10 Things Christians Can, But Don’t Have to Believe
A sermon based on Amos 5:18-24
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, November 12, 2017 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Our Lectionary lesson today sounds pretty harsh. Amos the prophet does not mince words. Religion done right is about letting loose a non-stop torrent of justice and righteousness. The rituals and dogma and traditions of the religion Amos encountered did not lead to that. They were having the opposite affect, like night is to day; and so Amos uses those opposite metaphors to hammer home the point. What God’s people do in worship means nothing if it doesn’t turn open the flood gates justice and righteousness.
This church was founded 183 years ago with the intent of opening those floodgates and it has strived to keep them open ever since. It’s what Amos prophetically urges. It’s what Jesus taught and did and lived and died for – and was resurrected to continue to call us to.
Unfortunately there are rituals and dogma and traditions in modern Christianity that are not just or righteous . . . and they scare away people who want to be a part of letting justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. I was one of those people for two decades. Since becoming a minister I have put together a list of things people think Christians have to believe, but don’t– things that kept me away and keep others away.
The list’s actually long been on our website and we have a pamphlet form out now. The list has the ten of things I mostly hear about that keep people out of church, or otherwise off Jesus’ Way of opening those flood gates to justice and righteousness. I have come to love Jesus’ path to God and it troubles me I once had – and people today still have– the wrong idea about the faith. So I call the list “10 Things People Think Christians Have to Believe, But Don’t.”
When I arrived at this church you all were pretty much working with this list, though not in writing. And on this the kick-off of our stewardship campaign I think one of the most important things we offer is, not only a place for spiritual growth and a church that wants justice and righteousness to flood the world, but a church that doesn’t allow rituals and dogma and traditions to get in the way or go unchallenged. We do not check our brains at the doors. We are encourage to think. And thinking leads to questioning and challenging. And it is a good thing to respectfully question and challenge.
Christianity has a vast variety of ideas, meant to help us get closer to God and be more loving and just in the world. Not all of them seem to do that for everyone. So I am pointing out “10 Things People Think Christians Have to Believe, But Don’t.” This doesn’t mean Christians can’t believe them, but don’t have to, especially the things that get in the way of letting justice roll down like a waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. The pamphlet numbering order is different, and there is no hierarchy in the order. To better speak about the list, I am working backwards in a different order like this.
The number ten thing people don’t have to believe to be a Christian is that questioning Church traditions is a sin. Since all the things on my list question Church traditions I figured I’d better get this one out front in the sermon and so I start with it. The famous words on the wall behind me are all that God requires of us We are “to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with [our] God.” Note that it doesn’t say don’t respectfully question traditions, in fact Micah was questioning traditions when he made the list!
As Denny pointed out in Adult Forum last week the rest of religion needs to help us do (point) the things listed on the wall. Traditions can be helpful to experience the Sacred, leading us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
For instance, Jesus had a loving community and open to all meal table And there is a Church tradition of recalling that in his last meal he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his followers. He poured out wine and gave it to them. He said powerful words of remembrance. Church tradition remembers this by reenacting the meal often. Some have Communion every service, others every so often. Some limit who can come to the table, some allow all to the table. Some understand the bread and wine is transformed to literally be Christ’s body, others understand it symbolically. Such differences in Communion indicate questions about the tradition exist. We don’t always agree on things. Communion helps Christians connect with God. It’s an effective and Sacred tradition, but, we can question it and questioning it, and not agreeing about it, does not make us un-Christian.
For many of us Communion is a wonderful ritual that works. There are, however, traditions that might not work for us. We ought to be able to question and even challenge them too. For example there’s a tradition in many churches of keeping women from leadership and ordination; this despite the fact Jesus brought women into his movement as equals and as leaders. The tradition of holding women back continues in many denominations, and women face difficulties even in churches where they do lead. We can and we ought to question and challenge that in order to open the floodgates of justice and righteousness.
It’s not just women that Church traditions have oppressed. Church traditions have oppressed Jews and Muslims, promoted slavery and racism, discriminated against non-heterosexuals, even burned witches and heretics. Such awful traditions need questioning and challenging. They are not just or righteous. Jesus questioned traditions and modeled a faith unafraid to challenge the status quo whenever it oppressed anyone. Lepers; Women; Strangers; Hungry; Poor; Imprisoned; Those of other faiths. Christ loved them unconditionally– still does!
So Christians don’t have to believe that questioning Church traditions is a sin.
9. The number nine thing on my list this morning of things Christians don’t have to believe is that the Bible is the inerrant word of God that must be read literally. The Bible does not claim we have to believe such things. Not even all churches claim it, just some do. AND Jesus modeled challenging unjust Scripture. He challenged eye for an eye violence. He touched the unclean. He worked on the Sabbath. He forgave sinners. Through such challenges Jesus poured out justice and righteousness. He loved kindness and walked humbly with God. If we get the same results by challenging Scripture, noting the fallibility of its human origin we can do so – Jesus set the example. Christians don’t have to believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God that must be read literally.
8. The number eight thing that Christians don’t have to believe is that Jesus was born of a virgin. There are many who believe virgin conception as historic truth. A number of Christians hold this belief, and it is dear to us. But there is no requirement that to be a Christian you must believe it literally happened. The Bible, Jesus and Paul do not list it as a requirement. Indeed Scripture makes it clear Christ is an unconditional gift from God. There is no mandate that we must believe Jesus literally had no biological father.
This does not mean the story of the virgin conception can have no meaning to those unable to believe it happened. We can hear the story of Mary’s virgin conception of God as having metaphoric meaning. For example when an angel told Mary she would “conceive” Christ. “Conceive”can be heard to mean to become pregnant, but it can also mean to apprehend, to have conception of something. So Mary’s story can speak truth to all conceptions of God. Since each conception of God occurs between them and God. Right? And we all bear the spark of God within us that needs to be birthed. See, the virgin conception can have meaning beyond historical fact. Christians can, but, do not have to believe Jesus was literally born of a virgin.
7. The number seven thing this morning that I am holding up that Christians don’t have to believe is Jesus was not fully human. There’s this idea that Jesus had super powers. But in the gospel stories Jesus slept, breathed, drank, ate, got hungry, got angry, bled and died. Christians can believe Jesus was super natural, but it is also okay to believe he was not super-natural, but rather an amazing human who found a Way to God that is within us all, that he let God shine in all he did and that he taught the Way to do it.
Tellingly the way Jesus’ taught is not about beliefs it’s all about Love, desiring the well being of others and acting on it. Jesus’ Way is about getting our God spark stoked and glowing to the point our body burns brightly as the hands and feet and voice of God opening those floodgates of justice and righteousness.We can believe Jesus – as a human– showed us that God could be incarnate not in a super man, but in a just, kind humble loving human–and we can aspire to be such a human our self–and isn’t that one of the main points of the gospels and Christianity?
So Christians, do not have to believe Jesus was not fully human.
6. The number six thing Christians don’t have to believe is that God sent Jesus to earth to be tortured and put to death as a sacrifice required by God. This church centers its theology around the Biblical truth that “God is Love.” Those words contradict the idea that God required human sacrifice and so sent his child to redeem humanity through a brutal crucifixion. As mortals with a thimble full of love compared to God’s oceans of love, we know sacrificing humans is not a mark of Love. Where’s justice rolling down and righteousness flowing in that?
Jesus certainly sacrificed his life and God made the best of it, even resurrected him for us to find our Way to Love, but we do not have to accept that God planned and demanded Jesus’ death to fulfill some sort of holy blood thirst. Christians don’t have to believe God sent Jesus to be tortured and put to death as a sacrifice required by God.
5. The number five thing Christians don’t have to believe is that God is all powerful. This is sometimes the hardest thing to grapple with. We want God to be able to override bad things in life. But if God is love and all powerful shouldn’t God swoop in and instantly resolve suffering, end calamity and prevent horrors? If we had the power we’d do it with our little bit of love. We know that God does do that. God does not instantly fix all bad things. So it’s fair to understand that either God is not all powerful or God’s power is limited. God doesn’t instantly stop evil and suffering. We know that to be true. Experience suggests God doesn’t coerce creation in any way, that God doesn’t overrule our freedom or nature’s laws.
While God’s does not use a coercive power, we can understand God acts with the persuasive power of Love that causes us to react and respond and seek justice and love kindness. We can stop evils, like genocide, slavery, racism, war. We can stop catastrophes too like diseases that medicine quells or eliminates. WE can help the hungry, poor, sick, imprisoned and stranger. Jesus said to. That’s God working through us. It is not God with a magic wand, but God with the magic of LOVE. This is how God can be seen to work, so it is okay if Christians don’t believe God is all powerful.
4. The number four thing Christians don’t have to believe is God is male. Many insist we must believe that. But the Bible has female images of God. God actually first appears in Genesis as “ruah” a female word meaning “Spirit.’ And in that book females are created in God’s image. And there are other female images of God in the Bible. In Isaiah (42: 14) God “cr[ies] out like a woman in labor . . .” and (49: 15), Psalm 22 (9) refers to God as a midwife. In Hosea (13:8) God is protective “like a bear robbed of her cubs.” Jesus refers to God in female images even claiming God acts like a mother hen, protecting her children. If the Bible – and Jesus– imagine God as other than male so can we. Christians can, but do not have to believe God is male.
3. The number three thing on my list of things Christians don’t have to believe is that homosexuality is a sin. There is a separate detailed pamphlet out on this already. But briefly, Scripture need not be read to prohibit homosexuality. Jesus made no mention of it, and it is not otherwise expressly mentioned in the Bible except by putting modern words in ancient text. (The King James Version, does not the word homosexuality). Moreover, even passages in Leviticus often interpreted to deal with homosexuality in America, amount to very old laws expressly intended for application in Israel. On top of which homosexual is a part of nature created by God. Genesis declares that all of God creation is good. There are no exceptions. So Christians do not have to believe homosexuality is a sin.
2. The number two thing Christians don’t have to believe is that science conflicts with religion. Science seeks truth through reason and experience to understand how creation works. Religion seeks truth through reason and experience to understand our relationship with creation and that which created it. Both are limited by human understanding and experience. Both cannot explain it all. Both begin with an aim toward truth. Both end in mystery and awe. Reasoning that the universe began as a big bang of light and cosmic dust does not have to conflict with reasoning that the universe began with God’s Light and the creation of humans from cosmic planetary or metaphoric dust.
Scientists’ thinking openly have brought us to a way of great wisdom, inventions and medicines.Jesus thinking openly has brought us to a Way of great wisdom, love and morals. Religion and science ought not to be mutually exclusive.
Christians need not believe science conflicts with religion.
1. And the number one –,he last thing on the list– that I want to emphasize in this sermon is that Christians don’t have to believe is that Christianity is the only valid path to God. The Bible teaches that God respects other faiths. The nature of God in Jesus held dialogue, respected and loved people on other paths to God. Jesus was Jewish and validated Judaism. He declared that a good neighbor can be a non-Jewish Samaritan. In fact he claimed that anyone who tend to the poor, hungry, sick, imprisoned or stranger inherits the Kingdom of God. In other words non-Christian paths can also lead to God. Christians don’t have to believe Christianity is the only path to God.
So there it is “The Top Ten List of Things People Don’t Have to Believe to Be a Christian.” There are things in our traditions that we don’t have to believe unless they help us and others experience God and lead us to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus, not rituals, dogma, or tradition. And a sure sign a person and community is Christian is that the manner in which they follow Jesus has at it’s core an intent to help let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. That is this church. You are that community and that people.
May all of the time, talents, and treasures that we offer help it to always be so.
“Can I have an Amen?”
- Based on a sermon I wrote in 2008
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED