Progressive Christianity

Paula Northwood February 25, 2018

Scripture Matthew 25:34–56

In the late 1900s, religious traditions were labelled one of three things: liberal, evangelical or fundamentalist. I’ve had the privilege of being all three at one time or another. The church of my childhood was heavily influenced by fundamentalism. During my high school and college years, I participated in evangelical organizations like Youth for Christ. But deep within my heart, I had a liberal streak, and I still cannot explain it.

By the turn of this century, those churches that used to be called liberal, usually mainline Protestants, started identifying as progressive Christians. This is true of Plymouth. When I started serving Plymouth in 2003, you were testing out the progressive Christian label. Once identified as theologically liberal, Plymouth was exploring the limitations and criticisms of being labeled “liberal” and adopting the more positive moniker of “progressive.”

Winston Churchill once said, “Beware of all generalizations, including this one.” In general, progressive or liberal Christians celebrate open-mindedness, diversity of belief and freedom from dogma, rather than trying to impose a single authority, scripture or creed. Fundamentalists focus on what they understand to be the fundamentals of faith, such as biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement. Evangelicals espouse a personal conversion experience, sharing the good news of Jesus through mission and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority. Some have tried to generalize these expressions of Christianity by saying fundamentalists and evangelicals are concerned about what a person believes and progressive or liberal Christians are concerned about what a person does or how a person lives. But progressive Christians, evangelicals and fundamentalists all believe in something, a higher power, whether it is called God, Mystery, the Sacred or the Divine, and they all basically want to do the right thing—they just have very different ways of going about it. And it’s no wonder, because we see this dichotomy in our shared scriptures.

In the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, the main thrust is on doing the right things, such as following religious laws, but in much of the New Testament or Christian Scriptures, the emphasis is on believing the right things. There are exceptions. For example, the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke says far more about doing than believing, but the Jesus of John’s Gospel says almost nothing about doing and almost everything about believing. The Apostle Paul also was into believing more than doing. Again, this is an oversimplification and generalization, but it may help shape the trajectory of progressive Christianity.

The eight tenets of progressive Christianity printed in your bulletin are from the Progressive Christianity website. Because progressive Christians have a similar freedom to Congregationalists—that is, the authority of individual conscience—there is not complete agreement about what progressive Christianity is. So in general, progressive Christians have an intellectual openness to Scripture. Instead of accepting the traditional teaching and doctrines of the church as truths that are absolute (and not contextualized linguistically, culturally or otherwise), we look at tradition and Scripture with fresh eyes and try to understand how people, far removed from our own in time, culture and geography, saw God as being active in their lives. We reflect on how these stories and traditions reveal the sacred at work in our lives today. Progressive Christians are profoundly multicultural. We believe that different cultures have their own wisdom and values. This leads progressive Christians to seek communities that are inclusive of all people. One member of our community pointed out that the list doesn’t include race. Even though it’s implied, it is important to add to the list, I think. (If you tear out this section of your bulletin and put it on your fridge door, add “race” to the section on inclusion of all people.) Progressive Christian communities desire to mirror the diversity of God’s creation. We strive to follow the example of Jesus, who welcomed all people to the table and brought them into community. We recognize other faith traditions as having authentic relationships with the sacred; Christianity has no monopoly on the Divine, and there are many paths to God. Finally, in our emphasis on living out our faith through right action and relationship, progressive Christians care deeply for the earth and work to protect it.

In a 15- to 20-minute sermon, we do not have time to explore all the eight tenets of progressive Christianity. This morning, I invite you to examine the first one: “By calling ourselves progressive, we believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life.” Try not to get hung up on “the experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life.” It means “God,” and since we only have metaphors to describe God, the authors are providing some descriptors.

What does it mean for us to follow the path and teachings of Jesus? When I was in seminary, we talked about soteriology. Soteriology comes from the Greek word soter, which means “savior.” Western Christianity has always been savior-oriented. Jesus is seen as the one who died for our sins, who rescued us both individually and collectively from exile and alienation brought about by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. This idea that Jesus is a savior because he rescues us from the wrath of God remains a common view of what it means to say that “Jesus is our Savior” within much of Christianity. Unfortunately, this creates a rather distorted view of God.

The idea of an angry God demanding sacrifice is contradicted in passages from the Hebrew Scriptures like the familiar one from Micah, where we read, “Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, shall I offer my first born for my transgression? No, God has shown you what is good. What does God require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” God does not require an offering to be sacrificed because of our sin. God instead asks us to sacrifice our ego, our greed and our pride: to be humble and merciful and justice-focused in order to be in right relationship with God.

To use savior language in connection with Jesus makes more sense in a historical political context. In other words, it made more sense back in Jesus’ day. When early Christians said “Jesus is my Lord and Savior,” they were doing so in defiance of Caesar Augustus who was to be worshipped as Lord and Savior. Today, it would be like saying “Jesus is my president.” Thankfully, our current president has not asked to be worshipped.

In recent years, because of the texts and manuscripts found in the desert at Nag Hammadi, we have a broader understanding of how many different early understandings there were of Jesus and his teachings. From eastern Christianity we have sophiology, which has the Greek word sophia as its root. That word is likely familiar to you, and it means wisdom. For the earliest Christians, it would seem that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of transformation of the human being. Wisdom teachers use parables, stories and ask a lot of questions.

In our text from Matthew 25, we have the story of the separating of the sheep and the goats. It’s a provocative parable about who understood Jesus’ message. In this passage, Jesus never mentions faith in himself as the goal. The deciding factor for who is in and who is out has everything to do with how others are treated. It’s not about admiring Jesus but acquiring his consciousness and living it out, translating it into action.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this story is not the question it asks—whether we have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger and so forth—but what it doesn’t ask. It does not ask us to worship Jesus. There is nothing about belief or doctrine. There is no mention of whether one has had a personal, emotional conversion experience. There is no question about understanding the socio-political setting of the scriptures to assure an accurate historical, critical interpretation. There is no reference to right doctrine or belief. It’s really quite simple and straightforward: How have you behaved toward your neighbor?

What Jesus does say, again and again throughout the gospels, is: “Follow me.” At least 23 times in the four gospels, Jesus says, “Follow me.”

People follow as he heals; he forgives; he demonstrates compassion; he takes a stand against injustices; he shares; he weeps; he loves unconditionally. He then tells his followers to go and do likewise. That’s why, for progressive Christians, the fullest expression of what we believe is what we do. The fullest expression of what we believe is found in how we live out our faith.

But the story of Jesus does not stop here. The evolution of thinking after his death turns Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus the Messiah or Jesus the Christ. Through his death, the historical Jesus connects us to the living, universal Christ. This story of an innocent and good person destroyed by the powers of this world is an archetypal human experience. Jesus represents the Christ, the spark of divine energy that transcends, gives new life and lives on in us.

Here is what I know. It does not matter how you interpret the Jesus or Christ story. It does not matter if you believe it as historically accurate, or read the entire story as a myth, or view it as something in-between, a mixture of history and mythos. The important thing is not what you believe about the story, but whether you have the capacity to allow it to live through you, so that the story is re-created, re-enacted in a way that is unique to you . . . so that the story is so alive, so powerful and so compelling that it transforms your life and emboldens you to live in fearlessness with compassion toward others.

Our world needs this, now more than ever. Now more than ever, we need progressive Christians to speak truth to power! Now more than ever we need to advocate for peace! Now more than ever we need to radiant the divine within so that our path back home to God is illuminated with love! Now more than ever we must walk the talk! May it be so. Amen.
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For more information on progressive Christianity, see What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? by Delwin Brown (Seabury Books, 2008), or Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most by Marcus Borg (HarperOne, 2014).