New Guidance Can Be Frightening

Meditation Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler

Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24

     One of the major themes of Christianity that is seldom considered by believers is the evolutionary stages through which our faith has passed before getting to us.  The growth process is much like ascending a staircase.  First, a new insight will come to one person that will challenge the entrenched beliefs of the faithful to move forward in their thinking.  Next, there is a plateau where people assimilate that idea and become entrenched again.   This cycle continues for centuries as thinking slowly climbs that staircase.

     For example, consider the radical shift experienced by Jesus that required that he abandon what was considered by the Jews to be the will of God.  Jesus made such a quantum leap away from the faith of his fathers that he once remarked to Nicodemus that no one could perceive the Kingdom of God without being reborn as a spirit-being, one that understands the illusionary quality of the material world that is always changing.  (John 3:3) 

     Try to imagine where Jesus came from before making that leap in his faith-orientation.  As the eldest son, Jesus had to teach the members of his family the faith of the patriarchs and prophets of Israel.  Part of his responsibility was to celebrate the Holy Days with his mother, brothers and sisters.  This meant parroting the centuries-old beliefs and practices handed down to him by his teachers. 

     At his baptism and his subsequent wandering in the wilderness, Jesus was so emotionally and spiritually shaken by a new revelation that he realized, “God is leading me away from my faith-heritage.”  Think of how spiritually unsettling this was. 

     Jesus’ new understanding had to do with taking an inward journey that allowed people’s spirit to radiate loving thoughts, attitudes and behavior that would make them one with God just as Jesus was.  What he had been taught was obedience to the Laws of Moses.  He once taught, “I am the vine and you are the branches.  Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit, for apart from the source that gives life, you can do nothing.” (John 15:5).  It was this radical departure from the long cherished religious traditions and heritage of his people that caused Jesus’ enemies to accuse him of blasphemy.

     In our lesson today, Paul found himself at the same crossroads.  He described to his readers what caused him to stop persecuting the followers of Jesus without mercy.  The power of his new awareness gave him the passion to teach the love of Christ to all people.  Just as Jesus had awakened during his baptism, so had Paul awakened while on his way to Damascus.  

     Paul traveled and taught for three years before he journeyed to Jerusalem where he spent a couple of weeks comparing notes with Peter.  During this meeting the two found that many of the beliefs of Peter represented a radical departure from Paul’s understanding. Peter wanted to preserve the Jewish dietary restrictions as well as linking personal salvation to circumcision.  

     There were fierce verbal exchanges over essential beliefs. (Acts 15:1f)  By taking his new understanding into the Greek and Roman world, Paul realized that Jewish customs would have no relevance.  Paul severed many of his ties to Judaism, including those with Peter and the disciples who remained in Jerusalem. 

     Think about how radical this shift was!  Most of the theology of present day Christianity had its origin in Paul’s thinking.  Those that were the closest to Jesus faded from influencing Christianity’s evolution.  Within the first century, beliefs became hinged on one man’s interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ presence in the world.

     Today, we are at a similar crossroads as Christians.  Some years ago,  Bishop John Spong wrote a book entitled, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.  He made the claim that his book was written for Christians in exile.  His book describes Christianity as teaching people to remain entrenched in certain key beliefs that cause thoughtful people either to park their brains at the entrance of their churches or leave never to darken the door of a church again. Spong verbally demonstrated that Christianity, as it is preached and practiced today in many churches, is actually incompatible with the teachings of Jesus.   

     Two weeks ago, friend of mine in one of my former churches described what happened to her daughter when she married and began to attend her husband’s church.  Her family had grown up in our church but when their daughter entered her new church, she became so frightened by their variety of salvation theology that she had to ask her mother if she had been saved  

    There are certain key beliefs that must be held by the believers in many churches that clearly defines for them what salvation means and what it looks like when a person has confessed those beliefs.  Such people are just as passionate about these cherished beliefs as was Peter with his insistence that dietary restrictions and circumcision must be maintained for people to be saved.  Both salvation formulas are clearly described in the Scriptures.  

    There are countless people, whose skills of spirit far exceed those of many Christians.  What often escapes such Christians is that three-quarters of our world’s people cannot declare that Jesus is their Lord and Savior because they are Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim. Sadly, there are others that must be included among them.  These people refer to themselves as recovering Christians who feel liberated from the dogma of their former churches.  It is this latter group that Bishop Spong called Christians in exile.

    Our eternal destiny is not up to us regardless of what anyone is teaching these days.  Our eternal destiny is up to God’s loving mercy and anyone who teaches otherwise has usurped an authority that belongs only to our Creator. 

     Last Friday I participated in a Memorial Service at Annual Conference for all pastors and spouses that died during the conference year.  My mother was among that group.  Staff lined us up alphabetically.  As we started our journey to the floor below, we encountered hordes of people engaged in casual conversation.  While trying to navigate the crowd, a number of people lost their way. Some of us had to spend time rounding up those that had strayed in the confusion. 

     If Conference staff could not guide correctly a group of 45 people for even a short distance, do we honestly believe that God would allow our salvation to be up to our faulty beliefs and judgment?  Goodness, I often get lost just driving around Bowie. 

    Jesus instructed his listeners to become an instrument of God’s loving presence in the world.  We do get lost!  The allure of the material world is that good at convincing us that our happiness and peace can be found by chasing what looks to be so promising.  When we go there we find nothing that satisfies our need for sustained peace, confidence and joy.

     God, however, is like the father of the Prodigal Son.  Jesus truly understood his father.   Just as the father in his parable, God’s loving spirit waits with outstretched arms to greet all of us in spite of how misguided our lives have been.

     When we transition to life eternal, everything that we believed about reality will radically change.  However, we do not have to wait until we transition in order to begin living in eternity.  We can do so now when we are fully awake.   The formula for salvation can be distilled in three words that all of us could repeat if I asked you to do so -- “Love one another.”  When we can do that every day to everyone, there is no Hell that could possibly hold us.


     Loving God, we thank you for your constant faithfulness to us.  Our lives are filled with issues that easily distract us in ways that we cannot imagine.  You have offered us a rock upon which to build our lives, and often we build them on sand.  We turn to you for guidance and yet we choose our direction from what our limited senses offer.  Even though few of our choices reflect the potential you gave us, your support for our growth never wavers.  There are moments when we feel lost, and yet we have learned that such times are nothing more than your invitation to keep searching.  In our seeking you, help us to remember that the path we seek is found through extending ourselves in compassion, understanding, generosity and forgiveness.   Finding you is more easily accomplished when we make your spirit visible through what we do.  Amen.


     We have drawn ourselves into your presence, O God, with a deep sense of appreciation for how worship centers our lives on the needs of spirit.  When we come here and open ourselves anew to the healing of your presence, how peaceful we become when we truly do let go of all that makes demands of us.  Your presence becomes like a sponge that absorbs our cares and in their place, we find encouragement, hope and peace.  You never tire at giving us new ways to define who we are. Your inspiration provides us with fresh insights into our struggles and frustrations. 

     As our spirits seek greater growth, how easy it is to take the path of least resistance.  We know the struggles when issues of pleasure confront those of character.  We are no strangers to the attractiveness of compromise.  We know how blinding self-interest is when we are faced with a decision that will be unpopular for others. 

     Evoke in us, O God, the memory that we are created in your image.  Help us to carry that awareness into each relationship and circumstance.  Remind us that our lives reflect everything that we believe.  We pray that we will make visible the values that create community, friendship, healing and wholeness.   Certainly, the efforts of so many people yesterday that engaged in Spring-Into-Service demonstrated the truth of these values.  May your will be done in our portion of the world because we are enthusiastically alive in your service.   We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .