22. Nor does the pastor embody Jesus in the forced recitation of words, empty or well-meant.
Virtually everything I teach conforms to historic Christian orthodoxy. And yet, there are many Christians who call me a heretic.
Granted, I often call myself a heretic and encourage thoughtful followers of Christ to wrestle with many of the things the church has decided. But that isn’t why they call me a heretic.
Their defintion of heresy isn’t defined historically or using the common instruments of connection, such as the World Council of Churches or even in my own tradition, the Anglican Consultative Council or the canons of The Episcopal Church.
They are using their own definition. And their own sense of moral authority. Usually from the personal response to the Bible, citing Sola Scriptura.
It’s a strange feeling, getting called a heretic or kicked out of an ecumenical group for encouraging a greater spirit of ecumenism or appealing to our few common touchstones. I’ve found this is what gets me in trouble. When I name our agreed rules of the road and they don’t align with the one taking a hard line
Like they don’t even understand that I’m honoring my half of an agreement our predecessors made. And they…well, they’re apparently free to make junk up.
The difference isn’t heresy, it’s hermeneutic
Hermeneutic is a fancy word for one’s schema or frame by which they see things. It’s the tinting of their sunglasses. If your shades are black or gray, everything’s dark. If they’re tinted yellow, everything is bathed in color. But all of us have shading on our lenses.
For some, it is pretty drastic and pre-determined. These were the glasses some Christians gathering in the late 19th Century metaphorically handed out when they began calling themselves fundamentalists. They had named certain fundamentals everyone had to believe to be one of them. It dramatically colors how you see things.
Another example comes from progressive Christianity, which loves its historical Jesus scholarship so much it struggles to name the aspects of the Trinity without a thirty minute preamble about what it is not.
So when Martin Luther offered the world a new hermeneutic which made everything under the immutable grace of God, the church had a new rallying cry. Then he went about tearing down the church’s idols.
Resting the nature of faith in God freed the human of impact. This also freed the human from the authority of other humans. Hence, the new authority: the Bible.
But as we can see, the Bible doesn’t settle disputes between two people who read the same thing and come to a different conclusion. While the Bible possess some moral authority, it no longer provides much practical or pastoral authority thanks to our individual hermeneutics.
Scripture and faith alone just don’t cut it now. But many keep sliding down the slippery slope.
With an obsession with making disciples and proclaiming the gospels, many see the ultimate pursuit of Christianity as getting more people “saved.”
This is a concept and formulation with scant Biblical support. It’s a hermeneutic, after all. But the idea of needing to “save” a person needs to have parameters. If saving souls is the point, we need to know when we’ve done it.
And because we’re good westerners living in a consumer culture, we need to evaluate our ministry to determine its effectiveness. We have to count how many souls we save.
So how do we go about this? Count baptisms? Do we determine it by average Sunday attendance or how many new members we bring in? Or do we count how many people “have taken Jesus into their hearts,” a phrase, remember, which isn’t from the Bible.
Some traditions have pastors call people up to the altar in a spontaneous act of grace (so I’m told) and invite people to take Jesus into our hearts and recite the Jesus Prayer. As one coming from a liturgical tradition, I can’t for the life of me understand how this isn’t seen as a staged liturgy with prescribed parts and words.
Our hollow incantations are our best attempt to claim connection with God. Like a sacrament of a different sort, they connect the earthly with the divine in a recognizable moment of clarity and unity. Words forced or true, if we count on Luther’s centrality of grace, then Protestants today are making the problem worse.
Pursuing the right words rather than right relationship
As followers of Christ, we’re all trying to find the right way and the right manner of expressing our faith. We’re looking for the right words.
And many times it isn the words themselves which grab our attention. We obsess about the words and defenders of our inherited words want to keep them for what they represent to the faith. And many who want to change some of our inherited words want to change them for what they represent to the faith.
Because ultimately, it isn’t the words themselves which matter, but the expression of our relationship with God.
A perfect example of this is calling God “Father”.
We all know the patriarchal and literal problem with calling the great divinity a dude. How can God be God and a man? It doesn’t work and we know it.
But some like the parental image; an image extremely important to the way Jesus describes God. So it seems like a really good reason not to touch it.
There’s one complication we don’t take into consideration in the debate, however. That two thousands years ago, people thought men were responsible for creation.
They believed that semen was like a seed and that the womb was a garden, so the man planted the seed in the garden and it grows all by itself in its host until it is born. So, if we were to classify this ancient scientific reasoning according to modern standards, we would say they believed that men were the sole creator of life. And women were just the incubator.
If we were to recognize the purpose in the ancient depiction of who the Father is to creation, we would see God as Father as a rather inclusive and generative concept. It would be a name which describes the sum of creation and describes God really well.
But if we were trying to make the same argument today, we couldn’t. Because we know it is the fertilization of the egg which creates. God has to be both Father and Mother in creation. Just calling God Father can’t cut it.
And keeping the language of an old understanding makes things worse. It mischaracterizes God’s relationship to all of creation and encourages a false relationship between men and women today. Calling God “Father” now sounds like a lie, or at best, a half-truth.
It isn’t just our words
So it isn’t our words, but the very substance these words describe which matters. And that substance is about relationship.
Not a relationship as seller to buyer. Jesus isn’t a divine Pez dispenser, flipped up by magic words to dispense grace pellets in equal measure.
But a relationship those words about accepting Jesus and being on fire for our faith and confessing our sin try to reveal. A relationship which goes beyond a personal thought about our creator or thinking Jesus is your copilot. It informs and colors your whole life in vibrant pastels.
That’s the relationship that’s at stake when we reject others from community. Rejecting them is a rejection of God’s mission for the world. A mission concerned with the restoration of all in the withness of Christ.
And when we make one another share in empty words of a personal faith, we don’t build relationship. We create greater isolation. And this ultimately destroys the withness in community Jesus is building. A presence of Christ enfleshed in us.
[This is Thesis #22 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]