Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Easter 2, April 29, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18

“Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.” Those of you on facebook may have seen this. There is an image passed around the last few weeks that I’ve seen my friends post. A little photo that has it on it, “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.” Or in other words, “I don’t care what you say you believe, I care what you do.” I care how you live out what you say you believe. And that I think is what the writer of this letter of John is saying: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I’m sure he wants us to have loving words and loving speech, and to speak only that which is loving, edifying, and building up of other people, but he wants more than just words. He wants action. He wants us to act on that we say. Otherwise, what we say means nothing. Another phrase that was popular a few years ago was to “walk the talk”. Do what you say you believe. Don’t just say it. And you can proclaim what you believe. Nothing wrong with that, saying what you believe. Part of what we do as community is to come together to say “I believe this” and “I believe this” and let’s talk about it and discuss it and together find a path toward truth. So you can proclaim what you believe about the Trinity, or that you accept Jesus Christ, or that you accept him as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever doctrine is important to you: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, something else. Proclaim it loudly and repeatedly, that’s fine, but if you are not living in love, which is ultimately what we are called to do as Christians, if there isn’t some component of living in love, then what we proclaim doesn’t matter. As Paul said, without love you’re just a clanging gong. We are called to action.

When Jesus offered his Great Commission to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, after he had been raised from the dead and he the disciples walk to the hilltop before he ascends to heaven, he gives them a commission, he doesn’t say, “Go home, and come up with a list of beliefs and nuanced doctrinal points for people to argue over—and use as a litmus test—no, scratch that—use as a cross by which to crucify others for not being faithful enough based on their adherance or not to that belief, and be sure to definitely hang out in your upper room writing pamphlets and tracts excoriating and condemning your opponents for their lack of precise and right belief.”

At least, in my Bible, Jesus doesn’t say that. Though as I look around at Christianity it appears some Bibles say that. Those who care more about belief than discipleship. About what we say than what we do. What Jesus said to his disciples, and says to us, is to go out into all the world, make disciples, baptize, love your neighbors, love your enemies, forgive. Create community. Preach the Good News of God’s love and grow this community that Jesus had started. And to do that by loving your neighbor. And do that through the power of love and the power forgiveness. Jesus says, “Go and do what I have done; go and live like me.” That’s belief! Action. To do it. Action is true belief. I think what we do says a lot more about what we believe than anything we say.

The writer of this letter is letting us know that belief is a good thing. He’s not anti-belief. At a minimum, we ought to follow Jesus because at some level we at least believe that he’s worth following. That his message is good and right and true. But it is the beginning of the journey, it’s not the entirety of the journey, to believe. To believe is the beginning. To take that first step. Belief has to inspire action, specifically loving action, or it’s meaningless. It says in verse 17: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” That person’s belief is empty. Our salvation comes not from belief, it comes by Jesus. Ours is not an individualistic faith. Christianity is not an individualist faith. Though there is a strong temptation to have it be that, a “me and Jesus” Christianity. And we see a fair amount of that in the United States and other industrialized western rich countries, where you don’t have to many people struggling day to say to live, there is that temptation to have Christianity become an individualistic kind of faith. But we are not. We are a faith of community. A faith of relation. God exists in community. God came to us in Jesus Christ to be in relationship with us and take part in the world, to be part of the world. For Jesus to be in relationship and to reform and rebuild our idea of community. That community ought to be based in love and mutual care for one another, concern, compassion, in relationship with our neighbors, especially the least of these and with those that we maybe wouldn’t otherwise choose to be in community with. Jesus did not really talk much about right belief, but about right action. Belief in action.

Our salvation does not come from what we believe, but it came and comes through what Jesus did and does. We have nothing to do with it, because Jesus has already done it. Jesus has already given it to us. A gift already offered. He gave it to us to free us up so we can go about the business of service. Which I think is true freedom. The true freedom to be able to go out and to serve. Jesus is the Great Shepherd, and he has shown us how to live.

Think of the sheep and the shepherd. When the shepherd is in the field with the sheep and if the shepherd says, “To we’re going to over to this green pasture, because the grass is better and is more nourishing and we need to go there” the sheep don’t look at the shepherd and say, “Yes, I believe!” and then stay where they are. They go! They show their belief by going, by obeying. They don’t have to say it, they do it.

And if we consider the ancient creeds, and I know the adult Sunday School has talked about church history the last few weeks and the creeds have come up. And maybe not talked about specific ones, but the process of how they came to be and why we have them. And all those creeds are really more about belief. They are arguments over nuanced points of the faith and were made to say “This is what we believe about God the Father, and Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And they’re very nice and beautiful and important in their own way. We need to know what we believe in at some level. But there is not a lot in those creeds about life. About what those beliefs ought to mean to us and how we ought to live. They are just a list of beliefs. And they were often used as a test of faith. “If you can believe this you can be part of the church.” Or “If you are going to be in the church, this is what you have to believe.” But not the question, “Can you live these beliefs?” They have reduced the faith down to beliefs. And I see this in other churches. Now that we have the Internet, it’s easy to find out what churches believe. I like to go look at church websites, especially the non-denominational churches, independant churches not affiliated with anyone, usually started by a guy or a few people. They most always some section on their website about “This is what we believe”. Statements about the Trinity, the inerrancy and infallability of scripture (these churches tend to be big on inerrancy), the divinity of Jesu, and Christ as only head of the Church (which is very Protestant Reformation stuff there, Christ as head, not the minister, not the Pope, not any human being), and salvation to all who profess belief in Jesus Christ.

And these churches tend to be pretty clear that they are not about works-based salvation, but salvation by faith. And that is very much the Protestant Reformation reaction against the Catholic Church at the time that we earn our way to heaven, or variously earn our way to hell, by what we do or fail to do. It’s salvation to those who profess belief in Jesus. It’s still, as I see it, a kind of a work.

It’s also very nebulous to say “I believe in Jesus.” It’s not really saying a lot. Like “I believe in the Bible.” Be a little more specific. What does that mean? But it sounds like a kind of a work. It turns salvation into something that we do. “I believe, therefore I have God’s love. I have earned salvation.” But God has already done that. We’re already saved, redeemed, granted eternal life, been given the keys to the Kingdom, freed from the penalty of sin, however you want to phrase that or word it. We have it. Jesus did that on the cross and did that by rising up on Easter morning and defeating death. You already have that.

Our ancestors of the United Church of Christ, the congregational church back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, were not big on this idea of right belief. They were organized very specifically as non-doctrinal, non-creedal, no tests of faith. There was no “Do you believe this?” question to get in to the church, but testimonies of faith. And we still have that tradition. Testimonies of faith: “This is what I believe, and I live it out this way.” And we say that to one another, and in community and in dialogue we hopefully come to a greater sense of truth about what Jesus would have us do. But no specific belief requirement or doctrinal requirement to become part of the community, but as a community we try to come to live into our salvation. To live into who Jesus calls us to be. To go beyond believing in, and doing more acting like. Acting like Jesus.

And so we have in our United Church of Christ tradition, not a creed or a doctrine, but a Statement of Faith. And we will read that after the hymn. I felt this a good Sunday to read our Statement of Faith again. It has belief statements, but in the form of what God has done and what God does, and in the form of what we then are to do. It’s very action oriented statement of faith, that I think makes it very beautiful and useful and helpful for us. How we are to respond. With the way that it is worded, there is a lot of room for freedom of movement in how we respond. But there is in it an implicit sense that there must be movement. It’s not a “this is what I believe” statement, but a “this is how we are called to live” statement. So think of that as we read it after the hymn. I leave you with that challenge.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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