“Do Doctrines Cloud Jesus’ Message?”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – January 8, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

    This morning we are going to consider the baptism of Jesus.  We are going to begin by discussing Jesus' baptism the way it might have occurred if he were a member of our family.  Then we will put Jesus' baptism under the microscope of the early theologians to see how the doctrines they developed created a problem for the followers of Jesus.

    Let us assume that one day Jesus was busy in his carpentry shop when a client stopped by to discuss the creation of a new yoke for his team of oxen.  While they are putting together the timeline for completing the project, his friend asked, "Have you been down to the river to listen to your cousin's preaching?"  Jesus responded,

No, I haven't but I've heard from others that he's really drawing the crowds.  Work has been steady for me and I haven't had the time.  Maybe by the end of the week I will walk down to the river and listen to what he is saying.

    Jesus found the time and went to listen to John. While he stood among the other listeners, he felt inspired by his cousin's words.  A thought came into his mind that it might be a good time to recommit himself to his relationship with God. The chances were good that his faithfulness to his heritage came from his role as the eldest son to Mary and his siblings rather than from the examples set by the Priests, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law.

    He walked into the Jordan to be baptized.  As he came up out of the water, an extraordinary event occurred.  He experienced the words, "You are my Son, with whom I am pleased."  This unexpected occurrence overwhelmed him to the point that he had to retreat to the wilderness to consider the meaning of what had just happened. 

    He had entered the river as a carpenter and as the eldest son, the provider for his family.  He emerged from the river mystified by a voice from God that gave him an identity that he might not have known prior to entering the Jordan River.  

    Why would a story-line like this create problems for anyone? The theologians have had difficulty with Jesus' baptism for centuries.  The reason for their trouble is that baptism had become a doctrine that was reserved for sinners who were repenting.  Since early doctrines had already defined Jesus as a perfect incarnation of God in human form, believers were asking why Jesus felt the need to be baptized.

    Doctrines were created by Church leaders from the earliest times to refine and define beliefs about Jesus' life and ministry. Numerous clusters of believers had developed throughout the region.  Each group had beliefs that differed widely from each other.  The Church in Rome wanted to bring consistency to believers and they created true doctrines to do just that. Many doctrines had little or nothing to do with what Jesus actually taught.

    The problem that Christians have experienced for centuries with Church doctrines is that most of them do not work because they are concepts.  Followers of Jesus may have strong, committed beliefs and they may know numerous doctrines that provide the framework of their faith but their beliefs do not energize their passions to live the message.  Our passions come from our life-experiences rather than from what others have handed down to us.

    Perhaps 92 percent of all Bermudians believe in God, but look at the divisions among us.  What causes the disconnect between our faith and its application during our experiences?  Divisions happen when the values and way of life of one group differ from those of another. Quite often our faith is not the source of our reactions and responses to our experiences as it was for Jesus.

    In his book entitled, Mistreated, Ron Lee Dunn told a story about two altar boys that were brought up in the Roman Catholic Church.   One was born in 1892 in Eastern Europe and the other was born three years later in a small rural town in the United States.  Both boys shared a common experience while holding the chalice containing the sacred blood of Christ for their priests during the Mass.  The boys spilled some of the wine on the carpet. 

    The priest in Eastern Europe, upon seeing the stain on the carpet, slapped the altar boy across his face.   He labeled him as being clumsy and stupid while handling the precious blood of Christ.  He ordered the boy to leave the church after publicly humiliating him.  The angry voice and actions of the priest were witnessed by the stunned congregation. 

    The priest in Illinois saw the stain on the carpet and knelt down to be on the boy’s level.  While looking into his eyes, he quietly said, "That’s all right, son.  You’ll do better the next time."  He placed his hand on the young man's shoulder and said, "Perhaps some day you will become a fine priest who will touch the lives of many people with your words and spirit."

    The two young boys had been carefully tutored in the beliefs, doctrines and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, because of their life-experiences, both boys went in near opposite directions.  The altar boy in Eastern Europe became Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, the ruthless communist dictator that ruled with an iron fist from 1943 until 1980.  The other altar boy grew up in Illinois and became Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a highly respected spiritual leader.   

    Which has far more power over our lives -- the orthodoxy of Jesus being God-incarnate or the experience of someone loving us during a vulnerable moment in our lives? Truly, the latter experience came from Jesus' own teaching.  (Matthew 7:12) This understanding was recognized by Erasmus, a Dutch priest and theologian during the Renaissance period, who said,

Truly the yoke of Christ would be sweet if petty human institutions added nothing more to what he, himself, taught.  His message was little more than variations on his understanding that people must learn to love one another.

     Jesus taught his followers to share the good news by choosing to make God's likeness visible to others. (Matthew 5:16)  All of us are God's sons and daughters. Jesus heard the voice while most of us have not.  However, when we open ourselves to becoming a channel through which God’s creative, loving energy flows into the world, we do not need a theological doctrine to define how or why that happens. (Matthew 5:9)

    Jesus' baptism was just like our own.  The difference was that God used the occasion to bring clarity to Jesus' identity and ministry.  According to Luke, Jesus used another occasion to bring clarity to Saul of Tarsus' future role as the Apostle Paul.  (Acts 9:1-22)

    What about us?  Is our faith summed up by a cluster of beliefs and doctrines? Do these represent who we are? Do our passions for living Jesus' message grow from such as these?

    While reading the thoughts and feelings of a number of Bermuda's leaders in Thursday's Royal Gazette this past week, we have heard words that obviously do not reflect anything related to the season through which we have just come. 

    In the United States many people have negatively personalized the result of America's recent national elections to the point where an estimated one hundred thousand women may be coming to Washington, D.C. to protest Donald Trump's election as President.  What is interesting is that he has nearly two weeks before he takes the oath of the office.

    Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the United States following a national election. Again, why have such judgmental thoughts taken up residence in people's minds?  Many of these passionate people are United Methodists whom I know personally.

    We can look at the struggles over issues of power happening in almost every nation in the world and notice that very little progress has been made toward having peace on earth and good will toward all men and women.  

    Every individual certainly has the freedom to express his or her passions.  However, is there any awareness among Christians that they have energized their passions toward a material outcome in the world?  In so doing they have justified responses that have nothing to do with what Jesus came here to teach us.  Many Christians need to ask what their passions are communicating.  Is this what it looks like to live in the Kingdom of God?  Seriously?

    What would happen to us if we devoted our passions toward becoming lobbyists for living peacefully in the Kingdom of God.  We just happened to show up during an historic period where the world's people are experiencing fear, violent attitudes, uncertainty and a host of saviors pointing the way to salvation.

      It is amazing to realize that the new doctrines of politics and economics have temporarily clouded Jesus' message. Today, with all our remarkable advancements in technology, we have experienced only slight emotional and spiritual variations from the responses of people that lived thousands of years ago.

    Think of it.  Jesus came here to show us another way.  We do not need to live in the hells of our own creation.  Beliefs and doctrines will never help us when our choices remain those of a warrior.  Jesus' messages of love, compassion and generosity describe a very different spirit.  The problem with such a message is that it does not get things done, does it?  It does not draw attention to everything that is wrong in our world.  We want to be the creators of that new world, and historically, our efforts have only had marginal success.  Ego investment holds no candle to the display of energy that comes from our spirit. (Matthew 7:13-14)

    We need to read with a clearer understanding the first twelve verses of Matthew 5.  Those verses are the Beatitudes.  Translated this means, the attitudes of being.  No doctrine will inspire us to live by them.  Only our choice will create such a spirit.  Once we make that choice, what is happening in our world will no longer become the cancer of our spirits nor the malignancies that have driven many of us to sabotage our own inner peace.   

    We do not need to choose sides. Jesus faced crucifixion with love your enemies in his heart, because a version of truth and justice had developed from those who truly meant well, but who were spiritually blind.  When it comes to deciding in which world we want to live, we would be well-advised to choose to live in the one where all of us hope to continue living when our bodies die.

    This is what Jesus came to teach us, and for many people his message has become so clouded that it is almost unrecognizable. Having just come through the celebration of Jesus' birth, what message do we hold within our minds and hearts?  Do our spirits communicate what it looks like to live in God's Kingdom?



     Loving God, how often our spirits can lose their focus from the array of circumstances that impact our lives.  For thousands of years, the storyline of human history has varied little.  Jesus invited us to view every experience as an opportunity to be in mission.  We confess that our wills are more interested in justice, fairness and equality. Our temptation is to become warriors for great causes.   Empower us to recognize that our strength lies in patience, that guidance comes to those that can recognize it, and that character grows from the values we choose.   Amen.    



    We enjoy these moments, O God, because of what they allow us to do. Most of us realize that we do not take enough time for healing and nurturing our spirits.  There are so many unrecognized needs that inflame our passions, siphon away our patience and cloud our vision of tomorrow.  For this one-hour there are no demands being made of us. There are no vital decisions we need to make. We do not need to vent our opinions about anything. We can doze if our bodies need that. We can attempt to participate even though our minds occasionally drift to the world we have briefly left outside.

    Yet we know there is a part of us that never sleeps. And we know that you are everywhere, always ready to support us with your guidance. When our fears bring thoughts into our minds like, "Yes, but what if,” you are there helping us to remember that you made us bigger than any "what if" circumstance. You created us to be a light in darkness, a candle in the wind and a diamond being formed in the midst of heat and pressure. Help us to understand our identity with greater clarity.  Indeed, you are the potter and we are the clay. 

    Today we pray for people passing through fragile moments, for people facing challenging decisions, for those whose bodies are broken by disease, for neighbors who find loving each other difficult and for nations who cannot move beyond their violent power struggles.  We call upon you, O God, for your patient guidance toward a tomorrow that is filled with hope and peace.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .