The Why’s and Wonders of Worship: Why I Preach

“The Why’s and Wonders of Worship: Why I Preach”
John 14:6
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
September 9, 2018

Today is Fearless Sunday. Fearless Sunday is a new annual tradition being proposed by progressive Christian circles. Since the second Sunday of September generally begins the new church school year, it is a fitting day for preachers to boldly “come out” theologically. By “outing” ourselves in matters of doctrine, we invite listeners to do the same… to bring your doubts, your questions, your uncertainties to worship.

For many preachers, however, telling the truth about what they really believe from the pulpit can be dangerous. The consequences of being fearless can be devastating, personally and professionally. Truth-telling can end pastors’ employment, wipe out their careers and ruin their personal finances. Yet, the consequences of not proclaiming our truth theologically and socially can be just as devastating to our own souls and to the souls of our congregants. Ultimately, Fearless Sunday is about saving Christianity from its enslavement to dead doctrines that block Jesus’ Way of compassion.

So, on this “Fearless Sunday,” I would like to take the opportunity to share 5 doctrines that I no longer believe in (although there are more), doctrines that I believe no longer serve Christendom.

First, as I have shared on several occasions, I do not believe in the doctrine of Original Sin, but rather I believe in Original Blessing. The theology of “Original Sin” says that since the first humans sinned, all human life would be born in sin.  The words “Original Sin” are not actually found in the Bible. They are words coined by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century C.E.   In other words, says Augustine, we are inherently bad.  It has been the primary theology preached in Christendom for 2000 years.  The Genesis story, however, states that the first words out of God’s mouth after we were created were, “It is good!”  We are good.  We are inherently good.  Original Blessing comes before Original Sin. Therefore, I say, out with the doctrine of Original Sin.

Secondly, I do not believe in the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture. The Bible as the inerrant word of God has been used as a weapon against others rather than an invitation to God’s love. The Bible has been used to justify, authorize, inspire the Crusades, witch burnings, the KKK, anti-Semitism, homophobia, patriarch and any other kind of oppression we can think of. No, I do not believe the Bible is the word of God although I believe words of God can be found in its pages. Therefore, I say out with the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture.

Speaking of scripture, let’s look at today’s passage. How often I have heard this passage quoted out of context from the pulpit. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. The only way to the Father is through me.” Preachers often point to this very scripture passage and say, “Jesus is the only way to God – unless you confess the name of Jesus, you will not go to Heaven when you die.”

Let’s, first, put it in is proper context.  The full passage begins with the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  In my Father’s house, there are many rooms…”  In other words, there is room enough for all in God’s neighborhood whether in this world or the next. There is enough room for the Hindus; there is enough room for the Buddhists; there is enough room for the Jews; there is enough room for the Muslims; there is enough room for Christians; and I believe that there is even enough room for those who don’t believe in God at all – In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.

Second, when we read that “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; no one can get to the Father except through me”, many scholars believe, and I agree with them, that this is not the language of self-proclamation, but the community’s testimony to Jesus’ significance in their lives.  In other words, these are words about Jesus, not words by Jesus.  These words were written 70 years after Jesus died and it is much more credible to me to believe that John said these words about Jesus rather Jesus saying these words about himself.  Scholars say that this is the poetry of devotion; it is the hyperbole of the heart.  It is the language of gratitude and love.  It is like the language used by lovers, as when we say to our beloved, “You are the most beautiful person in the world.”  That person may not be the most beautiful person in the world, but in the eyes of the beloved he/she is the most beautiful person in the world.  Jesus may not be the only way to God, but in John’s eyes he is the only way to God.  For John, God’s presence was more alive in Jesus than any other person whom he had ever met. (Bishop John Shelby Spong, lecture at University Christian Church, 2005). I believe that radical inclusivity is the way of Jesus: therefore, I say out with the doctrine of Christian exclusivity and triumphalism.

Fourth, I say “out” with the doctrine of the Last Judgment. The Last Judgment, also known as the Second Coming, states that Jesus will return to earth on a cloud from the Heavens judging the good from the bad, those are in and those who are out, separating the goats from the sheep. No, I do not believe in the Second Coming of Christ rather I dare to embrace the possibility that we ourselves might be the second coming of Christ. The incarnation is not something that just happened 2000 years ago, it happens today – in you and in me. Therefore, I say “out” with the doctrine of The Last Judgement.

Finally, I do not believe in the doctrine of Hell. Hell has had an interesting history. The Jews developed an understanding of the afterlife from their neighbors – the Egyptians and the Persians. This concept that the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Hell is referred to as Sheol, the place of death. In the second testament, Hell is translated as Gehenna. Gehenna was a valley in Palestine that was used as a garbage dump that was always burning trash.  There was a continual fire in this valley.  Bad people or those who are deemed as little more than trash were said to be thrown into Gehenna, a place of eternal fire. Jesus, of course, comes and turns upside down the concept of who is good and who is bad. Fast forward to Dante in the 1300’s. Dante wrote Dante’s Inferno and redefined eternal damnation for the medieval masses.  What had been a valley or an abstract concept in the Bible became a terrifying one.  In fact, after the poem was released, the Catholic Church enjoyed a huge boost in attendance.  Why?  People wanted to avoid hell.  In the 1400’s, Botticelli painted Dante’s horrific vision of hell.  Those who had not read Inferno or those who were illiterate could now see it in art.  Botticelli painted a wretched underground landscape of fire, brimstone, sewage, monsters and Satan himself waiting at its core.  Guess what?  The Catholic Church received another huge boost in attendance. Even after the Reformation, there were preachers like Jonathan Edwards preaching sermons entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. Although that sermon was preached in the 1700’s, there are many Christian pastors today who say that was the best and truest sermon ever preached in all time. That is a brief history of the concept of hell.  It appears that the church has fired the furnaces of hell more than anyone else.  Why?  Because religion is in the guilt producing control business, seeking to scare the hell out of people.  But the God I know is a God of love. God’s love is limitless, boundless, unconditional. Therefore, I think it is time to change the course of a 2000 year religious history and send the doctrine of hell to Hell.

And if I am wrong about all of this – the doctrine of Original Sin, the inerrancy of scripture, Christian exclusivity and triumphalism, The Last Judgment, the doctrine of Hell, I believe that God’s love / Divine grace will still cover me.

As many of you know, I heard the call to go into ministry at the age of 15. I was reading a book on a hot, summer day entitled, Let God and Let God. As I was reading this book, I was completely taken by God’s extravagant love. I knew at that moment I needed to share that love with others. A divine love that does not oppress but liberates; a divine love that does not control but emancipates; a divine love that does not take life but gives life. And it is because of my passionate belief about this divine love that I preach today.

Fortunately, I get to be a preacher in this congregation. A church that believes in a divine love that liberates and emancipates and gives life. And so on this Fearless Sunday while some preachers may be trembling as they step into their pulpits and share their theological truth, I give thanks that Fearless Sunday is not something I need to find the courage to do once a year on the second Sunday of September, but is something you, as a congregation, welcome and encourage of me every Sunday of the year. Fearless, bold, courageous preaching whether we all agree or not. Today, I would like to say thank you for allowing me to preach my truth. In reference to our scripture passage, you have become for me the way, the truth and the life and I experience the Holy through you.