October 1, 2017
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Please pray with me,
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable and suitable in your sight, O God, our rock, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In the 1957 book, Dynamics of Faith, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Paul Tillich wrote the famous words, “Faith is not belief without doubt. Faith is belief in spite of doubt.”
“Faith is not belief without doubt. Faith is belief in spite of doubt.”
For Tillich, these words would not just be theoretical words in a vacuum. Paul Tillich held onto his faith in a particularly difficult situation and time. He was a pastor and professor in Germany during the 1920s and 30s.
The church was a challenging place to be during this time. You see, many of Martin Luther’s writings we were being used to promote anti-Semitism. And the largest protestant Christian movement in Germany sought to, among other things, strike the Old Testament from the Bible due to its Jewish origins. They also banned people with Jewish heritage from the ordained ministry and even questioned whether it was proper to baptize people of Jewish descent.
They even tried to change the focus of Christianity from the cross and resurrection to Jesus’ conflicts with the Jewish authorities. They were trying to make Jesus the lead Aryan warrior in their campaign against the Jews. Paul Tillich came into conflict with these so-called ‘Christians’ and lost his job as a seminary professor when Hitler came to power. Yet in 1957 he was still able to proclaim his faith in Christianity despite his doubts.
Now meet, Bishop James Pike a popular Episcopalian leader who became the Bishop of California shortly after Paul Tillich shared those words of faith and doubt. Pike’s time as bishop was controversial. He became associated with Dr. Martin Luther King who was a deeply polarizing and controversial figure himself. Pike promoted civil rights for blacks, he ordained a woman as a deacon (even though her ordination wasn’t approved until after his death) and he was in favor of gay rights.
Pike wasn’t just controversial because of his social positions. He was a man who was not afraid to question the theological positions of the church, either. He questioned just about every one of them. In the end, he went to Israel to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and died in the desert while he was looking for answers. Bishop Pike’s most famous quote was that Christians need to have ‘fewer beliefs, but more belief.’
Both of these leaders are going to make any history book that is written about 20th century theologians. Both wrote many books and were on the faculty at respected universities. Neither one was afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
“We don’t know.”
These are words that take a prominent role in today’s gospel lesson. Of course, the context of these words was very different than when we hear them from Paul Tillich or Bishop Pike…their words are a confession of human limitations, an expression of humility. When we hear these words spoken from the Pharisees, it’s a political maneuver.
Their alternatives are to acknowledge that John the Baptist’s mission (that is his preaching and command to baptize) was from God or to claim that it was of human origin (that is that he was a false prophet.) In the first case they would have to explain why they hadn’t accepted his message; in the second case they would run afoul of the popular opinion of John: that he was a true prophet.
It’s important for Matthew to show here that not only are the leaders influenced by the crowd’s opinion, since they seek popularity and are jealous of Jesus. Matthew also lifts up that the crowd, which has played a positive role throughout that narrative but has not yet definitively decided for or against Jesus, does indeed have influence and responsibility. The leaders decide that it is better not to answer at all.
But even if the words we hear from the Pharisees are not genuine, there are places in the Bible where we hear the more humble, “I don’t know.” Even Paul, the first Christian theologian and someone who was never hesitant to declare his own convictions, honestly admitted that we cannot always know how to pray. In his letter to the church in Corinth, he admitted that he didn’t even have all the answers when it came to his personal visions. Only God knows everything. And it is in God that Christians put all their faith, despite not knowing the things we cannot know.
“We do not know,” is actually a very Christian confession.
But on the other hand, as Christians, there are things we can say we do know.
Our faith is based on and in Jesus Christ. Christians believe that in his life, death, and resurrection, we get a glimpse of the divine. We believe that through Jesus, we can see God. What is true of Jesus Christ is also true of God. That isn’t a statement that can be proved in any empirical sense. That’s where faith comes in.
In Jesus we meet a God that loves and cares for the sick, the poor, the oppressed. We meet a God that spreads love to all people even though it means violating every artificial social, religious, and purity boundary that human beings could devise. Even in his crucifixion, Jesus he continued to tell us, from the cross, that God loves us.
And not even death could stop him from coming back, offering forgiveness to his betrayers. That’s the Jesus that we confess. That’s the loving image that Christians claim show us God’s true nature.
As Christians, we feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” to all sorts of questions about life and the afterlife. We don’t need to know all the answers because we know we don’t have to worry. We are in the hands of a God who loves us. A God who didn’t put up a defense even when we were killing God in Jesus. Since God loves us that much, then we don’t have to worry that we will be taken care of, even if we don’t know the answers.
Some of the things we should know is that Jesus Christ is and Christian faith should be, understanding that we are all one human family in God’s eyes.
It’s about proclaiming the good news that God loves everyone no matter who they are. It’s about knowing that our life here is not all that there is and seeing ourselves in the perspective of something bigger. That’s what we learned from Christ. It’s okay to say that we don’t know about the rest.
The God we see in Christ doesn’t give us all the answers. But that God gives us something better –courage. Despite the promises of some preachers and religions, life will always be an uncertain thing. We all know this. We can never know what is coming next. But we have a faith that allows us to live each day with a confidence others may not have.
We have the promise that nothing we do, don’t do or anyone else ever does can snatch us out of the God’s hand, no matter what happens in this life. Because we live with this, we can also sometimes live with the words, “We don’t know.”
So as you go about your week, be guided and guarded by a God that loves you.
Know that through God’s love, you are free to love and serve others, to share a hope and a promise of eternal life…and to not know all the answers, because you are loved by a God who loves you, no matter what.
And now may the peace, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus and let all God’s people say, amen.