The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
Jesus says, “Let not your heart be trouble. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so I would not have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. So that where I go, you may be also. If you believe in God, then believe in what God is doing through me.”
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, there are perhaps many deists seated in churches, even this Cathedral today, as Christians. A deist believes in God, but believes in God as the creator of the universe, as the author of life, as the ultimate source of order and energy in the universe. But God is not transcendent. God is not intimately operative in that order, neither morally, nor developmentally.
What we know is from reason alone, not by experience, not by the intervention of God in history and in individual lives.
Now this may sound somewhat familiar to you as you think back to your Philosophy 101, or Introduction to Philosophy of Religion class in college. You will remember that the arguments for God. There was the ontological argument—the idea that there must be a God because a reasonable person would know that there must be a prime mover, whether thinking about creation or physics, whatever. There must be an initial beginning to everything. Or the example that I would sometimes offer to students—you’ve probably spent some time in such a place—was pool. There’s the cue ball. But the cue ball does not move to hit the other balls until the stick hits the cue ball. But before the cue hits the cue ball, there must be a Being to move the stick. So no matter how far back you go, there must be a prime mover. And that prime movement is God.
And then there was the teleological argument. That is, there must be a God because when we think of the design, the complicated, intricate design of the university, and of universes, there must be some intelligent Being that made that happen. One does not find even a sense of randomness in the universe that seems to move with purpose without there being intelligence. And that intelligence must be God.
William Paley, an Archdeacon in the 18th century, and the Archdeacon of Carlisle in England, used an example that he called “the watchmaker”. He said if you walk along, and you see laying on the street this instrument, and you look and it has hands moving, and there are reels intricately moving together, and it is ticking, and you see this complicated mechanism, but you don’t see the watchmaker, but you have no question in your mind that there must be a watchmaker, if there is a watch.
And then there is the categorical imperative. Kant was very clear in this. Immanuel Kant talked about the idea that reasonable persons will act morally or see morality as their duty and eventually conform to it because there is something about a universal implication within the categories of morality that reasonable persons will see this.
Now, all of these things are good and true, but they do not involve God in history or in our lives. So a person of faith, who might have deist perspectives, would have no problem with the first part of the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed: “I believe in God, the Father, the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and death.” However, we might have a little problem with the second and third affirmations. This might be a little more difficult. “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son,….” God has acted in history; God has intervened into human affairs. “He was crucified, dead and he was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead.” There is life beyond the physical and material reality of life in the universe.
Then it goes on to say, the Holy Spirit….”We believe in the Holy Spirit.” That God is constantly giving life; that God did not simply put life into motion, but constantly God is giving life. That, “God has spoken through the prophets.” That God continues to come to us as he spoke through the Old Testament prophets, and even speaks the Word through his people today. And through the Holy Church of God, we find the gift of forgiveness, and we find through the sacraments, strength to live.
God is acting. God is experiential, and subjective. Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, the Spirit of God incarnate, is the greatest witness to the imminence and the transcendence of God.
And that is why we have the Creed in the service—that it reminds us of the fullness that we believe not only in God, but what God has shown us in the intimacy of God in Jesus Christ. So you’ll notice at the end of the sermon, there is always the Creed. Perhaps you may agree with the theologian, Charlie Price, who used to say, “the fact that the Creed always follows the sermon in the liturgy is the Church’s resounding response to the preacher, “Nevertheless……!”
The deist perspective appeals only to the rational side of faith and truth, and that is important. But Jesus says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Only those who by faith can confess belief in the statement that “I believe in Jesus” and “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” know the truth and power of the Easter story, the true joy of Christianity. Deist theology is not wrong. It is just woefully incomplete. It avoids us often the luxury to live with a faith that is private, and that makes no real demands upon our everyday life.
We often hear it said that in our country, as well as in other nations, we live in a secular society. One of the ways of defining a secular society is that we compartmentalize life, and so we have a morality, a right and a wrong for how we behave professionally, we have a right and a wrong for how we behave privately, we have a right and a wrong in how we use our money, and there are all these compartments that are different — because we are free of any external force that makes demands upon our lives, and asks us to live in some way that is consistent and gives us the power to do that. So that when we believe in a God who is distant and away, who somehow has put things in motion and is now gone off to other important things, it gives us the luxury of not bringing faith, deep, into the formation of our lives.
We have many good people. Perhaps some are here today, who dutifully fill pews on a Sunday and sincerely believe that God is up there, out there, somewhere. People who might range in their ideology from creationist to evolutionist, people who may range in their belief of an anthropomorphic God who hung the galaxies into space and created the universes, …or to a metaphysical God who is the ultimate energy and rationale behind the universe.
Even recently we have learned from science that there’s something about our brain that we may be wired for religion. Again, God has wired us for prayer and worship, but does not necessarily interact in prayer or even answer prayer. So the satisfaction or euphoric chemical release is biologically beneficial, but has no spiritual efficacy. No relevance. No impact upon our reality.
Not long ago I was on a television panel. And one of the members of that panel was an atheist. And he said, as we talked about the efficacy of prayer, he listened and then he said, “Well, if you pick up the phone and find talking into a receiver helpful, I’m glad for you. But you also have to realize that there’s no one on the other end of the phone.”
Well, for many people of faith who go no further than deism, we have what is called ‘functional atheism’. We believe that God exists, but God does not matter, so I can live my life as though God is not involved —though at the same time, I truly believe there is a God somewhere, out there.
And yet, for others, God is the force within. The force within that we know we can turn, deeper and deeper within ourselves. I so often see this in the misuse of spirituality, both eastern spirituality and Christian spirituality. It is sort of like an archeologist searching for relics, for clues of a lost culture. For such persons, spirituality can be exploration for the evidence of ‘otherness’, but not for the God that makes demands upon our lives, the God who redeems us, who heals us, the God who empowers us to work for justice, and the God who ultimately makes judgements about us.
This is evident in the justice movements even of our times, as they draw upon the experience of the movements for civil rights among African Americans in the sixties and the seventies. More recently, groups that are seeking justice and seeking their right place in society, groups such as those seeking economic justice, women, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, groups which are drawing heavily upon the political lessons and the moral spirit of the Civil Rights Movement for racial justice. And in such circles, it is well known the quote of Martin Luther King — you perhaps have heard it — when he said so articulately, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Quoting William Bryant, he said, “Truth crushed to the earth will rise again.”
These are powerful words. But they’re often used in justice movements as a deist idea, that God has set things into motion, and that the immutability of the divine order will eventually bring justice and will make reasonable people act morally. But that this will happen without any involvement by God. So that is why we often hear, as we did in the sixties and the seventies, and we hear it today, “we can use any means necessary to bring about justice, whether it is moral according to our own Christian faith, or not.”
But what often is missed is what Martin Luther King said at the beginning of that statement, as he was ministering to a movement that was Christian even before he became its spokesperson. He said this: “Those of us who call the name of Jesus Christ find something at the center of our faith which forever reminds us that God is on the side of justice and truth. Good Friday,” he says, “may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumph of Easter.”
For people of faith limited simply to a distant God, Jesus says, ‘take a second step.’ If today your faith is not one that you see as affecting and shaping your life, ‘take the second step.’ For the question is, what do we do in times of trouble? What do we do in times of grief and loss? What do we do about the sin we cannot overcome and that threatens to destroy us, to destroy those we love, to destroy our dignity, our very soul?
Can we then say, I believe in the forgiveness of sins? I believe in a God who forgives. Do you believe in the God who empowers, the God who heals, who reconciles and redeems and the God who saves? Jesus said, “If you believe in God, believe also in me.”
For you see, it is only in Jesus that the drama of Good Friday and Easter that we have come to know, tells us that we are each more than decaying fruit fallen to the ground. We are more than animated amusements discarded by a whimsical genie. We are more than wanderers searching for a voice within.
For in Jesus we know that God has come among us and expressed to us a God of love for our everyday living
So this morning, I invite you to hear the words of Jesus. The words that invite us to know that God is present, is real, and wants to be in your life, in your life, in your life, and in my life. The God who gives us grace to face every trial of life, who not only forgives our sins but gives us strength to stand for what is right, to not only recognize the moral imperative, but to live it. That takes cowardly people like me and like you, and gives us courage to stand in the playground, in the classroom and the boardroom and the courtroom and to stand for truth. And stand against evil. God is present to empower us.
This Friday we had a funeral here. We buried a man named Peter Biel. Peter, and his wife, Amy, people of Christian faith, people who believed in God, had a daughter who also believed. And she went as a worker to South Africa. And the week she was to come home, working there for justice in voter registration, a group of African boys, angry with her because she was white, killed her. Linda and Peter felt the grief and pain that we can only imagine, and the anger and the rage. What were they to do with this? They turned to their faith. And their faith led them to go to South Africa and to meet these boys in prison who had done this terrible, dastardly deed. And then realized that as long as they hated them, they too would be prisoners. So they came to a place where they decided that Amy’s vision for justice, for reconciliation, would have to begin as they forgave these young men and began to do something about the situation of poverty and violence, that even with a new South Africa, was throughout the streets of those townships. And they started the Amy Biel Foundation, which today employs hundreds of young people, trains them, and gives them a future in life. And when Linda was asked, “How could you forgive?” And Linda said, “It’s not about forgiveness. It’s about reconciliation that heals me and heals those who are oppressed.”
We will come in just a moment for this Service of Communion. And we will kneel and receive the bread and the wine, the body and blood of the One who told us to know God as a loving Father, a God who heals us, who gives us grace in every hour.
As you come, I trust that you will come believing in God, but also come this day, believing in what God has done in Jesus Christ our Lord that we might not only say ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth,’ but that we may also say, ‘We believe in His Son Jesus Christ.”