Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at St. Thomas’, DC and the Washington National Cathedral fall Confirmation services.
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Sometimes when people tell me about their lives, they’ll speak of when they came to faith. That’s the phrase they use–”when I came to faith.” For most, it doesn’t describe a sudden event, but rather a growing awareness that something about faith for them has shifted from the periphery of their awareness to the center, from something abstract to something real.
“Coming to faith” isn’t having ideas about faith or, if you’re Christian, believing certain things about Jesus. It’s more of a discovery and an awakening, generally in response to something that happens to us or that we experience or even that we watch someone else experience. Whatever that “something” is, it stirs in us a realization that there is more to this life than what we can see, that there is a spiritual realm. More than that, there is a presence in our lives, mysterious, but real, and–this is important–we decide to live according to the insights and impulses given to us by that mysterious, holy presence. We come to faith.
For Christians, coming to faith is when that holy mystery is connected to the man Jesus of Nazareth, who walked this earth over 2000 years ago, and through his followers who later wrote them down, left us a body of transformative teachings and accounts of his life. But the connection is more than knowledge about the historical figure of Jesus, for in coming to faith, we also feel his spiritual presence with us now, a presence that, he says at the end of one account of his life, will be with us until the end of the age. When we come to faith, we receive his presence, rooted in a humble acknowledgement of our need for the forgiveness, mercy, love and inspiration he offers. We accept the invitation to follow him in his way of sacrificial love.
But how does it happen? How does a person move from knowing certain things about Jesus to coming to faith in Jesus, faith in the living Christ, placing one’s trust and giving one’s heart to Him?
First, let’s remember that your head and heart are connected: You can’t know him without knowing about him, but the difference is like the difference between reading about love and falling in love; between studying the proper technique for rock climbing versus knowing what it feels like to lean back in mid-air, entrusting your life to the rope around your waist and the person on the ground holding the other end.
Nonetheless, faith in Jesus begins, for most of us, by learning about him. Let me acknowledge that learning about him is no easy task, particularly now, when there are so many distortions and misperceptions about him all around us. In fact, the caricatures of Jesus in our culture are the greatest obstacles to faith in him. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they find Jesus to be the most objectionable part of the Christian faith, but when I ask them to describe the Jesus they object to, he isn’t the Jesus I know.
So learning about him takes effort on our part. We need to spend some time reading, learning, listening to those who know something about him and who know him. Pay attention, however, to the character of the people who purport to know Jesus. If they are not themselves loving, generous, forgiving, joyful people–find another teacher.
This is what I know about Jesus, and what I want you to know.
Jesus was born in the tiny sliver of land now known as Palestine over 2000 years ago during the reign of Herod the Great, a puppet ruler placed there by the Roman Empire. Jesus grew up in a town called Nazareth. The Black theologian Howard Thurman–in a book I hope you all someday read, Jesus and the Disinherited, describes Jesus with three salient data points: First, Jesus was born a Jew. Second, he was born poor, placing him squarely among the majority of human beings on the planet both then and now. Third, he was part of a minority group in the midst of a larger, dominant controlling group–the Romans who occupied Palestine at the time. These realities didn’t define Jesus entirely, any more than our realities completely define us, but this is the world in which he lived and moved and had his being.1
Jesus emerged as a public figure in his early 30s, rising up out of the movement begun by a man who called John the Baptizer. Jesus had a ministry of healing and teaching that lasted about three years, focused primarily in a rural area around a large lake, sometimes called the Sea of Galilee. He then made a fateful decision to bring his message to Jerusalem, which was the center of religious and political power. There he openly challenged the religious leaders of his people, which did not sit well with them. He also aroused suspicions of the Roman authorities, and some sort of collusion of the religious and secular authorities led to his crucifixion, a form of execution reserved for people resisting Roman rule and escaped slaves.
It’s impossible to understand Jesus without placing him in the tradition of the spiritual prophets of ancient Judaism. These were people who had a strong sense of that spiritual realm I mentioned earlier, one that informs and gives meaning to human existence. Jesus was exceptionally connected to and empowered by this spiritual realm, and he used his connection to heal people and teach them how to live. He lived to help people know God as he knew God. And as one of his disciples said after he died, every day that he lived Jesus went around doing good.
The world religions scholar Huston Smith describes Jesus this way:
Jesus was an extraordinarily vivid teacher. . . His teaching style was invitational. Instead of telling people what to do or believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so, their behavior would change.”2
Jesus’ core message is simple, summarized in a few, often-repeated phrases: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
Most of the time Jesus told stories: of buried treasure, lost coins, and sowers in the field; of a good Samaritan, a man who had two sons. More than anything Jesus wanted people to believe two important facts of life: God’s overwhelming love for us and of our need to accept that love and let it flow through us.
Jesus lived in such a way that people believed him when he spoke of God’s love, for he himself loved freely. His heart went out to all people, no matter if they were rich or poor, young or old, saint or sinner. He knew that everyone has a need to belong, and he encouraged those who had the means to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to their tables. He loved children and he hated injustice for what it did to the most vulnerable people. He also hated hypocrisy, for what it did to the human soul.3
This is who Jesus was when he lived on this earth. Those of you confirming your faith today, or being received into the church, or reaffirming your faith, I want you to know these things about him and more, because I want you to understand why our ancestors began to speak of him as one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, how they came to the extraordinary conclusion that in Jesus we see not only what it means to be fully human, but what God looks like in human form.
In the words of St. Paul: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on the cross.” (Phillipians 2:6-8)
From the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own people, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-14)
Bedrock to the Christian faith is the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection–what happened after he died. Incredibly, death did not sever the link between him and his disciples. They experienced him as alive with them–not in the same way as before, but real nonetheless. He came to them, offering forgiveness, encouragement, a strong sense of his presence. Then he told them that another dimension of God would be given to them, which he sometimes called the Advocate, and other times the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, he told them, he himself would live on in them and through them.
This was the watershed event–or series of events over time–that launched what our Presiding Bishop calls the Jesus Movement. It begins with the bold assertion that death did not have the final word for Jesus and does not for us–nor does failure or disappointment, or tragedy, because God’s mercy and love as revealed to us in Jesus knows no bounds. So when we mess up–when we fail or when terrible things happen to us beyond our control–there is always the chance of a new start.
The other foundational premise of the Jesus Movement is that his Spirit is available to us; it is, in fact, with us, as close to us as our own breath. And as John wrote so long ago, “those who receive him, who believe in his name” are given the grace and great responsibility to live and love as his body in the world. It’s an awesome thing–and we often fail. But our failure, it seems, is part of the grace and the mystery, so that when others experience something of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, goodness and justice through us, it’s very clear to all involved, most notably to us, as Paul writes, “this awesome power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
These are essential teachings that all Christians need to know. But if that’s all I and other Church leaders did, teach you about Jesus and pass beliefs about him down from one generation to the next, it wouldn’t be enough. As important as these teachings are, it wouldn’t be worth your time and effort to come belong to a church if learning about him were all we were here to do, if in the process of learning about Jesus we didn’t come to believe in him in a way that makes a difference in how we live, if we didn’t come to faith in our hearts, and, as the Presiding Bishop says, “follow Jesus for real.”
Coming to faith in Jesus is a mysterious process. It waxes and wanes. There are mountain top moments and long stretches in the valley. For some, coming to faith happens dramatically and quickly; for others–and I count myself among them–coming to faith in Jesus happens more slowly. Either way, eventually we all wind up on the same path of seeking to align our lives to his, to grow closer to him, to keep moving toward him.
One Christian writer, Kathleen Norris, described coming to faith in Jesus as “catching glimpses of him.”4 I resonate with that. Sometimes I catch glimpses of him through art, music, beauty. Sometimes in the written word. Mostly in the lives of other people. I don’t always recognize him. But other times, deep inside, I can hear him, I feel his presence and love.
I trust that everyone listening to my voice or reading these words has your own stories to tell, of knowing about Jesus, or of knowing him, or of wanting to know him, which is just as compelling. I trust that you know that days like today are but one moment on a journey of moving toward Christ as He moves toward you. You are part of a community of people, all with stories and struggles and questions to share.
Let me suggest three concrete ways to be open to the presence of Jesus in your life–and this is the same for all of us, whether we’ve been on the path for days or decades.
First, whenever life gets hard, really hard, and you don’t know if you can face what it is that life is asking of you, or to let go of, or to change, lean into the pain. Don’t run away. Lean into it, and open yourself to the grace of Christ in that place. I promise you that he will meet you there. You can trust that the rope will hold, the ground beneath you is firm, and that you are not alone.
Second, whenever you are at a crossroads, when you have a decision to make and you aren’t sure what to do, pay attention to what inspires you, makes your heart beat faster, and gives you joy. Follow your inspiration, and live by it, and I promise you that Jesus will meet you there. That doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed in living your inspiration: you will often fail, but so what? Whether we succeed or fail matters far less than the choice to live according to what inspires us. Failure is never the final word.
Third, please, please, please don’t imagine that this is a solo effort. Jesus calls us into community for good reason. It’s in community that we learn, where we’re challenged to go deeper, and where we can hold one another up, because we’re not all strong in faith at the same time, and at the same time we’re not all faltering. So stay connected however you can–especially now. Here we continue to learn about him; together we strive to know him and live by his teachings. And it’s in community that we experience the mystery that Scripture calls being part of the Body of Christ, for we are His hands, feet, and heart in this world.
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) pp.6-8.
2 Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005) p. 51.
3 This is a summary of Smith’s description as found in The World’s Religions, Chapter VII “Christianity” (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 317-328); also Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of the Christian Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).
4 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) pp.161-2.