They said there was once a wise old Rabbi and a small Eastern European Village who was renowned for his wisdom and piety. One day it became clear his health was feeling and his time on Earth coming to an end. Many of his students gathered at his bedside hoping for one more word of wisdom as he slowly slipped away.
“Rabbi give us one final teaching,” one of his students asked standing by the rabbi’s bedside the old man fully opened his eyes and weekly said, “this too shall pass.”
A young boy had snuck into the room hoping to hear something that would help him be a good Jew. The boy wasn’t the best student in the Synagogue School. He was always the one who asked the inconvenient question, challenged the widely accepted Dogma, and wondered why we didn’t try something different. In short, he was the most difficult pupil.
“Rabbi, “the boy asked, ‘is there a single word I should remember and keep before me when I study the Torah?”
Slowly the old man lifted himself up on one elbow and open one eye to look at the boy. Then he opened his second eye to stare at him. Everyone held their breath, not sure whether the boy would be chastised or receive his answer.
“What word should you keep before you when studying the holy words?” The rabbi asked. He thought for a moment and answered: “perhaps.
“Perhaps?” The boy repeated, a smile quickly spreading across his face.
“Perhaps!” The rabbi said as a beatific smile filled his face. The old man laid back on this pillows, and with that smile still firmly affixed to his face, passed from this life to the next.
Ours is a God of the Perpetual perhaps, of the multiple maybes, of the continual, could be’s. And that is a very good thing. For the alternative is to have a god of the certain commands, an angry and austere God who continually judges us and finds us wanting. Remember, we are called to do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We are not called to be perfect, to be certain, to pretend that we really know what’s going on in this life. Because we are called to live in relationship with God, because we’re cold to walk humbly with God, we need a God of the Perpetual perhaps. Walking the way of the Perpetual perhaps means admitting that we don’t know for sure what God wants us to do. And that requires us to be open to and listing for guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Some who call themselves Christians say they have a sure and certain knowledge of their salvation. I have a sure and certain knowledge the text of this sermon is resting on a podium and that I’m preaching in St Cyprian’s Church of San Francisco. I do not believe that I’m here at with you today. I do not have faith that I’m here with you today. I take it as a sure and certain fact that I am here with you today.
But Walking with God requires us to admit that we don’t have sure and certain knowledge about God Being in relationship with God means living with the uncertainty of figuring out what God wants us to do in different situations. It’s the opposite, the antithesis, of having sure and certain knowledge about how to answer spiritual challenges.
I do not have sure and certain knowledge about God. To claim that would be an act of hubris, of arrogance. Instead, I believe in a God that loves me more than I can ever know. And loves you more than you can ever know. If I am certain of that, I cannot have faith. Certainty destroys faith.
That’s why we talk of leaving as a ‘leap of faith.’ it’s a kind of leaf to make when you’re not sure what’s going to happen on the other side of the jump. Living by faith is living with uncertainty.
In her book on Practical Christianity, Dean Jane Shaw suggests there is a particular version of Christianity that centers on certainty and relates particularly to what happened on Good Friday. She writes in the third chapter of her book: “it goes like this: God had a master plan. It was to restore the Covenant with a sinful people. For that, someone had to be sacrificed to take away our sins. That someone was God’s son, sent to the Earth to die for us. This was the required atonement to appease an austere and unforgiving God.” Interestingly, an echo of the historical theology of atonement is heard during the Eucharistic prayer today when I say that on the Cross Jesus “made there a full and perfect sacrifice for us.”
In its contemporary form, some Christians put atonement theology at the center of their faith. She continues: “Indeed for many Christians being saved depends entirely on accepting this particular story in this particular form. In that tradition salvation is equated with certainty, and faith is underscored as having an under questioning acceptance of a set of doctrines.”
Certainty appeals to human beings. It takes the guesswork out of salvation. Carried to an extreme, some people think that if they agree to a certain set of theological principles they will be assured of Salvation and end up in heaven.
But is that the gospel which we find in the Life, words, and actions of Jesus? Where does this text show us a way of living set in a context of uncertainty? If Jesus was certain of his path, why at the end of his life did he cry out “my God, my God, why hast has thou forsaken me?”
Where in that theology is the wrong for the spontaneity of Jesus the angry Rabbi who cleared the temple of the money changers?
“A theology of certainty takes away the riskiness of God’s incarnation, of God’s entry into the world as a vulnerable baby, of God’s sharing our suffering. It ducks the sheer abundance of God’s love,” Dean Shaw continues.
Theological certainty also stands as the basis for centuries of divisive debates, religious persecutions, burning at the stake, and worse. Looking back and some of the reasons for these divisions it can be difficult for us today to understand their justification.
Consider the great schism between the Eastern Christian church and the Western Christian Church which happened in the 11th century after several hundred years of simmering discontent. Among the big issues used to justify this schism:
- Should priests have beards?
- Should communion bread be leavened or unleavened?
- And my favorite, a sharp difference, and understanding of the nature of the Trinity. You can hear an echo of this debate when we say the Nicene Creed when we say the words “of one being of the father.”
The irony, of course, is that we can never know the exact nature of the Trinity. It would be nice to think that these debates were left behind. But people threaten to split from the Episcopal Church in the early part of the twentieth century over questions of ritual and burning issues like how many candles should be placed on the altar.
Presuming to have a certainty which is absolute and justifies splitting asunder the people of God seems like an arrogant act of hubris. But schism and conflict are perhaps the inevitable consequence of imposing a demand for absolute certainty in our spiritual life.
Consider the uncertainty in the gospel attributed to Mark. The anonymous author gave us a strange gospel. As Dean Shaw notes, the gospel of Mark does not contain a Christmas story, there is no sermon on the mount, there’s no Lord’s Prayer, and there isn’t even a resurrection appearance by Jesus.
In fact, biblical Scholars now believe the last 16 verses of text were added buy another author. They suggest the original ending of the Gospel came after the women who went to the tomb find it empty and say nothing to anyone because they are afraid. That’s hardly a rousing Easter story. But it is a very human story. And it’s consistent with the way the author of Mark presents human beings as fearful, failures prone, and week.
Why would this anonymous author and the gospel without a resurrected Jesus? Perhaps the text was written for people who already knew how the story we can and how it ended. Or perhaps, as Dean Shaw suggests, is it because Mark’s Gospel is turning the world’s values upside down? If so, it introduces a radical way to belief in Christ, a way that does not center on clear and certain theological positions or beliefs.
What are we to do if we sacrifice certainty for an uncertain walk with Jesus? “Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus says in Mark 5:36.
Perhaps the choice for us is simply to be either a person of fear or a person of faith. Dean Shaw suggests this is a radical way to be Christian, that “belief does not reside in a clear and certain position about the past.”
Perhaps “Mark is saying that a person that fears will seek false certainty while a person of faith will be living to live in The Bleak that’s sometimes, and lack of knowledge at other times…The only choice is learning to live with uncertainty.” It is, in short, a mystery, something we cannot fully know or understand. If we accept mystery into our life, if we live fully with uncertainty, perhaps we will find our path for a Christian Life.
What does that path look like? Dean Shaw suggests “that the life of faith is an open-ended adventure with a God who loves us and desires are transformation – not into something or somebody that we are not, but, with Christ accompanying us, into the holy people God calls us to be. This is the nature of salvation: the constant process of being transformed that we might enjoy the fullness of life and ask God’s Will by taking our part in transforming God’s world.”
This frees us from having to be right in our theology. It frees us from having to divide into groups of those who are saved and those who are damned, in and out, lost and found, bad and good.
It frees us from playing God and judging others and allows us to focus on walking humbly with our God through 21st century San Francisco in the adventure of a lifetime.
Let us pray. Holy One, creator of the stars and seas, your steadfast love is shown to every living thing: your word calls forth countless worlds and souls; your law revives and refreshes. Forgive our misuse of your gifts, our false certainties based on fear, our failure to walk with you on an uncertain path. Redeem us that we may be transformed by your wisdom to manifest for others the mercy of our crucified and risen Lord.
May the people of God say: Amen.