that sometimes feels like it is falling apart.

I often wear a cross. The cross connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection. For many, a cross is a symbol reminding us that Jesus died for our sins and of the need to believe in Jesus so that we will abide with Christ after death. That’s a particular variety of belief.

For me, the cross is a reminder of the people who stood and watched Jesus die and could do nothing. It reminds me that there are many people in our world who continue to live with injustice and death. Sometimes it feels like a can do nothing. This particular cross was a confirmation gift and when I put it on it connects me to the minister who gave it to me and her commitment to justice. It reminds me that there are many people around the world who continue Jesus’ work today. It reminds me that death does not have the last word in our world. I’m not terribly concerned with what happens after we die because my faith is grounded in God’s activity in this world. This is also a variety of belief.

Neither of these beliefs is wrong but they shape how we see the world and the emphasis we place on our interactions with others. Both are grounded in Jesus and scripture. In our faith, we need to make room for each other even when we see the world differently. We need to listen to each other and be open to be being shaped and touched by belief that is different from our own. That’s part of the richness of wisdom that comes from being part of a faith community.

We need more than just the wisdom that has been handed to us from previous generations or that comes from those of us trained as ministers and theologians. We need the wisdom of the collective faith community. You are part of the rich variety of God which is made known in all of us together.

People often make New Year’s resolutions. I encourage you to spend time reflecting on your faith and how it shapes your world view. I encourage you to resolve to join a Bible study or other reflection group. Your faith is what grounds you in God’s spirit and that faith always needs to be deepening and growing. Open yourself to be challenged and learning as well as sharing your own wisdom with faith community.