Based on Acts 9:1-20, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19, Psalm 30
Most of you are aware that I lived much of my adult life as a hospital pharmacist caring for the critically ill and injured. In that profession, I needed to be constantly reading new research reports on medicines and treatments to better help the persons I served. You may know that published research must contain a detailed description of the research methods and the statistical tools used to analyze the results. Those statistical tools included probability scores and confidence intervals. Probability scores and confidence intervals help the researcher and the reader to understand how likely it was that the findings occurred due to the experiment rather than just by chance.
Research scientists and those of us who relied on the findings of their research to guide our treatment of fellow humans, had to be comfortable with a lack of certainty. Research always has an element of uncertainty about it, and no one should forget that any research result has built into it the possibility that it could be wrong. Prideful certainty in any one piece of research or any research method leads to errors in clinical practice that can do much harm – as has been seen multiple times over the years.
Prideful certainty also besets the Church, her teachings and a number of her followers. God through the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible and continues to inspire religious leaders and everyday disciples. God does not, however, give us absolute certainty that what we are doing is singularly correct or the only way to follow God – no matter what doctrine or theology we follow. The best we can do is to try and follow the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in the way that leads to abundant life.
Our scriptures this day lead us again and again to the transformation that comes from an inbreaking of the Holy Spirit. The Psalmist extols the power of God to heal an affliction and return the writer to health. The reading from Acts presents the power of God to turn a prideful certainty about the Laws of Moses, into a humble but powerful commitment to the Risen Jesus. John’s Revelation has the gathered congregation singing praises to the Risen Christ. Finally, we have John’s redemption story of Peter who went back to fishing because he was certain his betrayal of Jesus had ended his discipleship. Before we go farther, let us go to God in prayer that our prideful certainty can be transformed into deeper discipleship through God’s Almighty love…
The Psalmist and the writer of Revelation both sing the songs of praise to a God who is Almighty. The songs tell of the majesty and primacy of God and Son, who act through the Holy Spirit to bring wisdom, honor and glory to all who believe in them. The singers in Revelation are humble and bow down in supplication to the majesty of Father and Son, as does the Psalmist. The Psalmist sings, “…You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent….” Of God’s presence and power, all believers may be humbly certain.
The scriptures from John’s Gospel and from Acts tell of two men who were certain in what they were doing. Saul was absolutely convinced that the persecution of the followers of Jesus was what God dictated through the Law. He was zealous (by his own admission) in his pursuit and showed no mercy. Peter was at a loss for what to do now that Jesus was dead – so he went back to fishing. Both men met the resurrected Christ and those meetings redeemed them. Those meetings also transformed the way that they saw themselves and the way they lived the rest of their lives. The Risen Christ showed them what was possible when they humbly followed the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Both men ultimately set the stage for the explosive growth of Christianity throughout the world.
I was absolutely certain that being a clinical pharmacist practicing in intensive care was the place that I was going to be throughout my life. I loved the excitement and the pace, the challenge of figuring out new approaches to the care of critically ill and injured persons; being part of a multidisciplinary team, whose purpose was to do our best to beat death every time. Yet, after about 10 years of non-stop suffering, death and stress, I began to have my doubts that this approach was actually reducing suffering – and might in fact be adding to the burden of the illness or injury. My prideful certainty in my knowledge and ability began to erode. Afterall, no matter how hard I worked and how much I learned, people still suffered and died. Gradually, my prideful certainty was replaced by a humble question…is there another way to care for these wounded people?
Many believers, of all faith traditions, struggle with prideful certainty. After a while, many believers conclude that they know everything they need to know and that their beliefs are absolutely correct. This prideful certainty applies to the doctrine that they follow, how things ought to be done in the church, the preferred translation of the Bible, who they allow to worship and belong with them, what type of messages they want to hear from the pulpit, or how much they need to contribute in time and treasures to keep the church going. Anyone who questions their absolute certainties is in for an earful to say the least.
Church doctrines and structures are also imbued with a certain amount of prideful certainty. All of the doctrines began with some good ideas and maybe some new insights derived from the leading of the Holy Spirit. Over time, however, all doctrines, hierarchies and infrastructures become idols. Father Richard Rohr, a long-time Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer and teacher reflects on this aspect of prideful certainty. He writes, “…For most of Christianity’s history, we have seen the Gospel message taking on certain structural forms, which invariably reflected the culture and the period of history in which they began. Understandable, except that we became a cultural-belonging system more than a transformational system, a tradition that demanded perfect continuity of opinion, a juridical preoccupation with precedent – always troubled by any exceptions, the very ones that Jesus was comfortable with! Our own little definition of God had to be proven and defended, our groups were defined by various worship styles which became the only way to make God happy, and we almost always had an official leadership structure of experts–but their expertise did not necessarily come from having gone through a transformation process, rather precisely in defending all of the above….”
Well said, Father Richard! The take home message from all of this is that the Church and her people must undergo routine transformation by the Holy Spirit in order to continue to offer the gospel of Jesus to the world, rather than the gospel according to us. No religious tradition has captured the teachings of God with absolute certainty. If we are to live as Easter people, we must all undergo resurrection and redemption by the Risen Christ (like Peter and Paul) in order to have our prideful certainty replaced by the Almighty love of God. May God redeem us and save us from all our prideful certainties…Alleluia and amen!