"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Discarded sermon notes: ascension Sunday

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As usual, I end up with several pages of material that I have to cut to keep within time. These are the rough notes that didn’t make it out of the editing room.

A co-worker the other day mentioned to me that while his wife was a person of faith, he was not. The reason? He had been trained in the way of science, and needed proof, presumably of an empirical sort. That need for numbers precluded his belief in something that he could not objectively establish the existence of. I have to say that a scientist who makes such assertions is not, in my mind, much of a scientist. There are a host of things that science accepts as factual and dependable without first demanding empirical proof. But, if your mode of interacting with the world is to demand proof of everything, statements like Christ is at once absent, and at once present, are certain to provide you with adequate basis for your head to explode.

How then is this ascension day a good thing? Should we not be simplifying the faith so that it becomes more accessible to our culture? For much of the 1970s through the 1980s, apart from big hair bands, one of the primary focuses of the mainline churches was to contextualize the faith in a manner that made it relevant to the general culture. We did this by altering or concealing things that were potentially distasteful to a modern mind, which invariably meant favouring science over miracles. You can see this quite clearly in the change in language used in the worship forms that were developed out of that cultural intrusion into the church. One of my favorite examples of this shift came in the words of the Nicene Creed. In the old form of that affirmation of faith, we would say, “I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:” In the 1980’s form of that, we now talk about God being creator of all things, “seen and unseen.” The earliest forms of the creed, along with the Greek of Colossians 1:16, use the words visible and invisible deliberately, as this affirms the existence of an order of creation that is not perceptible through human senses.

This reflects Paul’s statement in Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Paul tells us that our struggle is not with the visible of flesh and blood, but rather the invisible of cosmic powers. The modern change to that creed makes the entire creation either seen or unseen…that is, there are things you can’t see right now, but there is always the possibility that you could see it. This is maybe a small point, but it reflects the greater shift in focus from one that was perhaps more mystical and embracing of paradox, to one that was more empirical and embracing of rationality and measurement. You can hear in that shift the promise of physicists that we will eventually derive the Grand Unified Theory that describes everything. It reminds me of the double-blind studies done that show the effectiveness of prayer – I’m not surprised that prayer can be shown, empirically, to work, but it wasn’t something I was holding off praying to have demonstrated to me, and it does little to change my faith because I already knew of the power of prayer on a level that did not presuppose rational analysis.

This reaction to the enculturation of Christianity is something you hear of repeatedly in the work of Soren Kierkegaard. He often wrote in reaction to those who argued for the need of a historical Jesus, a “great man” only. Kierkegaard says this most directly by asserting that an objective understanding of God is contrary to belief.

Can one come to know anything about Christ from history? No. And why not? It is because Christ is the paradox, the object of faith, and exists only for faith. About him nothing can be known; he can only be believed. You cannot come to know anything about Christ from history. Whether one learns little or much about him, it will not represent who he is in reality. Obtaining historical facts makes Christ into someone other than who he in fact is. … This is why Christianity is a paradox; this explains the contradictions in Scripture. But the intellectual approach wants to abolish faith. It has no inkling of God’s sovereignty nor what the requirement of faith means.

The mainline churches’ fascination with becoming culturally relevant should be recognized as the complete failure it was always destined to be. I don’t come here on Sundays to worship because this community offers me something that I can receive or understand using the tools of the world – rather I come here because this place offers me something that the world cannot, and in fact, offers me something that places the world into stark relief in the light of Christ. We are not about a populist activity here, but one that will separate families.

This should not be a surprise to us, given Christ’s departing words to his disciples: “you are witnesses of these things”. The word in Greek for ‘witness’ you might recognize even in the Greek, martyros (μαρτυρες). Jesus literally says to the disciples as he leaves, “you are martyrs of these things.” The witness of Christ, when carried into the world, will make you a subject of derision and scorn, and that’s a good thing for we who call ourselves followers of The Way. Christianity is not meant to be a normative expression of life in the world, but rather a contrary and paradoxical way that calls that world into judgement.

My co-worker was too polite to say it, just as I was too polite to point out his intellectual dishonesty, but his assertion about his lack of belief because of a lack of proof was an indirect condemnation of my own training as an applied scientist. If his standard of belief is to require empirical proof, something which I reject, how then can I call myself a scientist?

That approach to Christ is the reason why, in the Acts reading today, we hear of the need for two angels to come and ask the disciples why they were looking up into heaven. We can imagine they were looking to see if they would catch a last, empirical glimpse of Jesus. Instead, the angels come to remind them that this was not the time to be expecting Jesus to behave like something of this world, but rather like God incarnate. That reminder should ring true for us, and for the greater church, as it did for those disciples. Rather than staring up at the sky, or assuming Christ is gone and trying to become Christ ourselves through hard work, our task is to worship and to embrace the paradox of our faith.


Written by sameo416

May 16, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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