Progressive Christianity P.O.V.

ChrisCkitchen2013Welcome, and enjoy these columns on Christianity from the progressive point of view, originally published in the Baraboo News-Republic, and written by the Rev. Arthur “Chris” Christofersen, retired United Church of Christ minister and member of First Congregational United Church of Christ.

The First Church Potluck Supper?

One of the elements in the New Testament account of Jesus’ life that is difficult for many people are the   so called miracles. Interestingly they are not called miracles in the New Testament.  Rather they are called signs – signs of Jesus’ authority and power.   In assessing these accounts one needs to remember they were written in a pre-scientific age.  The writers of the New Testament had no idea, for example, what caused lightning.  They believed many illnesses were caused by evil spirits.  In many other writings, contemporary with the New Testament, miracles were attributed to other people.  How then should we interpret these stories?

While I do not doubt God’s ability to do all the things in the New Testament that we consider miracles, I do not think God chooses to act contrary to the laws of nature that God has built into God’s creation.  On the other hand, do we know all there is to know about those laws?  Perhaps there are some things that look miraculous to us because we do not fully understand all the ways of working that God has built into God’s creation.

It is intriguing to me to ask how a modern journalist would have reported some of the miracles of Jesus.  Think, for instance, of the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  The crowds have been pressing on Jesus for days.  He tries to get away from the crowds to have some time to himself but even though he retreats to a wilderness area the crowds follow him.   He has compassion on them and proceeds with healings and teachings.  It is getting on toward evening and his disciples urge him to send the crowd away so they may go into the villages and purchase food.  But Jesus insists that is not necessary.  He tells the disciples to feed the crowd.  They protest they do not have enough food.  They don’t even have enough money to buy food if there were a place for such a purchase.  But then a young boy, in his innocence, offers his supper of five barley loaves and two fish.  Jesus accepts this little offering gladly, gives thanks for this food, and tells the disciples to have all the people sit down and then to distribute the food to them.  And wonder of wonders, there is food enough for all.  In fact there is plenty of food left over.  A miracle!

Yes, I believe this was a miracle, but what kind?  Were those five little loaves and two fish physically multiplied to become enough to feed five thousand?  Or was this another kind of miracle?  Is it not reasonable to believe that young boy was certainly not the only one in that crowd who had brought along something to eat?  But who in this great crowd of mostly strangers was going to volunteer to share their small supply of food?  But with the example of the young boy and the blessing of Jesus and his apparent confidence there was food for all, food was shared.  They had a great potluck supper and as with most potluck meals there was more than enough food.  If this is the way it happened, it was no less a miracle to me.  The miracle was that Jesus was able to create a caring community out of a motley crowd of people.  Jesus was able in this incident to demonstrate how things should work in the Kingdom of God.

 

How can we understand the Trinity?

Recently in our church we celebrated Trinity Sunday.  In the absence of our pastor one of our laywomen, who has received special training in our Lay Academy, was our worship leader and preacher.  She did a good job of sharing some of the historical background of this rather difficult Christian concept and then, somewhat hesitantly, she shared her own understanding.  Afterwards I assured her there was nothing heretical about her understanding and in fact her explanation was quite similar to the way I have tried to make the concept of the Trinity understandable to Confirmation classes I have taught.

The concept of the Trinity is a basic Christian concept.  Some would say one must believe in the Trinity in order to truly be a Christian.  To become a Christian one is baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  A much loved hymn is “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” the first and fourth stanzas of which end with “God in three persons, Blessed Trinity”.  Attending First Congregational Church, Naperville, Illinois as a teenager, my recollection is that we sang this as our opening hymn every Sunday for an extended period of time, perhaps several years.

But what does “God in three Persons” mean?  This Christian concept is a problem for many Muslims.  They think we Christians believe in, and worship three gods.  That is an understandable error.  To speak of three persons certainly sounds like three separate beings.  Perhaps it might be more understandable to speak of the three personas of God.  I believe the concept of the Trinity is an attempt to explain the inexplicable.  Our best way of explaining anything is to compare it to something generally known.  But God is so much greater and so much beyond anything with which we are familiar that such an explanation is difficult.

In trying to explain the Trinity to my Confirmands I would remind them that to my father I am son, to my sons and daughter I am father, to my wife I am husband.  Am I three different people?  No but I have these three personas, these three roles, and more, that I fulfill in life and the more you know of the different roles I fulfill the better you know me.

How then do we come to know God?  We believe God is the Creator of all that we know.  Thus the more we learn about the multitude of cosmological bodies, galaxies, solar systems, stars, planets, moons, comets, and all; the more we appreciate and begin to conceive the enormity of God.  Likewise the more we learn of the workings of our own planet with its shifting tectonic plates, volcanoes, weather systems, storms, seasons, and all the mind boggling diversity of living things, we are prone to a sense of wonder, awe, and fear.  All this we see as part of God the Father.

To speak of God as Father also brings to mind a father’s role in teaching and guiding his children in moral, productive, creative lives.  But for Christians their preeminent moral teacher and guide is Jesus.  When we want to understand how God wants us to live in forgiving, loving relationships we look to the life and teachings of Jesus.  So we speak of Jesus as the Christ or Anointed One – the one set aside or designated to be the revealer of the nature of God as forgiving, loving, Father.

Finally many of us are also aware of God, at least occasionally, in special, one might say, mystical occasions.  Such direct experiences of God are what Christians mean by the work of the Holy Spirit.

So Christians affirm God in three Persons, blessed Trinity, one God whom we come to know through three major avenues.