Sermon: Churches just want people who will believe their dogma.

Happy-Ascension-Day-Greetings-5-450x486[Given on the Seventh Sunday of Eastertide (Feast of the Ascension – Transferred), May 17, 2015, by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Acts 1.8,9

In the name of our creating God, our risen Lord, and our abiding Spirit. Amen. +

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

[The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!]

What a radical claim! What a ridiculous concept! A man who was once alive, died, but rose again. What’s that about?

It’s about a daring, counterintuitive, countercultural proclamation that seizes the imagination and peels back the confining layers of “what is possible” and opens our minds to a vast, undiscovered plane where limits are removed, where ceilings are shattered, where chains are broken, and where the scandalous declaration of new life is defiantly proclaimed against the backdrop of a prose-flattened world.

And just when we thought this story couldn’t get more ridiculous, just when our Alleluia’s have begun to dull, we encounter an even more preposterous claim – that Jesus, after 40 (or so) days, ascended into heaven.

What the what?

The Ascension is a story that is almost impossible to believe and so it seems like the perfect story to end our sermon series “A Critical Conversation: Exploring the Church’s Harsh Reviews.” Today we’re going to explore the idea that “Churches just want people who will believe their dogma.”

Dogma – a belief or a set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted.

Apparently there are some who deeply believe that all the Church wants is people who go along with these preposterous stories without questioning or wondering.

And to be fair, the Church hasn’t done a very good job of debunking this. You see, when the first Christians gathered around these stories and around the bread and wine of the Eucharist they did so with a variety of ideas and perspectives. The early church was diverse and it grew quickly because there was room to question and wonder and doubt and explore.

And then, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 in order to establish the orthodox beliefs of his new imperial church. This group of bishops debated and argued for almost a month and finally came up with the Nicene Creed as the standard of belief for the Church.

And yet this framework for belief did not establish a uniformity of belief because people took it and interpreted it in different ways. The Church convened council after council, synod after synod, all in an attempt to establish uniformity of belief.

For too long the Church thought that right relationship with God could only come about through right belief.

And yet the poetry of God continued to swirl and brood beyond our ability to tie God down, to put God in a box, to reduce God to words on a page. Time and again, just when we think we’ve gotten our hands around God, God bursts out in new ways, because the moment we figure God out, God ceases to be God. Maybe it’s time that we stop trying to “get it right” and just enter into the mystery of God who is wind and flame, lion and lamb.

You see, dear friends, it is my sincere belief that the community gathered around the Risen Christ is not a community of singular belief, but of singular belovedness. That thing that unites each of us is the call to the waters of Holy Baptism where we reach up claim God’s seal of “belovedness” and the demands that “belovedness” places upon our lives.

What many people hold or ascribe as dogma is really poetry that dares to imagine a new world where the blind see, where the lame walk, where the ostracized are included, where the dead live. They are love stories attempting to articulate the indescribable narrative of God’s love that inspires us to keep telling the story, to keep writing the poetry, to keep singing the songs.

That’s the Ascension in a nutshell – the poetic interpretation of people who just couldn’t keep the story of Jesus Christ to themselves.

Historically, Jesus was no one special. In the centuries leading up to Jesus’s life and in the centuries afterwards, Palestine was buzzing with Messianic fervor and there were many people who sought to overthrow Rome and re-establish the Reign of God in the earth.

He wasn’t the only “Messiah.” He wasn’t the only miracle-worker. He wasn’t even the only one who was crucified. Crucifixion was the form of execution Roman’s reserved for sedition, those who threatened to overthrow the state. “There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judea the Galilean, his grandson Manahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon [bar] Kochba” with the last even using the exact phrase “Kingdom of God” as a call towards liberation from foreign rule.[1]

What differentiated Jesus of Nazareth from all the others was the fact that when he died, his message did not, would not, die with him. His disciples had experienced something that they couldn’t quite name, something that they couldn’t quite articulate, and it was something that they just could not keep to themselves. In fact, most of the men that we call the Apostles would go to their own executions refusing to recant their stories. Even at the grave they made their song “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

They bore witness to this poetic expression of God’s love in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, in Rome and in Timbuktu, in Kansas City and Overland Park, and to the ends of the earth.

They had experienced first-hand that God cannot be put in a box, God cannot be held down, God cannot be reduced to words on page, and so they told these stories in homes and small gatherings; they held poetry readings in front of governors, kings, and emperors; they sang in gladiatorial arenas and coliseums.

Something had taken hold in their hearts – not fact, but love. Love that inspires. Love that liberates. Love the redeems. Love that encourages. Love that heals. Love that restores. Love that creates. Love that lifts up. Love that shatters hearts of stone and warms hearts of flesh.

You see, we need stories, not fact, because “the deep places in our lives – places of resistance and embrace – are not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, by metaphors, and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from our fear and hurt.”[2]

It’s when we dare to imagine new worlds, new possibilities, and new experiences that our hearts are set on fire. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” It’s no wonder the Holy Spirit fell upon Church as fire. We need fire. We need to wind. We need story, and metaphor, and poetry – not doctrine and dogma, not fact, not instruction. We need imagination and inspiration that breathes new life into these dry bones.

“Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted…” sung and recited in the presence of other people.[3] There is no such thing as private or quiet Christianity. We are called to join with the chorus of Angels, the shimmering stars, the waving trees, the cloud of witnesses, the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, apostles, and martyrs, in the chorus of praise that illuminates eternity, in protest song that shatters kingdoms and destroys chains, in the love song that mends hearts.

We are called to dance even if we don’t know the steps, to sing even if we don’t know the tune, and to shout even if we don’t know the words.

Because the very act of creation is holy.

And God is a God who makes all things new.


[1] Reza Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), 118.

[2] Walter Brueggemann. Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1989), 98.

[3] Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church (Nelson Books: Nashville, 2015), 17.

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