Last August, while perusing the headlines of the Washington Post online, I followed a link to an interview with a fairly prominent Episcopal clergy person. The interview was, more or less, one of those “get-to-know-you” human interest stories that populate the papers during the slow news cycle of late summers in DC. The reporter asked the clergy person about the usual sorts of things. There were questions about gun violence, gay marriage and the dearth of people under the age of 50 in most mainline congregations these days. And then, unprovoked by the reporter, and without any sense of irony, the clergy person referred to himself as a “non-theistic Christian.” Just let that one sink in for a minute.
At first, I thought it was a misquote. Maybe I had missed the context for the stunning statement. I backed up a couple of paragraphs and re-read the passage again. And then a third time. Then I sat at our kitchen table staring at the screen with a furrowed brow while scratching my head in confusion. A non-theistic Christian? That makes about as much sense as a Pentecostal Buddhist.
Upon further reflection, though, I shouldn’t have been so flummoxed. The idea that “Jesus was a good, moral teacher who preached a message of peace and love, undergirded by a concern for the poor and outcast, but whose message has been co-opted by organized religion for the purpose of exerting power and control over the ignorant masses” has been around for at least two hundred fifty years or so. Plenty of people have claimed Jesus as a paragon of human virtue while simultaneously distancing themselves from any notion that Jesus was somehow the embodiment of God. For these folks, Jesus is an example to be emulated, but not God to be worshiped.
My guess would be that any gathering of well-educated, 21st century folks probably contains plenty of us who, if we were honest, could really get on board with the “Jesus-as-moral-teacher” message. That would make being a follower of Jesus much simpler, wouldn’t it? After all, isn’t it more important that we live Jesus’ message of love and peace than spend time arguing over metaphysics and Creeds? Besides, who has time to argue theology when there are so many social ills that need addressing?
Most of the time, I suspect that many of us (myself included) probably live our lives as non-theistic Christians. We do good work. We are kind to our neighbors. We serve our community. We contribute to charity. We raise families. We tend to aging parents. We care deeply for justice. We vote and consider ourselves good citizens. We just don’t think much about Jesus-as-God.
So when we hear the soaring prose from the first chapter of the Gospel of John this morning, we are confronted by some difficult assertions: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
The claim of Christmas is that the baby in the manger is the God of all creation.
Now let me be clear. This sort of claim isn’t something one can solve in an eight minute homily…or by a lifetime of church attendance…or with countless recitations of the historic Creeds…or through the perfection of one’s analytical abilities. Admittedly the claim of Jesus as God-in-the-flesh is a deal-breaker for many people who might otherwise find something attractive about Christianity as a way of living. I can understand why it may be tempting to downplay the “God thing” and emphasize the “doing of good works and being a good person thing.” And yet, on this Fifth Day of Christmas we are once again nose to nose with God.
The message of Christmas from an historic, Christian point of view is a difficult intellectual and philosophical pill to swallow. Anyone who tries to tell us differently is peddling a soft-serve Gospel that will not stand up under the hard realities of human experience. There is plenty of room for struggle and doubt as we wrestle with this Christmas claim. There’s even room for disbelief. Allowing for intellectual latitude and being generous towards a breadth of opinion, though, is not the same as abandoning the Faith that has been passed from generation to generation for twenty centuries.
Today we baptize Fiona into the family of God. My guess is that with the ever-quickening pace of life that is our world, those of us gathered here today to witness this event cannot even begin to imagine the possibilities, opportunities and challenges that are ahead for her and those in her generation. As I thought about this, I was sobered by the awareness that, by the time Fiona is my age, I will have long since left this world!
Today, in a splash of water and a smear of oil, we as the Church gathered will mark her as belonging to God. She will bear the title “Christian” for as long as she lives. Even if she should decide, at some point in her life, that she “no longer believes” in God, she will never, ever, by the sheer force of her will, be able to prevent God from loving her. This sacrament of Baptism will not wash off and it will never wear out.
Before we baptize Fiona, though, we will be asked to renew our own Baptismal Covenant. We will be asked what we believe and how we will live in response to those beliefs. Some days, it’s not easy to believe. Some days, in fact, it’s pretty close to impossible. But we are not asked to go it alone as Christians. We walk this walk of faith together, in community — a community that will believe on our behalf even when we’ve lost the energy or desire to believe for ourselves. The prayer we will pray after Fiona is baptized is the Church’s prayer for each and every one of us: “Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
So here we are. We are gathered around the Font and around the Table as Christians have done for millennia. We gather in the midst of our doubts and fears. We gather, bringing our belief and our disbelief with us. We gather, even though sometimes gathering here seems to make little sense in the face of so much that is wrong in our world. We gather to hear the Good News in a world often filled with bad news — this is Good News: “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” — and his name is Jesus, Son of Mary and Son of God.