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What Is It That You Believe?

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Easter 6 A    John 14:15-21

If someone who knew absolutely nothing about Christianity, the Bible or the life and practices of the church were to ask you what it is that you believe about God, what would you say? Would the words come easily, or is it more likely that the question itself would simply make you too nervous and anxious to say anything at all, so that you would just stand mute or perhaps just pretend that you didn’t hear the question!

Think about it: What if someone who genuinely wanted to know and understand asked you what you believe about God, and what God does and doesn’t do in your life and world, and how that faith helps you find purpose and meaning in your life and work? What if simply saying  “I’m a Christian,” or “I’m a Lutheran” wouldn’t be a helpful answer at all because the person asking didn’t know enough about what either of those labels or other standard religious language meant? What would you say?

In my previous congregation in New Jersey, a young adult woman started attending our Sunday worship. She came every week. She sat in, quietly, at our Adult Sunday School sessions. She participated in the congregation’s servant activities in the wider community. She seemed at ease and friendly among people who were mostly well beyond her age.

So as a Pastor does when he or she notices this happening, I asked her if she was interested in joining the congregation.  She looked puzzled, asked me what that meant and how it would happen. And as we talked, I realized how little of the formal and official church stuff she knew. She hadn’t been raised in a church or in any religious tradition at all, and she hadn’t even really either noticed or read or experienced much about any of them. She not only hadn’t been baptized. She didn’t know what baptism was or why we did it, much less what we believed about it.

But she wanted to know. She liked what she saw and experienced and felt when she was with us and genuinely wanted to know more about it.  She was interested in joining, so she wanted to know how much of that explaining and churchly understanding needed to happen before she joined or whether some of it could happen afterward?

I don’t remember exactly, and it probably wasn’t the best pastoral response, but I’m sure that I must have said “Really?” at least a half dozen times in that conversation. “Really? You don’t know any Bible stories? Adam and Eve? Noah’s Ark? Really? Nothing at all about Jesus? The parable of the Good Samaritan? Holy Week? Really? Baptism Communion Hymns Prayer? Really?”

I honestly wasn’t trying to make her feel stupid for not knowing any of that. I was simply surprised that she could get to her late 20’s in that American suburban culture and not have run across any of it.  Thankfully, she wasn’t embarrassed, or offended, or discouraged by my reaction. She simply wanted to know how to begin to catch up, and catch on and find out. And since it didn’t make sense to me to simply hand her a Bible and tell her to start reading, I instead agreed to meet regularly and simply let her ask questions as they came up from her Sunday and weekday participation, and try my best to answer them using plain and unchurchy language. And along with remembering how hard that was to do, I mostly remember how much fun it was. Instead of me telling her what she needed to know, she just asked me about what she wanted to know.

So what if simply saying  “I’m a Christian,” or “I’m a Lutheran” wasn’t a helpful answer for someone who asked you what you believe about God, and what your God does and doesn’t do in your life and world? What would you say?

As the Apostle Paul traveled around the ancient Mediterranean region, spreading the gospel of Jesus to new and different cultures and peoples, he always went first to the local synagogue. He always began by speaking to people who would at least know the stories and faith and share the hopes of Judaism. Like Peter, whose preaching we’ve been hearing in our first readings all Easter season, Paul mostly preached Christ crucified and risen as the Messiah of Israel, Son of David; the one foretold by prophets, the incarnation of the same God who had first revealed himself to Abraham and Moses.

Paul also did this when he came to Athens, but when he wandered outside the synagogue, and was invited to speak at a place where discussion and debates about a wide variety of religious beliefs and ideas were common, none of those biblical characters and images and titles and expectations would make any sense to his non-Jewish, Greek audience.  Paul had to find different language and images to explain his belief in God and new ways to help people see that this God wasn’t just his truth or his religion, but holy truth for and about them and their world as well.

So Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, as we heard it in our first reading today, doesn’t use the word Messiah, or mention sin and forgiveness or name any biblical character at all. Paul doesn’t even use the name Jesus or call him Savior! He speaks instead about a God who is creator of everything that is. He says that God made us  humans with a hunger for God, a hunger that causes us to grope for and try to find God.  The good news he shares is that this God we all are programmed to seek and hunger for is not far off but very near: even eager to be near. And instead of using Bible verses to back up that claim, he quotes one of their Greek poets who said “In him we live and move and have our being.” Then, again without naming Jesus, Paul tells them that God has fixed a day of righteous judgment, which will be delivered by a chosen man, someone God selected to satisfy that hunger: a plan God confirmed by raising him from the dead.

Now, if you read on to the verse beyond today’s reading, you’ll see that unlike earlier Easter sermons in Acts, this one didn’t result in thousands of converts, but it did stir enough interest and curiosity that people wanted to hear more from Paul, especially about this strange idea of a god not carved in stone but come in human form, and though crucified, victorious in resurrection. .....But there I go…. using more churchy words than Paul himself used to explain what he meant.

I don’t remember exactly how many weekly conversations I had with that young woman, but it wasn’t too much later that she was baptized on a Sunday morning: the first and most joyous adult baptism that congregation had seen in years. And as we will with Margot today, we used words that call up the memory about how God saved Noah and his family and all the animals through the waters of the flood, assuming that we all knew the details of that story. As we will today, we called up the memory of Moses leading God’s people through the Red Sea from slavery to freedom, and we remembered Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. We mentioned all of that treasured history of God’s steadfastly loving and constantly saving work so that we could see more clearly what God was doing there and then for that young woman, just as we soon will do the same and trust God to do just the same for Margot and for us.

But what if none of us knew those stories? What if none of us saw those holy, watery, links between this sacrament and that precious understanding of a God near by and fully engaged in this human drama through all of history, filling all of our hungers for the holy, a God who loves us to a cross, who chooses us, saves us, dies for us and rises again to lead us from our birth to our death and who feeds us the faith we need on every step of that journey from death to life. What if all we saw here was a big bowl of water, and only heard some unintelligible incantations by an oddball holy man who wets a baby’s head, smears some oil on her forehead and then palms her head like a basketball while muttering some kind of wishful prayer over her. What sense would any of that make to us if we didn’t know the stories, the rich images and promises, and make the holy connections?

That young woman wasn’t among us very long before life moved her away to someplace else. I wish that I could report that her baptism re-focused and re-directed her entire life from that point on. Maybe it did. I hope it did, but I honestly don’t know. All these years later, I don’t even remember her name. But I do remember the struggle to speak to her about God and what I believed about God and me and God and her without relying on all the history and people and stories that so richly help, inform and deepen and ground me in Christian faith. It was hard, but it was a joy, and it was certainly worth the effort.

I recommend that you try it yourself, even if just as an exercise of what you might say if ever you found yourself in such a situation.  The odds, of course, are that if you haven’t already, you will soon, because more and more of your neighbors are like that young woman, growing up without hearing, much less internalizing any of those ancient stories that still echo so resoundingly within these walls. Outside is the Areopogus of modern American life, filled with many objects of worship and even some unknown gods, and many, many people who know little if anything at all about the one you worship here: the God who never leaves you orphaned but comes to you; the God who not only comes but stays - abides with you and is in you; the God who not only planted a holy hunger in you but continuously works to fill it, the God who loves you and reveals himself to you by linking things like water and bread and wine to remembrances of mercy and grace long ago, and thereby does mercy and bestows grace upon people today.

So think about it: If someone who knew absolutely nothing about Christianity, the Bible or the life and practices of the church were to ask you what it is that you believe about God, how your hunger for God gets filled, and how you manage to live close to that God, and how that faith fills you with purpose and meaning in your life and work, and peace in your heart, and hope even on the darkest of days,

…..what would you say?    AMEN