“Abraham believed God.” Three simple words that make a world of difference. Much of our language about belief refers to “belief in.” A child might ask a playmate, “do you believe in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus?” Politicians tell us whether or not they believe in global warming? Scientists are sometimes asked, “don’t you believe in creation?” Even our baptismal covenant, shaped as it is by the words of the Apostles Creed asks us “Do you believe in God?” But in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, there is no IN --- the text does not say, “Abraham believed in God;” it says quite clearly, “Abraham believed God.” Three words – not four – and it makes a tremendous difference.
Brian McLaren, the featured video-speaker at last Tuesday’s Lenten program, published a book in 2004 with the best title ever: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian. And by the way, I recommend the book for much more than its title! In it, McLaren describes the Jesus of his childhood - Jesus calming the sea, Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus, Jesus talking to the woman at the well - familiar stories told by women in Sunday School classrooms whose only props were flannel boards and felt-backed cutouts of big boulders, a simple home, and familiar Bible characters. But then he writes,
“When I reached my teenage years, though, I lost that Jesus as one loses a friend in a crushing, noisy, rushing crowd. The crowd included arguments about evolution. . . arguments about the Vietnam War. . . arguments about ethical issues like civil rights and desegregation and a hundred other things. I wondered if women were really supposed to be submissive to men and if rock ‘n’ roll was really of the devil. Were Catholics really going to burn in hell forever unless they revised their beliefs and practices to be biblical like us?”
This story comes to my mind, I think, because it strikes me as the difference between “belief” and “belief in.” Our childhood faith seems more like that Abrahamic faith of simply believing God. End stop. Whereas, once we start thinking, our faith often gets mired in matters of the type of God we believe in. It becomes less about relationship and more about dogma and doctrine. It’s too bad really; because, at the end of the day, which is more compelling? Or more importantly, which is more fulfilling?
In Abram’s encounter with God which we heard in this morning’s Old Testament reading begins with an invitation and a promise:
“'Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' So Abram went.”
Abram didn’t stop to ask, “what kind of God are you?” Abram simply believed – Abram accepted the relationship and found himself blessed.
We can avoid many of the pitfalls of believing IN by simply believing God. When we believe in we engage in all kinds of divisive debates about the nature of God . . . the nature of humanity. . . creedal statements [riffed here, sorry readers] . . . when we believe, we are blessed --- by abundance, by grace, by love, by promise, by hope . . . by a future that is secure. So that when St. Mark's celebrates its 300th anniversary, may they write of us, "and they believed God."