Ignorance and Illumination
This sermon is formatted for presentation, not the prevention of errors.
A former mentor used to say, every time I made a mistake, she always said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
As we have studied together, during our Confirmation 201 course, that has been meeting on Monday nights, we’ve found that there are a lot of beliefs, in the Church, that we are unfamiliar with. We don’t know what we don’t know. These beliefs are decisions that were made by worldwide councils – we call them ecumenical councils – or made by denominational authorities, and these doctrines are meant to answer questions of faith and to solve problems, or arguments the Church might be having. But, over and over again, I have explained to the group that 97+% of all Christian theology and teaching is same across denominational lines, that the stuff we fight about and make very important only accounts for maybe about 3% of Church teaching, or less.
That might seem surprising, or even like a joke, to some outside of the Church, because, to them, it seems like all we do is fight. And if it’s all because of about 3% of what we believe, what’s the point?
An example of some of that 3%, one of the core teachings of the Christian Church, a teaching that we sometimes fight about, is sacrament. We often want to talk about how it works or doesn’t work. And, when we do that, it starts some fights.
For us, in our UMC, we believe that Christ is reliably present and works within us as we washed by water or when we eat the bread and drink from the cup. It is absolutely core for a Methodist. We pray the story together, being reminded, “On the night he gave himself up for us….”
But how does it work? How does God impart, how does God give us, grace through these humble acts? The shortest answer is that we don’t know. The word sacrament, in its Greek origins, means mystery. The way that God works in this bread, water, and wine is mysterious.
The longer answer, the one that leads to the most theological fits, is that different churches have had various answers for how God works, or doesn’t work, in the bread and the wine. In the Roman Catholic tradition, their doctrine is called transubstantiation. It’s a long word that means that, when the bread and the wine are blessed, they miraculously become the body and blood of Christ. They never change shape. They do not taste different. They do not look different. But in their substance, at their core, they have become literally body and literally blood, the body and blood of Christ.
Now, in the reformation, 500 years ago, they thought this idea wasn’t scriptural, that it was based on philosophy and not based on inspired scripture. Luther, for example, instead, taught a union of Christ with the bread and the wine, not that they became flesh. He taught that, though the bread and wine are not flesh, even though they never become Jesus’ body, still Christ is united with them in a mysterious, spiritual sense.
The Calvinists, just a few years later, are going to say no to both of these. They are going to say no to transubstantiation and no to Luther. Though they are still a part of the Reformation, they react even more strongly to the Roman Catholic doctrines, and even to Luther’s teachings, and they will, themselves, teach that the bread and the wine are just symbols, that Christians do it only because Jesus said to his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and for no other reason.
So, by the time we get to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in the 1700s, he’s familiar with all of these, and he finds himself agreeing most with Luther, but he leaves a bit more of a “holy mystery” to the whole issue. He’s not going to define the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ of the sacrament, but he knows that Christ is reliably present within them. We end up calling this, in our tradition, “real presence.” So we, United Methodists, like Wesley, tend to let the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ of God’s grace remain mysterious. If you want to say that it’s body in the bread – we mostly say, “Okay.” We’re not going to teach it, ourselves, but you are welcome here. If you believe that the bread is only symbolic, the same is true. We don’t need a math equation, or a thought problem, to explain how it all works. We just know that it works. That Christ is present and reliably so.
So, for us, it’s not just remembering or just because Jesus said to, we eat and we drink to receive, to celebrate, AND to relive what Christ has done.
All that to say that, when the Church gathers to solve a theological problem, once and for all, when we think we have it solved, it ultimately leads to further bickering and an expanding of that 3% that our denominations disagree on. When we try to take the mystery and make it science or a math equation to be solved, we limit God, and we limit our ability to be one Church, under Christ.
Paul, in our scripture passage, has been asked a deep theological question. As he writes to the Thessalonians, he’s answering a question that is driving them crazy. They had been taught, by Paul and the apostles, taught that Christ was coming back soon, most of them believed that they would see Jesus return before they died. They thought that they were signing up for a short-term project. When Paul said, “Jesus is coming soon,” they may have thought that he meant tomorrow or next week, they definitely didn’t think it was years or generations away.
And now, by the time Paul is writing to them, people have died, in faith. People who loved and served Christ have died and the churches don’t know what to say about that, knowing that Christ has not returned in final victory yet. What are they supposed to think about that? Are they supposed to think theologically and say to themselves, “Of course, God has a different plan than we thought?” That would be very mature, theologically, but I don’t think it’s likely. It’s going to have to fall to Paul to teach them the way that he thinks about what is happening to them.
Now, here’s where we get back to doctrine and its ability to divide. We get the doctrine of the rapture. Most think that it is found in the book of Revelation, at the end of the New Testament. It’s not. This is where we find any proof of it. The doctrine was developed in the 16th Century, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it rose in popularity. It is the doctrine in which Christ comes and sneaks up on us, taking away sister, but leaving brother; taking husband but not wife…. This was not a common belief before the 1800s. We know that John Wesley didn’t believe in it. He thought that the point of this Thessalonians passage was to show that we, though we may die, will rise again to be with Christ.
Now, does that mean that we, United Methodists, completely reject a doctrine of the rapture? Do we, because it is a newer interpretation of the Bible, or because John Wesley did not believe it, do we believe that we are not allowed to talk about the work of Christ in this way? Absolutely not. It might be a helpful way, for some people, of thinking about how God will draw us all in, whether we are alive, or have already passed into the next life.
Just like we take the doctrine of the sacraments, where we hear that some need the bread to literally be body, and we hear that some want it be merely symbolic, we are consistent in our middle road as Methodists. Bishop Scott Jones, from Texas, wrote a book on Methodist doctrine and entitled it, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. The extreme center. In being the center, we leave room for you. We leave room for the theology that you find helpful. We understand that we agree on 97% and mostly leave the 3% alone. At least we do when we are at our best. We are the extreme center.
Wesley, and his theological children who have developed this church of ours, recognized the mystery of God in the stories of others. That is, as Wesley hears about transubstantiation and as he hears about a symbolic understanding of the sacrament, he finds a middle way for us, his people called Methodists, and settles on a doctrine that we call real presence. We don’t need more things to fight about. The more we define what is going to happen or the ways in which God works, the more there is to argue about, and the less we can be one.
Paul begins with a very specific story, a metaphor that could sound literal. That is, we can really clearly imagine our ancestors being raised from the ground and taken to the sky where we will follow. There’s nothing wrong with that image, but if we think we know what God is going to do next, because of what Paul wrote in chapter 4 of 1st Thessalonians; if think we know what’s next, we’re wrong. And Paul names it; he says in chapter 5, verses 1 through 3,
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them….”
We’ll hear more from that passage next week, but we have to hear its words in relationship to what God is doing with those who went before us in death. This passage is another way of saying that we don’t know what’s next. Paul tells the church that God is going to take care of us all, those who have died and those of us who are still alive, but we do not know the fullness of how. And when we act like we do, we only bring trouble to ourselves and to the Church.
He tells them a story to comfort them, a God-inspired story, but even Paul knows that it is limited and that he describing the spirit of what is going to happen – he’s not explaining the exact manner in which God is going to work.
Like Wesley, in his views on the sacraments, Paul leaves room for grace. He leaves room for God’s grace to work in us and room for us to be gracious to each other as we discuss the deepest problems and struggles of our faith, room for us to disagree in love on the 3%.
And so, as we experience the life of faith in Christ together, may we make room for God’s grace in our theology, in our actions, in our ability to be gracious to one another. Let’s do our best to leave room for Christ to inspire our hearts, as we read scripture together; leave room for Christ to lead us toward greater love of God and greater love of neighbor. For, what greater purpose is there for this life in him? Be gracious. Be loving. Be open to how Christ is going to make miracles happen for us all.
Make room grace. Amen.