March 23, 2014 John 3:1-17
An atheist was walking through the woods.
'What majestic trees!
'What powerful rivers!
'What beautiful animals!
He said to himself...
As he was walking alongside the river,he heard a rustling in the bushes
He turned to look. He saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge towards him.
He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder & saw
that the bear was closing in on him...
He looked over his shoulder again, & the bear was even closer..
He tripped & fell on the ground.
He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear was right on top
reaching for him with his left paw & raising his right paw to strike him.
At that instant the Atheist cried out,
'Oh my God!'
The bear froze.
The forest was silent.
As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice came out of the sky.
'You deny my existence for all these years, teach others I don't exist and
even credit creation to cosmic accident.'
'Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament?
Am I to count you as a believer?
The atheist looked directly into the light, 'It would be hypocritical of
me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps you could make the BEAR a Christian'?
'Very well,' said the voice.
The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed. And the bear dropped his right paw, brought both paws together, bowed his head & spoke:
'Lord bless this food, which I am about to receive from thy bounty through
Christ our Lord, Amen.'
And the moral of the story? - “Be careful what you pray for. You just might get it.” I’m not usually one to tell jokes, but I couldn’t resist that one.
Can one be a Christian and an agnostic? I’d like to mull that over a little this morning. An atheist (like the one with the bear encounter) says “There is no God.” That’s pretty straight forward. An agnostic says “I don’t know.” In some Christian circles both are considered the opposite of a person of faith. When I memorized the Catechism as a child I was taught “This is what you believe - no if ands or buts.” Some Christians claim that if they don’t believe hook, line and sinker, what they are taught about God and Jesus and the bible, then they have no faith.
But my friend John Paton, who refers to himself as a Christian agnostic, adds to this equation, “An agnostic can also say, “I believe ... such and such, but I can’t completely prove what I believe.” John would also consider himself a person of faith. Theologian Paul Tillach once said that “doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
“If you don’t have any doubts,” writes Frederick Buechner, “you are either kidding yourself or sleeping. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” That sounds like a good thing to me. I don’t adhere to a sleeping faith. Try thinking of faith as a verb rather than a noun. It’s a process, not a possession. Your faith should grow and change over time, constantly being challenged and reexamined and expanded. That’s an awake, alive faith.
Back in seminary days I read James Fowler’s six stages of faith that one can move through during one’s lifetime. That doesn’t guarantee that one will. I found him again on the internet. Time prevents me from going onto his stages in any detail, but let’s briefly use them to think about how our faith evolves over time - how it moves from certainty to uncertainty and back again.
Stage 1 occurs when we are young children. Our imaginations are in full bloom, uninhibited by logical thought. Think of the questions young children ask: Why did God create us? Where do you go when you die? Does God have a birthday? Our faith is shaped by our parents and those closest to us, by the answers they give and the stories they tell us. Terrifying images of hell and damnation can stay with us for a lifetime. I remember talking to a woman in her 90’s, still haunted by those childhood images, even though her rational mind told her she no longer believed in hell.
Off to school we go, and into stage 2. Our faith revolves around stories from the bible, observances, ritual, going to church, being part of a faith community. At this stage we are stuck in literal interpretations of those biblical stories. I never doubted for a minute that what I was reading might not have happened just as it said.
But then conflicts arise - between authoritative stories such as Genesis on creation vs. the theory of evolution. That battle still goes on in some of our schools today. It’s then we need to take a further look at those stores. What do they really mean?
Adolescence moves us into stage 3 where our world extends beyond family. School, work, peers, society, the media, and sometimes religion - all with their contradictory values and information, compete to influence our beliefs. Our own identity and outlook are being formed - at the same time we are seriously trying to fit in with our peers and that means conforming to the expectations and judgements of others. We also believe the world revolves around us. I remember the mother of a boy I was mentoring for confirmation calling me, all freaked out because her son announced at dinner that the world revolved around him. God didn’t really exist.
Leaving home leads us into stage 4 - late adolescence and early adulthood. No longer defined by a group mentality, we begin to take serious responsibility for our own beliefs, attitudes, lifestyle and commitments. We begin to look critically at our own identity and beliefs. The neat little faith package we grew up with may no longer work. Life is more complex than we realized.
This happened to me when I got to college and met people of other faith traditions which challenged my own. It was then I moved away from the tradition I was raised in, explored others, and started thinking for myself - what made sense to me and what didn’t? What do I really believe? And I realized this faith journey was an ongoing process.
In stage 5, which happens at different times for people, mostly in middle age, (some never get there), you open to the voices of your ‘deeper self. This happened when I started meditating. It’s a time of looking back at how you were influenced throughout your life, by the religious tradition you were raised in, your social class, ethnic group.
I came back to the Christian tradition at that time. It was where I was most comfortable, but at the same time recognized that my beliefs, my truth, were only partial truths. I didn’t have all the answers and never would, but by being open to others and their paths, my faith is enhanced.
Do you recognize yourself in these stages?
Fowler says that getting to stage 6 is very rare. He describes it as
“people who have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. They are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance. Many people in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. Universalizers are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives... (they) have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us...Life is both loved and held loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition.”
Do you recognize this person being described? Sounds like Jesus to me! He had made it to stage 6, or maybe he was born there. In today’s scripture Jesus is sought out under the cloak of night by a Pharisee, probably a member of the Sanhedrin. Now Nicodemus had spent his life studying, teaching and following the law. The Pharisees were really hung up about doing everything according to the letter of the law. I wonder what stage he was in - or thought he was in? He was a man of mature faith in his tradition, but something about Jesus attracted him. He recognized God working through him.
So he engages Jesus in conversation. But he’s not prepared for what he hears, and Jesus’ words go right over his head. Nicodemus thinks he knows all about the truth, but he doesn’t have a clue. Jesus speaks in metaphors (how else can one speak of God?) and Nicodemus is taking him literally. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus sounds exasperated.
I find myself relating to Nicodemus. I don’t think faith is an easy thing. Just when you think you have it in your grasp, God taps you on the shoulder saying, ”Have you ever considered looking at it this way?” - or, something life changing happens and you begin questioning the very existence of God. You have to keep working at it. It’s an ongoing process. Nicodemus did. Later in John’s gospel he brought the spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Anothen, the Greek word used here, has a double meaning; “anew” and “from above.” I don’t believe it’s a one time event. For those on a faith journey, it happens over and over again at different stages in our lives. If you use the translation “from above” it’s something that comes to us from God. It helps to be open to it, although I’ve heard stories of people who were pretty closed off and God stepped in and made an impression they couldn’t ignore.
I consider myself a person of faith, and yet there are many tenants of the Christian faith that I don’t buy into. One of them is contained in today’s gospel: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Martin Luther called this verse “the gospel in miniature.” I don’t believe it, at least not in the way most Christians have understood it over the ages. Some day I’ll preach on it and tell you why. But does that mean I’m not a person of faith? - I’m not a Christian? I don’t believe so.
Back to my friend John, who calls himself a Christian agnostic. He got that term from an English churchman named Leslie Weatherhead who published a book called The Agnostic Christian in 1965.” John explains: “Weatherhead’s basic argument is that we must find ways of understanding and expressing our faith that are acceptable in a scientific world. If creeds and churches ask us to say “yes” to statements that make no sense to us, rational people will just turn away. The American landscape is dotted with mega churches that claim to have the only right way to find God, and if some of their claims make no sense to you, you are going to Hell. The reward that you can get from such churches is complete confidence and security, but the price you have to pay is believing impossible things.”
John doesn’t choose to live that way. I don’t either. I agree with him when he says, “I think that millions of sensible and basically good people choose to stay out of churches and therefore miss out on the great rewards of knowing a community of people who share their values and their sense of what life is all about. Instead of pretending to be completely sure about things that nobody is sure about, I would rather say “I don’t know...” That leaves room for me to say “I believe...” When I say “I believe” it means just that.”
I also believe Frederick Buechner when he says agnostics are “some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time.” And just maybe, some of them are sitting right here in this sanctuary.