Can you truly be a Christian if you don't believe in the resurrection? you asked me this the first time right after the entire search committee interviewed me and your were driving me back to the hotel. I don't know if I realized at the time how this was a passive aggressive challenge to my faith. But at that moment I was in shock from the interview questions that you asked. They seemed to be from questions you would ask a pastor who was being interview in a nondenominational church not a United Church of Christ Church that is self-declared open and affirming. So after the interview as we are driving I am feeling like I have blown it. I didn't answer the questions correctly. My first attempt at an answer during the interview was to tell a story.
During seminary, I was taking the required History and Polity of the United Church of Christ at CTS even though I was attending McCormick. The class was rather difficult. Ironically the non CTS UCC student was probably the most progressive and one of the few born and bred UCC from the congregational wing of the church. Most of the other members had gone to seminary as recent transfers from other denominations that were more conservative. Many were in the class because they were fearful of losing their standing in their own denominations because they were gay. So we were discussing the statement of faith and I raised a point about how I wished it had stopped at our crucified Lord. You know following Paul, I preach Christ Crucified. Everyone jumped all over me telling me why we had to believe in resurrection. But no one remembered that we in the United Church of Christ believe in testimonies of faith, not tests of faith. That I come from a long tradition of people who questioned the orthodoxy of the church in order to push us closer to God. So while everyone is jumping all over me and sharing their stories of why resurrection is important to them, they didn't stop to consider that here in this polity class where we were learning our history, I come from the branch of the church that fought for and struggled for all people to be included. I come from the line that ordained the first black man, the first woman, the first gay man. That my part of the tradition on its good days speaks up for rights and inclusion. Without my branch, that has often been called the Unitarians Considering Christ, made it possible for them to come to a safe place to become a minister and that they just made this space very unsafe and unwelcoming for me.
I told the committee what I came to learn is that I believe strongly in Jesus. I follow Jesus with my heart and soul. But I sometimes have had questions about Christ. This struck home for me when in a theology class we had to read this article about "The White Woman's Christ and the Black Woman's Jesus." I struggle with Christ. I wrestle with Christ. I consider Christ. But I love Jesus. I want to follow Jesus and preach of his love. I want to share his vision of the kingdom of God that we can build together. I want to be held and healed by Jesus. Christ tends to get us into lots of trouble. Christ is a nice blond man with blue eyes who saved our sins so we could go to Heaven. He is forever happy and peaceful. But I love Jesus the man who struggle with his call. Who struggle with followers who didn't always get it. Who challenged the wealthy and privileged. Who welcomed the least, the last and the lost. Jesus stirs my passion and makes me want to follow but Christ has led Christians into senseless wars and genocides, has led us to exclude people. I want to follow Jesus, but Christ I can take or leave.
Now I know my answer probably wasn't as thorough and didn't include some of the nuances above but the gist of my answer was there but that answer led you to say to me: "Can you be a Christian if you don't believe in the resurrection?" I honestly don't know how I answered the question in that moment. I do know my physically reaction to the question. When you dropped me off I cried. How could you fly me so far from home to a open and affirming congregation that is "liberal" and question my faith? I cried and then had to pull myself together for dinner. Luckily you weren't there for dinner so I didn't get asked the question until the next morning on the drive to my neutral pulpit. "Can you be a Christian if you don't believe in the Resurrection?"
I don't know how I answered. I know I spoke about people I know and love who have had very real encounters with Jesus. I know I spoke about how we have four Gospel's each with a different vision for who Jesus is and that I tend to be a Marken Christian. I spoke about how for many faith is an action not a set of beliefs.
But you know what I could have given you a time and date for when I said the magic words, the free pass into Heaven. I was going through my divorce, taking an online course on call, and was invited to attend a coffee break bible study with women. I went with these women to a Women of Faith Conference where we were invited to an altar call to say the magic words and become a Christian. Now I didn't do the altar call but I did say the magic words. I prayed the sinners prayer.
God, I know that, in my lifetime, I have not always lived for you, and I have sinned in ways I probably don't even know yet are sins. I know that you have plans for me, and I want to live in those plans. I pray to you for forgiveness for the ways in which I have sinned. I am choosing now to accept Jesus into my heart. I am eternally grateful for his sacrifice on the cross and how He died so I can have eternal life. I pray that I be filled with the Holy Spirit and that I continue to live as You desire for me to live. I will strive to overcome temptations and no longer let sin control me. I put myself in your hands. I pray that you work in my life and guide my steps so that I continue to live for you. In your name I pray. AmenSo I have a time and date when I invited Jesus into my life. I also have a date when my faith was affirmed by my home church and by the church that called me to be their pastor. But does that change my questions and doubts. Does that change my love of Jesus and my struggle with Christ?
So what does it mean to be a Christian? Is it a belief? If I just believe the right things then I belong, but what if you don't believe all of the right things? What if you struggle and have doubts about sea's parting, miracles, resurrections, floods, dinosaurs, wives who couldn't exist but become wives any way, walls falling, whales swallowing, storms stilling, etc. What if you believe in the faith journey and struggles of the people of God, but for you the factual truth of some of the stories is not the entire answer for you. What if you take the words of your church that we believe in testimonies of faith not tests of faith. I can share my testimony. Just read through my blog and you will see me speak about my encounters with God. But I believe that faith is an activity not just a belief. Do we live as if we are hearing Jesus share with us about love? Do we live as if we believe that loving out neighbor is important? Do we try to be faithful to the Sermon on the mount, knowing we fail sometimes but each day, each dawn, each second we get that chance to try again to follow Jesus.
So Sam, I do believe I am a Christian but I may not be your kind of Christian. I find it sad that there are lines drawn that put some people in and some out and for you I am outside the bounds of what it means to be a Christian. I hope someday your boundaries are expanded, that your faith is strong enough, secure enough, to let in those who may disagree with you, may challenge your assumptions, may push you to think about following Jesus in a new and better way into the category of Christian. Until then may you and I follow Jesus, and love God with all of our being.
I Have Decided to Follow Jesus
“The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”
― Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion To A More Authenthic Contemporary Faith
“Jesus died for our sins” has been understood. Among some Christians, it is seen as an essential doctrinal element in the Christian belief system. Seen this way, it becomes a doctrinal requirement: we are made right with God by believing that Jesus is the sacrifice. The system of requirements remains, and believing in Jesus is the new requirement. Seeing it as a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God leads to a very different understanding. “Jesus died for our sins” means the abolition of the system of requirements, not the establishment of a new system of requirements.”
― Marcus J. Borg, The Meaning of Jesus
When serious people of good faith disagree, they've got to go back into the narratives and come at it again. One of the problems in the church is that people are not willing to do that. People have arrived at a place where they think they have got the answer.
- Walter Brueggemann
True religion is not about possessing the truth. No religion does that. It is rather an invitation into a journey that leads one toward the mystery of God. Idolatry is religion pretending that it has all the answers.
- John Shelby Spong
Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.
- Diana Butler Bass
I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place. We are a motley crew, distinguished not only by our inability to explain ourselves to those who are more certain of their beliefs than we are but in many cases by our distance from the centers of our faith communities as well.
- Barbara Brown Taylor
Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.
- Anne Lamott