Some of you, my very astute listeners, have already noticed something possibly incongruous about the title of today’s sermon, “Do Heretics Go to Heaven?”. Indeed, to deny heaven in some circles is to invite being named a heretic more or less instantaneously. Besides all of that, practically, if there is no heaven, how can anyone go there, heretical or solidly orthodox? Clearly, as the Pharisees tried to trip up Jesus and others, so also did the person who gave me today’s sermon try to trip me up. Let’s see how well my mitt gloves this curve ball.
If there is a heaven, I can name you a few people regarded as heretics in this world who certainly made it to the next world, the land that is fairer than day, shall we say. Priscillian, Marcion, Arius, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Felix Manz, Galileo, Jan Hus, Anne Hutchinson, Father Ned Reidy, Father Tissa Balasuriya, Will D. Campbell, and by the way, Jesus.
Wade in the water here with me. Let’s work on the key word, “heresy,” a bit. There’s a difference between “blasphemy,” “heresy,” and “sacrilege.”
“Blasphemy” is any one of several types of utterance that defame God or what has been attributed to God in terms of teachings; blasphemy is the height of irreverence. “Sacrilege” is any abusive word or act directed toward a sacred practice or object. “Heresy” is the rational rejection of a belief that has been formalized as necessary within a given religious system; the opposite of heresy is orthodoxy. The Vatican at this very moment as far as I know defines “heresy” as “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth that must be believed with divine or catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.”
Defenders of orthodoxy throughout the history of the Jesus Movement seem to have had a great deal in common. We see this in their responses to those whom they, by personal assessment, regarded as heretics or those who have already been officially condemned heretics by some voting body.
In order to be a full heretic somebody has to vote you into to the heretics club. You can’t wake up one day and just say, “I’m a heretic.” I realize that bit of news is extraordinarily disappointing for some of you, but I’m not just whistling Dixie when I say one of these days we are going to have an election here at Silverside Church so that all those who desire to be known officially as heretics may purchase their t-shirts.
Defenders of orthodoxy, according to a pattern I see, have initially wanted to humiliate the person whom they thought was unorthodox. This typically centered in some kind of ecclesiastical court where the person accused of orthodoxy is forced to stand trial. In Roman Catholic tradition, heresy trials can be convened at the Vatican or in a diocesan court. Second, defenders of orthodoxy have they wanted to banish if possible that person considered unorthodox. Finally, they were eager to kill the person whom they are utterly convinced has the wrong set of beliefs.
In my reading this week I stumbled across somebody who referred to a faith based solely on correct beliefs as a cognitive Christian. That has stuck with me and not in a comfortable way. Cognitive Christianity, thinking the right things. Of course, there’s always the assumption that if you believe the right things you will act in the proper manner, but that is not the case at all. So people have lost their lives all through the history of the Jesus Movement for a number of reasons the most stunning being that they didn’t believe the right thing or things according to whomever happened to be in power at a given moment in time. Yet, how is it possible to know exactly what someone believes or doesn’t believe; some people can articulate what they believe while others simply can’t.
There have been those in the history of the Jesus Movement whose full-time jobs have been to hunt heretics. Adam Ellis wrote:
Whenever I see heresy hunts, I ask myself whose behavior this resembles in the Gospels. It isn’t Jesus. It’s the people who crucified him. Character is a powerful apologetic. Always ask yourself who displays the most Jesus-like character in these situations. If that suggestion bothers you, ask yourself why.
At the turn of the fourth century, an Egyptian priest named Arius gave the Catholic church its first major heretical challenge. He wasn’t the first heretic, but the first widely known heretic. Arius taught that Jesus was not truly equal to God. That view was diametrically opposed to church doctrine regarding trinitarianism, which insists that God is a single entity though existing simultaneously as Creator, as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit. At the first Council of Nicea in 325 CE, which was attended by more than 300 of the early church fathers, Arius’ teachings were condemned, and he was declared a heretic. His punishment was excommunication.
In 1431, Joan of Arc, who posing as a man had led France to military victory against the English, was convicted of heresy and sorcery for added fun and condemnation. Her punishment was death by burning at the stake. Here’s one for the books. She was “unhereticalized” and canonized in 1920.
One of the best-known heresy trials in history was Galileo’s in 1633. The church found Galileo guilty of heresy for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun; he was forced to recant those views. Galileo was ordered imprisoned anyway; his sentence was later commuted to house arrest for life, but the ban against publishing his writings was not lifted.
Father Ned Reidy left the Roman Catholic Church in 1999 in order to join a tiny offshoot group from the Roman Catholic Church. The Ecumenical Catholic Communion differs with the Vatican over several fundamental doctrines. He’s not running around Catholic bashing; he simply says matter of factly that he needed an alternative and so do who knows how many others. His group believes that women should be ordained and equal to men at all levels of church leadership. They believe that married men who feel called to the priesthood after they have married shouldn’t be excluded from ordination. (This has gone on for a while when the Church was in a pinch and desperately needed clergy.)
Not surprisingly, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino insists that Father Reidy is a heretic and has, thereby, disqualified himself from the priesthood. The diocese says that Reidy “made promises to his religious community and vows at his ordination, which he publicly broke…with the establishment of another denomination.” For more fun, Reidy was also charged with schism, a failure to submit to papal authority.
Reidy never denied any of the accusations; in fact, he didn’t even attend his own heresy trial! He says that neither the diocese nor the Vatican have jurisdiction over him. He can live with having been defrocked and excommunicated.
The last official heresy trial conducted by the Vatican itself, as opposed to one carried out by a diocese, was in 1997 when the Church excommunicated a 72 year old Sri Lankan priest, Father
Tissa Balasuriya. He had written a book that angered the Vatican; it was a little book titled Mary and Human Liberation, which sold a whopping total of 600 copies. Father Balasuriya is also a sociologist, and his book was the final installment in a trilogy, the other two titles being Jesus and Human Liberation along with The Eucharist and Human Liberation. He argues in this series that Roman Catholic dogma must adjust itself to the social and cultural realities of Asia. Even many insiders were shocked with the severity of his punishment. Ah, but I have a happy ending for you. He was eventually reunited with the church.
In Roman Catholicism there is a very specific set of have-to-believe doctrinal requirements, and not to affirm them is to be accused of heresy, which also is a rather formal process to which I’ve alluded. In Protestantism, there are some in-charge bodies that function nearly like Roman Catholics in terms of designating heretics or accusing heretics I should say. But in the free church tradition where creeds generally are not affirmed or desired there’s a general expectation that you are orthodox if you “believe the Bible.”
Some of you may know the musical challenge to Huck Finn by many of the adults in his life from the musical, “Big River”:
Looka here Huck, do you wanna go to heaven? Do you wanna go to heaven? Well I’ll tell you right now. You better learn to read and you better learn your writin’, Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won’t know how!
Hey, hey ain’t the situation concernin’ education aggravatin’ and how!
You may think that the whole thing is silly; But it ain’t silly really, and I’ll tell you right now If you don’t learn to read then you can’t read your Bible. And you’ll never get to heaven cause you won’t know how.
Looka here, Huck, now you better think it over. Do ya wanna be a loafer like your pappy is now? You better learn to read, and you better know your writin’; Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won’t know how.
Hey, hey do ya wanna go to heaven? Do ya wanna go to heaven If you don’t go to hell?
(lyrics by Roger Miller)
Now, as YOU all know, there’s no one way to believe the Bible. In fact to make a blanket statement saying, “I believe the whole Bible,” is to demonstrate your lack of familiarity with the teachings of the Bible as a whole even taking their historic and literary contexts into account.
So in Romans chapter 13 the Apostle Paul makes the bold and audacious claim that because God has put all political leaders into positions of power; therefore, anybody who is not one of those political leaders is subject to the authority of those leaders. In the context of our country that would mean God chooses our presidents and other elected leaders. (So does that mean elections are going through the motions?) By the same logic, the absolute tyrants are in power because God has so willed this. Again in our context to be subject to the political leader is to obey the laws that she or he has taken an oath to uphold. Therefore acting against one of those laws or failing to keep the law is clearly not be believing the Bible.
My friend, Will Campbell, died this week as I shared with you in an eblast. If you paid any attention to the news this week you know Will was a famous person in many circles though he never acted as if he were of any higher up social status ladder than the down and outs or the barely getting bys. Though reared in Baptist tradition and educated at Wake Forest College before it was University and before it began to let go of much of its Baptists affiliation, Will went on to study at Yale Divinity School, and somewhere along the way he earned a degree in philosophy from Tulane University.
He was an ordained Baptist minister. I don’t know the circumstances of his ordination. I never heard him speak about that.
He embraced me as a friend during my years as pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Because he had a number friends in the church Will visited frequently, and in those visits I came to know an amazingly Jesus-like person minus every possible modicum of traditional piety.
Will is on my list of favorite heretics because he did not believe Romans chapter 13. (Also if the Bible forbade the use of strong drink, which might or might not be the case, he completely ignored that!) He did not believe that every law of the land was of God and was deserving of being obeyed. For example, he believed that the Vietnam War was not a just war; therefore, he smuggled conscientious objectors into Canada. You may not affirm what he did in that regard, but that was Will. He knew he was violating Romans chapter 13, and he knew he was violating any law that forbade that kind of activity.
Will do not believe in limiting the rights of any human being for any reason–for example, because of the color of her or his skin. Therefore, interracial couples from all over the South who wanted to get married often found their way to Will’s and Brenda’s home out in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, not far from Nashville, where Brother Will with his pastoral persona at work would perform weddings for those couples at a time when few others would.
If you read my blast you know that USA Today called him a “giant” in the civil rights movement and that Will was the only white guy present when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is formed with Dr. King and Dr. Kelly Miller Smith and others. Will was in Memphis when Dr. King was assassinated, and he was with the inner circle of King supporters after the assassination in that room at the Lorraine Motel a couple of hours after the shooting. There’s a photograph of that scene with Ralph Abernathy and Will comforting each other.
Not a whole lot of people did as much good for the down and outs, the excluded, the underdog as Will did. He inspired me heretic that he was. If there is a heaven, and as you know I I think there is, Will Campbell is there today. And I suspect when he arrived Monday night he was not greeted by St. Peter as many have speculated who the greeter at the pearly gates is, but rather by Dr. King.
Jesus was a heretic. This is to say that the established religious order in which he found himself, Judaism, had teachings in it with which Jesus did not agree–at least not in a way that would permit the keeping of law in some literalistic fashion. The Romans would never have agreed to put a Jewish person to death because of some religious differences he had with a fraction of other Jews, and please don’t believe that all the Jews were running around trying to get the Romans to kill Jesus. There was a little handful of people, 15 to 20 or something to that effect. The people that did want Jesus dead because he brought a new and fresh interpretation to the ancient holy writ said you can’t bring anything new into the traditional teaching; it was always interpreted the ancient way, and it must always be interpreted that way in the future .
Jesus had to live with his conscience though. He knew in his heart that, while the principles behind the ancient religious laws may well have been good ones, they couldn’t, without updated restatements and applications, be meaningful to new generations. Jesus had no other goal than to draw people closer into the reality of God. So when Jesus would say something like, “You have heard it said of old that you must not commit adultery, but I say unto you if you look at someone with lust in your heart then you’ve already committed adultery,” he made the fundamentalists go nuts.
Obviously there’s a difference between lust and actually carrying through with adulterous acts. But to make his point, Jesus goes to the extreme, which was very typical for Jesus. Still, the carrying through part begins when you allow yourself mentally to cross the boundaries, when you allow yourself mentally to see yourself in a position of participating in the violation of commitments that you and/or the person with whom you cheat have made. Jesus way is harder to keep more demanding than the literalistic way. Jesus was accused of heresy by this little group of Jews, and they wanted him dead as a result.
It’s amazing throughout the history of the Jesus Movement how many people have believed that so-called heretics can only be justly dealt with if they are dead; in other words, there should be no such thing as a breathing heretic. She or he should already be dead–and killed of course in the name of God. Even so, if Jesus were a heretic, may I dare to be such a heretic too. Amen.