"We Don't Know...and That's Okay"
A couple of weeks ago the Hill Town Charter School sent 60 middle schoolers over here to talk with me about Christianity. They’re studying world religions and this seemed as good a place as any to come and ask what all this is really about. So for the better part of an hour I stood right up here and answered every question they could think of beginning with: “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
Followed by questions like:
“What do you think of sex before marriage?”
“If your buildings keep burning down, why do you keep building new ones?”
“How do you make Holy Water?”
“Do you believe only Christians go to heaven?”
“Do you believe that the bread and wine for communion are the body and blood of Jesus?”
And a follow up, if I may: “Why would Jesus want you to eat and drink him?”
It was, what’s the word?… oh, yeah… terrifying!
Because, the truth is, I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Not definitively. Except the one about how to make Holy Water. There’s a rubric for that. But, you know, whether the water is really holy or holier than any other water after I say the magic words is anyone’s guess.
You’d think that having been raised a Christian, having gone to school and received a “Masters of Divinity,” and having served in ministry for 28 years, that I’d at least know some things for sure and for certain…but honestly, not so much.
The truth is, the longer I do this, the less I know and the more embarrassed I become about the things I thought I knew way back when.
So I actually began the session with a disclaimer. I told them that I was just one Christian out of 2.2 billion and could not speak for all of us about anything, because there are as many different ideas about Christianity as there are Christians.
“All I can really tell you,” I said, “is what it means to me to be a Christian, and” - as if that weren’t bad enough “I should also tell you that what it means to me to be a Christian - what I think about Jesus, the Bible, and everything else connected to my faith - is constantly changing.
So all I can really tell you,” I said, “is what I think about these things right now, on a Tuesday at 1:09 in the afternoon on this the 7th day of February in the year of our Lord 2023. Come back next week, and I’ll probably have something new and different to say about it all.”
I wanted to be honest with the kids, but I was terrified in part because I know that when I was a kid, growing up in an evangelical church, I would have heard my words and dismissed me right away as a wishy-washy liberal who obviously didn’t know her Bible at all.
You see, back in the day, I thought that what it meant to be a Christian was perfectly clear because I’d been taught that it was perfectly clear. A Christian is someone who has been born again. A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus and therefore will not perish but have eternal life. It says so, right there, clear as day in John chapter 3.
And it does. But you know what? It also says a whole lot more. And because the evangelical faith of my youth taught me to not just believe in the scripture but to love scripture, I found as I grew up that the more time I spent with scripture, but particularly this scripture, the more I realized that these verses which had been passed down to me as the final proof, the key, the “gospel in miniature,” raised many more questions than they answered.
I mean, it’s one thing to say that if I believe in Jesus I will have eternal life.
But what does it mean to believe? Is belief what I think is true? Is it what I hope is true? Is it what I know beyond a doubt is true?
And what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Are we talking belief in his divinity or in his teachings? Is this about what I think in my head about Jesus or is it more a question of what I feel in my heart? Is it about what I do with my life? Does it all come down to what I say in a prayer? Or is it some mysterious combination of all of the above?
And how exactly is one born again… or born of water…. or born of the Spirit…or born anew… or born from above?
Nicodemus certainly doesn’t know and that has everything to do with the fact that Jesus. Doesn’t. Say.
On the contrary, he tells Nicodemus straight out that not only do we not know; we never will. It’s like the wind, says Jesus, you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes, anymore than you know how being born works.
And he’s right. I mean, we’ve all done it or we wouldn’t be here, but think back to the first time you decided to be born. Remember that? Remember picking out your parents, your eye color, whether you’d be left handed or have an ear for music? Me either. So what makes anyone think that we’d have more control over it the second time around?
Once you really start to dig into this story it’s hard to imagine how any one could turn this into a litmus test for what we absolutely need to do or know or believe for sure and for certain in order to be saved.
In fact, knowing anything absolutely for sure and for certain as a person of faith, seems to be the exact posture that is being called into question here.
Take a look back at the text with me. John chapter 3 begins with Nicodemus - a wise, faithful, well respected leader in his faith community - coming to talk to Jesus, only to have everything he thought he knew called into question.
“Rabbi, we know…” are the very first words out of his mouth. “Rabbi, we know…,” and Jesus’ whole response could easily be summed up as, “Nope. No, you don’t. Frankly, Nicodemus, you have no idea.”
And can I just say that I love how the lectionary pairs this reading with the story of God calling Abram, because Abram - the wise, faithful, well respected leader and Father of not just Nicodemus’ faith community, but our faith community and the Islamic faith community - had no idea either.
When it comes to understanding true faithfulness, these two make an interesting pair.
Because, you see, in order for Abram to become a faithful follower of God, he had to leave his country, his family, and his father’s house, meaning that Abram had to leave behind everything he knew in order to become who God was calling him to be. And what was that? “I will bless you that you might be a … a blessing…a blessing for the entire world.”
In order for Nicodemus to see the kingdom of God, he too will need to leave behind everything he knows. In order for Nicodemus to become a faithful follower of God he will need to be open to this new thing God is doing in the world.
But in order to receive what Jesus has to offer he will have to let go; let go of his identity as an expert, as a man who already has all the answers, as a faith leader who can be trusted to show others the way. If he learns anything in this conversation, it is that he will need to start over, let it all go, leave it all behind - just like Abram - and start again as a beginner.
And that is hard. Starting over is hard. Letting go of everything you thought you knew and the power and status and sense of security and maybe even superiority that comes with that is brutal.
But in both these stories, it seems to me that if God is to be followed, if God is to be found, it will be in the unknowing, the undoing, and the unraveling of all our certainties…and I think there is some really good news in that for people like us for two reasons.
First, I think this is good news for us as Progressive Christians because I think we often carry some measure of shame or guilt for not being more sure of our ourselves and our faith. You know what I’m talking about?
We feel drawn to God and the good we can do as part of a church community, and we find ourselves inspired by the deeper meaning at work in these stories.
But ask us what we think about the virgin birth or whether people of other religions can be saved or why we unequivocally welcome LGBTQ folx when it clearly states in the 5th verse of the 18th chapter of Acts or Leviticus or whatever that this is true or that is wrong and what do we do? We clam up. We shut down because we don’t know how to respond to that kind of absolute certainty.
But what if certainty is the opposite of faith? What if Abram and Nicodemus are here to teach us that faith has a lot more to do with trusting God and following God and just doing your best to welcome and love people in the name of God precisely when you don’t know for sure or for certain what’s going on or what you should do next or why?
I mean God called Abram to follow, but God was never clear about where they were going or how they were going to get there or how long it would take. In Abram’s case, being a faithful follower was much more about the journey than the destination. He didn’t settle down until the day he died.
And I think about the three faiths that claim this wandering Aramean as our ancestor. As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we have done a lot of good in the world when we have kept our focus on being a blessing to others.
But when we have retreated and entrenched ourselves in our own particular understandings of God, when we have established ourselves and insisted that our way of believing is the better way, the right way, the only way, when we have cared more about being right about God then doing right by all of God’s children…well, let’s just say that we have ceased to be a blessing at all.
So much of the damage and destruction, the violence and the wars, the stripping away of people’s rights and freedoms not just throughout history but right now, can be traced back to people who are absolutely certain that their faith gives them the right to rule over others (I’m looking at you Tennessee) rather than seeing in their faith a call to simply love and serve others.
And as a result of that overreach and abuse, people are walking away from organized religion in general and the church in particular in record numbers…and weirdly enough that’s where I find the second piece of good news. Because I think it is well past time for that way of being religious to die. Certainly for that way of being Christian to go. And it is well past time for something new to be born. Amen?
Friends, I wonder and I hope and I trust…one might even say I believe… I believe that a new way of being Christian is struggling to be born, perhaps even amongst people like you and me, struggling to be born amongst people who are far less certain about the specifics of what it means to be a Christian and therefore far more open to welcoming and working with others in humility, service, and love.
I don’t think we need to feel guilty for not knowing or believing in things more strongly. I actually think cultivating that kind of openness and humility is the key to whatever is coming next.
And I’m not talking about ignorance. I’m not talking about ignoring or not knowing your Bible because it doesn’t matter what it says. I’m talking about knowing your Bible well enough to see exactly what it says - what Jesus himself said - that this life of faith may require you to be born not once, not twice, but over and over and over again as you journey with God and toward God.
Like Abram, we may not arrive at the promised land of certainty until the day we die. We may wonder and wander through this life, always growing, learning, and changing, and you know what? That is not just okay. I dare say that is a blessing. A blessing for you. A blessing for me. A blessing that just might have the power to save the world. Amen.