Essential Christianity

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the tenth after Pentecost (Proper 14), presents this preacher with a choice: either yield to the attractions of piety thereby feeding the spiritual longing of the Biblically and theologically undereducated or challenge a congregation in a way that, while it may not be alarming to some, will no doubt be deeply discomfiting to others. The pericope is a familiar one even to Sunday School dropouts – Matthew’s account on Jesus walking on the water:

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Preachers have struggled throughout the post-critical era to reconcile the essential character of kerygma as a dramatically enhanced form of proclamation shaped to indicate a truth greater than the story it tells and the reality of Divinely ordered natural law in order to present believers with a credible way of asserting Jesus’ lordship over nature while honoring contemporary scientific sensibilities. They haven’t always been successful, focusing on metaphorical comparisons that are readily translatable into modern spiritual practice – Peter was fine until he took his eyes off Jesus, humans were never intended to be water-walkers but with God all things are possible, etc.

I find that such attempts do not serve the Faith well in that they tend to maintain a gap between the essential elements of Christian living and the requirements of contemporary credulity.

So, I need to say that nothing that I believe and nothing that I do depends in any way on the historicity of this passage. In fact, I think it is fair to say that I maintain a lively and vibrant commitment to Christian thought and practice that in no way depends on Jesus’ ability to walk on the surface of water. I am not saying it didn’t happen – for all I know, it could be an accurate eyewitness account of actual events (although nothing in my study of New Testament thought would lead me to believe that’s true). I can certainly concede that the possibility exists that the Jesus of history was a water-walker, however, I insist that such a possibility in no way enhances or informs my faith. In my understanding of Christianity, it simply doesn’t matter.

I must confess that there are other elements of the Gospel accounts that don’t matter to me, either. The biological virginity of Mary in no way affects my believing, nor does the idea of Divine insemination of a human. While such stories were common in the first century world (Zeus, after all, was well known for his interspecies indiscretions as were other gods in the ancient world) I find that while they may offer seasonal charm and enhance the piety of some, they simply place the integrity of Christian believing outside the realm of contemporary intellectual tolerance. Yes, some would argue that the requirement of faith is the acceptance of those assertions that we can neither understand nor verify, but I would argue that there is abundant material in the Gospel accounts that, as it may not be currently verifiable, requires a not insignificant leap, especially if one is considering wagering a life on the embrace of a spiritual discipline.

As an example, the miraculous multiplication of foodstuffs is not an essential element of my believing, but the healing of sick, the blind and the lame is. Science has demonstrated over and over again that humans are generators of energy, that energy has power, and that power is interactive. While I have never been able to cure cancer through touch or will, I have no trouble believing that Jesus, as the perfect expression of humanity, could. I have been able to help people relax out of headaches and hypertension, reduction of pulse and increase in heart rate variability, and I suspect that Jesus’ connection with the ground of all being was so great that his touch had therapeutic as well as salvific power.

By the same token, I do not depend in any way on Magi and angels and shepherds at Jesus’ beginning in my believing and behavior, but I am convinced of the reality of resurrection. While it is common among some populist religious thinkers to attribute the post-crucifixion transformation of cowardice into courage or fear into fortitude to an experience existential and emotional rather than dynamic and physiological, I must stand with the great German theologian Paul Althus who asserted that the Easter faith could not have lasted one hour had the tomb not been empty. There is an obvious distinction in the Gospel accounts between accounts of the empty tomb and appearances of the Risen Lord, and the fabric of my believing would insist on both.

In my current credo (evolving as it does with what I arrogantly believe is spiritual growth – a statement not of arrival, but of progress toward a goal), the content of the appearances of the Risen Lord are entirely consistent with the teachings of Jesus pre-crucifixion that invite a life commitment to a way of being in the world:

  • an invitation to intimate relationships marked by servanthood and honesty,
  • a persistent attitude of the forgiving acceptance of human frailty,
  • a command to urge others away from self-absorption and into mutuality,
  • an embrace of compassion as the closest human experience to the selfhood of God,
  • the redefinition of all encounters with others as engagement with family,
  • unconditional love of others as a behavior to be embraced rather than an ideal to be posited,
  • full acceptance of the self as a sufficient vehicle for the widespread dissemination of Divine love received,
  • the acknowledgement that some reality shaped by non-being continually calls us away from embracing our full humanity,
  • a commitment to vigilant discernment of the voices within self that are consistent with the seduction to spiritual death,
  • the realization that to so live is to somehow be in a state of continual eternity, one that extends beyond the limits of breath,
  • a summons to model daily living after the life of Jesus himself as the normative expression of the Divine in human terms.

This, I believe, is Christian living in its essence and comprises, as the Prayer Book says, all things necessary for salvation; that salvation not being placement in a post-earthly reality, but a way of resonating harmoniously with the Holy One as days and weeks and years unfold on this earthly plane.

It admits that people love to accessorize, and that Christians tend to do so more than most, adding on things which are expressive of both personal and cultural piety but not necessary for the exercise of holy living. It requires no angels other than the angels of our better nature, needs no miracles beyond those yet to be exercised by lives on the road to perfection, requires the embrace of unlimited potential rather than the suspension of disbelief.

And for now, it’s all I need.