This winter, United Church congregations across Canada are voting on church doctrine. The General Council of our church has asked us to vote on a suggestion that the Doctrine (or teaching) Section of our denomination’s founding constitution, the Basis of Union of 1925, be expanded.
In 20 articles that fill four pages, the Doctrine Section sets out "the substance of the Christian faith." On three different occasions since 1925, the General Council has accepted other such statements: a more conservative "Statement of Faith" in 1940; the well-loved New Creed of 1968, which is printed on the back of our bulletins and which we will recite as part of our communion prayers today; and a longer and more poetic piece from 2006 called "A Song of Faith."
Each United Church pastoral charge has now been asked to decide if we agree with the suggestion that these three other faith statements be added to the Basis of Union. If so, they would stand alongside the original 1925 Doctrine Section. In Borderlands, our discussion and vote on this matter will happen at our next Central Board meeting, which takes place in Rockglen on Wednesday evening March 21st.
This voting process came to my mind this week when thinking about today's Gospel reading. For me, this passage, with Jesus' first prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection and his call to us to take up our cross, is the most important text in the entire Bible. Among other things, it touches on two of the central doctrines of our faith: the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection and the cost of discipleship -- and it does so in ways that may strike us as surprising.
For most Christians, God's grace is found in the idea that Jesus died for our sins. We assert that Jesus' death on the cross atones for, or makes good, our sins. His death satisfies a legal requirement that someone pay for our sins and repair the damage caused by them. This doctrine -- sometimes called substitutionary atonement -- is upheld by most Christian leaders not least because of the many biblical texts that say as much. One such text is found in the reading from Romans that we heard this morning. St. Paul writes, "Jesus our Lord . . . was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification."
However, I am not keen on the doctrine of atonement. One key reason for my skepticism is today's Gospel reading. In it, Jesus says that "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
Jesus does not say here that he undergoes suffering and death on our behalf. Instead, he calls us to take up our own cross and follow him to Jerusalem where we too will inevitably suffer and die. Jesus suffers and dies in solidarity with us, but his death is not presented as a substitute for our own cross, our own suffering, our own death, and our own resurrection to new life in Christ.
Well, who knows? Sermons on doctrine like this one are often not appreciated. They dwell too much on matters of the head and not the heart. They often lack stories or emotion. And they ignore the fact that when it comes to questions of church teaching, many of us respond with a shrug. After all, who cares?
One of the marks of our United Church has been a relative lack of focus on doctrine. Our congregations are often more focused on what we do than on the beliefs we carry in our heads. Christian life for many of us is more a matter of love expressed in actions than of love expressed in written formulae.
When the leaders of Canada's Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches worked to create the United Church in the years before 1925, they decided to de-emphasize doctrine. Although they discussed and agreed upon the 20 articles of the Doctrine Section, they decided to not create a "creedal" church. This means that when people like me request to be ordained into ministry, we are not asked to subscribe to every detail of a particular creed like the Apostles Creed, the Doctrine Section of 1925, or the 1968 New Creed. Instead, we only have to state that we are in "essential agreement" with the 1925 Doctrine Section.
This compromise idea of "essential agreement" has a looseness and flexibility to it that upset some of Canada's Presbyterians. More than the Congregationalists and Methodists, Presbyterians emphasized statements of belief. The lack of a requirement for ministers to agree to a creed was a key reason why one third of Canada's Presbyterians did not join the United Church in 1925.
Since then, the United Church's focus on action instead of creeds has helped us become more diverse, inclusive, and flexible. We have shifted our focus and thinking as society has changed. We have also drifted further away from those denominations who put energy into convincing people to verbally agree to certain statements such as "Jesus died for my sins, and I accept him as my personal saviour."
While there are many in the United Church who uphold the importance of statements of belief, others of us seek salvation in the areas of social justice, human rights, and spiritual enlightenment. Christianity, in this framework, is less about what we believe and more about the work we do to create loving families and communities. Many of us care most about helping each other face injustice and hardship, being present with each other in mourning and celebration, and working to strengthen the community. "They will know we are Christians by our love" as the song says.
Yet here I am today talking about hard-to-understand doctrines like substitutionary atonement and the meaning of suffering, death, and resurrection. Grace is key, I believe. God's grace means that salvation is not up to us; it is God's work. And the doctrine of substitutionary atonement -- that Jesus suffered and died for us -- fits well with this idea, even if the grace in the concept is often undermined when it is linked to a requirement that we signal our agreement with the idea as part of the deal. Surely if Jesus' death saves, then one does not have to believe it or say anything about it for this grace to be effective.
On the other hand, Jesus' call to take up our cross can appear to be the opposite of grace. He says we have to deny ourselves, suffer, and lose our lives to be saved. At first hearing, this call can seem like a very difficult one.
Well, here is how I see it. Whether or not we heed Jesus' call, we will all suffer and die. In many ways, we were all born impaled on a cross, as one can try to illustrate [I stretch my arms wide]. This is how we were born. This is how we live. This is how we will die. As Bob Dylan once sang, "those not busy being born are busy dying."
The good if painful news contained in our mortality is that we are certain that at death our egos along with their addictions, distractions, and ambitions will be dissolved. At the end of life's joy- and pain-filled journey our small selves return to the Big Self of God's Spirit. Now, not everyone believes that such salvation is for everyone. But personally, I have no doubts. I trust in this destiny with all my heart and soul.
Jesus' call to take up our cross not only underlines our morality and the painful salvation found there, it also calls us to wake up to this reality now, long before our individual death. By hearing Jesus' call and by joining him on his journey to the cross, we are shown how to taste eternal life beyond ego and its anxieties at any moment.
How often have we seen people experience a spiritual awakening upon receiving a fatal diagnosis? In the face of a terminal illness, many of us clarify our priorities and rediscover the essential values of faith, hope and love. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus gives all of us a terminal diagnosis, one that we know but often try to deny.
If this call wakes us up to reality, then we taste eternal life beyond ego even before our death. Such life in Christ and in loving community can be experienced at any moment on the Lenten road to Jerusalem.
The call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and lose our lives in order to save them is a call to enlightenment. The grace in this call is that losing our lives is unavoidable. The glory of this call is that we can respond to it at any moment. The difficulty in this call is our fear, which prevents us from experiencing new life beyond ego for more than brief moments this side of the grave. The wonder of it is that can we hear it during any moment of pain or joy. One does not have to believe anything to hear this call. One does not have to do anything to heed this call. However, when we wake up to its grace, we are likely to carry out loving actions of great courage.
Throughout history, people have responded to the call to take up the cross and entered into new life in Christ. These are people who sacrifice themselves in heroic acts in wars, revolutions, or in the face of natural disasters. They are parents who extend themselves in love for the sake of their children. They are the saints of the church who visit the sick and comfort the lonely and the lost. They are the people who wake up to love on their death beds and repent of their past concerns.
For me, faith is not about creeds or belief. It is about trust on the journey: trust in one's self, trust in one's companions, and trust in the God who calls us to the cross where we can lay down our ego-ridden lives and rise to new life in loving community.
If we never consciously heed this call, we still find new life at the end. If we do heed this call, we experience brief moments of new life in Christ this side of the grave.
Answering the call and living into the truth that we belong to God instead of ourselves is often difficult. That difficulty is one of the reasons why I appreciate Lent. Lent encourages us to to engage in spiritual practices that help us lay down our fearful guard and open ourselves to the wild winds of God's Spirit that flow through our community and our tradition.
After the next hymn we will gather again at the Lord's Table. The hope is that it will be a joyous and sombre reminder of the feast of life that God gives us. It is a feast that glimmers at us beyond the pain and suffering of the cross, both the cross which Jesus bears for us and the cross we also bear on this or any day of our mortal lives. The table is not set for believers as much as it is set for lovers; those who want to love life, love their families and neighbours, and who glimpse as through a mirror darkly how new life beckons to us beyond the cross.
In the cross lies the painful grace of salvation. We cannot avoid it. Jesus calls us to embrace it. We need accept no substitutes.
Thanks be to God.