Apologetics in a Box

While we are locked down for pandemic safety, Knox has Podcast Services. For those who can’t access these we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my sermon notes into text.

Apologetics In a Box

Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12

I should explain something about my sermon title. “Apologetics” has nothing to do with saying “sorry”. It is a theological discipline in which someone argues in a systematic way to defend particular theological beliefs or positions. Lori graduated a year ahead of me and her Knox diploma specifically lists “Apologetics” as one of the areas she has been trained in. For my year, they had replaced that list with a boring and generic statement of “theological competency”.

Probably one reason was that the courses in Apologetics had all been replaced with courses in Systematic Theology some years previously. We were not supposed to defend established doctrine. We were trained to examine it, discuss it in a systematic and meaningful way

and also to challenge it, to consider alternatives as we examined our faith in new and critical ways.

Every year on this Epiphany Sunday we are faced with the story of the Magi and the challenge they presented to established Jewish doctrine 2000 years ago.

Matthew cared about this as a Jewish Christian who was dealing with the fact that a lot of Gentiles were embracing the teachings of Jesus but they were coming in without a Jewish background. Not only did they have no claim as children of Abraham, but they didn’t follow the laws of Moses. In fact, the laws of Moses didn’t apply to them at all.

Matthew knew that the Nations were supposed to come to the light

as Isaiah had said so poetically in our first lesson; but what did that mean?

Would they have to convert? Would they have to be circumcised and embrace Judaism? This had been a hot topic some years before this gospel was written, with Peter and John demanding that Gentiles be circumcised and Paul arguing against. Paul’s view won out but Peter had to have a vision to be persuaded.

All of this represented a new relationship between Jews and Gentiles within Christianity and even by the time of Matthew’s gospel, decades after Paul’s letters were written, things were still being worked out.

That’s why the Magi were so important. They were actually priests of another religion who came to honour Jesus. They didn’t convert but they did demonstrate clearly that God was prepared to grant them visions and work through their Astrological practices which were banned by the laws of Moses.

For anyone who wanted to defend the traditional beliefs of Judaism

this would have been appalling. Their Apologetics would have had limited room for this: obviously God can do anything, and God could choose to speak to these Magi, but it challenged the theology that established a special covenant with Israel.

Christianity handled this by talking about a new covenant; one established through Jesus. So, Christianity established a new Apologetic, a new systematic theology of how God was working with people and it set out to defend this understanding, especially against new teachings from unfamiliar people.

This grew over the centuries and became quite rigid. It didn’t even always leave room for the variations on Christianity that went back to the earliest days as we can see from the many holy wars that litter our history.

This is a point I’ve made recently. This open-minded approach from Biblical days which people always found hard to embrace was replaced with a rigid way of thinking and replaced again during the Reformation and now it is all being challenged again.

As we work through this, there are things to consider:

While specific teachings and many broad attitudes are justly being challenged and need to be re-examined, I don’t believe we should abandon our Christianity. It is good to know who we are and where we come from; it is important to have a sense of what we believe and an even clearer sense of the underlying principles, the foundations of Jesus’ teachings.

As we encounter others we should expect that their own experiences and ways will shape their response to the faith we present. If they are so impressed by the faith we live out that they do decide to follow the teachings of Jesus, they may do so in a way we find hard to recognize. That doesn’t make it wrong; we don’t have the right to simply denounce it or call it heresy.

The traditional word “conversion” may not apply at all or it may look nothing like what we were taught in the past.

At the same time, as we live through this very open time of spirituality, where people have been looking for answers in other traditions since the 1960s, we should not uncritically adopt what others teach. Each faith tradition has its own roots and teachings, sometimes its own version of orthodoxy, and embracing selected spiritual teachings from a variety of backgrounds is disrespectful of those roots or faiths.

Drew Hayden Taylor had an article in Thursday’s Globe & Mail where he takes a funny and serious look at the many non-indigenous people

who suddenly claim to be followers of indigenous ways, not always recognizing the diversity of indigenous beliefs, the different faith structures of different nations. He roundly denounces the idea that there is a pan-indigenous belief system.

He particularly comments on those who falsely claim to be indigenous:

he calls them “Pretendians” and speculates on why anyone would want to do this. This is a hot topic right now. He makes it clear that imitation is NOT the sincerest form of flattery; it is cultural appropriation and being well-intentioned doesn’t make it any less offensive.

Jesus’ family didn’t suddenly adopt the teachings of the Magi. Mary did listen carefully and remembered what they said about their journey, but she continued to follow the Jewish teachings that she had learned growing up.

Back when Lori and I were in Chatham, we had a lot of contact with a pair of traditional spiritual leaders from Walpole Island. One of the things they expressed was their own sense of mission. Their understanding was that what First Nations people had to offer the rest of society was a deep spirituality and connection to Creation.

That may indeed be something we need to learn. We can do so, respectfully, by hearing their teachings and allowing them to inform how we read our own scriptures and interpret our own stories. We cannot simply try to make their stories or beliefs our own.

An indigenous friend told me about a white United Church minister

serving an indigenous congregation. He really wanted to be given an “Indian name”, so they gave him a name that means “Squawking Parrot”. And why not? His wish hadn’t been respectful of that community or their traditions.

Christianity has a long history of rigid teachings that we have imposed on others and we have learned how this is disrespectful to others and to important parts of our own faith.

But as we reach out to others, determined to do things differently now,

we will do well to remember when our faith met the Magi: they had things to share; they taught us unexpected lessons about God’s openness; but they didn’t expect, or want us, to start interpreting star charts with them.

If we can remember to be respectful of the diverse people we meet: the people with whom we hope to reconcile; the people who simply believe something unfamiliar to us; if we remember to treat them all respectfully, then we will have a good way into the future; a way that can shape us into better versions of who we already are and bring new insight and inspiration to the faith we already have.

Amen.

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