Faith Seeking Understanding - Introduction
FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING
1 Timothy 3:14-16
The Mystery of Our Religion
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, 15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. 16 Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
These words from the Apostle Paul, written to his friend and co-worker Timothy, describe what is called the “mystery of our faith.” What is this mystery? It is found in the words of one our communion liturgies…a liturgy we will be using around the campfire at Cran Hill Ranch soon. In this liturgy I say:
Together we proclaim the mystery of our faith:
And then we all respond together:
Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ will come again.
What makes this is a mystery isn’t the fact that we don’t know this to be true. We know in our hearts this is true. Christ died for me. He died for you. And as the Praise Team sang at the start of our worship service:
one of these days were going to meet our Savior face to face.
But in spite of the fact that we know this to be true…we really cannot grasp the fullness of what it means to be saved by God’s grace. We also cannot fully understand how this grace is to be displayed in our daily lives.
Fortunately…God gave us a guidebook. We call it the Bible. It is God’s holy and inspired Word. For every imaginable situation…or every possible circumstance we might ever find ourselves in…there is a text in here that clearly tells us what to do. Yeah right!
Now…don’t get me wrong. I am not speaking negatively of God’s Word. I believe what is written here. But the reality is…the Bible is hard. It is challenging. It is un-clear about many things...sometimes it is almost contradictory on some things. I wish the Bible was perfectly simple to understand. That would be easy. And you all know…I like things easy. But if the Bible was easy…if it answered every possible question…and gave clear cut instructions for every possible situation we could encounter in life…then faith wouldn’t be necessary. Trust wouldn’t be necessary. But faith and trust have always been necessary…even from the very beginning of time. Adam and Eve started out living in a perfect world…and even in this situation God required that they have faith and trust in his Word. This faith and trust was to be demonstrated by not eating from the forbidden tree. We all know how that worked out!
Now…think about this. If Adam and Eve needed faith and trust to live in a perfect world…just think how much more we need to have faith and trust to live in our world today. But faith is not easy. Living a Christian life is not easy. Life is challenging…and each generation of believers faces new…and ever more complicated…circumstances.
· Just a few years ago the debates about cloning and stem cell research would have seemed like something from a science fiction movie.
· A few generations ago…family units looked like…well, like families. Today we struggle with broken homes, 2nd and 3rd marriages…step-relatives… blended families…and domestic partnerships.
· We can only imagine…or maybe better yet fear…what things are waiting for our children and grand-children to deal with.
Each turn of the calendar brings new excitement…new challenges…and new questions…so:
Faith requires us to continually seek understanding.
2 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.
We sang a song about this a few minutes ago…remember how it went?
Take my heart and form it.
Take my mind transform it.
Take my will conform it,
To Yours, to Yours O Lord.
Our hearts are formed…our minds are transformed…our will is conformed…as we study God’s Word…and seek to live a Christian life in an un-godly world.
Over the past few weeks…I have been asking you to fill in the blank at the end of this question: What does the Bible say about ___________________?
That question is the basis for the sermon series we are starting this morning…and I must say…you have laid out a challenge for me.
· Some of the things you wrote in this blank I was expecting to see.
· Others…really surprised me.
· Some of them will be easy to answer.
· Some of them…I won’t be able to answer…at least not completely.
· Some of them…I can answer in 5 minutes or less.
· Others…I could spend weeks on.
· Some of them…I am going to have a lot of fun researching and answering.
· Some of them…are going to be a lot of work for me to research and answer.
So this should be an interesting time of learning…for all of us. But there is one problem with what we are about to do: As we learn about some of these things…we will probably come up with more questions than answers. Unfortunately…that is often how it sometimes turns out when we start digging into issues of faith. The more we dig into them…the more complicated they seem to get.
I am calling our new sermon series: Faith Seeking Understanding. I “borrowed” this name from the title of one of the theology books I studied in seminary. I like this title. It says a lot in three simple words. It says that we start with faith…and then use our faith…and our understanding of Holy Scripture…to interpret and understand the context we find ourselves living in. That is how faith seeks understanding.
I want to share a few lines from this book with you this morning.
Asking questions is part of what it means to be human…and asking questions in the light of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is part of what it means to be a Christian.
Definition of theology:
What is theology? It is faith asking questions. It is faith seeking understanding. Theology…is the continuing process of inquiry that is prompted by both the surprising grace of God and by distance between God’s coming kingdom on one hand and our experience of the brokenness of life on the other.
· I like this description: We live in the distance between the coming of God’s Kingdom…and the brokenness of our world. This disconnect between our future hope and our present reality is the source of our questions…it is what prompts the need for theological reflection.
To be sure, faith and theology are not identical. An advanced degree in theology is no more a guarantee of a living faith than a life of faith is deficient because of an absence of a theological degree. Still, faith and theology are closely related.
· I like this too. It says that having a fancy piece of paper from Western Seminary hanging on my office wall is no guarantee I am living a better Christian life than you are. It also says it is no guarantee that I am a better theologian than any of you. That part is a reality check for those of us with theology degrees.
Theology is not…an activity [for only] the professional theologians of the church. It is an activity in which all members of the community of faith participate in appropriate ways. In the life of faith, no one is excused [from] the task of asking questions or [from] the more difficult task of providing and assessing answers.
· OK…I really like this! This statement says that the work of theology…the work of asking and answering questions belongs to all of us…not just to me. And it says that if we all work together…we will all become better theologians…and hopefully better at living our lives of faith.
· The goal of theological reflection is to help us live in such a way that our life reflects the Risen Christ.
Theological concepts have meaning only as they are translated into theological praxis…that is…the church living in the world on the basis of what it proclaims…We cannot seriously receive God’s gift of new life without asking equally seriously what God commands us to do.
· Now…this one, I am not so sure I like as much.
· This one says it isn’t enough to talk about theology…I have to put it into practice.
· In other words: I have to walk the talk.
· We have to walk the talk.
· The problem is…theology is easier said than done. It has always been that way.
I want to look for a couple of minutes at some of the ways this has played out in the RCA over the years.
As Reformed Church Christians we belong to a larger group of people known as Protestants. Webster’s Dictionary defines a Protestant as:
a member of any of several church denominations affirming the Reformation
principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and
the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth.
The Reformed branch of Protestantism is rooted in the Reformation of the 1500s. Its primary leader was John Calvin of Switzerland, whose reform movement spread to Scotland, where it became the Presbyterian Church, and the Netherlands, where it became the Dutch Reformed Church. In the 1600s, congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in North America spread and expanded, even after the English took control of the region from the Dutch.
In the small colonial town of New Amsterdam, on a Sunday in 1628, about fifty people gathered around a crude table in a mill loft. Their celebration of the Lord's Supper marks the birth date of the Reformed Church in America. The congregation they founded still continues today as the Collegiate Reformed Church in New York City. This is the oldest evangelical church in North America with a continuous ministry.
In its long history…the RCA has seen its share of challenges and struggles as new questions came up that needed to be answered. As the world changed…new challenges presented themselves. For example:
· The Revolutionary War was particularly divisive in parts of the church and some of the congregants split from each other following the war.
· The civil war was a time of great turmoil and conflict which divided both families and churches.
· Today’s war in the Middle East is no less divisive.
· War is always divisive.
Modern day events…cultural changes…technological advances…and a host of other things have challenged the RCA over the years…and continue to challenge us today. So…Faith requires us to continually seek understanding.
Here are a few more examples of some of the challenges the RCA has wrestled with over the years:
· A language debate. If the church hadn’t settled this argument back in the 1700’s we would still be speaking Dutch in our worship service today. I am certainly glad that one got fixed before my time.
· Another challenge for the RCA was music. I am not talking about the worship wars of today…I am talking about the worship wars of the 1800’s. Their debate was over the singing of hymns. You see…previously…only the Psalms were allowed to be sung in church. Hymns apparently were not considered appropriate for worship. Evidently, they weren’t considered Biblical enough. Two interesting side notes on that:
1. The CRC formed when people left the RCA over this and other
2. Many of the praise songs some people consider inappropriate
today are based on the book of Psalms…the approved music of
our founding fathers.
· Still another challenge was the role of women in the church. This remains, in some of our local congregations an on-going debate today.
As you can see…living a life of faith in an ever-changing world is not easy…it has never been easy…so:
Faith requires us to continually seek understanding.
The world changes…but there are, however, several foundational beliefs of the RCA which are unchangeable. We stand firm on these…and we use them as the foundation on which our faith seeks understanding of other issues.
1. Salvation comes through grace alone. It is a gift from God. Christ is the starting point of the reformed faith, and Christ is the goal toward which it moves.
2. God is Trinity...Three in One: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean to be reformed? To be reformed means to agree with the Christian beliefs outlined in the Apostles' Creed. In fact…now would be a great time for all us to stand and state what we believe together:
[Recite Apostle’s Creed Here]
There are other foundational beliefs of the RCA that are unchangeable:
3. The Bible is the living Word of God. All true spiritual teachings agree with it, and God shows himself to us through it, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
4. Faith is communal. Our relationship with God always includes responsibility toward other humans. We emphasize the law of God, not that people must follow rules to be good enough for God, but that the law is a gift from God to help us live together in human community.
5. The RCA also has a unique understanding of vocation. Each person is called (vocatio) by God to serve both the church and the community in whatever role he or she plays. This concern for community does not stop at the doors of the church but reaches into all aspects of life.
Next week, we are going to start answering…or maybe I should say…trying to answer the questions you have given me. The things we have talked about this morning are intended to lay the framework for our upcoming conversations. There are 3 ground-rules we need agree on before we begin:
First: The unchangeable, foundational beliefs I just talked about will be the basis for our new sermon series. They will be our starting point as we attempt to answer the questions you have given me.
Second: I am not an expert on theology. Neither are any of you. You may not always agree with what I have to say. That’s OK. Maybe the best solution we can come to on some topics will be to agree to disagree on them.
· Sometimes as individuals we will disagree on how we interpret some passages of scripture.
· Sometimes as individuals we will disagree on denominational doctrine.
· Sometimes, as denominations, we will disagree with how other denominations have interpreted scripture or on their doctrinal standards.
But…we should be able to disagree with each other and still be able to live in community together…both as individuals and as denominations. How is that possible?
· By disagreeing without judging each other.
· By disagreeing without condemning each other.
· By remembering…that we are not perfect…and neither are any of our individual theological interpretation skills.
Remember what I said earlier: Christ is the starting point of the reformed faith, and Christ is the goal toward which it moves. This is the same Christ who said:
· Love God, and…
· Love each other.
· That means even when if we disagree…we disagree in love.
Third: The last ground rule is this: I will approach these topics we are going to discuss based on my ordination and installation vows.
· I am Reformed.
· I have been a member of the RCA for 20 years.
· A member of the CRC for 28 years before that.
· I grew up Reformed.
· I attended a Reformed Church seminary.
· And I was ordained and installed as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America.
I guess you could say…I am Reformed…this is how my theological view have been shaped for my entire life.
· Does that mean I am simply a clone of the RCA?
· Does this mean I am incapable of independent thought?
· Does this mean I don’t wrestle with issues of theology and faith?
· Of course not!
But what this does mean…is that when I am wrestling with issues of theology and faith…I interpret them in light of my Reformed heritage. What this means is that in the absence of convincing need for change…I remain loyal to Reformed doctrine. Why?
· Because at my ordination…which some of you witnessed…
· and at my installation…which many of you witnessed…
· I took a vow before God…before the classis…and before all of you to remain loyal to my Reformed heritage.
And don’t forget…when I was installed…you all promised to help me live into those vows!
So…next week…se start answering your questions. I think the next few months will be both fun and challenging for us as we wrestle with questions of faith and living the Christian life in the 21st Century. But remember…as we wrestle with questions of faith:
· We wrestle with them together.
· We think about them together.
· We discuss (or argue about them) together
· And we pray about them together.
Most importantly…we must remember that the ultimate goal of what we are doing is to help us live lives that witness to the grace of God and the power of the Risen Christ.