What does it take to call yourself a Christian?
The answer often depends on whom you ask. Some people would respond to the question by immediately rattling off a list of things you have to believe in order to call yourself a Christian. They might mention the triune character of God or the divine inspiration of Scripture or maybe something about miracles, the significance of the church or the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Others, Mennonites maybe, would respond to the question by saying something about following Jesus. If you would ask them why, they would probably respond by telling you what they believed about this ancient rabbi or what they believed about the need for peace today.
I think it works in reverse too. Those who don’t consider themselves Christians would probably explain themselves by talking about the tenets of Christianity, or at least the assumed tenants of Christianity, that they didn’t believe.
You’ve probably noticed the similarity that runs through these imagined conversations: beliefs. In our culture we tend to boil the faith down to beliefs, things we do or don’t hold to be true, but can’t prove. Why are beliefs so important to us? There are a number of ways we could put this, but one of them is to say that as modern people we have come to define ourselves as creatures that ‘know’. What separates us from monkeys or stars or whatever? We know stuff. Dolphins are amazing but, as far as we can tell, they don’t write history and they don’t conduct scientific experiments.
The famous seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes is probably the best example of how beliefs became central in western culture. He put himself through a thought experiment. You can try it this afternoon if you’d like (might be a way to honor his upcoming birthday). Descartes wanted to know what was real. What could he trust to be true? He decided to doubt everything he could possibly doubt. He would trust no one and nothing. I imagine that if Descartes heard the weatherman say today is the fifth day of springs he would have lots of questions: How does Mr. Weatherman know this? How do I know he and I share the same understanding of the word ‘today’? How do I know we have the same definition for ‘spring’? Does the weatherman really exist? Maybe he’s a figment of my imagination. Maybe he was sent by an evil demon for the sole purpose of confusing me.
Descartes went on like this, stripping away everything that he could possibly doubt until he was left with one thing: his own thoughts. He might not have known anything else for sure but he knew he was thinking. So he reached his famous conclusion: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).
Phew—he exists—we exist. Well, technically we can’t say ‘we’ exist at this point. I don’t actually know if you are thinking and you don’t know if I am thinking. But I know that I am thinking and you know that you are thinking—if indeed you are thinking. So I know that I exist and you know that you exist (if you actually are thinking and you’re not a figment of my imagination). Descartes jumps from believing that thinking exists to believing that he exists to believing that other things exist to believing that God exists and so on until eventually he gets his whole world back. Anyway, what we should notice is that this key figure in western cultural history starts his whole understanding of the world with the fact that he knows something. To be human isn’t about trust or communal identity or authority. It is about knowledge and beliefs. One of the results is that most young people feel pressured to go through some dramatic stage of doubt. We think of this as a ‘stage’ where they figure out what they believe and then on that basis move on with their lives.
The result of this philosophical trajectory is that conservative Christians and liberal Christians have both been obsessed with beliefs. It becomes a really big deal for us then when we feel like we can’t ‘believe’ certain Christian things. We think of belief as the hardest work of faith. We think doubt or disbelief is the antonym for faith. We think that if we have more of one (say, faith) then we have less of the other (doubt, in this case). There is faith and there is doubt—two totally different things. This is what I often hear at least. It’s what I often find myself thinking. Whether we are in or out, we think, is a question of whether or not we can do the chin-up of believing stuff.
This becomes especially apparent every year around this time. There are always a bunch of articles printed up that assume we have to place the resurrection in one of two boxes: it is either historically verifiable or an April Fools joke. Most of these articles assume that the annual backtracking and revisiting of this question is the most mentally challenging thing a Christian does.
Today is Palm Sunday. Our gospel reading (John 12:12-16) is about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This story isn’t about belief as much as it is about disbelief. Those who recognize Jesus are ‘disbelievers’. The disbelief, the deliberate doubt that tracks this story is its sharpest edge. Forget the questions of what you believe for a moment. Here the question of what we ‘disbelieve’ is the hard part. Faithfulness in the way of Jesus requires doubting some prevalent myths. We don’t often pay attention to this. Jesus’ donkey-back ride, Descartes’ thought experiment too, suggest that we should.
Let me remind you of what is going on in this story we call the Triumphal Entry. At its core this is a story where an itinerant teacher, a rabbi, deliberately enacted the arrival of a conquering king. But instead of riding a war horse, our text says he rode in on a young donkey. Jesus was making a claim about his identity. He was implying that he had inherited the throne of David. He was coming to take charge, to exert influence, to put some new standards in place. But he makes this claim in ironic fashion. He arrives with the pomp of a conquering king, but he rides on a young donkey. It’s like having the CEO of a Fortune 500 company arrive at work in a worn-out VW Gulf. (That raises the question of whether or not Volkswagen’s actually wear out. Some doubt that they do.) We don’t get the statement Jesus was trying to make unless we realize that his claim to being a king is special.
One of the key things early Christians claimed was that Jesus was Lord. If you flip through the book of Acts, that history of the early church, you’ll see that description time and time again: “Lord Jesus” or “Jesus Christ the Lord,” or “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Our New Testament reading this morning was from the book of Philippians (2:5-11). This passage is what many scholars think was a hymn that predated the letter to the disciples in Philippi. It is one of the most ancient examples we have of what early Christians thought was true about Jesus. It ends with the confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” To say that is essentially the same thing as saying he was king. This is how Jesus is greeted in John 12.
Today we refer to lots of people as the “king” or “queen” of this or that. Someone is the “king of rock and roll,” someone else is the “king of pop,” still another is the “king of Queens,” or the “king of the hill,” an athlete is “king James.” In the time of Christ being king was an exclusive thing. The short way of putting this is to say that if Jesus was the king or the Lord then the emperor was not. Of Jesus was king than the local governor was not. If Jesus was king then the religious and cultural leaders were not.
All of this talk of kings and lords is probably strange for most of us. Real kings and queens in our world are mostly decorative hold-overs from an earlier time. They are kept around to fill the pages of the gossip columns. However, it’s this strangeness that I think we should lean into. Only strange things, only foreign things, have the power to really change our lives. Disruption requires, well, being disrupted.
This is not easy. If we are going to agree with the “great crowd” that John tells us about. If we are to be disrupted and live as though Jesus were our king, then we have got to do some serious disbelieving. That’s my claim this morning. Faithful discipleship requires disbelief and skepticism.
Holy Week is about demythologizing. It is about learning to doubt and disbelieve in order to be faithful disciples of Jesus. For early followers of Jesus it meant disbelieving their received religious traditions. It meant disbelieving their leading biblical interpreters. It meant disbelieving the people with the most cultural capital. It meant disbelieving in the claims to authority of the local Roman governor. It meant disbelieving in the claims Caesar. It meant disbelieving in the power of Rome. It meant disbelieving in things that looked as real as blood and steel. Disbelieving is hard work.
What does faithful disbelief look like for each us? As is so often the case, the specifics are something you have to work out for yourself. It probably starts with a prayer: “God, what are the myths that I am buying into? What have I been taught to be true that I need to learn to doubt? What claims to authority demand my Jesus-shaped skepticism?” Yes, this is an individual thing. But our scriptural readings today do suggest a pattern. The Christ hymn in Philippians shows us a trajectory for the Incarnate Wisdom of God. The myths that need doubting deviate from this trajectory. Consider these:
The myth that full satisfaction with life is possible and should be our prevailing goal.
The myth that leadership means enjoying the personal benefits of power.
The myth that what we have been given is primarily for our own enjoyment.
The two-headed myth that our bodies are either replaceable or of ultimate importance.
The myth that life is best lived as a competitive scramble to the top.
To be a Christian faithful to the way of Jesus is to disbelieve these things and many others. This is the difficult work of faith—disbelief.
The commonwealth Jesus leads is typified by the simple idea that the way up is down. That’s what we see in Philippians. Jesus gives up his rights. He gives up his status. He takes on the form the lowly. He follows the lead of the First Person of the Trinity. In Jesus the Incarnate Wisdom of God identifies with our plight: solidarity for the sake of reconciliation. On account of this God exalts him.
The King becomes the Servant, the Servant becomes the King.
That is the story in a line. On a week-to-week basis what is hardest is not always the beliefs. As often as not, what most difficult is the disbelieving.