Autobiography as Theology

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14

Theology almost always begins with autobiography or history. It is one person, or, sometimes, a group of people trying to explain to others what it was like to encounter God. These encounters take different forms.

In Isaiah 43, the Prophet Isaiah remembers the history of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt, which had been handed down to him from the time of Moses. He remembers how the people were fleeing the slavery of Egypt, and how they were caught between the armies of Egypt which were right behind them and the Yom Suph which stretched out just before them.  He remembers how the LORD made a path for the people through the mighty waters, and how, when the Egyptians tried to follow, the LORD “extinguished” the Pharoah’s army including all its chariots and horses and warriors as easily as a man might put out a candle.

In Psalm 126, the Psalmist remembers how, after the people of Israel had been living in the promised land of Zion for some time, an undescribed crisis arose, and the LORD saved them from their troubles and restored their fortunes. We don’t know what the crisis was—perhaps an epidemic, a famine, war, or the threat of war. The Psalmist says when deliverance came, “We were like people who dream.”  It was a good dream, for the people laughed, and shouted with joy, and the nations around them took notice and said, “the LORD has done great things for them.”

In Philippians 3, St. Paul gives us the first volume of his autobiography of faith. When he speaks of the superiority of his confidence in the flesh, he is speaking not to Gentile converts, but to his Jewish brothers and sisters because he wants to make them jealous. Paul never stopped being a Jew.  Rather, after it pleased it “pleased God to reveal his son to (him), in order that (he) might preach him among the gentiles,” he embraced Jesus as the long-promised Messiah of Israel and became a Messianic Jew. Paul describes his transition from Pharisee to what would soon be called “Christian.” In Philippians 3. Therein he writes:

If any on thinks they have reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:  5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee,  6 as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.  7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;  10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  15 Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you.  16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

It is legitimate to inquire how Paul’s autobiography of faith is like ours, and how it is different.

Paul’s autobiography of faith begins with “the happy accident of his birth.” He was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”  Before he was able to choose, Paul was born to parents (at least a mother) who were/was “of the people of Israel,” he was then admitted to the covenant by circumcision, the sign of the covenant.

Likewise, before most of us were able to choose, we were admitted to the covenant with the sign of our covenant, baptism, for our autobiography of faith begins with Christian parents. Many have told me how their mother taught them to pray as she knelt by their bed at night, and others have told me how their father insisted they go to church and Sunday School every Sunday.  Paul was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. I might tell you that my family’s roots are English and Scotch-Irish. Fittingly, in a Moravian Church, many of you would claim some German ancestry.  If I recall correctly, there are at least two people here this morning who can trace their roots back to Zinzendorf himself.

None of us are born in a vacuum. I am a Child of the Covenant, and my parents had a promise for me. In Psalm 103:17 we read:

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children…

I do not think I was predestined to faith. I do believe that thanks to the faith of my family, I was born on the good side of a slippery slope, and I had only to follow the path of least resistance to end up sliding down that slope, and, in the words of the Lenten Liturgy, “into the arms of Christ stretched out upon the cross.” It was easier for me and for you than for many. Many, born to no faith, or in other faiths, had to climb that same slope to come to Christ. All religion and any religion is a help.  As Paul said in Acts 17, “God made from one every nation of humankind that we might feel after him and perhaps find him.”

Of course, there is a slope just as slippery on the other side of the mountain.  According to Exodus 34, God visits “the (sins)  of the (parents) upon the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” God is not cruel. The scripture is simply stating a horrible fact.  Once sin gets into the system it continues to work like leaven in a barrel of flour. Let me give you an example that grows out of America’s original sin, slavery. From the time of reconstruction until the present day, for every one hundred dollars in wealth accumulated by white families in America, most of whom are here because they want to be, black families—most of whom were brought here against their will,  have accumulated just over five dollars in wealth. For generations, this has cost everyone. It has cost us all in terms of anxiety, taxes, and animosity.  It makes it harder for some to care for themselves and those they love. I am convinced that, in our hearts, most people know that all races are equal. Most racism is about economics and power. I don’t know how to correct this situation in America. Many hope it will just naturally correct itself, but unless it is corrected, the cost of correction—I am not just talking dollars and cents, will become higher and higher, especially for our children, and our children’s children.

Paul’s faith was rooted in the power of the resurrection. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul lists the appearances of the risen Jesus to the other apostles—to Peter, the twelve, the five hundred, James, etc. Then he writes: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also unto me, for I am unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God.”  The resurrection is the key to Paul’s faith, and it is the key to ours. In Romans 10:9 Paul writes,  “If you confess with your lips that “Jesus” is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”   If God has the power to raise the dead, then God has the power to forgive the sins of any, whether the sins of one like Paul who persecuted the church, or the sins of people like you and I, who have often committed the heinous sin of just going along to get along. We are often more afraid of the opinions of others than of God.

Paul discovered that his first experience of God was not his last. Paul’s first experience of God was through the Law. Like all Pharisees, Paul accepted the Law and the Prophets, believed in good spirits called angels and bad spirits called demons, and, above all,  looked for the reward in a General Resurrection at the End of time in which the righteous dead would be raised to everlasting life and the unrighteous to judgment.  As an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus, it was easy for Paul to see that Jesus is the first fruit(s) of the general resurrection, the firstborn from the dead, and easy to insist, as he often did, that a great harvest, consisting of all those who belonged to Christ, was soon to follow. Likewise, as an eyewitness to the resurrection, it was easy for Paul to change his opinion of the cross. As a Pharisee he regarded the cross as a stumbling block—for, like most Jews,  he could not imagine a crucified Messiah.  The cross of Christ had driven him to be a persecutor of the church.  But once Paul saw the cross through the lens of the resurrection, his opinion changed.  No longer was the cross of Jesus the bad end of a bad man, nor even the bad end of a good man, but a road traveled once for all, by our now victorious Lord and Savior. For Paul the cross was the place where Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, that we might “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

Paul’s first experience of God was not his last, his experience evolved, and so does ours. I remember just after my conversion saying “I am going to be a Fundamentalist.” It was my heritage. As I started seminary, I remember my mother telling me that unless I believed that God created the world in six literal days that I had to give up the whole Bible.  Imagine my chagrin when I started to read the Bible for myself and discovered that the Greater Light, the Sun, by which we mark our 24-hour days was not created until the fourth day. I soon discovered that the creation stories of Genesis are not history as we know it, nor are they poetry; they are theology.  You see, every one of Israel’s neighbors worshiped the sun and moon as gods; but the writer of Genesis insists that they are not gods, far from it, for they are a part of the creation of the One God who made heavens and the earth and all that is in them. My understanding continued to evolve, today I read the bible in confidence, for I read it in light of science, not in spite of science.  I have seen the signs that say “Thank you Jesus!” and the signs that say, “Thank you Science!”  I can say “Amen!” to both.

Our faith evolves in different ways. Yours may be different from mine.  That is okay. Mine has evolved through exposure to a variety of teachers, whether in person as a part of my studies or in books, where I have discovered most of my teachers. Taken together my teachers make up my balcony of approving faces. The balcony informs my faith and approves or disapproves my choices!  One of the most significant faces in my balcony is a 20th century Methodist missionary to India named E. Stanley Jones.  He once wrote that when he went to India he was defending a long line that stretched from Genesis to Revelation, through the history of the Church and Western Civilization.  He was bobbing up and down the line defending this and defending that, and the main thing, Jesus Christ, was being left out.  He said:

 “I decided to shorten the line and take my stand at Jesus. There are many points of question re the Christian faith, he is the point of decision. When we decide what we believe about most issues of faith, we don’t decide anything for God decided those things long ago.  When we decide for or against Jesus Christ, we make a real decision that will affect us in this world and the next.”

That is my opinion exactly.  Jones was a Methodist, but his theology is so Moravian!  If we decide for Jesus Christ, we must decide for our human family, too.  I have found Galatians 3:28 to perfectly express what our attitude toward the human family should be.  Therein we read that in Christ, there is “no Jew, no Greek,” that is no bias due to race; “no slave, no free,” that is no bias due to economic status; and “no male and female,” that is no bias due to sex, but “all are one in Jesus Christ.:  For me, the ground is even at the foot of the cross.  We all must work out our own salvation in fear and in trembling (2nd Corinthians 5). I do not judge you, nor will I let you judge me.  As Paul said in Romans 14:4

“Who (am I) to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

A member of the Renewed Church once said to Count Zinzendorf the godfather of the Renewed Church, “Is not this the greatest unity—to agree that (believing) souls think differently.” The Count replied:

Yes, that is the real bond of unity. Nature is full of different creatures of different inclinations. It is the same in the spiritual world; we must regard a variety of thought as something beautiful.”  [Ibid.]

Zinzendorf often remarked that “there are as many religions (religious insights) as there are believing souls.”

The important thing is not that we who follow Jesus dot all our theological “I’s” and cross all our theological “T’s.”  The important thing is that we give as much of ourselves as we know, to as much of Jesus Christ as we know, in the confidence that we will soon know more of him and more of ourselves. This duty is never over. As Paul has said:

13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  15 Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you.  16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.





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