Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a holiday first known as “Decoration Day” in the nineteenth century and then “Memorial Day” in the twentieth. In the first years of Decoration Day, families and friends would visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of all the departed. After the Civil War killed over 750,000 soldiers from both North and South—more than the total dead from all other American wars before or since—the holiday changed to a day of remembering those who had died in that war, and, as Americans became involved in more wars in the 20th century, the observance gradually expanded to include those who had died in all wars fought on our behalf.
Today is also Trinity Sunday, the day on which we Christians give thanks for God’s self-revelation to us. As we reflect together on the readings for this Sunday, the sacrifice and example of those who have died in the service of our country—from Bunker Hill to Afghanistan—will be ever present in our hearts and minds, and we will more formally give voice to our observance in the prayers.
At the end of the week following Easter, Kathy and I attended our first gathering of the Conference of North American Cathedral Deans. This year the group met in Toronto, and an advertised highlight of the Deans’ Conference was a lecture by a Canadian theologian which promised a solution to the divisions between conservative and liberal Christians.
A solution to the conservative/liberal religious divide? Sign me up! You can imagine that I was all ears as the speaker launched into his topic. Who wouldn’t want once and for all to solve this problem? But as the talk developed, it turned out that his definition of the liberal/conservative Christian problem differed pretty radically from mine. He defined “liberal” Christians as those who place primacy on the doctrine of the incarnation, that is God’s coming into human flesh in the person of Jesus. And by his lights, “conservative” Christians are those who emphasize the doctrine of the atonement, that is the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. After several minutes of intellectual gobbledygook, the speaker proved at least to himself that both doctrines actually were the same, and so ended by happily announcing that there really were no disagreements between liberal and conservative Christians at all. Problem solved, case closed.
Immediately I raised my hand. “Your discussion, “I said, “does not take into account a whole other category of Christians whom I see in church every Sunday.”
With great curiosity the speaker leaned forward and regarded me. “Really? Who are those?” he asked.
I replied that in every church I have served there is a third group of people. They are not sure they believe that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God. They are not sure that Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection ever happened. When and if they say the Creed they do so with their fingers crossed. Yet they are drawn to Jesus and his life and teachings and they want to follow him in worship and ministry. “Where,” I asked, “would you place them?”
The speaker looked at me for a minute as if I had been speaking to him in Swedish. Finally he replied. “Why do I have to place them anywhere? If they don’t believe in the virgin birth and resurrection, and if they can’t say the Creed, then they’re not Christians.”
To call what happened next a rumble would be a bit excessive, but the response of the urban cathedral deans in the room was electric. One after another took to the microphone and spoke to the expanding, pluralistic reality of the belief patterns of contemporary church-goers. The theological academics on the panel seemed really to be taken aback. They couldn’t seem to imagine the reality of a contemporary, urban North American church. We didn’t fit into their system.
Today is Trinity Sunday, and I am not, in the words of a priest friend of mine, going put us all through the “mental root canal” of trying to explain the Trinity in sound bites. But this is a good occasion to ask the question implied by my experience at the Deans’ Conference: what do you have to believe to call yourself a Christian? Or to put it another way, is there a particular set of ideas a follower of Jesus needs to assent to at all?
As we ponder that question, today’s Gospel gives us a good place to start. In Jesus’ words, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). It has taken me a lifetime of living in and with the Christian tradition to begin to understand that Christianity is not a fixed set of unchanging, timeless truths; it is always growing, evolving, changing. The more I study and look back at the early church and the centuries following it, the more I begin to understand how widely various Christian believing has always been. In the words of the great British historian of Christianity Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Christians who think of doctrine as ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ don’t know their history” (“One Enormous Room,” London Review of Books, May 9, 2013).
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” In John’s Gospel account, what Jesus offers his companions is not a timeless set of rigid doctrines. What Jesus offers his companions is a relationship. In his earthly life, that relationship was lived out as Jesus and his friends gathered around an inclusive and welcoming table to celebrate the abundance of life and God’s creation. In his ongoing and risen life, Jesus offers us a new relationship, now with the one he calls the “Spirit of truth,” the one we call the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit is not some gaseous, aerosol spray divine presence floating around the air someplace. The Holy Spirit is the ongoing presence of God in and among and with us as we live and work and struggle and suffer and love together. God is in and with and among us. That Spirit of truth is embodied in us and will help us figure it out.
So theological truth is not about a mental formula that you have to get right in order to belong. It’s about an evolving, growing experience of God’s presence as we make our way in the world. In Paul’s words from today’s brief reading from Romans, we
boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope. The Christian faith is not a set of abstract propositions. It is a lived reality. What we believe about God, ourselves, and the world changes over time because we change and the world changes and even God changes over time. “Christians who think of doctrine as ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ don’t know their history.” Jesus did not come to give us a rule book. He came that we might live with him and each other and in so doing let that Spirit of truth guide us into all the truth: the truth that comes out of each person’s own, unique life experience. Only you can tell your truth, and only I can tell mine; but in community, you and I can share our particular truths as we live together into the big truth toward which the Spirit guides us.
Now this will sound like a shocking thing for someone like me to say, but I say it with a growing conviction that I’m right. The answer to the question, “What do you have to believe to call yourself a Christian?” is not found in any set doctrinal or dogmatic formula. The answer to that question is found in Jesus’ promise of a Spirit of truth who will lead us, together, into all the truth. To put it bluntly, you don’t have to believe anything to call yourself a Christian. All you have to do, if you want to call yourself a Christian, is to follow Jesus. Following Jesus may sound easier than saying the Creed or signing the Westminster Confession, but in fact it’s a lot more demanding. Christianity isn’t about what you think. It’s about what you do. Following Jesus means coming together with similar pilgrim souls to listen and discern what God is up to in the present moment. Following Jesus means praying for others, yourself, and the world. Following Jesus means living compassionately with yourself and those around you. Following Jesus means working to make God’s world the joyous, abundant, blessed place God intends it to be. Following Jesus means being open to the perpetual, ongoing newness continually offered to us as the Spirit of truth leads us, with gradually deepening insight, into all the truth. To be a Christian means simply to live like a Christian, as Jesus and his companions did. If we do that, the Spirit will help us figure it out.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Let us give thanks on this day for the truth we know personally and together. Let us remember that truth discloses itself to us gradually over time. And let us together call ourselves Christians not by saying what we think about God but by showing how we live with God: as free, loved, forgiven people who love and accept and bless each other and the world. That’s how Jesus lived, that’s how his companions lived, and his promise on Trinity Sundays is that you and I can live that way, too. Amen.