August 13, 2017

 FaithDoubt

Proper 14 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by the Rev Ian M Delinger

 

Today’s readings are prime fodder to encourage us in our faith as Christians. Elijah does as God commanded him; Peter gets out of the boat to walk on water; the proclamations of the Psalmist are unwavering; and Paul boldly claims:


“Everyone who calls on the name
of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

Indeed, I have heard sermons, and delivered them, which use this passage from Matthew to encourage people in their faith. ‘If only you had faith greater than Peter’s, you wouldn’t have fallen in.’ But what if I’m not sure? Or what if I’m not in the mood today?


I have preached before about the challenges of being a Christian. Your faith takes work, just like everything else in life. The zealousness of Paul is sometimes inspiring, but it’s also sometimes overwhelming when you apply it to yourself. We all know that. But here Paul is again making it all sound so simple.


But it’s not so simple, not even in these readings. Putting the Psalm and Romans aside, take a look at what is really going on.


Elijah is actually pretty perturbed:


“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”


He’s not very happy being the one zealous for the Lord. He’s the one whose life is in danger, now. Elijah is so perturbed that he repeats his plight a second time when God asked him a second time what he’s doing in the cave. This is not the sign of a man who has unwavering faith! Sure, he goes on to do God’s bidding, but the following doesn’t come without some uncertainty or dissatisfaction leading up to it.


In the Gospel, Peter comes from a place of fear, to a place of doubt and eventually to a place of faith. This is not the only story of the Disciples doubting the power of Jesus; there are numerous stories. The greatest story is the one where they all run away when their leader is captured and eventually killed! Yet, Jesus takes them back; Jesus never rejects Peter, the man of little faith who could not muster up enough trust, with his Lord and Savior right in front him, that he sinks and needs to be rescued.


OK – so, if Jesus is going to rescue us no matter what, then why do all of this stuff in the first place? Why go to church? Why study the Bible? Why say my prayers or love my neighbor? Jesus is going to save me no matter what.


Well, that’s sort of like when my lazy students at the University start spouting off. I’m sure those of you who have worked in academia have heard this: “Well, Bill Gates didn’t graduate from college, and he’s the richest man in the world.” There is only one response to the lazy student who uses Bill Gates as his/her role model: “Yes, you’re right: Bill Gates never ended up graduating from Harvard. But Bill Gates got into Harvard.”


The parallel case here is: ‘If Bill Gates didn’t graduate from college and became fantastically wealthy, so can I; or if Peter can doubt Jesus and end up with the Keys to the Kingdom, so can I.’ The response is the same: They both still had to work at it.


This begs some complicated theological concepts: Universalism and its opposite concept of Predestination & Election. There are related concepts like Christian Conditionalism and Annihilationism (which is exactly what it sounds like).


Universalism has its foundations in the Hebrew Prophets. Imagine prophesying to God’s Chosen People: God is for all people, not only the Jewish race! It doesn’t go over well. Universalists believe that everyone will go to heaven, a gospel of gratuitous salvation. This contradicts the Christian dual concepts of heaven and hell and some of Jesus’ teachings. When the various theologies of The Reformation are put side-by-side, it goes somewhat like this:

 

  • Calvinism: God can save all mankind, but will not.
  • Arminianism: God would save all mankind, but cannot.
  •  Universalism: God can save all mankind, and will.


It sounds great! Very open and welcoming. But Universalism, like mainstream Christianity, has its own difficult theological questions. For example:

 

  • Would God force hardened unbelievers into heaven?
  • Can Universalists sin boldly, with no sanction of hell?


There are still sermons to be written and delivered for our friends at Broad & South.


Predestination & Election is a concept that is part of Anglican Theology, and is not without its wide range of interpretation, acceptance and rejection. Because Israel was the Chosen People, those who follow Jesus Christ are the new Chosen People. Whatever the number of the elect, Satan cannot prevail against them and they will be gathered together on the Last Day. Some say that those who are Chosen are already Chosen and there’s no way of knowing and nothing we can do about getting in. Some people believe that living a good Christian life gets someone into the Elect. Some believe it is the Church, the Body of Christ that is predestinated as a whole to be in the Heavenly Kingdom on the Last Day.


Now…let me be clear…a paragraph each on Universalism and on Predestination & Election is not enough to form one’s faith and practice. My point in bringing them up is to address the dynamic in the Old Testament Lesson and the Gospel reading that we have two of the Bible’s most faithful followers of God who clearly express doubt, fear, anger and confusion. They are expressing their humanity…because they are human. And God puts them both in privileged positions. So, what does that mean for us? Can we be our human selves and still be part of God’s Elect with no effort? Or must we work hard at being a Christian only to find that it was, after all, church down the street who were the only Chosen Ones.


This is why we do theology, we talk about God. Why does believing in God have to be so complicated? Well, it is and it isn’t. To God, it’s quite simple, and over and over again in the Bible, God points out just how simple it is to have faith and to do God’s will. It is we humans who make it complicated. We decide that we know who or what God is. We forget that we are constrained by our human experiences and human language when trying to understand who or what the Divine is, who and what, by nature, is beyond humanity and is not constrained by human experiences or human language.


There is nothing but a humanity of being Christian. As much as we might strive to be the perfect Christian, to please God, to please others, we can still doubt like Peter, be annoyed with God like Elijah, be afraid of what God has in store for us.


God knows what it is to be human, because God came as a human being, as Jesus Christ, so that God would know what this world was like. Jesus knew what was going on for the Disciples. Look at this passage: Jesus put them in a boat so He could be alone. He knew that the wind and the waves were bashing them about when evening came. And the next action Jesus took was in the morning. If I were in that boat, I, too would be afraid of a figure coming near me. I would have expected Jesus to come last night when the boat was being bashed around, and for certain, my trust level would have plummeted for this Man who decided to go off by Himself while we spent a traumatic night in the boat.


My guess is and you will each have to soul search this for yourself. My guess is that we, or the average person vacillates between Universalism and Election. Election means that if I work hard and never question, I might go to heaven. But Universalism means that I can do what I want, and I will still go to heaven.


Paul is the one who puts into perspective our vacillation between Universalism and Election:


But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”


We are to go out to live and to proclaim the Good News, and be less concerned about who will get into Heaven. Ultimately, it is not up to us, it’s up to Jesus to determine who is worthy of Heaven. We have to go on living knowing that our faith is worthwhile, that we can see the benefits of having a relationship with God, here and now, regardless of what happens after we die. Those who don’t have a faith, including those whom we love – we need to show them that there are benefits of having a faith regardless of where they go when they die. We can walk on water with Jesus. Sharing that is what Paul is calling us to do: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”


1 Kings and Matthew show us more than the ardent faithful. These passages show us that the ardent faithful can also doubt, just like we do. They show us that being people of faith is a journey, one with twists and turns. It’s more than just being spiritual but not religious. It’s about experiencing human life with Divine encounters, ones which embrace humanity as sanctified and good even though we are flawed.


Jesus wouldn’t have done these things, and the Gospelers wouldn’t have shared these stories if they didn’t know that Jesus accepts our doubts and fears. Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith…” Jesus says this to the Disciple whom He knows will fiercely bear witness to Him until Peter’s own crucifixion.


Have faith. But know that if the
Apostles can doubt, so can we.

© 2017 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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