HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Psalm 40:1-11
EPISTLE LESSON I Corinthians 1:1-9
SERMON: “Belief and Unbelief”
In his seminar on self-esteem and peak performance, Jack Canfield tells a story about two different responses by would-be insurance salesmen to a community in which almost no one has life or property insurance. The first says something like, “You can’t make any sales here. No one here has insurance. They just don’t seem to want it.” The second says, “This is great! Terrific. The market here is wide-open. Almost everyone here needs what I have to offer.” With the same products to sell, the same territory to cover, which one of those insurance agents has a more promising career?
I’d bet on the one who expects the market to be wide open. That said,
there are some lessons to be learned from the one who recognizes and anticipates the obstacles and objections.
There was an elder in the White Pigeon church who was on session most of my five years with that congregation. He responded with objections to nearly every program, purchase or possibility that was proposed. I learned to appreciate his participation, and eventually ran ideas past him first, because he alerted me to the barriers that needed to be dealt with.
Last June The Atlantic magazine reported the discoveries of a series of interviews conducted by Larry Taunton with people who have become atheists, people who say they do not believe in God. One of the alarming things he discovered was that most of the people he interviewed became atheists after spending time in church. They lost their faith in response to Christianity, not as a reaction to Islam or Buddhism or any other world view. Ouch!
Some of us identify fully with their experience; others of us want to dismiss them as sadly misinformed. We’re sorry they had a negative experience, but . . . Some of us want to write them off as “not a prospect.” There are some things, however, that we can learn from the atheists in our midst.
For starters, let's be clear about the Christian mission and message. We Presbyterians may struggle with that more than Christians of some other denominations, because we cling to our understandings that God alone is Lord of the Conscience, that people of good faith may disagree, and that we do not bow to a single human authority. Consequently there are a lot of people both inside and outside of the church who are unclear about what exactly the Christian message is. That’s one of the reasons we had some great discussions last fall in the Sunday morning gathering for adult conversations as we considered Martin Thielen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and still be a Christian.
Matthew’s gospel ( 4:23) relates that Jesus traveled "throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people." Jesus shows us the grace and truth of God like no other person who has ever lived (John 1:17).
When we become so intent on being careful not to offend anyone that we waffle on Jesus being the Son of God, that our relationship to God matters, that Jesus died on the cross to atone for human sin, that God raised him from the dead on the third day, vindicating his life and ministry, that we have hope for eternal life and that there is a Holy Spirit that comforts, guides and empowers us, we become unclear about the Christian message. Those who claim to be unbelievers rightly call us to account. We will continue to lose young people unless we proclaim the message of Christ, and allow his light to shine on every aspect of human life.
Atheists remind us to keep Christ closely connected to real life. You have heard it from every pulpit that we were never meant to be Sunday Christians, professing faith on Sunday morning and living as if the teachings of Christ were irrelevant Monday through Saturday.
In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days he read the Gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India.
So one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. But when he entered the sanctuary, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. "If Christians have caste differences also," he said, "I might as well remain a Hindu." That usher's prejudice not only betrayed Jesus but also turned a person away from trusting Him as Savior.1 We would like to think that
was an isolated incident, but we know differently.
- Jesus brings the kingdom of heaven into the very middle of human life (Matthew 4:17) and teaches us how to love the Lord and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).
Atheists also teach us to offer thoughtful answers to life's difficult questions. When Taunton asked students what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of hot-button issues such as evolution versus creationism, human sexuality, and the reliability of the biblical text. They went to church hoping to find answers to these questions, as well as guidance about ethics, purpose and personal significance. What did they find? Church services that were often shallow, harmless and irrelevant.
This may be one of the toughest obstacles we face. I am Presbyterian both by heritage and by choice. I value our commitment to wrestling with these issues. I have observed and participated in so many presbytery meetings over the last 25 years when we have debated ordination standards (which is a nice way of saying whether or not it all right to ordain gays and lesbians) that I can effectively argue both sides of the issue. We struggle endlessly trying to make issues like evolution versus creationism and biblical authority “either/or” when they often need to be “both/and.” I suspect that some atheists may respect our Presbyterian fondness for debate more than those who are immovable when it comes to controversy. Yet again, our desire to avoid offending anyone often means we reserve those conversations for meetings and education classrooms. Sometimes we just have to take a deep breath and admit that the gospel is offensive.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was an American atheist activist, a founder of the American Atheists and its president from 1963 to 1986. Her lawsuit led to a 1963 Supreme Court ruling that ended official reading of the Bible in public schools. She was invited by the Student Christian Association to speak at a certain college in Ohio. Over 350 students, faculty, and townspeople gathered to hear Mrs. O'Hair discuss her views in opposition to God and religion.
She lambasted everything sacred. She made fun of pastors, leaders, and church officers. She said the Bible was not infallible, and it did not amount to anything anyway; She referred to God as "Big Daddy" and to Jesus Christ as "J.C." and to the Holy Ghost as the "Spook." The audience was stunned by her speech.
As the meeting was about to break up, a tiny voice of a college girl came from the back of the auditorium. She spoke quietly and lovingly and her voice was full of compassion. Here is what she said:
"Mrs. O'Hair, I am so happy you came to speak to all of us here at our college tonight! We have listened with attention to your tirade on our beliefs. We thank you for showing all of us what an atheist is; we express gratitude on your challenge to our faith; we appreciate your concern for us ... but now we, in turn, must be ever grateful for your visit ... because ... now and forever we have been strengthened in our Christian beliefs. We really feel sorry for you, and we'll pray each night and day for your conversion to our Christian beliefs, and again we thank you for coming, and I know that you have strengthened my faith in our church, in our religion, and in our Christ! Now I'll have more faith in 'Big Daddy,' in 'J.C.', and in the 'Spook'! Again I say, thank you, and bless your soul!"
The speaker of the evening was flabbergasted. She had no answer. There was a riot of noise. The applause for this response was deafening. The meeting broke up with people experiencing an unbelievable Christian conviction of love for Jesus Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus demonstrated for how to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us in the Garden of Gethsemane and from the cross. Jesus gave his own body and blood to bring us forgiveness of sin and promises
to prepare a place for us in the house of his heavenly Father (John 14:1-7).
Atheists don't want less Christianity. They want a more serious and vital version of it. Jesus calls us just as he called Peter and Andrew, James and John, to be his faithful disciples, to teach, to proclaim and to heal. As this congregation determines how it will answer that call we can either be like the first insurance agent, bemoaning the apparent fact that there is no market out there for the gospel we are invited to share, or . . . we can, like the second agent, realize that even the atheists in our community desperately need what we have to offer, and that the field of opportunity is greater now that it was ten, twenty-five or fifty years ago.
1Our Daily Bread, March 6, 1994