It represents, for me, a terrible portion of failure that a new church year has begun, and not only do I have drafts for Sunday blog posts that never made it up on any platform (including last week), and that I have half my pictures from all our travels to sort through, but most of all that I have the scribbled notes of a sermon we heard in Spain, somewhere on the back of a bulletin sitting under a pile of paper somewhere in this vast house that I haven’t yet transcribed. Indeed, I had almost completely forgotten about that sermon except that I just came across a tweet on Twitter this morning:
I can’t remember the Biblical text for that sermon because the vicar, as they so often do, took the opportunity to talk first about himself, and then about the subject substantiated by this tweet. He stood in the center aisle and, like the tweeter, castigated those wrong-headed Christians who think the proper mode of the Christian life goes in that first order–Believe, Behave, Belong. No, he said in a fairly mild tone because it was a little Anglican ex-pat church and what was he going to do, raise his voice?–No, the order is Belong, Behave, Believe. I dug my fingernails into the palm of Matt’s hand to prevent him from snorting aloud. Anglicans, of course, are more worried about Behaving than everything else, certainly not Believing or Belonging, and that’s why it gets nestled right there in the middle, instead of in the American version where it comes last.
As the tweeter so rightly says, the ramifications of each cannot be overstated. Let us, therefore, work out the logic of the thing–which we will be able to do by trudging dubiously over to the Scriptures apportioned for all those…what are they called?… “Believers” who will be rousting themselves out of bed for sacred worship this morning. Is it possible to Belong first, before you Believe or Behave?
“In those days,” writes St. Matthew in his Gospel, “John came preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” John was probably not an Anglican preacher, for those had not been invented yet. His sensibilities had not been quite rightly formed, either by Twitter or by Tea with the King. What would this preacher say? What is the most important thing? Do you suppose he planned to use words? Or would he let his manner of life speak for itself? What would be the most essential message that he could deliver to the people who have wandered out into the wilderness to hear him?
Matthew gives us the essentials in summary form:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Well, that is excessively awkward. But perhaps the preacher is an anomaly, someone just doing his own thing. Maybe we can cancel him later:
For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
Oh, well, that is also very disappointing. So what the preacher is saying is something that the scriptures have always said? Through the ages? That, in fact, the voice of the one crying in the wilderness is preparing the very way of the Lord? Well, maybe knowing a little bit more about the preacher would help:
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
Ugh, as they say. How ahead of his time. Soon, apparently, we will all be eating locusts, and we won’t be able to complain because it is literally biblical. Setting that aside, is anyone going to hear this preacher? Maybe sane people are staying away and it’s one of those quiet little churches with two people and a tin of tomato soup left at the back for the can drive. And the organist:
Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
I expect this is why lots of churches don’t like to read the Bible much anymore. We see here in a very cursory glance at the scriptures that whatever someone might say, whatever sort of authority a person claims for himself, if he is going to just make things up one should not listen to him. And saying that the early church adopted a Belong, Behave, Believe model of communal life is a fatuous thing to say. Pull yourself together and bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
What a difficult word–repentance. To repent means to say to God in an essential and irrevocable way, “I’m wrong and I’m sorry.” It is a statement of belief. You come to the point of seeing yourself as you really are–poor, wretched, and wicked–and you are finally willing to admit that truth to the person who matters most. That would be God, not someone on Twitter. You don’t say to God, “I’m not that bad,” or “It was his fault,” or “I need more time to get myself together,” or “I’m actually good,” or “I have everything I need,” or “I haven’t sinned or fallen short of the glory of God all I need is more affirmation.” Rather, you say, “at the core of who I am I am wrong and I can neither believe nor behave and I know that I should not belong to anyone because of how bad I am.” Not surprisingly, no one wants to say this, least of all the person who hasn’t yet discovered his own wicked, wretched, poverty.
As I said, it is a statement of Belief–also a tricky word. Today we are invited to do things like “believe the science,” or “believe in ourselves,” or “believe in love” and other such foolishness. In each of those cases, the word “believe” is referring to a kind of knowledge, but of a religious variety, where a person is making a kind of leap into something and hoping that science, or love, will catch them and make them ok. People on the outside, watching the “believer” are likely to think, “That’s dumb.” The science, however settled, isn’t going to save your immortal soul, but sure, if that’s what you want to do, go ahead.
Whereas, in Christian terms, when Jesus says, “Believe in God, believe also in me,” he isn’t actually asking you to make a leap into the dark, nor is he asking you to list the set of propositions that will gain you entry, to recite the creed or something. Rather, he is asking you to trust him with the totality of who you are, to repent and believe in him. But don’t worry, the content of the truth about him is right on his heels, and you can’t reject it and still say you Believe.
So what about Belonging and Behaving? The two have to hang on the tree of Belief. After all, what, or rather, to whom can you belong if you haven’t sorted out the belief part? Can you belong to Christ if you have not yet believed in him? Of course not. And certainly, you cannot Belong, as the Pharisees discovered, if you are literally a snake in the grass, pretending to belief when actually you are a functional atheist and don’t want God to tell you anything. The Household of Faith is arranged by the Spirit. You don’t just waltz in and demand your own way. You are incorporated into the mystical Body of the Son by virtue of your belief. Or rather, what’s that word? Ah yes, Faith–Trust for those in the back row. You trust in Jesus and then you belong to him and then, necessarily, he begins to arrange how you will behave.
And the chief behavior, for those who are still confused, continues to be repentance. You begin by saying you are sorry and need help and you go on saying it every day of your time in the wilderness. You never come across a day where you aren’t having the deep wound of sin cut away, over and over. In fact, so much of your time is spent in repentance that you don’t even really worry about the belonging and behaving part. Rather, you just wake up one morning and discover that you do belong not only to Christ, but to a lot of other people who irritatingly won’t leave you alone, but have folded you into their lives in ways they also can’t quite explain. You are–together–being made into new creatures, people rescued from the fire of hell, but not only that, being filled up with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea.
And now, if you will excuse me, I have to go to church.