February 10, 2013

Yielding to Relationship

There was once a man who hated Christians.  He hated them.   He hated everything they stood for.  He hated the things they believed.  He hated the impact they were having on his culture.  There was nothing about them he liked.  It was so bad that he dreamed about hurting them.  He thought up ways he could harass them and interrupt their activities and keep them from accomplishing their goals…all within the means of the law of course.  Now, you might be thinking, “Well that guy was dumb.  It doesn’t really do any good to focus that much effort on hating a group of people.  What was his deal with religion anyway?”  But, religion wasn’t his problem.  Christians were.  He had no problems with religion.  In fact, he was a very religious guy.  He just didn’t like Christians.  Furthermore, he was no dummy.  Actually he was brilliant.  He had gone to the best schools and studied under the best teachers.  He was routinely at the top of his class.  The level of success he had attained for his age was simply astounding.  When peers looked at him they routinely saw big things in his future.  This guy was leadership material.  There were few positions which were going to be off-limits to him.  He merely had to apply himself in the relevant directions.  With his big brain, then, and as committed as he was to the way he saw the world working, he knew all the reasons Christians and their Christianity could and should be rejected.  He could have given you a list with sources.  He had a reason for every argument.  But then, something unexpected happened.  And that something was this: he actually met Jesus.  Not literally met, of course, but he encountered Jesus in a personal, powerful way.  And all his reasons went out the window.  Instead of reasons, he now had a relationship.

So for the past month we have been looking together at different reasons to believe.  Now, there are a couple of different ways we could have approached this together.  One would have been for me to go through and offer a litany of apologetic arguments in favor of Christianity.  I could have defended the integrity of the Scripture with a bunch of facts and figures.  I could have given a full work up on the historical reliability of the stories of Jesus.  I could have appealed to reason and natural law and human morality.  And there are a lot of good things about that approach.  But, I chose to take us in a slightly different direction.  Knowing a bunch of reasons why Christianity is true is helpful in terms of reaffirming us in our own faith, but if those reasons are not answers to the questions about the faith the people around us are actually asking, they aren’t going to go very far in helping us defend what we believe to a friend or co-worker or family members who is pretty skeptical about the whole Christianity thing.  What we have done instead, then, is to try and tackle the questions that people are really asking to see if perhaps instead of providing good reasons to reject the faith they actually lend themselves to offer more evidence why embracing the life of a follower of Jesus is the most reasonable thing anyone could do.

After starting out by laying the foundation that we really can know all of this with confidence, we’ve spent three out of the past four weeks examining different major objections to the faith and turning them on their head.  We saw that in spite of criticism to the contrary, the Bible is the trustworthy revealer of God.  I gave you a process by which we can examine the integrity of any biblical text to see if it can be accepted at face value.  We saw that the emotional objection to Hell which so many people have, when properly understood, falls apart entirely.  Hell, while an unquestionably awful reality, is a reflection of God’s commitment to love and justice.  Finally last week we took on the charge made against the church regarding all of the injustice in its past.  The reality is that, while there is no real argument against the fact that the church has gotten it wrong a few times in history, the total impact of the church has been overwhelmingly positive as followers of Christ have worked out what it means to be known as such according to the only sure measurement He left for us, namely, demonstrating His love every way we can imagine.

All of these provide good reasons for us to embrace the Christian faith.  It is possible to know the truth.  The truth is revealed in the Bible.  The Bible reveals a God who is entirely committed to love and justice.  And when followers of this God get it right, the world becomes a better place.  This morning, though, as we wrap up this series, I want to go beyond this.  Have you ever had the experience of talking to someone who has no interest in following Jesus and, while he might offer you a whole litany of what seem to him to be perfectly good reasons to reject everything Christians seem to stand for, you get the sense that you’re just getting a smoke screen?  There’s more going on than simply a well-reasoned objection to the faith.  You could give them all the reasons in the world and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.  They may claim that God showing up in person would solve things, but you don’t really believe it would.  The reason for this is that the core of their resistance is not rooted in some intellectual objection, but a relational one.  Let’s get even more personal, though.  We could talk about different areas of objection and doubt for the rest of this year and for some folks it wouldn’t move them even a single step in the direction of Jesus.  The reality is that some of the folks in this room are harboring doubts that aren’t going to go away.  They haven’t gone away in spite of your having been following Christ for a long time.  You had some doubts and decided to become a Christ-follower anyway hoping that the doubts would vanish on their own; maybe in the baptismal waters.  But they haven’t.  Some of you have had doubts creep into your heart and mind since you started following Jesus.  Maybe you experienced something really tragic and it threw into a spiral of doubt that you really haven’t pulled out of.  Let me let you in on a hard, but important, truth about these doubts: some of them aren’t going to go away.  Let me let you in on another important truth: that’s okay.  Your doubts don’t present any impediment to Jesus’ ability to accomplish His plans through your life…as long as you’re willing to keep walking in a relationship with Him.  And so while reasons are important—I wouldn’t have preached the last four sermons if I didn’t think so—at the end of the day, all of this is really about demonstrating the worthwhileness of a relationship .  Because, you see, in following Jesus, reason yields to relationship.

If this seems perhaps a bit dubious to you at all, I think there’s a man in the Bible who helps make this really clear for us.  His name was Saul, but we know him a whole lot better as Paul.  We first meet Paul when his name was Saul and it is a rather auspicious beginning.  The scene is the sight of the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, in Luke 7.  At the very end of the story, Luke includes this odd little editorial note that doesn’t make much sense except in light of the rest of the story.  As the various witnesses against Stephen line up to cast their stones, they left their coats behind so as not to get them dirty—deeply ironic given the dirty deed in which they were participating.  Luke writes this: “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  A couple of verses later, at the beginning of the next chapter, again in a location that doesn’t make a lot of sense literarily at this point, Luke adds this tidbit to our knowledge of this Saul character: “And Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution.  And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.  Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.  But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”  In other words, the man I described at the beginning of the sermon was Saul.

So again, Saul hated the church.  In fact, for the Jewish leaders committed to stamping out this, in their eyes, heretical movement committed to perpetuating the blasphemes spoken by the rabbi they had successfully seen crucified only months before, they could not have asked for a better point man.  From some of his words elsewhere, we know that Paul was the epitome of what every Jewish boy wanted to be.  In giving his testimony to the Roman King Festus, Paul revealed that he had studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel.  This would have been something like a pastor including a note on his résumé that he had studied at the feet of Billy Graham.  Jews today still consider Gamaliel’s opinion on matters of the law to carry a great deal of weight.  Writing about his credentials to the church in Philippi, Paul noted that if we could legitimately boast of our own accomplishments then he could boast louder than anyone.  He was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee [meaning he was more committed to keeping the law than anyone else]; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  He was, in other words, at the very top of his game.  There were few, if any, in Israel who were as intelligent and successful and committed to the cause of the Law as was Saul.  This guy could have written the book on why Christianity needed to be rejected wholesale.  He could have given you reasons from theology, philosophy, ethics, and so on.  He knew all the reasons.  But, as he noted in that little passage, he wasn’t just words.  He backed up his words by leading the charge for action against the Christians.  He was the chief persecutor of the church in every way.

Indeed, the next time we encounter Saul, at the beginning of Acts 9, he’s still at it.  In fact, if you have your Bibles, turn there with me.  Listen as I read the first couple of verses there: “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  In other words, he wasn’t satisfied with simply driving them out of Jerusalem.  He knew they had gone elsewhere wanted to go and find them.  He wanted to stamp out this heretical movement in its entirety.  But then something happened that he wasn’t expecting at all.  Keep reading with me: “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’  And he said, ‘Who are you Lord?’  And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”

Well, when the smoke clears, so-to-speak, Saul can’t see a thing and has to get led by his companions—who didn’t see anything, by the way, only hearing the voice—the rest of the way into Damascus where he essentially sits blind for three days.  Meanwhile, Jesus delivers a message to a follower in the city named Ananias that he is to go find Saul and heal him.  Let me see if I can interpret the Bible-speak version of his response: “Are you nuts?  Lord, this is the guy who’s been killing your people.  He’s here with the authority from the chief priest to tie up anybody who claims to follow you—people like me—and bring them back to probably face a similar fate as Stephen.  Now you’ve struck him blind—good work on that, by the way—and you want me to go and heal him?”  Jesus reveals to Ananias that He’s got big plans for Saul and they are going to start with his healing at the hands of this perplexed disciple.  He needed to worry only about doing what Jesus said and the rest would fall into place.  Ananias warily does what he’s told and things kind of explode from there.  After recovering his strength and putting the pieces of the last few days back together, Saul went straight to the local synagogue and started to convincingly declare that Jesus was the Messiah.  This, needless to say, shocked the faithful Jews there, but they couldn’t out-argue Saul because he was so smart.  Finally they simply settled for trying to kill him.  With the Spirit’s help he escaped and headed for Jerusalem.  The believers there didn’t want anything to do with him, figuring it was a plot to draw them out and kill them.  But then a man named Barnabas, who would later accompanying him on some of his missionary journeys, vouched for him, made the proper introductions, and he started proclaiming Christ there until his life was in danger again.  At this point the church shipped him back to his hometown of Tarsus, and he drops out of the story for a while.

So what’s the point of all this?  Why tell you this story which many of you no doubt already knew?  Because when we think of Paul, we think: “Super apostle.”  We think: “First and most important theologian of the church.”  We think: “Best.  Christian.  Ever.”  We might give half a thought to the fact that he was a persecutor of the church, but not much more than that.  We don’t often think about Saul.  We don’t think about him as a genius.  We don’t think about him applying that genius as a critic of the church.  We don’t think about him knowing all the reasons not to become a follower of Jesus because he gave us so many reasons to become one.  All we know is that immediately after his conversion he does go straight to the synagogue and started arguing convincingly that Jesus was the Christ—a complete reversal of what he headed to Damascus to proclaim.  But think about it: what caused him to do that?  Remember: he was about as dedicated to the opposite view as you could get.  Why the sudden change?  Why the total abandoning of all his carefully constructed reasons?  Because, in following Jesus, reason yields to relationship.

Now, lest I communicate something I don’t intend, let me unpack this idea.  First what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying that following Jesus is done against reason.  Indeed, following Jesus is the most reasonable decision anyone could make.  Someone as intelligent as Saul wasn’t going to be suddenly struck unreasonable just because he saw a light from heaven.  Someone like that doesn’t suddenly turn their back on everything they had previously believed without a very good reason.  In this case, Saul’s reason was wrapped up in a relationship.  In following Jesus, reason yields to relationship, not in the sense of being disregarded, but in the sense of being supplanted.  The relationship becomes the most pressing reason.  It overwhelms all the other reasons to the contrary.  It doesn’t necessarily answer them, but it renders them less important.  Perhaps thinking about it like this will help.  How many of you remember falling in love with your spouse.  Were you ready for that to happen?  Were you resistant to it at all?  Why did you give in?  Were all your reasons not to fall in love satisfied by this other person?  Or did the power of your relationship overwhelm and shrink them to the background.  The reasons were still there, and some of them seemed to still be valid.  But they weren’t the most pressing reality any longer.  Your deeper longing for relationship won out.  And after a time, your reasons for the relationship made a much more solid case in its favor than all the reasons to the contrary did in the other direction.  I remember falling in love with Lisa.  Both of us were just a few months off ending what had been pretty serious, long-term relationships.  Neither of us was looking for someone else.  We both had a list of reasons, albeit unstated, of why we wanted to pursue singleness for a good, long while.  And yet she had those eyes.  And that warmth.  And her mind for administrative details.  And her compassion for other people…wow.  And I’ll admit it: my reasons shrunk a lot faster than hers did.  Now, were my reasons good?  Could I have used them to argue a convincing case that I was making a wrong decision?  Sure.  But when I met her, reason yielded to relationship.  The relationship was the more powerful reason.  Saul undoubtedly had a ton of good reasons for rejecting Jesus.  Critics of the faith you know may have really good reasons for rejecting Jesus.  You may once have had really good reasons for rejecting Jesus.  Those may or may not have gone away since you started following Him if you have.  More likely, they simply got small.  They were overshadowed by a more powerful reason in favor of it: relationship.  In following Jesus, reason yields to relationship.

Here’s what this means—and this is really important whether you’ve never really given following Jesus much in the way of serious thought or you’ve been following Him for most of your life.  When you finally take up the mantle of Jesus-follower (you can use the word Christian if you’d like, but I tend to think “Jesus-follower” better captures what’s going on in addition to not having some of the same cultural baggage), you are giving your life not to a set of ideas, but to a person.  If you’re honest, you probably didn’t have all your reasons to the contrary satisfied when that decision was made.  And, while I’m not about to go questioning someone’s conversion experience, if you do feel like you had all your reasons not to satisfied, you need to take a minute sometime and make sure you gave your life to Jesus and not a set of ideas about Him.  If I were a betting man, I would wager that there are some folks who claim the title “Christian,” and may have been doing so for a long time, who haven’t ever really met Jesus.  Instead, they had a sufficient number of reasons to resist the cultural version of the lifestyle they’d grown to understand was involved with the title satisfied and willingly gave their life to a set of ideas.  I don’t know, maybe this describes some folks in here.  I know it did for me.  I verbally accepted Christ and went forward and was baptized when I was 8.  But I didn’t really know Jesus.  I had committed my life to a set of ideas.  Listen, reason is a sufficient tool to convince somebody to change the set of ideas to which they’ve aligned themselves.  Fortunately, eight years later, I met Jesus and willingly became one of His followers.  Any remaining doubts I had were made small as I was overwhelmed by a relationship.  Reason yielded to relationship.  I know that some Jesus-following folks in this church have experienced the joy of seeing their adult children, raised in the church and committed to a set of ideas about Jesus, bearing—proudly even—the title “Christian,” actually encounter Him and become numbered among His followers.  Each one of them can attest to you that there’s a difference.  They’ve been transformed by a relationship.  They had their reasons and their doubts, but in following Jesus, reason yielded to relationship.  In following Jesus, reason yields to relationship.

So then, after all the reasons have been given, if you claim the title “Christian” here’s the question you have to answer: did you give your life to an idea or to a person?  Look, giving yourself to an idea can be a wonderful thing.  Ideas are important.  They have huge power.  They can change a life, a community, even the world.  The church in part represents an idea and it has changed the world.  But when it comes right down to it ideas can only take us so far.  We are created for relationships.  A person committed to an idea will do some pretty amazing things and make some remarkable sacrifices.  Our nation has lasted as long and succeeded as much as it has because it was founded on some incredibly powerful ideas.  But eventually, should our Lord tarry, our nation will be gone because ideas can only take us so far.  Eventually other, more powerful—even if only in the moment—ideas will draw people in another direction.  There is a war of ideas raging in Washington right now.  But when we commit ourselves to a person, anything is possible.  Do you think it was the ideas of Adolf Hitler or Jim Jones or David Koresh that led people to give up everything and follow them?  The ideas they proclaimed were totally unreasonable.  Those ideas if let loose on the world would have destroyed it and in one case very nearly did.  But for their followers, reason yielded to relationship.  People only give up everything for a relationship with a person.  Indeed, when those people died, so did, for the most part, their movements.  And make no mistake: to a certain extent, some of the ideas of the person may not make any sense until the relationship has been entered into.  Paul himself admitted as much in his first letter to the church in Corinth when he wrote that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  In following Jesus, reason yields to relationship.

When Saul was surrounded by the heavenly light on the Damascus Road and gave his life to Christ, he didn’t commit himself to an idea.  There weren’t any ideas powerful enough in his day to change his mind from his current course.  Only relationship had that power.  Indeed, we don’t talk about giving our lives to Christianity.  That’s a set of ideas.  We talk about giving our lives to Christ.  And yet far too many confessed Christians have given their lives merely to Christianity.  Such a commitment may improve their morality; it’ll make them a better person as we reckon such a thing.  But it will not bring them any of the joy, the passion, the life, the vision, the drive to make the kingdom manifest brought by a relationship with Christ.  A set of ideas may change you, but they won’t save you.  And so I ask again: to what have you committed your life?  An idea?  Or a person?  You may have met His ideas, you may have embraced His ideas, but you’re only going to find real life when you meet Jesus.  You’ll still have your reasons.  You can keep your reasons.  Some of them aren’t going away any time soon.  But through the power of relationship, you’ll be able to see those reasons in their proper size.  In following Jesus, reason yields to relationship.