Our conversation this last Tuesday was about what makes the Church
of the Brethren different from any other Christian denomination
-- the Methodists, the Baptists, the Lutherans -- and although I
try not to run and preach at the same time (most days running is
all I can manage -- some days not even that), I found on further
reflection that our conversation was pretty relevant to this text
from Romans 14.
I hope you noticed that the choir sang today. Pretty awesome, right?
I hope you also noticed what we sang -- there’s still time
to sneak a look at your bulletin if you’ve forgotten. It’s
a song recorded by the Newsboys which Angi introduced by way of
a video this summer. The title is “We Believe,” and
that phrase happens throughout the chorus: “We believe in
God the Father, we believe in Jesus Christ . . .” etc. This
is called a creedal statement: a doctrine, or formula of religious
belief, as of a denomination; or an authoritative, formulated statement
of the chief articles of Christian belief. There are some widely
circulated Christian creeds-- the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed
-- maybe you memorized these if you grew up Catholic, or some other
Christian tradition, but probably not in the Church of the Brethren.
Why is that?
The answer is simple, although the history is a bit involved. The
Church of the Brethren is non-creedal; although we affirm the words
of the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, the things that
other Christian groups subscribe to, Brethren don’t write
it down and make folks memorize and recite it. We don’t use
creeds as a test of “proper” belief, or a way to weed
out heretics. At the turn of the eighteenth century, when the Brethren
movement began, competing Lutheran and Catholic armies were tearing
up farms and communities and forcing the inhabitants to be either
Catholic or Lutheran -- this would change depending on who was winning
in any given place. Academics were wrestling with questions like
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and
crafting and arguing about creeds which seemed to have very little
to do with the ordinary lives of people who were being flattened
by Lutheran and Catholic armies.
I love Paul’s statement at the beginning of Romans chapter
14: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose
of quarreling over opinions. “Hi! It sounds like you’ve
been having a rough time; we’re glad you’re here. You’re
wrong.” Good heavens; squabbling about Christianity is as
old as Christianity. The Brethren thought they could get around
some of that by claiming the New Testament as our creed: the New
Testament is our rule of faith and practice. But most of us need
some kind of summary to help us remember what is most important.
What I told my fellow runner is that any balanced faith tradition
has to include all of the following: Believing, Behaving, and Belonging.
They can happen in any order, with different emphasis, and this
is what makes different denominations -- even different congregations
-- unique. The book of Romans wrestles with all these things: Paul
certainly makes theological claims -- Romans is the closest thing
to systematic theology which the Bible provides -- but Paul doesn’t
shy away from speaking about behavior or belonging. Don’t
welcome people just so you can criticize their beliefs: that’s
no way to behave. How about people who behave differently, and eat
only vegetables, while you eat anything: they can still belong.
A central theme of Romans and all of Paul’s letters is how
Jews and Gentiles can belong in the church together, even though
they have been shaped by different beliefs and behaviors.
You can see how if any one of these three--believing, behaving,
belonging -- gets over-emphasized, the church starts to roll off-kilter:
if anyone belongs, whether or not you believe in Jesus Christ, then
we’re not the church, even if we are a bunch of nice folks.
If we can behave however we want, as long as we say the magic words
and give lip service to the right things, we’re not disciples
of Jesus, we’re hypocrites. If you believe the right things
and behave the right way, but you’re still not accepted because
you aren’t related to the right people, or your last name
isn’t Yoder or Miller (although we love our Yoders and Millers)
-- we have not modeled the welcome and the hospitality of Christ.
Denominations and even congregations may accent these differently,
but we have to have a balance of believing, behaving, and belonging.
There’s another framework for considering believing, behaving,
belonging: I’m not trying to put everything into the same
box, but it turns out that there may be some ways to think about
this which are already familiar to us. [Slide of color continuum]
How many of you were at our Mission and Resource meetings at the
end of August? We introduced this there, and have shared it with
some ministry teams since then. This an abbreviated version of Creekside’s
mission statement, which is Seek, Celebrate, Share, and our vision
statement which is Rooted in God, Growing in Jesus, Bearing Fruit
in the Spirit -- some of the words which describe our vision are
listed too. We invited team leaders and members to think about this
in terms of Seek: is our relationship with God ; Celebrate: is our
relationship with folks at Creekside; and Share: is our relationship
with people outside these walls in our neighborhood and nation and
world. Are you with me?
I think we can also think of these groupings as Believing, Behaving
Believing is our relationship with God, Behaving is how we interact
with folks at Creekside, and Belonging is what we offer to people
outside of our walls. Notice there aren’t clear divisions
between these, it’s a continuum, and this end isn’t
better than that end end. In order to realize the full spectrum
of life with God and each other, we need all of these colors: the
church should be encouraging belief in the foundations of our faith:
God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit -- through Bible
study and prayer: that’s down in the red zone. Because we
believe, we worship. We gather together for worship, we encourage
one another, we take care of one another, we have meetings to coordinate
ministries. This is greenish and blueish. And because we want other
people to belong to a community of faith, and because of the example
of Jesus, we share. We contribute to the needs of the saints, we
give tomatoes to Church Community Services and school kits to Mennonite
Central Committee and water bottles to cross country runners. This
is the purple end. We’ll be looking at this continuum again
in a couple weeks: we want to acknowledge our teams and celebrate
their work. We also want to ask: how are we doing? What’s
working really well? What wishes do we have for the future? How
can we get there?
If this feels like a lot to take in, fear not. It turns out that
Paul has kind of a shorthand to evaluate how we’re doing.
It isn’t a church program; it’s more of a practice.
A practice which takes practice. Here’s what Paul writes in
verse 8, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die,
we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die,
we are the Lord’s.” There it is! That’s the crux
of what the church is called to be: we believe that we are the Lord’s,
we behave like we are the Lord’s, and we belong because we
belong to the Lord. Every day is an opportunity to re-affirm that
we live for the Lord, and to pick ourselves up and try again if
yesterday wasn’t our best effort.
This morning during the final hymn I will be offering the sacrament
of anointing. If you’d like to come forward to have your forehead
anointed with oil and have prayer from this family of faith, you
are welcome. Whether or not you choose to be anointed, please pay
attention to the words of the anointing hymn: it is God speaking
in the first person, addressing us directly, and the words are,
‘I love you, and you are mine.” Whether we live, whether
we die, whatever we believe, however we behave, we are God’s.
After everyone is anointed, I will invite anyone who wishes to come
forward and lay hands on these brothers and sisters for prayer.
You belong in this community; more importantly, you belong to God.