After I finished my Masters in Divinity at Wesley Seminary, actually a Methodist Seminary, I worked for five years. I had so much fun at seminary the first go around, though, I decided to go back for my Doctorate of Ministry. It was a working doctorate, which meant that I worked and then on the side, took classes, in chunks—week long seminars. It was doable and it was food for my soul. Those of us in the doctoral program became a close knit group--20 of us, on this journey of learning together. We hailed from all over the country, but the majority of us were from the DC area.
Our seminars were mostly in DC, too, but one was held at Skarrit Bennett, a Methodist retreat center in Nashville, TN. Classmate Joe, actually lived in Nashville, and so he took it upon himself to be our entertainment director for our stay. The high point for me was our nighttime tour of the music establishments in the city. Can you imagine 20 pastors filing into the Wild Horse Saloon?! That’s where I learned to line dance!
I don’t want to talk about the Wild Horse Saloon, though. Sorry. What I want to talk about is the seminar in Nashville. It was lead by a Roman Catholic Priest, Father John. His purpose was to provide the ecumenical piece for our doctoral program. I remember him as a distinguished, white haired, gentle soul with a slight Irish lilt to his speech. He was very much dedicated to his church and to our edification. Our topic of study was Roman Catholic Theology. What do you think? Sound compelling?
You like to consider yourself open, you know. As in non-prejudiced, but of course, everyone holds prejudices, it’s just that most of us fail to acknowledge them. The prejudices in that seminar were not even subtle, though. Roman Catholics and Protestants have a long way to go to understanding and getting along with each other. In this case it was not Father John, it was some of us, my fellow Protestants, who needed to do better at getting along.
Our first class on Roman Catholic theology, taught by Father John, was not based on the Bible as you might imagine—since we here, would probably agree that all theology begins with the Good Book. No, this priest’s first class was on Greek philosophy. Right away people began to grumble. “What is he doing? We didn’t come all this way to Nashville—to learn about philosophy.”
I liked Father John, so I kept my mouth shut, but it was curious. He tried to calm his detractors, telling us we would get to the Bible eventually, but we never did. It was Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and some lesser names the entire week. Only back home did it occur to me, that in Roman Catholicism, Greek philosophy is foundational to theology. Wish Father John had spent some time talking about that! It’s true though. The patriarchs in the Roman Catholic tradition, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and others, were educated men, and they approached their theology with a firm grounding in Greek philosophy.
Which brings us to authority. Where does religious authority come from—did you ever think about that? How do we know what we know about God and Jesus and all the rest? Where do we turn when we want to find out what God intends for human beings, and for the church?
According to most Christian traditions, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian at least, but probably others, God’s revelation comes from three sources— sometimes referred to as a three legged stool—one leg of that stool is scripture, another is reason—like Greek philosophy, but also enlightenment reason, and today’s sciences; and lastly, tradition. But it’s a very wobbly three legged stool. That is because those legs are not all the same length. In the Roman Catholic Church, the longest leg by far, even longer than the leg of reason, or Greek philosophy, is the leg of tradition. Scripture, in Roman Catholicism, has generally been a very short leg. Which is maybe why Father John did not touch on scripture during our week together.
Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, remember, broke with Roman Catholicism. He decided that the Bible should be our primary reference for determining God’s will. Consequently, scripture, not reason, not tradition, became foundational and authoritative for the Protestant church. It was the longest leg on that three legged stool.
As one for instance, in the Roman Catholic Church there are seven sacraments, don’t ask me to name them, just trust me. In most Protestant traditions there are just two sacraments. Why is that? According to scripture Christ participated in two sacred actions: The Lord’s Supper and Baptism. The five Roman Catholic church’s sacraments not recognized by most Protestant churches started out as church practices, which eventually became traditions, and then became part of Catholic theology. That is not to say that Roman Catholicism is wrong, and Protestantism is right, we just have two different ways of determining the weight we apply to the authority of scripture, reason and tradition. You still with me?
We’re not done yet, though. We’ve covered the (1) Bible, (2) reason, (3) traditions as authoritative. Three means by which God reveals God’s self to us. Some Protestant traditions, have also recognized a fourth authority-- experience. So now, instead of a three legged stool, think of a four legged table. That fourth leg was the inspiration of John Wesley the founder of Methodism.
John Wesley, in his early thirties, was in a bad place, mentally, emotionally. He was a preacher and pastor who lacked faith. Which means he was a fraud and he knew he was a fraud. He determined to quit ministry. But then, one evening at a meeting at Aldersgate in London, as he wrote later,“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I DID trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Hallelujah!
So according to John Wesley, and Methodists, and folks in some other denominations, like Baptist—God’s revelation comes from the Bible, reason, tradition and personal experiences. Those people who skip church on Sunday morning, and say they are communing with God in the mountains or on the golf course? Well, there maybe something to that. Those hikers and golfers are just channeling John Wesley! And all those many couples I marry? The ones who tell me, “Well, we don’t belong to a church. You see, we are spiritual, we just aren’t religious.” Religion to them, means traditions and doctrine and dogma, all of which have no grounding in the world they experience. They too, are channeling John Wesley.
But John Wesley only identified personal experience as a valid means of God’s revelation, right? It has always been part of the mix. Conversion experiences, speaking in tongues, feelings of God with us in our times of trial, preceded John Wesley and have continued on after him.In fact, experience was actually authoritative even at the start of Christianity, as evidenced by (pause) Paul!
In our story for today, Paul, a Pharisee who once studied at the school of the great rabbi Gamaliel; Paul, who was by his own account spewing venom about those Christians he considered a threat to both Judaism and Rome; This Paul did a one-eighty because of what? Because of an Experience. The fourth leg of the table. It was Paul’s experience on the Road to Jerusalem that gave him the stamina and the courage to become a missionary. It was his experience that gave him his authority, his credibility, as a leader in the early church.
So what does this have to do with anything? It has to do with the church today. Like it or not, personal experience, is the longest leg of our table in the church today. It is what we choose to value most—that is, over tradition, reason, and I would say, even over the Bible. Back when I was first beginning ministry, I had a book on my book shelf entitled, “The I of the Sermon.” Back twenty years ago, preachers were wary of using the “I” to make a point in a sermon. The thrust of the book was that sometimes, infrequently, but sometimes, it is ok to use I in a sermon. Now the I has taken over. Right? Preachers don’t quote Carl Barth or Reinholdt Niehbur much anymore, those greats we studied in seminary. If we do, we better connect them to a personal experience, either our own or someone else's, to make what we say have relevancy. Our modern day creeds read like poetry—they are meant to engage our minds, yes, but also our heart strings..
Bible, and tradition and reason are still part of church life, are still authoritative, but they are very short legs indeed.
So, we have been talking about wobbly stools and tables. There’s another problem with those stools and tables, though besides their wobbliness. They are static. The church is not static, right? The church is an organism. Moving and growing. So, I have what I hope is a better image for you. It’s one I made up. Move over John Wesley!
The church is like an oak tree. I choose an oak tree, because an oak tree has a tap root. The tap root of our oak tree is scripture, because as a good Protestant, I still hold that the Bible is the inspired word of God and foundational to the church. But our tree has other roots, too—these are our beloved church traditions--our creeds, our book of order, our order of worship, clerical robes and collars, hymn books, steeples—all that have traditionally made a church a church. Still other roots are the writings of our patriarchs, and of great theologians and even the writings and ideas of philosophers and scientists, both past and present. Above ground is the tree trunk of course. That tree trunk is Jesus or maybe the taproot is Jesus and the tree trunk is scripture—I haven’t decided yet.
From that tree trunk stretch tree branches and on those tree branches are leaves. The leaves catch the sun’s rays and photosynthesis happens. The tree limbs, the leaves, they are our experiences. They are necessary for the health of the tree just as the roots are.
The oak tree is not static, it is alive--by the grace of God it is alive. God gives nutrients to the soil. God makes the rain fall. God makes the sun shine. That oak tree church, is growing-- ever outward and ever upward toward the light of God, forever and ever Hallelujah, Amen