Worship for Sunday, May 30, 2021

Learning Time: “The God Formula”

The big excitement in Kingsville these days is that we now have a Dairy Queen. I have cycled by it a few times, and there is always a long line of vehicles making its way through the drive-thru line.

Can you remember life before McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s, and Dairy Queen, and all the other franchises? I can’t, but I have heard stories about a time when all restaurants and coffee shops were not the same! Can you imagine?

Years ago I worked at a church in a neighbourhood called Applewood Acres, in Mississauga. One of their claims to fame was that a man named Harlan Sanders lived in the neighbourhood, at least in the spring and summer time, and when he was in town, came to their church. There are pictures of him, in his distinctive white cotton suit, sitting in his favourite pew, with his wife. They were active and committed Christians, having been baptized in the Jordan River in Israel. They were also friends with Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  

I wonder what he brought to their church potluck suppers. Harlan Sanders was the founder of Fried Chicken. When he came up with the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices that made his chicken special, he was also breaking ground in the business world. The genius of what he did was to take a food item that was already popular, and common in the Southern U.S. States, and attach his name and flavour to it. If you wanted to sell the Kentucky Fried Chicken, you had to buy the essential ingredients from him. The person with the secret formula held a lot of power.

As Americans after World War 2 became increasingly mobile, and their interstate highways made travel that much easier, it was not long before it was possible to taste the same fried chicken wherever you went. Was this a good thing? People seemed to think so. It was certainly good for the Colonel, who had a piece of every bucket of chicken. He may not have invented the fast food franchise, but he certainly did well by it.

In the 4th Century after the time of Jesus, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Constantine, was establishing a different kind of franchise. He made Christianity the official religion. He built churches and cathedrals all over the empire, and formalized a hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops based on the command structure of his armies.

The Romans had used religion as a unifying force in their expanding territories for hundreds of years. Whenever they conquered a new land, they would allow the people to keep their local religions and customs, as long as they agreed to worship the Emperor as a god, and make room in their towns, and in their temples, for statues of the Roman gods.

What Constantine did was to take the fastest growing religion in his empire, Christianity, and make it the officially sanctioned faith. To control it, he had to get his hands on the secret formula that made Christianity work- the religious version of the herbs and spices.

Constantine sponsored what later became known as the Council of Nicaea, which brought together the bishops and archbishops, and other key figures in the church. Their job was to sort out the official formula about God.

In the first few hundred years after Jesus’ earthly life, there were a number of competing ways to think about Jesus, and God. Some Christians believed that Jesus did not die on the cross, that he was rescued by his disciples, and went on to live a long life.

Some Christians believed that Jesus was as human as you or I, and that his significance was not in being divine, but in being a person who was so connected to God that he helped others trust that God was real.

Some Christians believed that Jesus really was God made Flesh in the world, but that he could not have died on the cross, because God is eternal and immortal, and nothing humans could do should be able to change that.

Some Christians believed that Jesus existed before the world was made, and was there when all things came into being. In this view, Jesus really is God, but not the Creator. So did that mean that we have two Gods: God the Creator, and Jesus who came to be our Saviour?

It sounds odd to our ears, that Christians in the Ancient World were talking about having more than one god. But they lived in an environment where there were lots of other religions, and most of these religions had more than one god.

This was the problem that Constantine and his religious leaders faced. They needed to find a way to talk about God and Jesus that made Christianity palatable to the people of the Empire, who were used to whole teams of gods, but they also needed to maintain the basic belief that came from Christianity’s Jewish roots, that there actually is only one God, and all others are false idols.

The church leaders bought into this agenda for their own reasons, but Constantine’s agenda was also obvious. He wanted to use Christianity,with its message of only one God, to unify the whole Roman Empire. Religion was then, and remains, a powerful force with which to exert political control.

Trinity Sunday is the church’s occasion to celebrate the work of the Council of Nicaea, and subsequent councils, at which the official description of God was hammered out. The idea is that there is only one God, and God has what the theologians called three “persona”, which we translate as “persons”. I think we might understand the term “identities” easier. The three identities of God are God the Father, or Creator, God the Son, or Saviour, and God the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Comforter.

It was decided that Jesus was, and is, at the same time, completely human, and also completely God. Whatever you think of these ideas, they had a powerful effect on Christians of that time, and for centuries after. Once there was an official formula for talking about God, this formula became the measure by which all religious ideas were judged.

The hierarchy of the church developed a central authority- like the generals in an army. They had the backing of the Emperor, and they used the power of the Empire to wipe out any competition. Any priest, or bishop, or local church that had different ways of talking about God, or Jesus, were declared to be heretics. They were removed from the church, and could be jailed or killed unless they agreed to follow the official teachings. Whole libraries of books were burned, and lost forever, because they did not conform.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. That was also true for theology- for the official ideas about God. Constantine had the winning team, and the losers were called heretics.

The local congregations, and priests, and bishops that survived, were those that used the secret recipe from headquarters. Local variations on the recipe were not allowed. Before long, the same religious food was being cooked up all over the empire.

Was this a good thing? There are arguments to be made either way. The argument in favour is that Christianity needed a unified voice in order to be heard above the voices of the competition- all the other religions of the ancient world. The argument against is that a lot was lost when the local traditions and ideas and ways of expression were wiped out. Perhaps the greatest loss was a loss of confidence, that ordinary people in their own home towns and villages could have something to contribute to an ongoing conversation about the God we are all seeking. There is nothing so powerful as claiming to have all the answers, if you want to stop people from looking at the questions in their own way.

My personal view is that everything we say about God is poetry, not an exact science. Poetry thrives on mystery, and science is frustrated when it can’t answer all the questions. It is shameful that people were persecuted and sometimes killed because their words for God were different. I am convinced that living a faithful life, and building a connection to God, and being able to pray do not depend upon getting the words right. I also suspect that the effort to get the words right was basically a head exercise, and that in its reliance on the intellect, missed out on other ways of knowing God.

God gave us our minds, and our hearts, and our souls, and our full range of senses, and we can use these to become more aware of the ways of God.

Our experience of, and the impact of God, of the holy on our lives, is not easily boxed in by words. Once, when our youngest, Joel and I were out for a walk- Joel might have been 5 at the time, I noticed on the path ahead of us the amazing sky blue of a robin’s egg. I was about to point it out, but stopped myself as we got closer, and I saw that within the broken halves of the egg there was the tiny dark form of a partially formed bird, shiny and wet, and being devoured by insects.

In that moment when I realized what I was seeing, I experienced a powerful lesson about the beauty and brutality of creation- a lesson that I am still not able to put into words. There was life and death, beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings all painted into the scene.

What I saw spoke to my mind, certainly, but also to my heart, and in ways that touched my soul, that I can return to, just by remembering, and re-imagining the scene. I learned, and am learning, something deeper about God, and creation, that does not easily distill down to a few words.

Here is what I think about knowing God: Don’t let anyone’s words about God get in the way. Let the ideas about God be clues in your search, but don’t let anyone convince you that the ideas themselves are perfect, and should be worshipped. Save that for God. Amen