Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why we should apologize for Christian faith

Preached at Westview UMC, March 10, 2013

As most of you probably know, the United Methodist Church is a worldwide denomination. The worldwide membership of the UMC passed twelve  million in 2011, the first time the total membership has been that high. That’s the good news. The bad news is that high point of the United Methodist Church’s membership in the United States came in 1968 when The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged. Since then, American membership has been declining and foreign membership has been growing.

In fact, some church leaders believe that foreign Methodists will outnumber American Methodists by 2016, the year of the next general conference, and pretty much everyone agrees that they certainly will by 2020's conference. On the whole, I think that the rising influence of overseas Methodists is very positive for the denomination. So strong is the United Methodist Church in some overseas lands, especially Africa, that some of their leaders have wondered why the American church is still sending them missionaries, implying that perhaps missionaries should be going the other way!

Why is Methodism growing so strongly overseas?
The Rev. John H. Southwick, research director at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, asked an African colleague her take on the rapid growth. She told him the people in Africa are looking for hope. “Most have very challenging life circumstances, and anything they can grab onto has appeal.” (link)
In the relatively few occasions I have had to converse with African Methodists I have been struck with how strongly they are able to do what 1 Peter 3:15 says every Christian should be able to do:
But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your apology to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.
Our Methodist brothers and sisters overseas know why they follow Christ. Enormous numbers of them were not born into Christian homes. Adult conversions are practically the norm.

I started pondering this angle on our faith anew during the clergy retreat I attended last month. The main presenter, Professor Doug Meeks of Vanderbilt Divinity School, emphasized missions by Methodist congregations in his presentations. At one point he responded to a question about what is his vision for Tennessee Methodists by saying to be active in prison ministry and various other social-justice causes.

Now, this is all well and good and I have spent the last few weeks emphasizing the basic requirement of Christian discipleship to be active in actual ministries in service to Christ and the world. And of course it is no surprise to hear a Vanderbilt faculty member urge action supporting social justice causes. (Doug occupies the endowed chair of the Cal Turner Chancellor Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies and is Director, United Methodist Programs, at Vanderbilt Divinity School, my own M.Div. alma mater. I've known him since he arrived at Vanderbilt in 1998.)

But here is what impressed me most: during the entire retreat was it hardly mentioned that the primary and foremost responsibility of every Methodist to do what First Peter says: apologize for Christian faith and hope.

The word apology brings to mind an expression of regret or sorrow. That usage dates only to about 1400. The word is actually Greek (apologia) and in Saint Peter’s day it meant to speak or write to defend a position, a usage still found today – Civil War historians, for examples, talk about Southern “apologists,” those who try to justify Southern secession in 1861.

In that sense, Peter tells us to be apologists, or defenders, of the faith and hope that we have in Christ. Evangelical Christians even have a whole category of Bible study called apologetics to prepare their ministers and people for this task.

Apologetics has, frankly, disappeared from the skills and discourse of the United Methodist Church. Our pastors are not trained in it, including me, by the way, and if you ever attend one of the relatively rare Methodist seminars on how to give witness of your faith, you will be told, “Share your own story and the difference Jesus has made in your life.”

But if all we do is share our personal stories, we have reduced Christian faith to nothing but personal opinion. And as everyone know, opinions are like . . . belly buttons. Everybody has one and one is just as good as another. Is our hope based on verifiable reality or is it simply a psychological condition?

I have preached recently that Christian faith without accompanying works is not really Christian faith at all. Christian faith is not just believing beliefs or assenting to propositions. As John Wesley said, one may assent to the truth of one, twenty or one hundred Christian creeds and still have no saving faith at all.

And yet, I increasingly conclude that American Methodism is shrinking and overseas Methodism is growing because over the last five or six decades American Methodists on the whole embraced the equally phony idea that Christian faith is pretty much nothing but good works. On the contrary, belief does matter, although “belief” is probably the wrong word. What we are seeking is conviction, not mere belief.

Here is the difference. Consider the reports of Bigfoot or Sasquatch creatures across North America. Maybe such creatures really exist and maybe they don’t. The question is an interesting one and within anthropology maybe a compelling one. But even if Bigfoot’s existence was unquestionably confirmed tomorrow by the most respectable authority, would it make any difference to the way you or I live day to day? We would believe it without a conviction that leads us to reconsider how we live our lives. Whether Bigfoot exists really does not matter to me and I can’t think of any reason it should matter to you.

Not so about Jesus Christ. I do not merely assent to the truth of the Gospels. I have staked my life on their truth. To come to Christian conviction, rather than mere belief, is to understand that now everything really is different. I have completely rearranged my life around the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Not only does it matter to me whether you believe this, I can think of plenty of reasons it should matter to you, too.

What are those reasons? That is what Peter is admonishing us to be able to explain. It is what very few Methodists are able to do well and so Methodists generally do not witness much at all.

So I want to take a look at faith as personally transforming conviction. There are four aspects of this inquiry:

First, is the Christian proclamation true?
Second, what is the evidence that it is true?
Third, why does it matter?
Fourth, how do I explain this to others?

Since at this point I am already more than halfway through this sermon, what follows is an introduction rather than complete exposition. I will revisit these topics later.

So to question one: When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, Jesus told him, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice," to which Pilate responded, “What is truth?”

Pilate’s question is the second-most important one in the entire Bible, just behind Jesus’ own question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

What is truth was a topic of some confusion for the early church in Corinth. They accepted some apostolic teachings but not others, especially some about the resurrection of the dead. In his first letter to the church, Paul argued this way:
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised [either]. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. ... If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15). 
Without delving into the Corinthians’ misconceptions about resurrection, Paul’s reply includes three crucial words: “But in fact . . .”

So what is truth? Truth is conformity to fact, to that which is real. (So says the dictionary.) Conformity to fact is the basis of faith because faith is the conviction of truth based on evidence.

Why do I define faith this way? Because evidence and reason were of primary concern to the apostles. Consider how Luke opened his Gospel. In the third verse he wrote,
I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. 
Luke says he didn’t just uncritically accept the Christian claims that were handed down to him. He investigated “everything carefully” and was convinced that what he was writing is “the truth.” This is important to grasp because the notion of blind faith, or faith without sound reasons, is not a biblical concept.

To believe in something without sound reasons is not faith at all, at best it is harmless superstition and at worst political ideology of which the last one hundred years have seen too many bad examples. That Christianity’s modern critics, who are legion, accuse Christians of blind faith says more about Christians than it does about the critics because it seems to indicate that we are not generally able to explain the soundness of our faith.

Consider a charge made against us by the so-called New Atheist movement, that  believing in Christ is no different from believing in the tooth fairy. Can an average Methodist rebut this accusation effectively without once resorting to the copout, "I feel in my heart ..." ?

(There is in fact an entire hymn, "He Lives," devoted to nothing but heartfelt feelings, the chorus of which includes, "You ask me how I know He lives: He lives within my heart." Bleh!)

It’s worth noting that the New Testament word for faith, pistis, means a conviction based on trust in God. In its secular uses of the day the word meant trustworthiness or financial credit worthiness. So one way of understanding what the apostles meant by faith is, “You can take it to the bank.”

So on what evidential basis may we have this conviction based on trust in God? I will briefly list them topically and will revisit them after Easter. They are:

1. What the apostles claimed,
2. The reliability of their testimony,
3. The failure of alternative explanations to account for the facts the apostles related.

Faith is not simply knowledge. Faith is not simply belief. But faith starts with knowing and believing, so we shall look anew at how to be effective apologists for the hope that is within us.