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The Rev. Mark Sargent Mark Sargent

Mark Sargent is a retired United Methodist minister who works in the private sector and resides in Rome, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church


Living Belief

Second Sunday after Epiphany

January 15, 2006

What is the point of religion? What is a Christian? The answers to those questions are likely not as self-evident as many may think. Just ponder it, if you will. One of your children or grandchildren or some person on the street pops those questions to you, how would you respond? What is the point of religion? What is a Christian?

For a long time, the Church pretty much addressed those questions in this fashion. Religion is a way that people try to get in touch with God or with the divine or with whatever's bigger than we are, but Christianity is the true religion because we have Jesus who is the only way to God. So you can try those other religions, but they will only lead you to a dead end. Some in the Church have thought that that dead end is a burning place called hell where you'll be punished for not choosing the right religion; and if you want to be a Christian, here's what you have to believe. You have to believe this, this, and this, and then you're in.

Early in the history of the Christian movement, there were great debates, intense disagreements, over what constitutes appropriate Christian belief. Matter of fact, it's not until the early years of the Christian era that we even hear the words "orthodoxy" and "heresy." Orthodoxy literally means right belief. Heresy means wrong belief. And so the notion is born that beliefs can be right or wrong. And, by the way, not only can beliefs be right and wrong, ours just happen to be right. That scenario was not the way it always was. What scholars of early Christianity are now helping us understand is that the people who decided what was orthodox belief were the people who won the battles for belief. And they are the ones who also decided that what the losers had to say was wrong belief (see Bart Ehrman, The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford 2003). We are heirs of that mindset. It is important that we realize that we are heirs of the notion that belief is giving assent to a list of propositions. I believe this, I believe that, I believe the other, and that makes me a Christian. And we are also heirs of the notion that belief can be right or wrong.

Now an important word. I believe - how's that for a belief statement? - I believe that some beliefs are wrong. It is not appropriate, for example, for me to tell you that I believe it is okay for me to walk out of my door and kill someone. I'm not suggesting that beliefs are unimportant. I am suggesting that it is okay to respect the beliefs of others, as long as those beliefs really do help us be good people. Belief ought to lead us to right practice. But arguing about beliefs that can't be proved or disproved is a dead-end street. The Church did that for a long time.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that, sooner or later, such a posture is going to lead to problems. What if someone doesn't choose to believe what you believe? Allow me to say in as straightforward a way as I can that the Church has to get over the notion that it and it alone possesses saving human truth. We have fought enough battles over that, lit enough fires, condemned enough people to eternal torment. It no longer works for the Church to bombastically tell everyone who is not a Christian that they are wrong and to imperialistically try to convince people who don't want to be a Christian that they have to become one. Now there are several assumptions behind that statement that I'd like to share.

The goal of human life is spiritual authenticity. That has to do with awe and wonder and love and gratitude and forgiveness and acceptance and kindness. Spiritual authenticity is the goal of human life. Religion is a path to that goal. Religion is not the only path to that goal. Among the religious paths that can take us to a place of spiritual authenticity, Christianity is one. It is not the only one. Christianity is a vehicle. The destination is spiritual authenticity. The Church can no longer confuse the vehicle with the destination. Because of that, the Church must leave behind the notion that we can condemn people on the basis of right and wrong belief. Are you hearing me say that as long as beliefs lead us to be good people, there is no such thing as wrong belief? This, by the way, is part of the postmodern shift that has taken place in the world.

And that shift means that the world as we have known it has ended. We no longer live in an age of Christian domination. We no longer live in a world the center of which is white Europe. We no longer live in a world dominated by men. We live in an ever-shrinking world that is characterized among other things by amazing multiculturalism. And it simply no longer works for us to keep battling with each other about whose beliefs are right and whose beliefs are wrong, as if it's beliefs that save us anyway. Whatever salvation is, it is not the result of what you think. Whatever salvation is, it is the result of what you do, and what you do is true belief. Read Matthew 25, where people who did not even recognize Christ are ushered into the Kingdom, because they fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned and tended to the sick. Jesus said, "Not every who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom, but the one who does the will of God." Jesus also said that you would know his followers by their fruits, not by their beliefs.

What if we simply accepted the fact that there is nothing wrong with respecting each other's convictions about things? What if we accepted the fact that it is perfectly all right for people to practice authentic spirituality while believing in Moses or in Mohammed or in the Buddha or in not believing in any religious thing at all? And what if we accepted the fact that what the world really needs is agreement on the practices that will save us. Remember, Christianity is a vehicle. The destination is spiritual authenticity. And, I believe, that spiritual authenticity has everything to do with our actions and less to do with our thoughts. In this brave new world of 2006 and beyond, battles over belief - whose is right and whose is wrong - will prove as fruitless as they always have been. We can never agree on belief. We can, however, agree on what constitutes a spiritually authentic practice around which every member of the human community can gather and which will allow us to live on planet Earth as brothers and sisters in one human family, characterized by a wonderful and rich diversity of religious belief.

Best I can figure, such an approach is right in line with what Jesus did. In the recorded sayings of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels, Jesus doesn't spend a lot of time arguing with people about right and wrong beliefs. Jesus' conflicts with the religious leaders of his day were far and away about practice, not doctrine. Jesus never listed the things that you have to believe if you want to fall in line behind him. His list was always a list of ethics, not of dogma. He would go to the carpet over issues of practice; he was apparently unwilling to jump on the hook with respect to theological propositions. Right and wrong are categories that are appropriate to practice and behavior. They are not categories that are useful for belief. For some in the Church today, belief has sadly become confused with the God who is the object of our belief. Belief can become the great divider, but the God we profess to believe in is the Great Unifier, the Source and the End for us all.

We are all human beings. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, spiritual seekers who have no religious path. We are all human beings. Or, as I prefer to think of us, we are all "human becomings." We are works in progress. And while not everyone may choose to journey toward spiritual authenticity, the journey is open to everyone, regardless of the vehicle they choose. And I would suggest to the Church that there are many more people meaningfully on that journey than we have realized before. Many on planet earth of diverse beliefs are on the way to becoming spiritually authentic people. And as we journey toward our destination, of course we forge beliefs that are important to us. For me, Christianity is the path that takes me toward authentic spiritual practice. My Christian beliefs are important to that practice. The way of Jesus is my vehicle. But I have dear friends, genuine spiritual seekers, who are also journeying toward spiritual authenticity, but in different vehicles. Some are Buddhist, some are Muslim, some are Jewish, some are Hindu. Some are not journeying in a religious vehicle at all. But we are all headed to the same place. What is that destination?
That destination is spiritual authenticity, and I believe that spiritual authenticity involves the love and mercy and embrace of Jesus I mentioned last week. Last week, I said that Jesus' way is a way of love and mercy and embrace; and I think that's a good starting point for reflecting upon our human destination. Love, mercy, and embrace have the power to take us, individually and collectively, in the direction of healing and wholeness. Love, mercy, and embrace are the antidotes for the fear and guilt and judgmentalism that have often characterized Christian teaching and that have led us in the past into dark and lifeless places.

"Perfect love casts out fear." Those are some of my favorite words from the Christian Scriptures. You are loved with a perfect love. You are accepted. There is nothing you have to do, nothing you have to say. There is nothing you have to feel, nothing you have to believe. At the heart of the universe is a grand and divine "Yes," spoken gracefully to you. That means that God sees the goodness, deep down inside of you, regardless of whatever else may be there. Accept that acceptance, as Paul Tillich once said. And because of that loving acceptance, you have nothing to fear. And you especially do not have to fear people who are different, people who think differently, people who believe differently. Because of God's acceptance of you, you can accept others. You can see the deep down goodness in others, in spite of whatever else may be there. You can speak to others the same wonderful "Yes" that has been spoken to you. Loving acceptance is the antidote for human fear. Every human person can gather around that practice. What would it mean for you to practice God's unconditional love and graceful acceptance in your life?

"I desire mercy." One day, as he apparently often did, Jesus was practicing his life in a way that flew in the face of the beliefs of the religious leaders of his day. Jesus was having dinner with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-13). According to the beliefs of the day, Jesus was clearly in the wrong. The Pharisees noticed his unconventional, nonconforming practice, and they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus overheard the question. And he asked the religious leaders to go learn what mercy really means. The Church needs Jesus' heart of mercy. We all need that mercy. And we all need to extend that mercy. We need to look at ourselves and at others with tender mercy. In one of the most famous sermons he ever preached, Jesus said that those who are merciful will be happy, and he suggested that we come to experience mercy in our own lives in proportion to the ways in which we extend mercy to others. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy" (Matthew 5:7). Plentiful mercy is the antidote for human guilt, the salve for our human wounds. Every human person can gather around that practice. What would it mean for you to practice God's plentiful mercy in your life?

Compassionate embrace. Luke tells the story, familiar to most in the Church. It's the story of a lost child. It's really more the story of a compassionate parent. In this story, the parent happens to be a father, though the gender of the compassionate parent does not matter. What matters is the rich spiritual authenticity that characterizes the parent's response. The child has wished the father dead, has wandered off, has behaved badly. The affront to the parent is profound. The child begins to head back home, his wild project over and done with. "But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him" (Luke 15:20). Just pause for a moment and be with that picture. The offended father asked nothing of the son, demanded nothing from the son, wanted nothing from the son, expected nothing from the son. The offended father did not judge or condemn the offending son. The picture you are contemplating is a picture of arms and heart compassionately outstretched, willing to embrace all that there is to be loved. If you ask me, that's what I see when I see Jesus on the cross. I see a posture of compassionate embrace, a heart open, even to the ones who drove the nails. Compassionate embrace is the antidote for harsh judgmentalism. Every human person can gather around that practice. What would it mean for you to practice God's compassionate embrace, to practice the compassionate embrace of Jesus on the cross, in your life?

It is time for the Church to reacquaint itself with the human community. In order to do that, we do not have to sacrifice any of the beliefs that we hold dear. But no longer can the Church act at the table of the human family like the big brother who always has to be right. It is time for the Church to take its rightful and humble place at the table of the human family, which is the community of brothers and sisters, all journeying to the same destination. The Church can hold the beliefs that are dear to us while at the same time moving beyond notions of right and wrong belief and moving instead into considering with the rest of the human family what constitutes right and wrong practice, what constitutes constructive and destructive behavior. The Church is the one who invented the illusion of orthodoxy and heresy in the first place. We are certainly free to let go of that illusion as well. There is no future to belief battles. What we need is a human conversation about the right practices that can sustain our life on earth. That's the point of religion anyway. That's the point of Christianity. That's the point of human becoming. That's the point of belief. We do that, and I promise you heaven will take care of itself. And as we journey with our fellow humans, we will always welcome those who want to take the human journey in the Christian vehicle. The Christian vehicle is a wonderful vehicle in which to ride. But we will always respect the beauty of other vehicles as well, as we all journey toward the spiritual authenticity to which Jesus has been trying to point us all along.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, help us to believe in you by practicing the love and mercy and embrace you have modeled for us. Amen.


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