Reducing a life to a comma

sermon mountThose of us who attend church regularly, will probably not have thought much about what is missing in the creed. A writer, Robin Meyers, has pointed out that the world’s greatest life is reduced to a comma. By this he means that the entire life of Christ between his birth and his trial is not mentioned in our creeds. Instead of any account of the important events in Jesus’ life, all we find is a single comma. It is as though there is a dramatic change in the understanding of what is important about Jesus between the time of the writing of the gospels and the writing of the Creeds. The gospels are deeply interested in the stories and the teaching of Jesus but when we get to the 4th century, the focus is on the birth, death and resurrection of Christ and the dogmas that flow from these events. The Christians who lived in the fourth century, were expected to concentrate their attention on the virgin birth, the sacrificial meaning of Christ’s death and the new hope brought about through his resurrection. A student of the fourth century will find that Christians did in fact spend a great deal of time debating these theological issues. It was in fact a matter of life and death when you stated what one believed. To be on the losing side in a dogma debate might involve losing one’s freedom or even one’s life. Heretics and schismatics did not have an easy time in the late Roman Empire. The fourth century was a period of Christian emperors who wanted to create theologically orthodox unanimity across the Roman Empire. Woe betide anyone who did not agree with the Emperor and those bishops who were on his side in the political/religious debates.

When we go back to the time of the New Testament, it is striking how little Jesus seems to be concerned with people having a correct set of beliefs. In spite of what we hear from many Christians today, people were not then judged as to whether they had a correct and orthodox opinion about Jesus’ nature and his relationship to God. To take one section of the synoptic Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, we have a whole series of practical instructions about how to live. To begin with the Beatitudes, we find an invitation to live and act in a distinctive way. Jesus commends, among others, the gentle, those who struggle to see right to prevail, the merciful and the peacemakers. All of these are active attributes and there is the implication that those who practice these qualities will in some way change the world around them. The invitation to the disciples to be salt and light is a challenge to become agents of transformation. Many of the remaining sections of the sermon address the practical issues of keeping the law. They involve such things as almsgiving, fasting, money and attitudes to wealth. Jesus concludes the sermon by saying that his true follower is the one who does the will of his Father. Note that the word ‘believe’ does not appear; the emphasis is on practical doing and any idea that a disciple is defined in accordance with his or her beliefs is completely absent.

If I had to choose between the understanding of discipleship, or what it means to a Christian, from the time of the Emperor Constantine and the understanding of Jesus, I know which one I would take. Correct systems of belief were obviously very important for an emperor who wanted to have theological unity and harmony throughout his domain. But this dramatic shift from doing the will of the Father to the emphasis on believing correct ideas, is one which, I would claim, has impoverished Christianity a great deal. If we read the Sermon on the Mount without any knowledge of what was to come later, in terms of an emphasis on precise doctrinal formulations, we would have quite different picture of what Christianity is about. The words that would define the Christian way in the light of Jesus’ Sermon would be change, newness, transformation and trust. All these words are a long way from the narrow, somewhat intellectual approach to the Christian faith, which involves assent to ‘correct’ propositions. This has been the method of so many theological schools of teaching through the ages.

In my own teaching about the life and teaching of Christ when I was active as a parish priest, I tried to begin with a single word. It is the Greek imperative ‘metavoiete’. This word does not have an exact translation but it has the meaning of having one’s mind or attitude changed. Jesus thus says in Mark chapter 1 ‘metavoieite’, open yourselves up, receive the good news or gospel. Here we have an invitation, not to believe something, but simply to be open to receive something new. The word, often translated as repent, is not referring to anything intellectual. It is Jesus asking his disciples to open their imaginations, their wills and their love to a reality that has come close to them. One would wish that the church was better able to evoke this kind of opening up process. Teaching people to pray in the sense of teaching to be spiritually receptive, might well help them to understand how to become a person who is open to the reality of God. This kind of receptivity is a key to becoming a Christian who is allowing his or her life to be changed from within.

The church of the creeds cannot of course be ignored. But this church of doctrine and belief is a somewhat arid place if it is the only place we inhabit. But some people want to be in this arid territory all the time because it is the only place they feel safe. Earnest Christians have told them that the path to salvation, eternal life in heaven, depends on them being ready to say and believe the right words associated with orthodox Christian doctrine. Being in this place of safety by knowing all the correct Christian doctrine may have one serious draw-back. It may have the effect that a Christian is never able to follow Christ in the emphases which he gives in the Sermon on the Mount. There is no desire or expectation of being transformed or changed. Growth and transfiguration are not words that are used by such a ‘believing’ Christian. By ignoring the actual words and injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount, this ‘arid’ Christian helps to further the idea among other Christians and beyond, that the life of Jesus is indeed to be contained and reduced to a comma within the creed.

In my reading of the Langlois report, I became aware very much of the part that fear played in the lives of many of the Peniel members. Proper belief and behaviour was expected of everyone, but this outward belief was only obtained through the exercise of fear and coercive control. What a long way from such fear is the manner through which Jesus dealt with his followers? Coercion and threats were never part of his agenda. He simply wanted to invite people to a new way, a way of transformation so that they could live life and know it in all its fullness.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “Reducing a life to a comma

  1. In one word my response to this thought is hallelujah! Yes I agree orthopraxy (“doing right”) too often loses out to orthodoxy (“thinking right” – pun intended!). And it is a good corrective to coercive control. There is a movement often called “red letter Christians” that gives me great hope in this regard.

    Thank you Stephen.

  2. If I may make an aside comment:

    We are still dealing with a highly intellectual process here. I can see the wastelands of theoretical correctness stretching out from the Jesuit to the mountains of fear teaching, ‘turn or burn’ of Mr Jerry Falwell.
    I am still worried about cloning and people being environmentally conditioned by either side of this debate. God knows, I, if anyone should know what damage Evangelical fundamentalism can do! What does the simple believer know about this issue of church history? The unlearned are caught in a vacuum.
    But I am looking down on a militarized society and asking the question, where can I find a liberal theologian or thinker who does not agree morally about homosexuality? You see cloning can take place on either side? I use this as a popular example.

    There is a trickiness here that I find worrying. The teaching of Jesus is indeed very different to creedal formulas but, all is in the eye of the beholder as far as I can see. Notwithstanding the above Stephen makes a very good point and points to a liberating view. Jesus makes it clear; men make it dull and complicated.


    “Reality always has too many heads”

  3. I’m struck by the idea of a comma. I’m glad that Paul didn’t neglect it when in Romans 8, he wrapped words around the life of Jesus and all that he fulfilled when he said that Jesus did what the Law could not do. He condemned sin in the flesh. Sin condemns us before we come to faith and receive God’s freely shared grace through justification under Christ’s blood when we embrace Him through faith. Jesus takes sin and turns it around when He triumphs over it for our benefit. That work opens the way for the righteous requirement of the Law to be fulfilled in us. Later in that letter to Rome and in that chapter, I see this fulfillment and this condemnation of sin echoed again. God takes all of our good and even our failures, and he exploits our bad experiences and our sin by turning them into something good. He uses it to conform us into His image. The ravages of sin become instruments that He uses to work salvation. He is the Firstborn of many brethren. Much like Joseph said to his brothers who had once thrown him into slavery, God took what they meant for evil and used it all — that many might be saved.

    None of that is a process of fear or coercion. It bestows us with the power to resist the coercion and condemnation of the Law, allowing us to live and walk in the light through the Spirit.

  4. Thank you Cindy K.
    I think Stephen is trying to get us to think outside of our tradition.
    In the liberal view scripture can be examined in many ways. The convinced Evangelical claims a full and complete revelation of God in the bible. The liberal thinkers ask difficult questions, “Is God going to condemn people from other religions to a torment Hell?” St Paul seemed to question, ‘Full Revelation’ when he said, “We see through a glass darkly we know in part”. I don’t decide on any of this, I remain agnostic about dogma, I’m just saying, beware of those who use selective use of scripture. The Love of God in Christ cannot be contained merely in words. Peace to You.

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