Sunday, 25 March 2007

Thoughts for today

The Text for this morning's sermon

Year C Lent 5 Passion Sunday (2007) RCL Principal

Isaiah 43.16-21
Philippians 3. 4b-14
John 12.1-8


There are a number of things I am passionate about and over a pint and packet of peanuts will wax lyrical over all sorts of things – Motorcycles, guitars, Star Trek, philosophy, real ale, music, movies, children, marriage – the list goes on and on; and so I do, as many people will tell you.

A couple of weeks ago we had our marriage preparation day, which we offer to all couples soon to marry in the Parish Churches of our Papworth Team. It was a good day, and it is always invigorating to see young (and not so young) people setting out on the journey of discovery that is marriage. These people are passionate about each other, and want the world to know it too.

But there is one thing that I hold deeply, believe strongly, and claim of supreme importance, but many people might not think I’m passionate about – and, much as I am ashamed to say it – that is my faith.

I wonder how many people would describe me as someone who is passionate about my faith? This is a rhetorical question, so please don’t take it as an opportunity to heckle or otherwise harass the Vicar. I wonder how many people would describe any of us as ‘passionate Christians’? Would even our friends and family do so?

I’m not trying to make any of us feel inadequate, or point the finger – but I find myself challenged by today’s scripture readings given for this Sunday. And I am challenged by the name traditionally given to this, the fifth Sunday in Lent, Passion Sunday.

Of course, the Passion referred to by the traditional name for today leads us towards thinking of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ which we will consider in the coming weeks as we lead through Palm Sunday to Holy Week into Good Friday. But I as I was considering the Sermon for this week I remembered that a few years ago – on the fifth Sunday in Lent 2003 – we were talking about our Papworth Team Mission Statement; and especially about the part where we have pledged ourselves to ‘live our Christian lives with Passion’. I wondered where we have come since then. Our mission statement still stands, we still claim this as a mainstay of our shared Christian life in the thirteen villages,

Where is our passion?

I’m not saying that we don’t have any passion. Nor am I saying that to be passionate about our faith we have to be particularly demonstrative in an outward, gushing way. We are not all called to preach on street corners – actually with the quality of most soapbox preachers I’m not sure that anyone is called to preach on street corners. I must admit I rather like the idea of smouldering passion – but that’s probably because I read too much Victorian Poetry when I was in my teens!

But our passion for Christ should be real, it should be overwhelming, it should be something that colours every aspect of our life. As the body of Christ in this area we have committed ourselves to living our lives as Christians with passion.

If we think about the things which we hold dear, family, friends, experiences, talents, memories, motorbikes, whatever, is our passion for Jesus in any way like our passion for these things?

Our Gospel reading is the moving account of a woman whose passion for Christ causes her kneel before him and cover his feet with perfume, wiping them with her hair. In that moment she offers her gift to him, a costly gift, and demonstrates her commitment to Jesus. In many ways she offers herself to Christ, showing her complete devotion, and performing a great service of love to him.

Likewise we are called to offer ourselves to Christ- completely. In the letter the Romans St Paul talks of making every thought captive to Christ. Jesus himself says that our faith can not be half hearted, as in his summary of the law, which is recited most times at holy Communion, as he says ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.’

And this challenge to live passionate, devoted lives is echoed and amplified by St Paul. Paul is someone who has allowed himself to be changed by God, to be made new, and he knows how easily things might have been different.

In our reading from his letter to the Philippians Paul lists all of the things that gave him status in the Jewish faith, he catalogues all the claims of family, religion, status, and personal choice that might so easily have kept him from Christ, and they make an impressive catalogue. All of his learning, all of his social and religious status might well have prevented him from truly seeing and being committed to Christ – but, through the grace of God, he does know Christ – and what flows through this passage is Paul’s overwhelming sense of joy and privilege in knowing Christ Jesus.

Paul’s devotion is complete, his commitment to Christ so strong that he says “…whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. His devotions springs from the fact that he recognises that no effort of his own, no goodness of his own, has brought him here. It is, from first to last, the work of God in Christ.

To be truly dedicated to Christ is to be willing to do whatever is necessary to truly live Christian lives. In the reading from Philippians St. Paul talks about sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Paul is not advocating that we embrace suffering as a discipline, or because it is good for us, or out of some vague piety, but because, whatever happens, we must not be parted from Christ. If clinging to Christ takes you through suffering and death, then, Paul proclaims with fierce joy, that is a small price to pay for the enormous privilege of belonging to Christ.

Lent should be a time when we face up to difficult questions – and there is no more difficult question than Jesus question to us ‘who do you say that I am?’ Do we say that he is our Lord and Saviour? Or do we see him as a good man with some good advice who has no real calling on our own lives and what we do? Are we passionate about our faith? Do we cling to Christ as Mary clung to him or consider all else loss because of Christ?

As Christians we must search ourselves constantly that we might understand the motivations of our own heart. Lent is a good time to reconsider our commitment and devotion to Christ so that we can follow the example of Mary and of St Paul. Perhaps then we can join with Paul in saying this, the last verse of this morning’s reading from Philippians:
“…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

I hope this will be the goal and prize of each one of us. I hope that we too will seek to live our Christian lives with passion

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Mothering Sunday Sermon

Mothering Sunday (2007) Year C RCL
Exodus 2.1-10
John 19.25-27

Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday, which is today, always presents a few problems for those of us called to preach on this day. With the changing patterns of our world and society, the changes in the structure and nature of ‘family’, and the terrible misuse of power that has come from the concept of ‘Mother Church’ something which should be a relatively simple subject becomes something of a minefield for us humble preachers.

For we cannot pretend that families are what they were fifty, thirty or even ten years ago. Nor can we pretend that the Church has taken the responsibility it should have in caring for its members in the last few hundred years. So perhaps today is a good chance to remind ourselves what we should be thinking about, rather than pretending that everything is hunky-dory and having a nice bland sermon that affirms a no longer existent way of life.

And the reading we have had for today actually lend themselves to a little bit of counter-cultural application. They are good readings in fact – with plenty for us to get our teeth into over the next eight minutes or so…

Let’s begin at the beginning – with our Old Testament reading. It’s one that acknowledges that families aren’t straightforward and never have been. A good one to start our thinking about Mothering Sunday, and the issues surrounding our ideas of family. Moses mother recognises the danger to herself and to her son in a culture that is hostile to them, and being a canny woman finds an alternative to having her child executed. The extract from the book of Exodus that we heard this morning offers what seems like a happy ending, with Moses being brought up by his mother and then taken in my Pharaoh’s daughter to be brought up a prince. All a bit like a fairy story really, but we know that Moses goes on to grow up and to be thrown out of the royal court after murdering a slave master caught beating an Israelite. Not really a happy ending, then.

But through this act, and through Moses later obedience to God the children of Israel are brought out of slavery into the land promised to Abraham many generations before. God really does work in mysterious way and all beginning with the actions of a mother concerned for her child’s life, a mother willing to do things a different way, a dangerous way, in order that her son might live.

And the message here is perhaps one of being imaginative in our approach to families, to relationships, to taking risks. This is a message that applies to all of us, not just those who are mothers. The Christian faith has always been concerned with issues of fidelity in relationships and the importance of the family, but we have tied it up with our societal adoption of the nuclear family – the model of mum, dad and 2.4 children. This isn’t a model that we get from the Bible – far from it, we have concubines, various wives, extended families, families which are open to bringing in others and caring for them – anything but the nuclear family.

More important is an affirmation of faithfulness in any relationship – and the message that family exists where people are loving towards one another – not just where there are mum, dad and children.

I firmly believe our society needs to rediscover the extended family, and the fact that the family should be an open and inclusive group, not a narrowly defined exclusive unit. This makes it possible to affirm relationships that go beyond the narrow perception of family, and to talk in terms of loving relationships of commitment and honesty.

I do not advocate losing the traditional model of marriage, I believe that marriage is a sacrament that is given in grace by God. I do want us to stop idealising marriage as the only way of expressing relationships and being family. The Church must affirm single people, and offer love and support to those whose marriage has ended, through death or divorce. In the world in which we live the Church has to be both prophetic in condemning the lose approach to relationships and commitment that characterises modern society and supportive to those who fall outside of traditional frameworks, for whatever reason.

Above all we must learn in the Church to be family, to be a place where all are welcome – regardless of age, status, sexual orientation, race, class or any of the barriers we make to inclusiveness.

There is no room for judgementalism, closed-mindedness, exclusivity or arrogance in the Biblical model of the Church, the community of God. Though we often do not live up to this ideal, it is still something we should strive for. God calls us to be loving, open, forgiving – we must take this seriously and seek to be like this, for when we are, then people will want to be a part of our Church family.

I would go so far to say that if the Church at large, including ourselves, was known for being loving, and for reflecting the unconditional love of God, then we would no longer have to worry about any decline in attendance, people would be queuing to get in every day, let alone on Sundays.

We have another example of the love and support which we should be encouraging in our short, but poignant Gospel reading for today. We hear Jesus words at the scene of his Crucifixion, as he turns to his mother and says of the beloved disciple ‘here is your son’ and to the disciple ‘here is your mother.’

I find this short Gospel passage striking for two reasons. Firstly, it astounds me that even through the agony he suffers Jesus seeks to comfort his own mother and one of his closest friends by creating a relationship of dependence between them.

The second reason I find this striking is that there is again a statement about family, that family exists where we make it – it is not necessarily a given – not something that comes about just by birth, or blood, or tradition. Family means work, it should mean support and love and mutuality - but it also means effort. Jesus recognized that, so should we. Both in the relationships we have with our kin, and in the supportive, forgiving, loving relationships that should characterize our Church life.

And so this Mothering Sunday we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to being the loving, open community that we should be. When this happens then we should be able to use the description of ‘Mother Church’ again without irony, and in creating a community that affirms and welcomes those within and without traditional models relationship we will be able to appreciate the work and love of those whose calling is to be mothers, and those whose calling is not.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Sermon for 3rd Lent

Lent 3 (2007) Year C RCL Principal


It doesn’t stop with being saved!

People have some pretty strange ideas about what it means to be a Christian… Quite often I hear the words ‘well, I don’t go to Church, but I try to be a good person’. Or ‘I’m a Christian, I’m interested in spiritual things’.

I’ve said it before, but trying to be good, or even coming to Church or reading the Bible doesn’t actually make a person a Christian – any more than sleeping in a garage makes you a car. There is something more to the way we live, the way we are, when we are followers of Jesus Christ.

Over the past few sermons I’ve said that being a Christian involves cost, sacrifice, struggle. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Jesus talking about following him being like a king sending his armies into battle and deciding whether or not he has the strength and manpower to engage in a war. It is a costly business.

Jesus reminds us again in today’s reading that being a Christian is not about the easy route, or that it is just a matter of saying ‘it’s OK, I’m saved’ and leaving it there. Being a Christian must make a difference – to everything.

Now let me re-iterate, that the forgiveness that is offered to us by Jesus Christ comes without cost to us. The sin which afflicts our lives, and indeed the whole creation, has been ultimately defeated by Christ through his death on the cross and his resurrection to new life that first Easter Day. That sacrifice was offered with no strings attached on our part, God’s love is unconditional, his grace freely given.

Yet in order to receive that freely given, freely offered grace and forgiveness we have to turn away from sin and turn to Christ. That wonderful old fashioned word ‘repent’ means just that ‘turn around’. In today’s Gospel we are told in no uncertain terms
‘unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’
Those who perished were those who were crushed by a tower that fell down in a place called ‘Siloam’. But Jesus is drawing a parallel between their physical death and the spiritual death of the sin filled life.

And Jesus has no time for sin. It is a cancer, and evil that afflicts the soul. Sin is the reason for his death, and ultimately the reason for the death that comes to all life. Sin eats away at reality, it draws us away from God. We cannot follow Christ and live in our sins at the same time.

Now I’m not known for being the ‘repent or die’ kind of preacher – fire and brimstone’ or ‘turn or burn’ preaching seems to be to be used too often to try and frighten people into becoming Christians. And we are told in scripture of God’s perfect love which casts out fear.

But I do believe that we have to take sin seriously, and to ask questions of those who claim to be Christians yet are not living up to the standards that Christ proclaims and indeed demands of those who follow him.

To follow Christ isn’t to amble about mindlessly generally hoping we are going in the right direction, to follow Christ means to keep him in sight, seeking his guidance, following his way, being willing even to follow him to death.

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating! The word disciple – which is the proper name for all those who seek to be Christ like and to follow Jesus – is a word that comes from discipline. We are called to the discipline of Christ. As St Paul says ‘we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’. (2 Corinthians 10 v 5).

And a life which doesn’t, with God’s help, seek to deal with sin and its destructive effects isn’t seeking to follow Christ. It cheapens grace and the sacrifice made by Christ.

This may seem rather strident, and not in keeping with my usual softly, softly approach, but I think we all need to be reminded that our faith must make demands on us. We cannot take God’s grace and mercy for granted.

Jesus illustrates this vividly in the parable he tells in this morning’s Gospel passage. The fig tree that bears no fruit is given the opportunity to grow, with nurture and care, but if there is no response to that nurture and care it will be chopped down and burned.

Interestingly, Jesus most strident and striking imagery of eternal death or divine punishment isn’t directed at non-believers, but against those who claim to follow him and yet don’t live up to that calling. Now we can argue about whether these are literal images that Jesus sets out or whether they are forms of story which seek to spur his followers into action – but if we take Jesus’ teaching seriously we must note this – that being a Christian must make a difference to our lives. It must make a difference in the way we speak, act and even think. In the choices we make, in what we do with our money, in the way we spend our time, in the priorities we have in our lives, in our attitudes towards others, in our moral and social lives. As a follower of Christ we are called to be like Christ.

Earlier in this Gospel we have strong warnings on the same theme – chapter 3 verse 9 says that ‘the axe is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’. In Chapter 6Jesus points out that those who live up to the values of the kingdom will bear good fruit, and by the fruit of our lives we are known.

So what is that fruit? Well the fruit of the Spirit is summed up beautifully in the letter to the Galatians, where Paul writes:
22…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control.
This is the kind of lifestyle that repentance and the discipline of Christ will bring about.

And though it may seem that I have been rather negative through this whole sermon, I do want to end on a note of grace!

We can’t live up to these standards alone, but we have the promise of the Spirit to help us in our struggling. Our life as a disciple will not be an easy one, and we will need to work at it. We cannot expect God to do all of the work for us, nor can we take God’s forgiveness for granted. If we are to live life to its fullest degree we must open ourselves up to God’s Spirit working in us and through us. This means making the effort to live better lives, but this should be the result of the Spirit living in us, not an attempt to be better people for the sake of it.

We pray for God’s grace to inspire, transform and guide our lives, that we become the people that Christ calls us to be. Amen.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

I believe

The full text of my talk last week:

I believe

Congratulations on making it to the first of our talks for this Lenten period as we grapple with the Apostle’s Creed. As it was my suggestion that we follow this series over these five weeks it is also my responsibility to say why this is a good idea, and what we hope will happen, before I get on with talking about what we are doing when we say ‘I believe…’ particularly when we consider this creed that we will be looking and saying together over the coming weeks…

I’ll come clean and say that the reason we are looking at this document over the coming weeks is because I think that on the whole very few of us really think about what we are doing when we stand up together and say the Creeds. Week by week we reel off either the Apostle’s Creed – our subject of study and the version used in morning and evening prayer; or the Nicene Creed – a longer document used at Holy Communion started with the early Church council of Nicea in 325 a.d. The Creed was formally adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 a.d

The Apostle’s Creed has been attributed to the twelve apostles, each contributing one of the twelve articles which make up the Creed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is a rather fanciful story and those who study these things believe the roots of the Creed to be in a first or second century statement of faith called the ‘Old Roman symbol’ and was influenced by the Nicene Creed. The earliest potential record we have of the Apostle’s creed is a reference in a document of 390 which refers to the ‘Apostle’s symbol’ but some theologians date the Creed to as late as the fifth century.

We don’t have a definitive date or place or origin of this Creed, but we do know something of the purpose of having a Creed.

Actually to take a step back as I just said the Creed was referred to as a ‘symbol’ which is described as indicium, i.e. a token or password by which Christians might recognize each other, and collatio, that is to say an offering made up of separate contributions. In other words the Creed was about togetherness – it showed that Christians were united in a certain understanding of the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit which in itself from the work of a body of scholars or apostles within the Church itself.

And that is where I want to start, really, in thinking about the Creed. In choosing the Apostle’s creed for brevity (to be honest it was easier to fit in five sessions on this on than the Nicene) we come up against one common misconception with the very first words – I believe.

The first point!
This primary misconception is firstly that the creed is about me and my belief. I don’t mean me – I mean the individual – that it is about taking on a certain approach to faith for myself. Actually this couldn’t really be further from the purpose of the Creed which was not to authenticate the individual’s own personal approach to religion but to align and draw together the body of Christ under one umbrella of faith in which all are a part. To this extent the Creed is as much about belonging as believing. It is about submitting to the discipline of faith, and saying that this is faith of the Church and I am a part of this.

In saying ‘I believe’ at the start of this creed – rather than the ‘we believe’ which is rather more obvious at the start of the Nicene Creed – we are submitting to, aligning with and including ourselves in the Church which bears and seeks to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ. It is not an exercise in individualism, and those who put together this Creed and the early Christians who shared in its proclamation wouldn’t even have understood the idea of individual belief in the way that we do today.

The second point!
Having made that statement about a shared approach to faith, I now want to think about our understanding of what it means to say I believe and then to follow that with a whole lot a thoughts about the nature of God and the Christian life. In order to do this I want to consider the ideas behind the words ‘Faith’ and ‘Belief’. Two words of common currency in the Christian world, and indeed the world of Religion and Philosophy. Two very important words, often used, but used with a whole load of sub-texts, particularly in the Church. Perhaps you say the Creed week by week without ever thinking about what you are doing, or like a number of clergy I know, say some bits of it with your fingers cross (at least mentally) – because you are expected to subscribe intellectually to a whole raft of ideas, some of which you might not feel completely happy about.

So, I want us all to think about this whole faith and belief thing again, to consider what we mean when we say ‘I believe’ or when we say ‘I have faith in x or y’

I should say, though, what the rest of this talk will not do –
  • it will not tell you how you can have faith
  • it will not explain the deeper mysteries of faith, and prove the existence of God once and for all
  • it will not set out what you are and are not allowed to believe and still call yourself a Christian

What I do want to do is think about these words, their meaning, and how looking at and thinking about them again can add to the richness of our own experience of God and relationship to our (for want of a better word) faith.

We use the word ‘belief’ all of the time in our expression of what it means to be a Christian. If we really think about it, though, we should soon move on to considering ‘what is it to actually believe that x is the case’ closely followed by the question ‘what difference does this make to the way I think, act, feel and live my life.’ Are we willing to ask these questions – because if we do we might find the answers strange or difficult? But, to examine the meaning of these words ‘faith and belief’ is first of all to bring to our attention the importance of these words.

Words have power in us, they give form and meaning to ideas, emotions, hope. To be willing to subject the meaning of something to scrutiny is to be willing to open ourselves to a new meaningfulness in ourselves, and to make possible a new richness in our use of language, and to allow it to sink deeper into our consciousness and our souls.

Meaning and change
So, as we think about meaning lets take the essay writer’s favourite opening gambit and look at the dictionary definition. The little Oxford dictionary talks of belief as:
“Trust, confidence; acceptances as true or existing, what is believed.” Whilst faith is defined as “Trust, belief in religious doctrine or divine truth; religion; loyalty, fidelity; confidence.”

These are typical definitions and reflect a common approach to the study of faith and belief – that is, the concern is to examine what intellectual assertions one can make about the nature of faith/belief and what effect this has on those who claim to have faith. A lot of the study I’ve done on faith and belief relates to what can be known empirically, what can be measured about these things. It tends to relate this to religious structures, symbols, doctrines, and traditions, or to a study of the language used by believers and how that language relates to the world outside.

Now I’m not saying that these definitions are wrong in any way. It’s just they reflect a contemporary understanding of ideas of faith and belief. It’s very much a modernistic, mechanistic way of seeing the world, a rational, post-enlightenment way of viewing the world. In a way it’s a kind of scientific study of ideas, trying to reduce them to a basic level at which they can be measured.

Of course this is very much a most enlightenment view, and our world – at least western society – has lost faith in the post-enlightenment world-view (but that’s a whole new seminar and one which I wouldn’t want to unleash on such an unsuspecting and generous audience as yourselves, at the risk of watching your brains ooze out of your ears as I get more and more obscure). Suffice to say that in our current world we are finding that people want definitions that reflect more than the scientific, more than the rational, something that embraces mystery, that is more open ended, that takes our experiences into account and offers something for us to hold on to.

I do acknowledge that words change their meanings over time, for instance, in Elizabethan times ‘indifference’ meant without prejudice and fair, now it means that one doesn’t really care. Which is why the compilers of Common Worship changed the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer from ‘rightly and indifferently minister justice’ to ‘rightly and impartially minister justice’ As for the ideas of what faith and belief are, if their meaning was inconsequential then it wouldn’t matter, but it does, because we use them frequently and because we claim that they are meaningful to the extent of being life-changing…

A Start
I have had lots of people, both non-Christians and Christians, talk to me about ‘what should I believe’ or ‘I wish I believed what you did’ or ‘I wish I had your faith’. I think I know what they meant, but at the same time the words become swapped around, confused, and lose meaning by being used interchangeably. It’s as if faith and belief come a single package, and the two are indistinguishable. But I don’t think they are – and I’m pretty sure most people don’t actually think they are either.

Basically, most people in the Church would talk about ‘belief’ as some kind of intellectual assent to certain doctrinal statements – a kind of ‘apprehension of the facts’ which when gathered together creates Christian belief. Like a Creed – for most of us, it’s a set of ‘beliefs’ that we claim to have mentally assimilated (to a greater or lesser extent) and which we affirm.

Faith is considered by many philosophers as a ‘quality’ – not entirely definable, not something that can be contained, held within any kind of narrative or logical description, but based within a relationship, something on a deeper level than the intellect – at the same time, though, faith is something less than ‘knowledge’ – when I say have faith that x is the case I am saying that I don’t know that this is so, but that I expect this to be so. So when someone says ‘I have faith in God’ – they are making a statement of hope, of an engagement with a deeper reality, maybe a statement based on a profound and affective experience, but not a statement concerned with empirical observation and rational knowledge, as such.

Belief is often considered subject to faith – one has to ‘have faith’ in order to believe. If I have a Christian Faith, for instance, I can buy into what Christians claim to believe – stuff about Jesus being God, about Virgin Births, about resurrection. It all comes as a package after I decide that this is what I am going to believe.

This division between Faith and belief, as (in the most simplistic terms faith- spiritual and emotional, belief – intellectual and rational) such an approach, though popular, is too easy, too rationalistic, too narrow. It doesn’t take into account where the words come from, and this is what I hope might make us think differently.

Faith reconsidered.
Faith is what makes everything else possible. It is the state of being in relationship to God, to the divine. Faith is the response of the person to God. It is intimate, it is personal. St Augustine said “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” I think this is quite a good way to think of faith, a relationship, perhaps unnamed, a search for God.
Faith is that root, that grounding which opens us up to the possibility of God.

Which leads us on to consider the real crux of our subject for tonight (though don’t for a minute think I’ve finished with faith!) Belief!

The idea of intellectually coming to terms with doctrinal propositions was alien to the first Christians, and indeed to the Greek philosophers who were so influential on the formation of the Creeds and expressions of faith of the early Church. To them faith and belief were one and the same, they were expressions of a relationship with God, and for the Christian a reflection of a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ through God’s Holy Spirit.

There is only one Creedal statement in the whole of the New Testament. Only one thing that has a similar format to the idea of Creeds as we refer to them now, It can be found in the letter to the Romans Chapter 10 verse 9, St Paul writes there:
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart He was raised from the dead, you shall be saved”

But it wasn’t belief as we express it today. In it’s origin the idea of believing is not doctrinal, not intellectual, but relational. To believe was to cherish, to relate to, to hold fast to something that was valuable. It wasn’t to argue about it’s rationality, it wasn’t to justify something philosophically or in theological terms, belief was about trust, about intimacy. And here is why I think this is so important:

The word belief comes from an old English route. It literally means to ‘hold something close’ to ‘be Leif’ to something. Instead of claiming something to be objectively true one would take something close to them, they would draw it into their heart and cling to it. It was an emotional response, a response of the soul.

So the early Christians would not have spent hours discussing spiritual laws, or debating the merits of one system of thought over another, instead they gathered to pray and sing and share bread and wine. They clung to the reality of what they believed, rather than discussing it. A trip through scripture was an adventure to see what God was saying, not to discuss whether x or y was true or could be explained.

To see belief in this way is to see the fact that the point of being a Christian was to relate to God and to the stories of Jesus and indeed to Jesus and the Spirit in a living and dynamic way.

If we can move beyond a mentality that simply tries to explain the Christian Faith as ‘facts’ that have to be adhered to then we can (to paraphrase) learn to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind. Not just by over intellectualising and seeking to bludgeon searchers into having the ‘right beliefs’ in order to become a Christian.

I’m sure that most, if not all of us, would describe the basis of our faith as relational, it is about relating to a God who is infinite yet intimate. A God who seeks to be a part of our lives and who loves us and longs for us to love God as we are loved. Our preoccupation with doctrine and rationalism has obscured the original meaning of what to believe really is – we are called to hold fast to Christ, to be close to Christ, to know God personally, not only intellectually.

So our search for truth becomes, in essence, a search for God. We stop thinking in an objective, external way about ‘what truth is’ and realise that the truth of God is found in a human relationship with him. A relationship based on trust, love and searching on our part, and on the self-giving nature of God, on God’s part. Our ‘I believe’ is a commitment to that search.

The Example of Jesus
Something that might help us grasp this a little more is to look at what is said by St Paul in Galatians about Jesus’ faith. Actually the verse I want to refer to is Galatians 6.21 and the original thoughts about this come from Markus Barth which was published in the Heythrop Journal in 1969.
The NRSV translates the part of the verse I want to consider thus:
“15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus.”
Barth, in a long and complicated discussion which would take a very long time to go through tells us that the phrase ‘justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus’ is better translated ‘through the faith of Jesus.’

A very inadequate summary goes like this:
For those of you who like New Testament (koine) Greek the argument revolves around the whether pistis (a Greek word translated faith/belief interchangeably in many New Testaments) is neither an objective nor a subjective genitive, but a specifically Pauline ‘mystical Genitive’ which is also called a ‘genitive of fellowship’ – under such an understanding Paul is making a point about what faith is and where it comes from. Also the word ek in Greek can be translated of, in and from. This means that the faith of Christ, with overtones of faith being from Christ is very possible. Further, it relates to the Old Testament concept of ‘faithfulness’ which Paul refers to frequently and reflects, like the letter to the Hebrews, the idea of Christ as ‘The Author and Perfecter of faith’. It his faith we seek to emulate, his relationship with God and his prayerful, dynamic, intimate fellowship that forms the basis of what belief is.

In other words, the idea that Christians should base their faith on doctrines about Jesus (which we call ‘believing in Christ’) is not an adequate understanding of what faith is. To use the terms I’ve been using so far, Christians tend to believe thing about Jesus and base our faith around concepts about Jesus. What Barth argues is that we need to look more at what Jesus believed and buy into that.

If we are justified, if we are in a relationship with God because of Jesus, says Barth, it is because of his faith, which we share. If you think about that for a moment it’s quite pivotal. We are justified, says Paul, not by our faith in Christ, but by having Christ’s faith. This does not seek to negate the need to know about Christ, but calls us as Christians to seek to know Christ above all else, and to share his faith.

So our focus becomes not doctrine, but relationship.

When Jesus talked of God he didn’t talk about God in abstract intellectual terms, he talked about God and related to God as his heavenly father, he was in relationship to him.

Likewise in talking about the Holy Spirit he talked about the one who was a part of his life, and promised to all believers, the energetic, life giving spirit of God who inspires and conspires – meaning shares in breathing life – believers.

This isn’t new, though the way I’ve expressed it may seem different. It forms the basis of a new mentality, though – away from seeing ‘belief’ as a block of doctrine or facts that we have to somehow get our heads around and take on board. Instead the analogy of a journey, of progress and movement, of a pilgrimage becomes the best way of expressing this. On a pilgrimage it is as much the journey itself that is important as the end point, as much the mystery of the route as the destination, as much the discovery as the goal. If we can get away from being hide-bound to doctrine then we can start finding out what believing, what holding close, really means.

I believe
So in the context of our series what does it mean for us to say ‘I believe..’?

As we look over the next few weeks as this core document of the Christian faith I invite you again to consider not just the intellectual implications of all of our talks but to allow this to be a devotional series. So that when we find ourselves saying ‘I believe’ we are not making intellectual assent to certain doctrinal propositions, but acknowledging our relationship to a God who reveals himself to us, and devoting ourselves to loving and trusting him.