Our faith is like a language, a framework that helps us explore, express and deepen our relationship with the Divine. Everyone has a faith-language, whether we are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Shamanists … even Atheists (since even non-relationship with the Divine is still a type of relationship).
We use this framework to understand and express our faith. It shapes how we look at the world around us: how we see our relationships with each other; and how we interact with each other; how we perceive the world is organized, what the purpose of Creation is (if any); and the purpose and limits of our own existence. Our faith-language is a lens we use all the time – not just in encountering the Divine, but in dealing with the everyday realities of life.
Our own faith language is Christianity. How we experience and express our faith is influenced by our familial roots, education, relationships and life experiences, the choices we’ve made in life, and many other factors. They all affect how we see and express the relationship we have with God and our relationships with each other. These relationships and experiences are uniquely ours, never to be repeated.
We all have a unique relationship with the Divine because our faith tells us that God values and loves us as and because we are unique and distinct individuals. The faith-language share binds us together as a community in relationship with each other, and with God.
And, Christianity works well for us (I hope!): we are familiar with it. It is part of the “cultural wallpaper” of our lives. It’s a tool that we constantly use throughout our lives: developing, strengthening and exploring our relationships with each other and with God. But, that does not mean that Christianity is the only faith-language for everyone, or even anyone, else. In fact, it can’t be.
When encountering those who speak languages like German, Cherokee, Swahili, or Mandarin, we do not condemn them for not speaking English. Instead, we recognize that their language is an integral part of who they are, how they view the world. Their spoken language is central to their relationship with the cultures and people to whom they were born and now live. It helps them define who they are, to understand and explore the world around them, and to find and claim their place in this world that we share with them. So, just like English would not be adequate for their needs, our faith language might also be limited in its usefulness to them. We don’t tell them they are evil, or failures, or in need of salvation, because they speak a language different from our own!
Any faith-language helps us answer the great questions of existence, like “Why are we here?” and “What happens when we die?” They shape our relationship with everything that is part of this world, and are the tool we use to develop and then communicate our views and beliefs about the nature of God, of God’s Creation, and our role with respect to both.
So, given that I am a finite human, and therefore cannot fully comprehend the infinite God I love and serve, let alone expect God to conform to my expectations, I cannot expect my own faith-language to be adequate in expressing all that God is – even for myself, let alone others. We are always discovering situations where our faith language is inadequate, and so must develop or extend it to fill those gaps.
Therefore, I cannot expect my understanding of God, or the Bible, to be the standard for judging another’s faith. God is big enough – infinite enough – to love each of us equally, just as we are, no matter who we are, no matter what we believe, and no matter what faith-language we use. We here at ARK know we are called to love in that same way in return. There is no point, nor need, to judge others, and doing so can only hurt us and those we judge. This is the conviction that lies at the heart of the mission of this Church; and is behind all we do.
But how does all of this play out in our reading from Acts this morning?
To begin with, the task of building a faith that will persist until Jesus’ return is central to the Book of Acts. It records a period where those whom Jesus left behind must determine what it means to be a Christian, whether being a Christian means you are also a Jew, figure out how to keep some sort of order and commonality of belief as the Gospel grows and spreads, find ways to keep the faith alive as older generations pass away, and learn how to survive persecution.
So, Acts is the record of our predecessors’ efforts to develop a language for expressing the concepts that are vital to our faith, and helps them (and us) to confront the inevitable challenges of life; in a meaningful, constructive, and faithful way.
In the beginning of Acts, all the 11 Apostles have are the teachings of Jesus and some revelations on how Jesus’ teachings and life are reflected within scripture. In this morning’s reading from chapter 1, the Apostles are determining how to select a replacement for Judas; someone to work alongside them to carry on the faith and be a witness to the resurrection.
Their main criteria for this new Apostle is whether they were there throughout the time of Jesus’ ministry. In other words, someone they already know; someone just like them. They are not ready to build upon the foundation Jesus laid. It’s a big enough challenge just to survive! There is no need yet to extend the faith-language to include new ideas or to reach out to new people. So for them, Faith is not a language for dialog or growth or exploration, it is a measure of fidelity.
But neither of their two candidates, Matthias and Barsabbas, are mentioned again, nor are the criteria used to select them ever used again, nor is the “casting of lots” ever used again in the New Testament – despite being an ancient practice still in use at that time by the temple priests.
So, it seems that soon after this episode, and perhaps because of it, the Apostles learned that “more of the same” or “just like we always did it” didn’t work. Staying where Jesus had left them was not an option. They could not hold on to an unchanging faith if they expected to fulfill the mission Christ had laid upon them just before he was taken up into heaven, when he said: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The eventually realized Jesus was commanding them to move, to change, and to grow. They were not called to simply give witness to the Gospel of Christ, but to expand it to the ends of the earth. Therefore, it had to be relevant, meaningful and useful to all whom they met. This meant they had find to ways to retain the intent and spirit of Jesus’ teachings, but express them in a way that those different from themselves could understand and appreciate.
This reworking of the basic message to be relevant to the experience of others is a hallmark of Christian evangelism. You see it in Bible translators who find ways to make the spirit and teachings of the Last Supper relevant to cultures where bread and wine are unknown, and in the work of missionaries who spent their lives in service to communities in foreign lands. You see it in our own attempts to put into words our belief that “Love Thy Neighbor” means loving everyone, without exception or exclusion; and then finding ways to make those same words a living reality within this congregation; and in our witness and ministry to the world outside these walls.
We do this in many ways – from taking great care to use jargon-free, easy to understand language in our services; to how we organize and run this ministry. We believe that “Love Thy Neighbor” means openness, and acceptance of “the other,” in all we do. And, this belief, this aspect of our own “faith language” is at the heart of our effort to become certified as an “Open and Affirming” congregation.
Let’s think about that: the phrase “Open and Affirming” takes a word that describes a state of being – “Open” – and unequivocally ties it to an action – “Affirming.” … Open AND Affirming … This means that to be “Open” in our faith’s eyes, we must also be “Affirming.”
This leads to questions that challenge the limitations of both our spoken and our faith languages: do we use gender-neutral language in our worship and teaching, or gender-affirming language? And, how do we do that?
Dean used “gender-affirming” language this morning during announcements, when he said his preferred pronoun was “he.” Personally, I am more comfortable with gender-neutral language, but to be “open and affirming” as we understand the phrase in this Church, I must change to consistently follow Dean’s lead.
Language is important, faith is important, and faith itself is a language. The challenge we face is to make that faith-language understandable, approachable and relevant to those who come through the doors of this congregation, and to those we meet when we go beyond these doors.
Jesus tells us our faith cannot be hidden. It cannot be spoken-of using obscure language and terminology that few understand. It is constantly growing and changing – being extended to meet new challenges and to include new groups of people within the invitation and radical welcome that God extends to us all. Our faith-language cannot be static, it cannot be allowed to become stale in our eyes or in the eyes of those we are called to reach out to.
Every faith has a perspective different from our own. Learning more about the faiths of others helps us more fully appreciate where they stand, as well as enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own faith. Through other faiths, we learn new ideas and find new tools that help us in the practice and expression of our faith.
As I already said, Christianity is the faith-language we use here in encountering the Divine, but there are many such languages. It would be nice if there was a single, simple answer, but faith never provides a single answer, let alone a simple one – how could you have such an answer with an infinite God? You can’t write a symphony with a single note, and God’s Creation is far more complex, extensive and wonderful than any symphony! Our faith-language, combined with many others, are sung by the great choir that extols the greatness, diversity and immensity of an infinite and loving God, who loves each of us for who we are, just as we are – treasuring the unique and special gift that each of us is – a gift from God to all of Creation.
Love each other, love God, and love the diversity and uniqueness of every bit of God’s Creation; because we are all Creatures of the Divine: accepting, embracing, loving and affirming each other because of the differences God has placed within each of us, not in spite of them.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, May 17, 2015.
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)