Today I want to ask us a question. Do we take the bible literally, or do we take the Bible seriously? You can do both, of course. But what about those who do not read the Bible as the literal, word-for-word voice of God. What about those who struggle to understand it – those who doubt and ask tough questions and seek to live faithful lives. Can we still take the Bible seriously?
Biblical literalism goes something like this: “The Bible says x, therefore we must believe and/or do x." Today’s scripture is a perfect case in point. John 3:16 has provided motivation for some of the most destructive and unchristian impulses of those who take the name Christian. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life." Taken literally it suggests that those who do not believe in this Son will perish. It is difficult to overestimate the harm, hurt and abuse that has been encouraged by this literal rendering of John's Gospel. I think part of the problem is that we make these words a new creed – a test of faith and an absolute statement about whom God loves and whom God rejects, who is in and who is out.
The irony is that of the four Gospel writers, John was the least literal of them all. All of the Gospel writers take great liberty with the actual events of Jesus life and the things he said. They were not historians. They were seeking to communicate a faith. But, John takes the greatest freedom in retelling the story of Jesus. It is particularly ironic that in today's Gospel John's Jesus rejects the very literalism that has so often dominated the reading of this text. Jesus offers the metaphor of birth to speak about spiritual growth. Jesus says that followers must be born of the Spirit, born of the wind, born a second time. Nicodemus takes a literal approach to Jesus words. "How can one be born a second time from your mother's womb?" Amazed at Nicodemus' literal understanding of this evocative image, Jesus says, "You are a teacher of faith and yet you are unable to understand what I am saying?" Jesus would be equally amazed at how his invitation to deepen our encounter with God through a rebirth of the Spirit is still used today as a literal basis for exclusion, rejection, dominance, and judgment. If the life and example of Jesus gives us reason at all to be literal in our reading of Jesus words it would not be John 3:16, but rather John 3:17 "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."
I believe that Jesus was not interested in establishing a belief system to be the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. He was, however, very interested in the question: how does one come to have faith? How can we take these words seriously? We need to struggle with the same questions. Do we have faith because someone tells us what to believe? Do we have faith because we are scared that if we don’t say the right words and show up at the right events, and live approved lifestyles, and associate with the best people, that God will punish us? Do we have faith that can tolerate doubt, faith that can grow and change – faith that relies on the work of the Spirit moving through the gathered people of God?
Congregationalists have always struggled with these questions. The United Church of Christ, in its original Constitution, asserted:
The United Church of Christ . . . claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.This means that Congregationalists believe there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. Christ alone is Head of the church. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the faith. We take the Bible seriously. We listen to the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith. In other words, our faith is founded on the Bible, and informed by the Church of the past. But it can never stay frozen in the past. We must continue to grow and evolve: to receive new insights, and, when necessary, to reject past ideas when they have been disproved.
In general, Congregationalists are not a creedal people, in the sense that we point to a detailed statement of faith that we can say all Congregationalists believe. I’m always amazed when people want to take their personal values and interpretations of Scripture and make them tests of faith upon all. Their reasoning goes something like this: “If you believe what I believe, think like I think, and live as I tell you to live, you are acceptable.” This is not who we are. Our congregation affirms that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys. I think people sometimes forget the diversity represented here. Today, Trumbull Congregational Church includes people from all walks of Christian faith and practice – Old-time New England Congregationalists, as well as those with Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Evangelical backgrounds. Some people who worship here have Jewish backgrounds. Some are agnostics. We’re a diverse bunch. While we are all united in our common belief in the basic tenets of the Christian faith, there is diversity of opinion among us with regard to some issues. This has been the case in Congregationalism almost since the beginning.
So, as with our forebears, our church’s stress is not on creeds, but on a covenant. Most Congregational churches have written covenants as their foundations. The covenant expresses the church’s reason for being. Our church covenant is found in our by-laws. We are going to recite it later on in the service.
We do covenant with the Lord, and with one another, to walk together as followers of Jesus Christ, and to devote ourselves to the study, the practice, and the spread of Christianity. We do endeavor to be loyal to this fellowship and to help one another in the Christian life. According to our abilities and opportunities, we give support for the work, attend the meetings of this church, and share in the common worship of God, God being our helper. Amen.We repeat this covenant together whenever we receive new members into our church family. It expresses what we are about as a church: our intent, as fellow-members of the body of Christ to walk together in the ways of the Lord as faithfully as we know how, led by the teachings of Scripture and particularly the teachings of Jesus Christ, as Spirit of God illumines them for us. Such intent transcends whatever theological differences may exist between us, and unites us in a common goal under the lordship of Christ.
Today we will confirm some young people who challenge us to grow and evolve. We will bring them into the full membership of the church and extend them the hand of fellowship. As we do, we need to remember that they have something to bring to us. I’m not talking about serving on boards or committees, or showing up for Trustee work days. That’s all fine, but their presence here is more than volunteer labor. They bring us a fresh perspective on what it means to follow God and be part of the church in this day and age.
We embrace them as part of this community. And like all of us, they will discover something: When you begin to scratch our surfaces, you'll find we are not solid gold. When you stand too close for us for too long, we begin to smell like human beings. You see, we are not all wonderful all the time. We're not all tidy, and caring, and charming and all the other things we like in people. Some of us are even a bit coarse. A couple of us have bad habits. Several of us take ourselves too seriously, and don't always tell the truth. And yet we are part of a community. We work together. We share common goals. We seek to live out our faith, and take the Bible seriously. That means today we can affirm John 3:16 in a new way. God so loved the world that He sent his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Rather than creating a belief system that saves some and rejects others, John expresses the depth of God's love. How do we grow in faith, how do we grow in our encounter with this God who so loved the world?
I don't know about you but it has been my experience that my faith is strongest, I feel most close to God when I participate in community, when I care about others, and when I let go of my certainties and remain open to the guiding of God's Spirit.