Monday, April 8, 2013

Truth and Christian Faith

This is a slightly abbreviated version of my sermon yesterday. It is the first of a series on why and how Christian faith is founded on facts, not myth.

Christianity rests on a single claim. I call it the fulcrum of our faith. All of Christian faith is founded on the Easter proclamation, “He is risen!” Absent that, we got nuthin’.
And nothing is frankly what increasing numbers of Americans think we've got. On Good Friday, the respected polling firm Rasmussen Reports released a poll that showed that the number of Americans who believe that Jesus rose from the dead has dropped 13 percent since only last year. The poll question was the same this year as last, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?” Last year, 77 percent said yes. This year, 64 percent said yes. Over the last five years, the drop has been steepest among teens and young adults. In fact, one-third of adults under 30 claim no religious affiliation at all (see "Growing Up 'None' ").
Of the 36 percent who did not affirm Jesus’s resurrection, 19 percent rejected it outright, a staggering 12 percentage point jump from last year. Seventeen percent said they weren't sure.
First Peter 3.15 tells us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Seems like we who know Jesus arose are not doing that very well.
And so my reasons for this sermon series. Christian faith is founded on historical facts, verifiable facts, facts that even non-Christian historians and scholars agree are true. And yet my guess is that only a very small number of typical mainline Protestant church members, including us Methodists, would be able effectively to recount and relate those facts and what they mean in a way that would at least move some of the 19 percent who deny Jesus’s resurrection to the group who at least admits the possibility.
I will be frank – what I seek to inculcate in my flock is greater conviction of the truth of the Christian proclamation that “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.” Conviction is not mere agreement to a proposition. Conviction is a belief held so powerfully that it transforms the way we live. As Wesley explained, if we say we believe something but it makes no difference in the way we spend our time or our money, then it is belief without conviction. Conviction changes us.
Here is how I plan to proceed:
  • I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that while interrogating Jesus on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate asked him what I think is probably the second-most-important question is the Bible: “What is truth?” This question strikes to the heart of the American church and that is what I will address today.
  • Next Sunday I will talk about the Easter story itself and why it is solidly historical.
  • On April 21 I will then do my best to recount the various alternative explanations that have been offered over the last couple of centuries claiming to show why the Easter proclamation is actually false, even if the apostles thought it was true.
  • On April 28 my topic will be what the apostles meant by resurrection in the first place and what it has to do with us. On May 5 I’ll try to wrap everything up.

Now on to Pilate’s question. What, indeed, is truth?
Truth bears authority, so debates about what is true necessarily are also about what has authority. Here are some expressions we have all used in the contests over truth and authority:
•  “Nobody has the right to tell me . . .” (fill in the blank),
•  “The rule book says that . . .”
•  “I saw on TV . . .”
•  “Research has shown that . . .”
•  “The Bible says . . .”
•  “I read on the internet . . .”
•  “My feelings are . . .”
All these statements are claims of truth and authority. Christianity has a set of claims, too – many claims. There is at least one claim that is extremely offensive. We don’t like being offensive, especially in this sensitive era. The greatest social sin you can commit today is to offend someone’s nationality, ethnicity, educational background, political affiliation, what have you. We are nice people and we want others to think so. So in our commendable urge not to offend anyone we risk watering down the Gospel because we won’t embrace the offensiveness inherent in the Christian proclamation.
Frederica Mathewes-Green, a Christian writer, related that she was invited to appear on a panel in a secular setting to discuss spiritual nurturing in everyday life. She told the assembly that if you were raised in a Christian tradition, then explore it more and learn more about it. It will enrich your life. If you were raised in some other religious tradition, she said, explore and learn about Christianity anyway. Christianity is for everyone and its welcome transcends all earthly boundaries. After she finished, the panel’s moderator looked at her like a naughty kindergartner and told the group, “What Frederica meant to say was that there are many spiritual paths and all should be honored in the spirit of multiculturalism.”
“Wow!” she thought. “I had no idea that was what I was trying to say!”
This incident, she said, illustrates the most offensive part about Christianity. We make exclusive claims. We affirm some things and reject others. For example, we don’t say that whatever you believe is okay, as long as you are sincere. Sincerity does not equal truth. can easily be sincerely wrong. 
The offensive part of Christianity is not that we proclaim Jesus as our Lord, but that we proclaim Jesus is everyone’s Lord. Hindu, New Age, Jewish, Mormon, Moslem, Catholic or Protestant, capitalist or socialist, Asian or African or European, Indian or aborigine, atheist or pagan—it matters not what you think about Christ or whether you even acknowledge Jesus. Jesus is still your Lord and your eternity is in his hands whether you like it or not. (See, "Almost All Religions Are Exclusive.") 
So we try to avoid offense by saying that Christian living will make you a better person, or will give you peace or joy or any other side effect of Christian conviction. These may be true but they are also entirely uncompelling to non-Christians. The real message is simply that Christ preserves us for eternal life with God. We do not follow Christ just to be better or happier people, but to belong to God forever and lead others to belong also.
Nowadays religion is out, but spirituality is in. The difference seems to be that spirituality is highly individual and doesn't take commitment. So people claim they are seeking spiritual development but have no use for religion.
“That’s nice,” we reply. “You’re just seeking truth in your own way.” We sure aren’t going to offend anyone by telling them that if for this life only they are “spiritual,” they are of all people most to be pitied. That’s so intolerant and narrow minded!
Now listen. You can be as spiritual as they come without Jesus. You can be so cosmically conscious that the Dalai Lama looks a reprobate next to you. Spirituality is actually pretty easy. Just get a mantra and affirm yourself. But you won’t be any closer to eternal life with God than before.
Jesus said that if you know him, you know God. More than that, to know God you have to know Jesus. So when we try to proclaim the Gospel, we’re sort of stuck. We have a message that can be inherently offensive, Jesus declaring that he is truth in the flesh and that to get to God you have to go through him. We proclaim this message to a generation of folks who don’t believe there is any such thing as objective truth in the first place, and if there is it is certainly not religious truth, and they shun religion anyway.
At the end of every spiritual quest lies only oneself, just as empty and mortal as ever. We should invite the spiritual seekers to come on our journey and walk along the Jerusalem road with us. At the end of our walk is not us, but the cross of Calvary and beyond the cross is the empty tomb. From the empty tomb emerged not just some spiritually-enhanced version of ourselves, but the flesh and blood embodiment of what God promises us.
We need to think about how to communicate the Gospel to a generation that values visual imagery more than the written word. A generation that wants spirituality but not religion. A generation that is skeptical of any claim to truth and authority, especially religious claims. A generation that is less inclined to join anything than their parents. A generation that is busier than their parents were, and is much more likely to have only one adult heading a household. And we need to reach out to them without diluting the Gospel.
We are a people of the fact of resurrection, not persons of a proposition. We belong to the truth because we belong to the Risen One. Jesus is the truth and life itself. That truth will never change, but how we proclaim it must change. We cannot complacently just water our own garden while outside a drought desiccates the land.
So: What are the facts about Christian faith and why do we say they are facts? We’ll go there next week.