August 7, 2016 Message delivered at Durham Friends Meeting
You’d think that someone standing up to bring a message would talk about something he knew. Wouldn’t you? That would be reasonable. But this morning I want to talk about what I don’t know and how important it is to me to accept my limitations – especially my limitations on understanding.
So to give it a title, we might call this message “Two Cheers for Lack of Understanding”, or better even, “One Cheer for Ignorance and one for Confusion.” I even have a prop for today to help you follow along. I have this T-shirt “I’m With Stupid.” That’s me.
Or Really what I want to say is ‘that’s me and the Disciples,’ because I’m really struck by how much Jesus’s Disciples are confused. I take comfort from the Disciples in their ignorance and confusion. I learn from that.
I didn’t always think this way. I grew up thinking that being a good person, being a religious person, meant believing certain things. And by “believing certain things” I took to mean “knowing certain things.” Knowing their truth. The cornerstones of religion were “beliefs,” I thought, and I needed to learn those things and know them.
What beliefs? Well I wasn’t very sure, but there seemed to be a lot of things. The Presbyterian Church I grew up in had a worship service in which we read together or recited together statements of belief. There was nothing uncommon about that. That was true of most Christian churches you could attend then (Catholic or Protestant), and true of must churches you could attend today.
For example, we recited the Apostles Creed. This is a statement accepted as authoritative by most Christian Churches, Protestant and Catholic. Here’s how it goes:
Apostles Creed: Traditional English Version
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.
That’s a lot of beliefs to believe. This Apostles Creed is a very old statement of Christian beliefs. It’s called the Apostles Creed because some people have thought that it originated with the Apostles – that is, with Jesus’s Disciples. We’re pretty sure that’s not true. This Creed may come from the 3d or 4th century, but it doesn’t come directly from the Apostles.
It took me a very long while to realize reciting statements like this wasn’t going to work for me. As a young man I realized I couldn’t succeed at knowing spiritual things in the same way I had come to know geometry or the causes of the American Revolution or the parts of speech or even how to row a boat. Those were things I could learn, be confident I knew, and feel good about knowing them. But I realized spiritual knowledge was different. Trying to have spiritual knowledge in the form of certain, creedal beliefs was just going to lead to dead ends and frustration and failure. At least for me.
This realization has something to do with why I was drawn to Quakers. From their beginnings, Quakers have refused to subscribe to Creeds like the Apostles Creed. For Quakers, it is what God says to us directly, not what others tell us God wants us to think.
So let’s talk about the Disciples: what they knew and how they knew it. They are hand-picked by Jesus, they follow him around, they hear him preach, and sometimes they make the necessary arrangements. They’re like advance men in a campaign.
We don’t notice them much in the story, or at least I don’t, unless we really focus attention on them. They’re in the background, and they never do anything that’s particularly praiseworthy.
“And they were amazed at Him.” How often do we hear that said of the Disciples? They are with him day and night. They hear every word that he says; witness every healing; wrestle with every parable. Over and over again, despite all this preparation, Jesus says something to the Disciples “And they were amazed at Him.” “Amazed.” They seem never to know what to expect, no matter how much they have heard him before.
Often they don’t even get it after Jesus has tried to help them understand.
In Mark 4, for example, (and I’m going to stick to that Gospel, today) Jesus tells the parable of the Sower to a large crowd. It’s the one about seed being scattered and only some of it thriving. Afterwards, he has a private meeting with the Disciples. Jesus explains the parable, something he didn’t do with the crowd. And then he asks, “Do you not understand this parable?” (Imagine him looking at blank faces, dismayed.) “How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13). Jesus sounds a little frustrated.
A little later, in Mark 7, Jesus has a dust-up with some Pharisees about what makes a man “unclean.” Again, Jesus speaks to a big crowd, and then afterwards he talks with the Disciples alone. Again he seems frustrated. “Then are you also without understanding?” (Mark 7:18).
Not long after that we come to the story of the loaves and the fishes, when a great crowd listening to Jesus preach is fed with seven loaves and two fishes. (Doug Gwyn has preached about this here at Durham recently.) Right after this, Jesus and the Disciples get in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. The Disciples forget to bring any bread on this trip, and they start fretting about this. Jesus again gets a little frustrated. “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear. And do you not remember?” (Mark 8:17-18). There’s that note of frustration, again.
At the end, as he nears his death, Jesus asks three of his Disciples (Simon, James and John) to be with him while he prayed. All Jesus asked was that they stay awake. But they don’t. Three times they fall asleep (Mark 14: 32-42).
Hand-picked, the Disciples don’t appear to do a great job. They regularly misunderstand what Jesus is teaching, even when they get special make-up classes that aren’t available to the multitudes. They don’t understand. The Disciples aren’t pictured as the sort of people who would write the “Apostles Creed” with its list of specific beliefs and its tone of certainty.
Why are the Disciples so dim? I can think of two possibilities.
One is that they’re just characters to draw us into the story. In Plato’s dialogues, for example, Socrates does his teaching not by lecturing about things but by asking questions of young men who follow him around – sort of like disciples. Socrates regularly provokes these discussions in the middle of a walk, or a in the midst of a party, about big topics like piety or justice or knowledge. Somebody will say something casually, in passing, and Socrates will say, “so you think justice is ‘giving every man his due?’ And the person will respond yes, that’s what I think. And Socrates will ask them a question: do you mean this, or do you mean that? Do you mean justice is what “seems” to be their due, or what “really” is their due?
Every time, whoever Socrates is talking with will take the dumbest alternative. They’ll pick “appearances” (what seems to be the case) over “reality” (the heart of the matter) every time. Reading Plato gets to be like watching The Price is Right. You’ll find yourself shouting at the page “don’t take Door Number 1.” Don’t take the first choice. Don’t take “appearances.” Down that road, you know, Socrates will make them look stupid. But they always take Door #1 first.” Socrates winds up making everyone look a little dim-witted. You start thinking you know the right answer, and then Socrates will show you that you’re wrong, too. But he’s drawn you in.
I don’t think this is what is going on in the Gospels, however. I don’t think the Disciples look stupid in the Gospels because the Gospel writers were using the same story-telling device. Rather, I think the Disciples regularly get it wrong because spiritual understanding is hard. The Disciples were good folk, they were trying hard, but what they were trying to learn is hard. The y just didn’t get it right much of the time – most of the time.
Jesus teaches in parables, because what he’s trying to teach can’t be written down in a formula or a paragraph we memorize and recite. He’s trying to get us to approach life in a very different way. Love your neighbor, even your enemy. Fear not, even though the world is a scary place and death even scarier. Welcome the stranger. Be grateful and approach the world with humility. All these lessons run against our instincts; they even run against common sense. (And I can’t help but notice that none of those lessons are even mentioned in the Apostles Creed.)
Even at my best, I’ve come to think I’m like the Disciples. I regularly don’t get it, don’t see it or hear it. Regularly, I don’t understand. Sometimes I fall asleep in Meeting. Perhaps you’ve noticed and were too kind to mention it.
Me? I’m with Stupid.
Paying attention to the Disciples should help us see that none of us are likely to have this all figured out.
Nevertheless, the Disciples stay at it, and that’s what I’ve learned from them. Spiritual understanding is hard and elusive, even when we have good teachers. The important thing is to stay at it.
Listen patiently for God to speak to us if and when God will. We may not hear much, but what we hear we can trust.