Sunday, May 18, 2014

5th Sunday of Easter: Something worth believing

Acts 7:55-60
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

"I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.  For I believe this: unless I believe, I will not understand."  Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm, an 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury (spiritual head of the Church of England), likely coined the phrase, "Faith seeking understanding (wisdom)".  It was, in fact, his personal and spiritual mantra in believing it is faith which ultimately leads to true wisdom, as opposed to knowledge which can be gleaned from reading a book.  Former atheist and prolific Christian writer C.S. Lewis shared this sentiment in stating, "I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun rises; not only because I see it, but because by [the sun's light] I see everything else."  We also must not dismiss what is written in the Scriptures: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverb 1:7a).

I would suggest St. Peter was alluding to this very thing when he admonished his audience to "long for the pure, spiritual milk so that by it you may grow into salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good" (1 Peter 2:2-3). 

That "taste", we Methodists believe, is "justifying grace", the indelible mark the Lord makes on our souls to assure us we have been forgiven of our past and have been given a new future once we discover our need of a Savior and earnestly repent - that is, change the direction of our lives toward a more meaningful and purposeful life.  So Peter says once we "taste", then we should be hungry for even more - "IF we have tasted at all" - so we may "grow" in the faith and "into salvation".

Something must always come first to begin the journey.  True wisdom recognizes humans are born with certain natural impulses and instincts which are innate to our being, but we are not born with knowledge - and certainly not with wisdom.  These are acquired over a period of time as we learn and as we experience life.  We learn primarily from our parents and then from the classroom, of course, but we learn our harshest lessons in our experiences and mistakes from which wisdom comes.  If we spend more money than we earn, we become unnecessarily encumbered and risk at the very least peace of mind; at the worst, homelessness or hunger.  If we drive too fast under certain conditions, we will either come out with better driving skills or we will be towed to the nearest body shop (assuming we survive the crash).

Sometimes life is unnecessarily cruel - and very often life is just not fair (or does not seem to be) when we don't get our own way.  The young girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria by the terror group "Boko Haram" did nothing to deserve what they are now enduring, not to mention the hundreds if not thousands of young women who are kidnapped, sold, and traded around the world like commodities.  And it is absolutely unjust that any child goes hungry.   

Faith (as abiding "trust") enables us to move through (not around) these temporal moments not with disdain, hatred, or thoughts of vengeance (which trap us in those moments) - but with dignity and a stronger sense of purpose and self (which moves us through and beyond these moments).  Michelle Knight was one of the women who had been kidnapped and held captive for over ten years in Cleveland OH; she has since forgiven her captor just as she would ask to be forgiven if she had harmed someone (Ariel Castro, the kidnapper, committed suicide in prison). 

This is the vision allowed by faith; the same faith by which St. Stephen was enabled to see through and beyond the very cruel and very unjust moment when he was violently and painfully robbed of his life for testifying to what he knew to be true.  It was this faith which enabled Stephen, while he was being stoned to death, to offer a prayer of mercy for the merciless (Acts 7:55-60).

To think, however, that Stephen simply popped into this moment without any kind of preparation is being incredibly naive and offers no depth to faith (trust) which must be developed and nourished and nurtured and perfected which takes time and a LOT of effort - exactly like the married relationship - exactly why the Lord led Israel by the long route through the wilderness for 40 years. 

I would like to believe any one of us could endure Stephen's moment and still be able to offer mercy to those who show no mercy, but the truth is few of us have been adequately prepared for such moments as these - not because such means of grace are not available but because too many have convinced themselves these means of grace are not necessary.  One either believes, or one does not.

Life comes as it does whether we believe or not, but getting through these challenges and understanding the barriers and obstacles and trials as means of attaining wisdom requires trust which keeps us moving forward - and teaches us the uselessness of looking back at ways to "get even".  It makes me think of an analogy someone once shared about a piano's keyboard.  The white keys represent happiness and the black keys represent the sorrows in our lives; yet all the keys are required together to make music rather than noise - because each complements the next.  This is the reality of life in this world and in all generations by faith as we strive toward something more ... something beautiful ... something meaningful ... "something worth believing" and pursuing "hungrily" - almost with a sense of greed.

What the disciples of Jesus' time had witnessed for themselves are the very same things we often pray for; a clear vision of The Lord in our lives beyond the "wish-granting genie" or "personal-favor-granter" many mistake Him for.  Yet we cannot ignore the fact that in spite of all they had seen and all they had experienced for themselves as first-hand witnesses, they would still ask Jesus, "How can we know the way?" (John 14:5). 

Such statements as these only mean they had been hanging out with Jesus, but they had not yet seriously considered what His words and His works had meant.  They heard the words Jesus spoke (much like we often read the words on a page) and they saw the works (but no clearer than you or I when reading about them) but they never tried to put the two together.  Without actually engaging in what Jesus was doing but merely watching from the sidelines with ambivalence, there is no way to fully "understand" what Jesus' life and ministry was all about.

Hence Philip's statement; "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied" (John 14:8).  Really, Philip??  "Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know Me?" 

The Church has been around now for some 2000 years, but whether the Body of Christ has been actively engaged in the lives of those who do not yet believe is the question for us to answer today.  Remember I shared with you a couple of weeks ago that the Church was never exclusively intended for believers as a "club" to hang out in. 

The Church was (and still is), as the Body of Christ in the world today, always intended as a vehicle, a means of grace by which "pre-Christians" may come to know about what has endured for so long, what has given real meaning to so many through the ages, and what can still offer more than they had previously known or even thought possible. Something worth believing in and worth living - AND - dying for; like the Sudanese woman who was recently sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.

"The one who believes in Me will also do the works I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these" (John 14:12).  Not "may do" but "will do" - contingent upon these two simple things: whether Jesus is worth believing in and what believing in Him really means. 

There must be a reason why we are all here, and there are surely reasons why so many are not here - "reasons" as in understanding it is never just one thing.  It surely must be something more than a mere habit (or a paycheck!) that we show up on Sundays and other Holy Days. 

What is it?  To discover?  To learn?  To grow?  Yes.  Yes.  And Yes!  BUT - to discover what?  To learn about what?  To grow into what?  These questions require answers because just as surely as our entire lives must have meaning and purpose, so much more should there be a reason why we gather toward this meaning and purpose - and more importantly, why others should gather with us.

There is surely something worth believing - Someone worth trusting.  He believes in us enough that He went to the Cross for the Holy Father and for us.  We were worth dying for.  Surely He is worth living for.

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