*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, October 21, 2012.
John Updike's novel In the Beauty of the Lilies tells the story of Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister during the early twentieth century. While reading Robert Ingersoll's book Some Mistakes of Moses in order to refute its atheism for a troubled parishioner, the good pastor watches his own faith slip away. He becomes convinced that Ingersoll is right, that "the God of the Pentateuch was an absurd bully, barbarically thundering through the cosmos entirely misconceived. There is no such God, nor should there be." Wilmot confesses his loss of faith to his wife:
“My faith, my dear, seems to have fled. I not only no longer believe with an ideal fervor, I consciously disbelieve. My very voice rebelled, today, against my attempting to put some sort of good face on a doctrine that I intellectually detest. Ingersoll, Hume, Darwin, Renan, Nietzsche—it all rings true, when you’ve read enough to have it sink in; they have not just reason on their side but simple humanity and decency as well. Jehovah and his pet Israelites, that bloody tit-for-tat of the Atonement, the whole business of condemning poor fallible men and women to eternal Hell for a few mistakes in their little lifetimes, the notion in any case that our spirits can survive without eyes or brains or nerves—Stel, it’s been a fearful struggle, I’ve twisted my mind in loops to hold on to some sense in which these things are true enough to preach, but I’ve got to let go or go crazy. I love you for feeling otherwise, and would never argue a man or child out of whatever they believe, but to me it’s all become relics, things left over from our childish nightmares, when there’s daylight now all around us—this is the twentieth century! I can’t keep selling myself and others the opposite of what jumps out at me from every newspaper and physical fact I see. The universe is a hundred percent matter, with the energy that comes in waves out of matter, and poor old humankind is on its own and always has been.”
When Wilmot seeks to resign his ministry, he is accused of selfishness by his wife and told by the moderator of his presbytery to remain in the ministry despite his doubts. But, Reverend Wilmot wants to be true to himself and his unbelief.
The novel traces four generations of the Wilmot family in and out of faith. Updike's characters remind us that some followers, in all honesty, turn away from their faith, while others choose, in all honesty, to remain believers.
Sometimes I’ve wondered why some people turn away from their faith. I have not always understood how at one moment in life someone can live in faith and another moment try to live without it. I have wondered how a person can begin to follow Christ, then later just stop following. Well, it happened one day after Jesus told a crowd of his followers that they must munch on his body and slurp down his blood. Did they take his words literally and think Jesus was calling them to become zombies for Jesus or cannibals for Christ? The dispute that ensued sounds like a much later church conflict over whether or not the bread and the cup of the Eucharist are the real body and blood of Christ. We know that the Romans, who heard of the early Christians practice of eating Christ body and blood, accused them of cannibalism! What Jesus meant by saying that his disciples must eat his body and drink his blood was probably about the necessity of consuming his teachings and feeding on his life to have life withinthem. But, some took his very graphic language to be a bit too much for them, particularly for Jews who avoided rare steak, let alone consuming blood.
Or those who heard this hard saying of Jesus very well may have clearly understood him. Maybe they realized that it meant to radically follow Jesus. It meant consuming and being consumed by Jesus. It meant daily taking upon oneself the identity of being a follower of Jesus, even when things got rough, even when there was a cross down the road, even when it meant becoming part of his peculiar people, and even when it meant standing out within their own Jewish culture. It’s interesting to note that after Jesus’ hard saying about his body and blood there is a statement about one who did not believe and would betray Jesus at the Last Supper. Mention is also made in the context of this saying about Jesus’brothers, who didn’t believe in him. Those are the hard realities.
I’m afraid that we in the church today often want to soft pedal or alter Jesus’ hard sayings, rather than understand them and their deeper implications for our lives. I’m afraid the church is in the business of domesticating Jesus and taming the gospel. We want to make them more comfortable through our compromises. We find ourselves in the company of some earlier disciples who said, “Jesus, your teaching about eating your body and blood is just too harsh. And if it means that we must consume your life, then that’s going too far. It offends my sensibilities and my family members. You aren’t looking to drive away potential followers are you? Couldn’t you say something a bit more palatable and that doesn’t cause people to have to decide for or against you.”
We don’t like Jesus hard words. We don’t like it when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Carrying my own form of execution? That sounds too harsh. Can’t our relationship be more casual? We don’t like it when Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Youcan’t mean Muslims! That’s going way too far, Jesus. Does this mean I have to stop supporting any and every war? We don’t like it when Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. If you don’t hate your own family, for my sake, you cannot be my disciple.“ Hate my own family? Are you serious? Do you mean that my love for Christ should be so deep that next to it my love for my own family looks like hate? I don’t know if I could tolerate any division in my family over following Christ? We don’t like it when Jesus says, “Unless you consume my body and blood, digest all that I am into your life, then you have no life in you.” Jesus, can’t you tone down all that exclusive language? Aren’t we all believers in our own way?
In seeming contrast to my own message last Sunday let me say this: We don’t like it when there are boundaries to our Christian circle. Would Jesus consider as his true followers all the nominal Christians, half-hearted, occasional, cultural Christians, people who just want to take a little lick of Jesus, but don’t want to consume and be consumed by Christ? By their lives and practice many are in essence saying, “If this journey is too narrow, too well defined, too intense, too time consuming, too life consuming, too harsh, too much like a cross, then I don’t know if I want to be a follower any longer.”
I hear a deep sadness in the tone of the words that follow Jesus’ hard saying: Many of his disciples no longer went about with him. The text may be translated: "Many of his disciples went back to the things of the past." They turned back to the lives they led before they met Jesus. How sad. And it’s still sad. People who have made a profession of faith when they were young get involved in the things of their own lives and never or rarely engage in matters of faith, let alone attend church. They may nibble on “Cheeses of Nazareth,” but find it hard to swallow Jesus whole, body and blood, to eat up his hard as well as his more palatable teachings. No thanks. See you later. How sad. Understandable, but sad.
It's the same kind of sadness I once felt looking through some old photographs of people I used to go to church with. There's "John" in a black and white photo taken at our church. "John's" wife was a member our church. "John" had no interest in church and religion, until he met a bunch of us who from the church. After many conversations about faith and Christ, "John" came to believe and was baptized. He was a faithful church member, following Jesus the best he knew how. Later, he dropped out of church. I can't say that I know that he lost his faith, only that it was no longer a consuming part of his life. As writer George Bernarno once said; "Faith is not a thing one 'loses,' we merely cease to shape our lives by it." John ceased shaping his life by his faith. I often wonder why.
Or I look at the old photo of our church youth group. 70 strong. Young, fresh faces, alive with new found faith in Jesus. Reading their Living Bibles. Praying with intertwined fingers. Crying big crocodile tears at youth camp. Now, I can probably count on my fingers those who still have a living faith and attend church. I often wonder why.
You may imagine a picture on the wall in your home of a son or daughter, niece or nephew, who grew up in church but has since left behind the church and, for all practical purposes their faith, at least the kind of consuming faith Jesus was talking about. We all can picture in our minds people we know who followed Jesus at one time, but at another point in time turned away to pursue their own lives and personal agendas or whose lives are no longer shaped by faith. I still wonder why.
I guess there are a lot of reasons why people stop following Christ. Those in John's gospel who turned away from Christ had problems with his hard sayings. It became difficult to follow Jesus when it sounded like a life consuming, Jesus consuming practice. So, some disciples stopped following him. Sometimes I wonder why more Christians haven’t stopped following Jesus over his hard sayings, like “sell all your possessions and give to the poor,” “if your eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you,” “You must be born again” “If you love your family more than me, you cannot be my disciple” and on and on I could go. Jesus once told the parable of the seed and the different soils to show his disciples different reasons why some people don't last as disciples; shallow soil, initial bursts of enthusiasm that don’t last, or the temptations of this world snatch away their faith. I’m sure there are even more reasons. Some disciples simply stop following Jesus.
Today there are many different reasons why people give up on faith, or should I say, cease to shape their lives by it. Two-thirds of nonbelievers or “Nones,” as they are being called, in the US today were former believers. We are becoming more and more a“post-Christian” society. In our increasingly secularized culture, there may come a time when more people will have grown up without believing at all than those who once believed but no longer do.
Step into the gallery of former disciples and look at the portrait collection. On that wall are some snapshots of people who had negative church experiences, like my next door neighbors who were faithful church goers, had a bad experience, and haven’t been back since. Some turned back from following Christ because of church conflicts and dealing with bickering people. Those young faces in the photos dropped out from experiences with unbending church members who were unwilling to try anything new or different from "the way we have always done things."
See those pictures over there? Those people turned away from faith because they had seen too many hypocritical Christians, who profess one thing and live another. They couldn't, in all honesty, believe like that. And those pictures there; the studious-looking people with question marks floating above their heads. Those are the thinkers. They came to view Christianity as intellectually unbelievable. They asked the hard questions of faith and didn't get any adequate answers, like Bart Ehrmann, respected NT scholar. He was once a conservative Evangelical and is now an agnostic. Many former believers, like Ehrmann, have turned from faith to rationalism.
Then, there are those photos over in that dark corner. Those people experienced senseless tragedies or terminal illnesses, either their own or of a loved one. They questioned why God would allow such things to happen. They received no answers; only a deafening silence. So, finally they turned from the path of faith. And those faded portraits? They are those whose faith just seemed to slowly slip away. They started attending church less and less. Their lives got wrapped up in other things; work, family, children, enjoying their weekends, buying stuff, entertainment, enjoying life in and of itself. After a while they joined the "Church Alumni Association." All the people in this gallery turned back from following Christ. To be honest, a number of times I have imagined my portrait hanging in one of the corners of this gallery of former disciples. Still, I can't help but think, "How sad." As you can see with your own eyes, there are many reasons why people give up on being disciples.
Since faith is a dynamic relationship, a lifetime of faith isn't guaranteed.Following Christ is an ongoing journey, a daily affair. Because we follow Christ one day doesn't mean we will the next. Belief, in its biblical sense, is not so much about intellectual acceptance of a list of doctrines that we confess. Belief is more about ongoing trust in God. Believing in God is an active posture of continuing trust. Faith in God requires an ongoing, developing relationship. It isn't something static that we have once and which remains constant regardless of our present relationship. Faith is a verb, not a noun. Faith is a dynamic, spiritual relationship. Faith is a posture and not a possession that we always have like some kind of ID card stuck in our pocket that we show on occasion, which can never be lost no matter what we do or don’t do.
Since faith and following are active, living realities, they hold no lifetime guarantee. Though we exchange rings and vow "'til death do us part," there are no guarantees that any marriage will last a lifetime. The fact is, currently the statistics say half of marriages don't last. That's because the marital covenant is an active, dynamic relationship that must be constantly nurtured and developed. Faith in God and following Christ are also covenants that require constant nurturing and development to last. There's no ultimate guarantee that anyone's faith in God or journey with Christ will last forever. There will be those whose faith ceases to shape their lives and who turn away from following Christ.
But still, why would we turn away from Christ? Where would we go to find words of life? Simon Peter not only speaks for the Twelve, but also for us. If we were to turn away from following Christ, to whom would we go to find the words of eternal life? Who would give us the love, joy and hope we have come to know in Christ? In the midst of our world with its death-dealing violence, where could we find such words of peace? Where would we find the words that make us into new persons? Where would we go to hear such words that turn our world on its head? Why would we turn away from Christ? Who has such wonderful words, that transform us and give us new life?
Paul was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He had to steal in order to support his expensive habit. He stole whatever he could get his hands on. One of his targets was unlocked cars. One day he found such a car. There was nothing inside but a book on the back seat. It probably wouldn't buy him a fix, but it would at least give him something to read between drinks. So he took it.
The book had a red and black cover with the single word "Jesus" on the cover. It contained the gospel words of Jesus. Paul read the words. The words didn't sink in immediately. Sometime later, two young men asked him, "Have you ever heard about Jesus?" "Yeah, I read a book about him," he said. As the conversation continued Paul became more interested and began asking questions. After more reading and conversation, Paul decided to follow Jesus. His life took a dramatic change. He became a totally different person. Paul went to seminary and entered the ministry. He still wonders who left the book in that car with Jesus' words of life in it.
The prospects of death from overdose or the slow death of alcoholism had always been an ever present reality for Paul. Jesus' words were literallywords of life for him. If Paul were to turn back to his past, where in the world would he go to find words of life? Where in the world would any of us, who have experienced the sprouting of new life in us, go to find such words of life?
The truth is, we are faced daily with the choice to believe or not to believe, to follow Christ or to turn back. So, on this day I invite you to choose to believe. Choose to follow in the way of Christ. Choose to live in the light of God’s reign. With Peter we profess that Jesus is the Holy One of God! And we continue to follow Christ in life. That is a choice we made in the past, but also continue to make in the present and will be called upon to make in the future. In the midst of people dropping out of church, giving up on faith, turning away from Christ, somehow by the grace of God, we have chosen to believe and follow in Jesus' way. Honestly, knowing the world in which we live with its comforts and attractions, I am surprised that there are people who still actively choose to follow in the way of Christ! Surprised by grace!
The path we have chosen to follow is not always the easiest one. But, the path of faith leads to life. There's a Native American legend about the two paths of life. One path slopes gently down some low hills to the valley below. The legend says that this is the broad and easy path, but it leads into the desert where death waits. The other path winds upward over a steep and rocky trail. It is filled with difficulties and side trails that lead off to dead ends. There are times on the trail when you may feel like turning back. Only those who chose to endure the difficulties and uncertainties at each turn and trust the main path can reach the heights of the mountain where the eagles soar on the wind.
There is for us one path to life: Jesus Christ. Where else would we go to find such words of life? Today, we stand before the path that Jesus trod. It is the path of trust in God, following Christ one step at a time, one day at a time. Choose this day the path that leads to life. Choose this day the path that leads to the place where we soar with the eagles.
Reflective questions for the reader to ask themselves:
What steps do I need to take to further follow in the path of Jesus and his body, the church?
Do I need to affirm Christ’s words of life for myself?
Do I need to step into the circle of Christian faith and fellowship, to accept Christ as Lord and Savior and publicly witness to my faith through baptism and church membership?
Do I need to renew my faith until I consume and am consumed by Christ’s life?
Do I need to fully commit my time, talents, resources, and all that I have and am to Christ?
Is there a special road or a difficult path Christ is opening up for you that you need strength and support for to take the first steps?
Christ is inviting us all to faith, to follow, to fellowship. Will you choose faith? Will you choose to follow? Will you chose fellowship? To whom else can we go?