What Would Jesus Undo? - Week Three: Unbelief

Today is the Third Sunday of the season of Lent, one of the most sacred seasons in the historic calendar of the Church.  The word Lent comes from the Latin word for forty. Practically speaking Lent is the roughly forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

But the season of Lent is also a spiritual as well as a temporal journey.  As Christians, we believe that we are journeying with Jesus during this season--mirroring in a way the 40 days that he spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry.

Throughout this Lenten season, we will be asking a very important question: "What Would Jesus Undo?"  What does Jesus need to undo in our lives so that we can more fully embrace a life of following him?

Today we're going to be addressing something that absolutely needs to be undone in our lives before we can truly follow Jesus with our whole selves:  Unbelief.

Before we jump into the sermon today, we're going to do an exercise that I used to do when I was a director of student ministries and I led Confirmation classes for junior high and high school students. 

You were all given sheets of paper and pencils/pens when you walked in today.  Here's what I want you to do.  I want you to think about how you viewed God when you were a kid.  Think about that image.  Don't try to taint that with what you've come to believe about God now... Just think about the God you believed in as a kid. 

Now I want you to draw a picture of that God on the card that was provided for you.  Whatever you want to draw--just draw it.  Don't worry about winning an art prize--there are no prizes here.  Just draw whatever you remember however you can draw it. 

Let the person next to you see it.  No judgment. 

Now let me ask you a question:  How have your ideas changed about that image of God? 

Most people start off with versions of God that were handed to them as part of their faith formation, and then that image of God changes as they grow older.  This is important in our overall understanding of how the Bible works, and how our faith ought to work.

But here's where it gets sticky.  Let's say that you were taught that God is severe and judgmental... God is angry at sinners... Let's say that you were taught that God had to kill Jesus because he was so angry at sinners.  That God is an all-seeing-eye watching over you every second of the day like a really, really hardcore, mean version of Santa Claus. 

And let's say that your ideas didn't change all that much from that original image of God that you were handed.  Then you would be in the vast majority of Christians in the world today. 

So here's an interesting story.  I was in a bar once at some event or another in the community I used to live in, and I met this guy who identified as an atheist.  He told me that he had been raised in the Church, but left it when he decided that he couldn't believe in God any longer. 

I said to the guy, "Describe to me the God that you don't believe in."  He then went into a long diatribe about how he didn't believe in a God who would allow horrible things to happen to people, who stood idly by while violence occurred, whose followers turned a blind eye to science, who always seemed angry...  the list went on and on. 

When he finished, I looked at him and said, "I'm so sorry that was the image of God that you were handed, and that you could never let go.  I get it.  And we have a lot in common because I don't believe in that God you just described either.

For our purposes here today, I'm defining "unbelief" as the belief in a false god as opposed to belief in the God I've come to understand differently---a God whose very essence is love... the kind of love that doesn't coerce or force Godself on Creation. 

If we are going to follow Jesus with our whole selves, we need to have our unbelief... undone. 

And here's what I want us to know today:  Jesus can undo our unbelief when we learn to trust in a loving God. 

Our conversation partner today is the Apostle Paul, particularly a letter that Paul wrote to members of a house church that he planted in the ancient Greek city of Corinth.  Corinth was a cosmopolitan center by the time of Paul. 

The Romans had destroyed the city some 200 years earlier and built a brand new city on top of it---with nearly 100,000 residents.  It was the provincial capital of Greece at the time and was filled with people from all over the known world. 

Corinth was also a religious center and was dominated by a huge temple to Apollo, a huge statue of Athena, and dozens of other temples and places of pagan worship. 

All of it tested the resolve of the people in the church Paul had planted---early Christians who were struggling to remain faithful and untainted by the culture around them.

So, keeping all of that in mind--let's hear what Paul had to say to these early Christians:

1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness 
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”[a] 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ,[b] as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. 
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 
Before we read the last verse in this passage, I need to say a couple of things about it.  This very passage was used by preachers and prominent Christian leaders during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s to proclaim the judgment of God. 

It has been used to teach that 9/11 was God's judgment on America for leaving the faith.  It has been used to perpetuate bigotry, hatred, homophobia, misogyny... all of the very worst things that Christianity has offered up over the last forty years or more. 

And I should also say that this passage has also reinforced a fear among those who are enduring hardship that God is angry with them and punishing them.  You can see how it can be taken that way, based on what we've read so far. 

But when you do a close reading of these texts---you can see that they are taking on the realities of a very real world.  The Corinthians heard about people getting massacred all of the time.  In fact, part of the history of their own city was one where tens of thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands more displaced. 

They faced hard things in their own lives--pressure to conform to the habits and customs of their pagan neighbors, the pressure to not make waves that could land them in prison or worse. 

And we, too, can extrapolate our own pressures, our own challenges from that text as well.  It can feel sometimes like God is out to get us, or at the very least indifferent to our plight.  It can feel like God is all of those things we mentioned before. 

But in the end, according to Paul, what counts in the midst of all of our struggle, and with all of our doubts and fears about what God may or may not be up to is simply this:  God's faithfulness to us, never wavers. 

Here is what Paul says, and I'm using a different translation of the text to draw out the deep meaning of his words:
13 No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.
Paul seems to back completely off of everything he just said, doesn't he?  It's like he's saying--"I know there's this idea about God that we all kind of share.  It's hard to shake.  It's hard to let that go, and I get it because I have the same beliefs sometimes... beliefs that have been around in my tradition for centuries... but what I want to believe is this: 

God is not angry.  God is not punishing.  God is not out to get us.  God stands ready to mend all that is broken and to make it new. 

"God can only give faithful love"--Isaac the Syrian 7th Century---God's love is a fire that consumes us and leaves us with infinite joy.  But some people reject it and "clench themselves up inside," and when they do it feels like a scorching.

When we choose to embrace the way of Jesus, it draws us out of unbelief in the same way he called his own followers to faithfulness.  

First, it draws us out of unbelief by reinforcing our hope in God. These are the moments when I've seen a man trying to break the hold of alcohol, suddenly find the strength to do so because he begins to believe that God isn't angry at him, that God loves him beyond on all love, that he has worth and purpose.  That God hasn't given up on him. 

Or it's a moment when I've seen a young woman with bruises on her body decide to break the cycle of abuse and find help for herself and her children because she finally begins to realize that God hasn't abandoned her, God hasn't left her, and that God believes she deserves more and better than what she's getting. 

It's when someone finally decides to fire the image of God that they've been carrying around with them---the one that filled them with shame, guilt, fear, and dread.  And they turn their whole heart toward a God who longs for them to be their very best selves. 

And second, when we embrace the way of Jesus, it draws us out of unbelief by strengthening our hope in the Beloved Community---the church. 

When our hope in the church is restored we begin to realize that we are part of something bigger than we are--a community to lift us up, to carry us forward, to hold us accountable. It's realizing that the church is sometimes flawed, sometimes messed up, always full of broken people and that God prefers it that way so that God gets the glory when we manage to do something right...

It's realizing that when we have other people in our life to do life with---we are better.  It's knowing that there's someone who has your back when you feel like you are being attacked.  It's the peace that comes from knowing that you are a member of a family of faith that will journey with you through even the worst moments. 

And here's the awesome part of this.  Did you know that Paul was from the southern part of Israel? It's true because in verse 13 the ancient Greek word that he uses to say "you" is actually plural and is best translated as "Y'ALL!"  We aren't alone in our testing, sisters and brothers. We have some y'alls alongside us. 

Story of how I came back to a family of faith and a God I could trust.   

Jesus can undo our unbelief when we learn to trust in a loving God. 


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