This morning I am skipping ahead in our series of Answering the Skeptics. I am skipping ahead to what was to be the final message, and next week we’ll return to the planned order. The reason I am skipping ahead is because this type of series can easily come across like a collection of lectures or essays, and that is certainly not my desire. I have unloaded a lot of information on you in recent weeks, speaking more to your head, so today I want to give your minds a bit of a break and speak to your heart.
Faith is something that comes to us primarily through our hearts, and not our heads. While I believe that a good, logical argument can help to open the way to belief, most people do not come to faith through an appeal to their intellect, but by either an appeal to their heart or because of some kind of personal experience. Jesus spoke to the hearts of people far more than he spoke to their intellects. His parables were masterful stories that could tug at one’s heart rather than make them nod their head in intellectual agreement. He called his disciples to walk with him through life, inviting them into a personal experience. There is nothing like personal experience to serve as an open door to faith. If you have traveled to be a part of a mission or ministry team you probably found that experience to be one of the most powerful in your life. Camp is a powerful experience for our youth because it is a very moving personal experience.
People walking into our church want to experience something. They want to know that the music, the message, the prayers, the fellowship, that all of these will facilitate the moving of the spirit in this place and in each of us to bring us to an encounter with God.
For me, a personal experience of faith began at home. Faith is more often caught than taught someone has said, and that is certainly true in my case. My faith was caught from my parents.
My mom and dad didn’t come from families that were church-going families. As I told you back on Mother’s Day, my mom’s mother, because she married a Protestant, was denied communion and rarely attended church the remainder of her life. My mom would go with one of her brothers to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My uncle didn’t really go to church – he would hang out with friends and tell my mom not to tell on him. My dad’s family were Episcopalians, but didn’t attend church. My dad and his brother, as kids, would sometimes walk to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My mom and dad were married in an Episcopal church in Steubenville, Ohio, where my mom by then was attending. My dad didn’t want to attend an Episcopalian church, because when he was nine years old his father died, and his father’s family tried to take him and his brother and sister away from their mom. He disassociated himself from them, including their church affiliation. Fortunately, the Disciples minister in my hometown went by to visit my parents and they began attending there, and that is how I grew up as a member of a Disciples church.
I saw faith as something very real to my mom and dad, and it made a huge impression on me. It wasn’t just that they took us to church – although they did – it was seeing the role that it played in their lives and how real it was to them that made a difference to me. They didn’t really talk about it that much, which may be what made it more powerful, because I saw that it was more about actions than just words.
I have two brothers who are also ministers, and we are often asked if our father was a minister. He wasn’t. My dad was a steelworker, and my younger brother is also a steelworker and has just recently begun his life as a minister. He’s about the least likely candidate for ministry that I can imagine, and he would agree with that description. After many, many years of a rejection of spiritual things, personal experience of faith entered his life and changed it dramatically. It is proof, I believe, that after all the arguments for and against belief in God, it really, I think, comes down to some kind of personal experience with God. Something happens to us. We can’t force that kind of experience on someone else, certainly, but we can help to facilitate the opportunity for the experience to happen.
That’s why I’m such a strong believer in the local church. I believe in being connected to something – there is greater power in the many rather than the one, and the connectiveness that we have one with the other can help to bring about that experience with God. I know that church is not always a positive experience for some people. I’m a minister, so I can say it’s not always been a positive experience for me. I have been through my share of difficult experiences, but I couldn’t imagine ever letting go of this beautiful experience called church, or maybe more correctly say I can’t imagine this beautiful experience called church ever letting go of me.
Our New Testament reading this morning is a great passage, because it brings the question of Jesus to every person – Who do you say that I am? He begins by asking who do people say that I am? It’s a way of reminding them the question isn’t just the concern of others, but one for each of us.
But once we answer this question we cannot stop, because faith and belief must grow and deepen or it will remain so shallow that it will have no real impact upon our lives. This reality is powerfully demonstrated when, just a few verses after Peter’s great confession of faith, Jesus tells him Get behind me Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s. Peter’s confession of faith was a great moment, but his lack of judgment that immediately followed demonstrated the need for faith to grow beyond just an acknowledgement of belief. The book of James tells us that even the demons believe (James 2:19), which tells us that belief in itself is never enough. Belief is the seed in the ground that must be nourished and grow into a mature and ever-growing faith. If the seed remains in the ground and never grows, of what use is it?
The older I get the more I realize the implications that belief has for my life. I worry more about the future and I long for more and more security but belief, in so many ways, will challenge me to accept and embrace uncertainty. I an attracted to what we would call a normal life – whatever that is – but belief makes it more and more obvious that what is considered normal is little more than a collection of illusions about life. So belief leads to a faith that is willing to walk, as Abraham did, to a place that is unknown, but carries the promises God leads every step of the way.
What would my life be like if I did not believe, I sometimes wonder. To be honest, there have been times when I thought in some ways it would be so much easier to not believe. My time, my money, my life is all mine, but that seems a very impoverished way to live. Without belief, my life would be so much poorer. Belief has affected every part of my life. It was belief that helped me during adolescence, surrounded by the drug use and abuse of so many of my friends, to avoid going down that road. It was belief that led me to Milligan College, where I met Tanya. Without belief I would have been in another school and family life would be very different. I am forever grateful that belief has brought me the family I have. It was belief that led me to the different churches I have attended and served throughout my life, as it was belief that led me to this church. I can’t imagine how much poorer my life would be without each of you and the countless others who have entered my life. Without belief I would not be in ministry, and I would never have the opportunity to be invited into so many lives, where I have been given the gift of walking through the joys and sufferings of others.
Without belief I would not know the gratitude I have for the people who have invested in my life and whose love for me and confidence in me gives me the strength to continue in my belief every day. Many of those saints are gone now and you would not know most of those names. My heart will forever be inscribed with their names and their influence. Thankfully, there are many people still involved in my life – among them every one of you in this church – and not a day passes without my giving thanks to God for the people he has brought into my life.
May we give thanks to God for the gift of belief.