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An Easter Sermon For Doubters Like Me: A Process Account

peter

Acts 10:34-42

Easter presents us with several problems. It is a story of a cosmic event which changes everything about life and the world as a result. And yet it is hard to imagine how any kind of event could qualify as such. It would mean putting human beings on this small globe as somehow the center of the universe, the center of the divine drama. Can we say that? I’ll venture into that later on.

But when we look around, the world does not appear to have changed that much as result of this event. While Rome would eventually fall, other empires would take its place, while the crucifixion was brutal, more crucifixions would follow, while the Gospel of Peace was preached by the disciples, the Church would replace empire and sanctify it and many resulting wars.

And in light of how we understand the world today, it is hard to imagine that a body can be raised from the dead. I don’t think bodies work that way, I don’t think that is how biology works. The laws of science don’t appear to be something that can be suspended in our favor. If you do believe or you don’t, we’re relating to a mystery. No one belief is a requirement of our church, we have a proud non creedal history.

That is a hard fought for history because in the wider church, beliefs often are a requirement. They are an obligation and a virtue. You must believe. But I don’t think beliefs can really operate that way. They can’t be compelled or threatened. They need not be herculean leaps of faith. They should rather be as natural and fitting to our life and experience such that when held, they simply describe the world as we know it.

All this is to provide a context. They may or may not be yours, they do reflect my own struggle to make sense of the Easter story. Because as progressive Christians, this really is our story. It belongs to our tradition. And if we can make sense of it in a way that really describes our world, in ways that can make for life, then we will have performed an important service for ourselves and the wider world.

I’ve appreciated the process theology book discussion our church has held over this last year. While some of it made it for a tough read, it did provide a vocabulary to make sense out of my own religious thinking. For process thought, one can say that every event is a cosmic event. What does that mean?

It means that any event that happens creates the kind of world we know and experience. It makes the universe just what it is. That is, because events are not discrete happenings all unto themselves. They are fully related to every other event, to any possible future. So there is no such thing as an insignificant event. The Easter story is the kind of story that really does affect everything else.

And while we can no longer believe that we are the center of the universe, we do know that conscious life as we know it, is rare. And it produces a unique kind of value. It does this because conscious life is not simply about repeating the past, but being self-directional, so that the future is genuinely open. And in process thought, God is to be found in the realm of possibility and the future.

So yes, even in our obscure corner of the universe, events and people on this little planet of ours, matters. It matters greatly to God. If God opens the realm of freedom and possibility, than the Easter story is not incidental to God’s aims for our world. Because the Easter story, the Gospel of peace, the disciples preached, the way life outwitted an empire opened up a historical tradition that we find ourselves in today, one which asks to consider what makes for freedom, for peace, for life today.

But even with all this being the case, as I noted, we live in a world today that still faces empire, still faces crucifixion, still faces injustice. Whatever happened in the first century, whether it opened up possibilities, or not, we know that it was not magic. Not all was right in the world as a result. It opened doors but did not guarantee that we would take them. Which is why Peter finds himself in the home of Cornelius, preaching and envisioning what could be if others followed the way of Jesus.

His story is itself is worth noting. The book of Acts is a story of a tension between those Jewish believers of Jesus who thought you had to become Jewish, had to join the religion, to be a follower of Jesus. And those that thought that you could follow him and remain a Gentile. By the time the book of Acts is written this is largely settled, but if you read the book of Galatians when Paul recounts how he “stood up to Peter’s face” you can see the debate was live then.

Peter was identified as a Jewish believer, unsure of how you relate to Gentiles. So he receives a dream, of unclean foods and is told in that by dream by God, that nothing God has made is unclean. There is a message which will preach. So Peter has to weigh, what we has always understood in the tradition versus what he has heard from a still speaking God. He opts for God and in this case inclusion. The first debate in the early church is can we include the Gentiles? The inclusion side won.

Which is how the tradition and this historical trajectory was able to happen and why we can be sitting here, having this conversation. So then he is asked to visit the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, one who was not Jewish or Christian but was accepted by God as such and it is there that Peter announces, what he has come to believe. God is not a God of partiality. God is the God of all, not just of some.

Let’s say on the one side you have the old Roman system, where wealth, power, prestige, family lineage, political connections made you someone of value, someone who to be heard. They are the ones, who through the emperor, keeps the “peace of Rome” through might and power. Then you have the story of Jesus, who preaches “the peace of God” by welcoming everyone else in society, women, children, the disabled, the eunuchs, the tax collectors and sinners, everyone on the lower rung of society.

Now, he is killed, the disciples are convinced they have met the risen Christ, a new society comes into being. Like the Essenes, you could create an exclusive society, the folks who get it, with your new hierarchies, your new sources of authority, your new sense of who is in and who is out. The communists did this after overthrowing the Tsarist regime in Russia. The French revolutionaries did this after overthrowing the old monarchy. The church in many ways does this today.

But in the first debate about inclusion, Peter says no. God shows no partiality, God welcomes all. The genuine peace of God comes through that kind of society, what Paul called the body of Christ, what later writers including Martin Luther King, envision as the Beloved Community. And as we serve as an outpost, welcoming GLBT folks (as opposed to what we see the church being on cable TV) our little congregation has a deep connection to the original gospel that Peter preaches on this day.

Nonetheless, what gives the early church courage is the encounter with the risen Christ. As a modern ( do folks use that term anymore?) person who believes in the results of science,  I already gave away the fact that I don’t believe in a physical resurrection. How do we connect with this story if you share that disbelief with me?

The only kind of immortality process theology knows is this: objective immortality. The kind where what one does forever impacts the world, forever impacts future possibilities, forever impacts what God works with in building a more just world. So you may believe that he was physically raised from the dead, you may believe like John Dominic Crossan, that his body was thrown in a pit for the poor and the criminals.

But the reason the disciples could experience Christ in their midst, the reason we can experience Christ in our midst, the reason we can say with confidence that Christ is risen is because his life was bigger than a body which can be killed, it was bigger than could be stamped out my empire, it could rise again and find its home wherever people dream of more just world and seek to live out the peace of God.

And that is not a leap of faith, it is simply what we are privileged to be a part of in this church and in this world. And we get to see it all the time.

In a world where we are lazily told that Christians and Muslims and Jews must be at odds, rings of Muslims protect a church in Egypt, in Copenhagen, rings of people circle a synagogue so that it can be safe, Christians greet Muslims to the state capitol in Oklahoma City and welcoming them for Friday prayers. Christian bakers do a flash mob in California to provide cupcakes to GLBT folks.

Jews working for justice in Palestine, Christians working for equality in Indiana, peace happens between Iran and the US, perhaps? It is not guaranteed, lots of things will block life, peace, justice, the realm of God. And yet when we are thinking that nothing can be done, someone is out there doing this, somehow responding to the call of life. And we are surprised.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. We have a name for it. It is Easter, it is resurrection. And it may happen today. It may happen next year, it may happen decades from now, but we have a name to describe new life, to describe hope, to describe overcoming the odds, of beating systems of exclusion and power, of connecting to our shared humanity in spite of it all.” Thanks be to God.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

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Comments

  1. My friend Tim posted a link to your sermon on Facebook, and I criticized it as Christian humanism, not Christianity. I think you’re wrong on several major points, but right about others; he and I are Episcopalians and progressives too, so don’t think I’m outraged by your doubts.

    If you’d like a copy of our dialogue, I will retrieve it and post it here.

  2. Dwight Welch says:

    Would love that. Thanks!

  3. I really appreciate your willingness to share the gospel as you process it.

  4. Josh Thomas says:

    Here’s the dialogue with my friend Tim. He wrote:

    A process theology-inspired reflection on the Resurrection from UCC Pastor Dwight Welch:
”The only kind of immortality process theology knows is this: objective immortality. The kind where what one does forever impacts the world, forever impacts future possibilities, forever impacts what God works with in building a more just world. So you may believe that he was physically raised from the dead, you may believe like John Dominic Crossan, that his body was thrown in a pit for the poor and the criminals.
But the reason the disciples could experience Christ in their midst, the reason we can experience Christ in our midst, the reason we can say with confidence that Christ is risen is because his life was bigger than a body which can be killed, it was bigger than (anything that) could be stamped out (by) empire, it could rise again and find its home wherever people dream of more just world and seek to live out the peace of God.
And that is not a leap of faith, it is simply what we are privileged to be a part of in this church and in this world. And we get to see it all the time.
In a world where we are lazily told that Christians and Muslims and Jews must be at odds, rings of Muslims protect a church in Egypt, in Copenhagen, rings of people circle a synagogue so that it can be safe, Christians greet Muslims to the state capitol in Oklahoma City and welcoming them for Friday prayers. Christian bakers do a flash mob in California to provide cupcakes to GLBT folks.
Jews working for justice in Palestine, Christians working for equality in Indiana, peace happens between Iran and the US, perhaps? It is not guaranteed, lots of things will block life, peace, justice, the realm of God. And yet when we are thinking that nothing can be done, someone is out there doing this, somehow responding to the call of life. And we are surprised.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. We have a name for it. It is Easter, it is resurrection. And it may happen today. It may happen next year, it may happen decades from now, but we have a name to describe new life, to describe hope, to describe overcoming the odds, of beating systems of exclusion and power, of connecting to our shared humanity in spite of it all. Thanks be to God.”
    https://approachingjustice.net/…/an-easter-sermon-for-doubt…/

  5. Josh Thomas: Like Easter’s all about politics; like Easter’s all about us, about what we do, the cupcakes we bake, the places we stand. I hope he didn’t actually preach this in a church, especially not today.

    They’re lovely thoughts, but they’re not Christian; this is religious humanism. I wouldn’t call them “a reflection on the Resurrection,” either; they’re a reflection against the Resurrection. I take it miracles embarrass him.

    I’d say he failed to apprehend the first great spiritual lesson: “You are God and I am not.” A lot of people find that a big sticking point. The same people, on reading the Bible, generally think, “I would make a better God than this one.” So they set out to remake God to conform to their own ethics. Ethical humanists would then say, “You don’t need God for ethics,” which of course is true.

    I approve of their ethics, but have no respect whatever for their god.

    We are bound by physics; God finds “the miraculous” fairly routine.
    April 5 at 10:17pm · Like

    Tim Hawks-Malczynski: Interesting thoughts! Thanks, Josh Thomas! I quite liked the sermon as I do most stuff Dwight Welch writes and preaches.
    April 5 at 11:26pm · Edited · Like

    Josh Thomas I give him credit for honestly disclaiming the Creed, which he clearly does not believe; he says UCC’s being noncreedal was hard fought for and something to be proud of. He then claims a lack of belief requirements is a virtue of the progressive church.

    It’s true that no one should be compelled to believe anything; God doesn’t compel, never has, and neither did Jesus. “If you have ears you can hear what I’m saying, but if not, okay.” But it’s the classic paradigm of (watch out, H-word coming) heresy to take one truth and lift it above all competing truths; Anglicans, and Catholics generally, strive to keep competing truths in balance, while maintaining a central core that’s deemed essential if we’re going to be true to the Gospel record of what Christ actually taught, and did, and was, and is.

    The Quakers were right that each person has an inner spiritual light, which they have a right and duty to pursue. But a logical consequence of that is that “my truth” becomes “the truth,” which is why, today, what started as a movement of Christian conscience is now largely atheist. There are still a few Quaker churches which reject that development and are barely distinguishable now from fundamentalist Christianity, while the dominant strain in Quaker thought is embarrassed to talk about God.

    I offer this as a logical extension of where this UCC minister’s “theology” is headed. It’s more important to him to be a progressive, inclusive Christian than to be a Christian – which, progressive as I am, is ass-backwards. I’m inclusive because I’m a Christian, not in spite of it.

    It’s ironic that the UCC derives from New England Puritanism, so called because its adherents were “purer” in their beliefs than the Church of England; in other words, like most Protestants, holier than thou. So they threw out bishops and moved to America, where each congregation runs itself, there is no creed and you can believe whatever you want to believe. They were traumatized by their experience in England, on the edge of “Nonconformity,” which was illegal; to have the full rights of citizenship a person had to conform to the CofE. So the Puritan party caused a Civil War, which they won, but couldn’t maintain. Thirteen years later the king was back, and in time the laws about conformity were repealed. You can’t make people believe what they don’t want to believe, and it was foolish to try. Worse than foolish, it killed people.

    Plus we got independence out of it, the separation of church and state. But the Congregationalists became so bent on freedom of conscience that they too, like the Quakers before them, are slowly moving away from mainstream Christianity. We might have too, *except we’ve got the Creed.* It’s in the Book, we say it out loud at every service, and lex orandi, lex credendi.

    My reading of subsequent history is that, slowly and painfully, Anglicans have learned their lessons. The Quakers were right; the Puritans were right; so let’s incorporate those principles and keep them in balance with competing principles that are also true. We do insist on the Creed; we do insist on bishops, whose most important job is teaching and upholding the Creed; and we do realize that Christ never quizzed people’s beliefs before feeding the 5000, so we must do the same. Doubters are welcome (because we all have the occasional pang), but you have to say the Creed, and in the course of a lifetime it will either convert you or maybe even cause you to leave. If so, go with God, but we will always worry about your spiritual health, because we’ve found we can’t live without that ancient statement of what Christians do believe, and must believe if we’re to stay true to Jesus Christ.

    Now in my lifetime – it’s a revolutionary change, Tim – we’re finally leaving behind Protestantism but not protest, against what we see as the errors of the Bishops of Rome. The Episcopal Church is fully Catholic now, in heart and practice as well as Orders, because of the first sentence on p. 13 of the Book (“The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts”). We celebrate mass every Sunday, as Christians always did, in all times and places, for the first 1500 years of our history. We literally knew nothing else. Now, after 500 years of veering off into “we know how to do it better than you do,” we’re back where we belong after this series of incredibly painful lessons on the very topics our UCC friend discusses. We don’t throw him out of the Christian church because of his beliefs, but we don’t share them, because we’ve been down this road before. The Popes were right about many essential things (even if they were wrong about many others); we were wrong to substitute Morning Prayer for Eucharist. So we did a 180 – largely because of my mentor Howard Galley, General Editor of the Book of Common Prayer. He knew that what we pray is what we believe, and with enormous skill he shepherded the first Catholic BCP through two rounds of the General Convention. (Contrast that with the case in England, which hasn’t had a new Prayer Book since 1688, 40 years after the Civil War and Restoration).

    It sure sounds good to trumpet freedom of conscience – who could be against it? – but if our UCC friend thinks his freedom was hard won, he should try standing up for the teachings and practices of Jesus Christ for 2000 years against every alternative idea humans have ever dreamed up. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be their own god like the humanists? Who doesn’t think we can do it better than the God of the Old Testament? Your kids screaming in the car are better than that guy!

    But then it turns out that the OT God is not who we think he is, he isn’t even a he at all, and that Scriptures were written in a particular time and place. They’re remarkably universal – but not entirely universal, and some of what’s in there is more a reflection of the men who wrote than the God they wrote about. So what is God to do, faced with all this?

    The UCC is dead right in one crucial point and God love ’em for it: revelation is a comma, not a period. God continues to reveal “himself,” bit by bit as we’re able to come to terms with. How does God do this, given that we can’t see “him” and almost never (or maybe never) hear him? What means is at God’s disposal to get through to these recalcitrant, self-centered humans whom he unaccountably loves? He gave us ears but we’re still fucking deaf!

    I don’t know what your answer is to this central question, but our clues are contained in tonight’s and tomorrow’s Gospel readings in the Office.

    Monday morning we read, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”

    Those works are what we call miracles, Tim, as astounding today as they were when he did them.

    God is not bound by the laws of physics. He is God and we are not.

    Here’s the second one. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

    He is known in the breaking of bread – which just goes to show ya, Episcopalians were idiots until 1979, when Howard Galley (and a host of others, including those convention deputies) finally led us through the Protestant Red Sea and home again.

    “As we pray, so we believe” is indispensible. Its first result? The Apostles’ Creed.++
    Yesterday at 12:09am · Like · 1

    Tim Hawks-Malczynski: Thanks for the comments. I’d love to just sit and watch you and Dwight Welch have a conversation about these kinds of questions. That would be educational.

  6. Dwight Welch says:

    Josh Thomas, Tim Hawks-Malczynski Here’s a blog post that largely tries to follow this conversation https://approachingjustice.net/2015/04/08/god-cupcakes-and-naturalism/

Trackbacks

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