When we baptise a new child, or adult, into our church, it’s always good to reflect on what we are baptising them into. Other than a bowlful water, of course. What sort of thing is the church of which young Alex is now a member?
Our baptismal promises give us a steer on this one. Some of those promises we renew today are expressions of how to “love God and love your neighbour”: being good stewards of creation, working for justice and peace. And all of us would happily sign up to that, whether we are devout Christians or fervent atheists.
But there’s also the bit which people find more difficult to sign up to, the doctrine bit, the bit where we have to believe things that are frankly difficult, the virgin birth, Christ rising from the dead. And those beliefs can exclude people, and I find that problematic. I find it deeply problematic that we exclude anyone at all, but especially so when they are excluded not because of moral or ethical differences, but simply because they don’t find it easy to sign up to our creed.
I find that disappointing in Christianity, because that’s what all religions do, and I think Christ hoped that we might be different. Religions characteristically have beliefs that everyone in that religion agrees with. And therefore it is also characteristic that they come into with other religions or denominations which disagree with those beliefs. Jews against Samaritans, Sunni against Shea, conservative against liberal. Each group, convinced that their way is the right way, come into conflict with other groups whose creeds, doctrines, are different.
And so if we ask what is distinctive about Christianity, and our answer is “we’re right, and everyone else is wrong”, then in fact, we are just like every other religion, because that is the answer which every other religion would give.
And I fear that “old style” religion, is alive and well in lots of places within Christianity. Some people would say that to be a Christian you have to believe all sorts of things which I personally cannot believe. Some would say that to be a Christian you have to believe that the world was created in six days a few thousand years ago. And I don’t – I believe in evolution and cosmology. Some would say to be a Christian you have to believe that homosexuality is a sin. And I don’t. Some would say to be a Christian you have to be teetotal. And I don’t.
Now I hope I haven’t given you the impression that I am a drunk gay scientist – as my wife, my liver and my science teacher will tell you, I’m rarely any of those things. And almost never at the same time…
But we could bring that a little closer to home, what about the virgin birth or the resurrection? Often we avoid the issue just by lowering the bar a little, and saying “you don’t really have to believe in the miracles, or in the virgin birth” etc, but when we make those concessions, we tend to in reality keeping the old doctrinal idea of a church, and just diluting it. So what we end up with is either a harsh exclusive church, or a fairly meaningless one.
I really don’t feel that that sort of religion is what Jesus envisaged. As long as you have a thing, a doctrine, a belief in your religion which excludes those who don’t or can’t believe it, if you have a bottom line, then what you have is an entrance requirement. And there will always be people who don’t meet the criteria.
When you have that, then you are in reality just like every other religion – the only difference is the wording. And Jesus was fighting against an exclusive, doctrinal religion of the Pharisees, opening religion up to the Samaritans and the Gentiles, and the women and those who were previously excluded.
And that pains me, when we trot out a bottom line of belief, however low that bottom line is – because I know many people, whom I would regard as faithful Christians, who feel that they fall beneath that bottom line. Who feel they can’t go to church because they have problems with the resurrection or the virgin birth, or even the idea of baptism as they have been taught it. I don’t want to be a part of a religion which excludes those who love God and love their neighbour. I thought we were supposed to be different. I don’t think we should have a bottom line, a thing you have to believe in order to be part of our club. It goes against the radical inclusiveness of the Gospels.
Because at the end of the day, those things, those doctrines, are matters of opinion. Whether you believe the synoptic Gospel resurrection stories to be literally true or wholly metaphorical or all things in between is generally decided in the same way you decide any other opinions – reason, experience, history, scholarship, prejudices, upbringing. And I really don’t see why a difference of opinion should exclude you from a religion which claims to faithfully represent the God of love.
The resurrection, what actually happened, is important, because truth matters, but I suspect Jesus would be rather upset to know that belief in it was a bottleneck which the church required people to squeeze through.
But of course then we’re left with a gaping hole. How can we call ourselves a religion at all, if we don’t have any shared beliefs, any doctrines. How can we be a community of believers, if we don’t’ all believe? How can we share the joy of the resurrection, if not everyone actually believes in it?
Does this not make a nonsense of Christianity, does it not make religion meaningless, a free-for-all?
Well, yes, I really think it does. It makes a nonsense of that type of religion, and it does indeed make it free for all. We are not a religion in that way. There are no membership requirements. I genuinely think, one of Jesus’ aims was to break religion apart, or rather break it open, so that no-one was excluded.
I really don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know what a religion without religion should be, I’m afraid. But there are images which come to us from our Gospel today, which help.
In our Gospel, Jesus appears to the apostles and says, “peace be with you”. And the Apostles respond quite rationally with terror and panic. It says, “they were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.”. And then they give him a good prod, and make him eat something, to make sure he’s actually there.
And then Luke gives us a phrase which I think helps us characterise our understanding of how we are called to believe. “While in their joy” he says, “they were unbelieving and wondering”.
In their Joy, they were unbelieving and wondering. I suspect “not yet believing” is the real meaning of that phrase in context.
Now Luke uses that phrase to characterise those who are physically touching the risen Lord. Those who had proof beyond doubt – they are joyful, full of wonder, and still not yet believing.
And if they are not yet believing, then surely this is Luke saying to us “it’s okay not to be certain.” Because this side of heaven, we have to be ‘not yet believing’ because we cannot be sure, cannot be certain. But we can certainly hope those things are true. We can even trust they are true. But we should face all of the challenges of our Gospel story with joy, wonder, and unbelief.
All those things we have renewed in our baptism promises, “I believe in one God” “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” “I believe in the life eternal”, those are things we cannot know are true, but they are all things we can respond to with joy, wonder and “not yet belief”. And as a church rather than proclaiming the false certainties which other religions trot out, maybe we can be a little more honest, a little more real with God.
Those three characteristics, joy, unbelief and wonder, were incredibly strong emotions woven together for those men and women in that room, because of their Jesus who loved them too much to let even death get in the way.
Those three things make life sometimes very muddy and difficult, they make it actually very difficult to formulate a doctrine which will exclude, and they make it very hard to tell people what they should believe. But they also make our response to the Christian story very real and very true.
Joy, unbelief and wonder, need to be held in balance with one another. Disbelief without joy or wonder is merely dry scepticism. Joy without the grounding of disbelief and wonder is mere passing pleasure. But together, they make a religion whose doctrine, whose creed is as wide as the arms of the God whom we hope in, trust in and who loves all of creation.
Now that is a religion which is new. This is religion off piste. A religion not like religion. Where there is no hierarchy of belief, no holy wullies, no certainties, no exclusion, no expulsion. No damnation. Only faith and hope and love. You are follower if you hope these things are true, however much you doubt, if you respond with joy and unbelief and wonder.
Ours is a faith not based on the necessity of assenting to doctrine, but where we seek only to respond to love. That is a religion which I think Jesus would be proud to own. And a religion we can be proud to own. A religion which I am proud to welcome everyone into. A religion which isn’t really a religion. A belief which is unbelief. Because that produces a love and a hope which is more real than any religion can hold.