Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.
In 2005, Lei Li sought political asylum in the United States because he felt he was being persecuted for being a Christian in his home country of China. However, the immigration judge who heard his case decided that Li did not answer certain questions about Christianity correctly. What is interesting is that while he was confused about certain items upon which he was quizzed, Li did say that Jesus did come to save people from sin, that he willingly died on the cross and that he rose from the dead on the third day and 40 days later ascended into heaven and that, in this way, he saves our lives.
I would think that, considering the situation in which he was living and attempting to be a Christian, to acknowledge what Jesus did for each one of us should have been sufficient reason to allow his request. Apparently the judge who heard the case in 2005 did not think so. Though it was denied in 2005 an appeals court has ruled that there is sufficient evidence to review this case and Li will receive a second hearing. (See http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/01/20/33481.htm for a discussion of this case and my thanks to John Meunier for bringing this to my attention – “Chinese Christian Grilled on Doctrine”.)
Now, the most obvious question that comes from all of this has to be, “how would you prove that you were a Christian?” And then, “how would you prove that you were a United Methodist?” Do you understand what it means to be a Christian? Do you understand what it means to be a member of the United Methodist Church?
I have come to the conclusion that many people may say that they are Christian but their understanding of what they say they are is limited. I know many who say that they are United Methodist but cannot give you a clear and concise statement of what it means to be a Methodist. This is especially true when it comes to the policies, rules, and regulations of the United Methodist Church.
There are also many today who say that unless you can quote the Bible specifically by chapter and verse, you are not a Christian. If that were the case, I would fail since memorization of Bible verses has never been one of my strong points. And while I marvel at those who are able to recite various verses of the Bible, I wonder if they understand what it is that they are saying.
From an educational standpoint, memorization is one of the lowliest skills in the learning process. You have to be able to analyze and interpret what you are reading to have a true understanding of what you have read.
The interesting thing in today’s society is the number of atheists who probably know the Bible and the basic tenets of Christianity far better than many average Christians. Now, it is only my opinion but it would seem to me that it isn’t their knowledge of the Bible and Christianity that causes them to denounce Christianity or to say there is no God but rather how they observe others who proclaim with no uncertainty that they know the truth found through Christ and God.
If my faith is determined by what others believe or tell me to believe, I am going to have a very, very hard time defending my faith. It has always struck me that when someone tries to tell me that I must believe in a certain way or that one translation of the Bible is the true translation, we are looking at a situation very comparable to the time of the Pharisees and Scribes before Jesus began His ministry.
When I am told that there is only one interpretation to the words of the Bible, when I am told that what I read is the way it happened, no matter how implausible or illogical that may be, I have to wonder if they know what they are saying. When you make faith an inflexible and unchangeable to object, to be repeated by rote and without understanding, you risk losing your faith, not defending it.
Faith comes from within and is unique to each person. It evolves and changes through time. The changes may be clearer understanding of a passage or they maybe radical restructuring of one’s view of the world.
Micah does two things at the beginning of the Old Testament reading for today. First, he tells the people that God is challenging them to defend their faith and He makes it very clear that they need to be prepared to defend their actions.
God points out that what the people are doing as a sign of their faith shows little respect for God. The sacrifices and offerings that the people are making are little more than bribes, attempts to curry favor with God when their own lives speak of disrespect and a lack of knowledge about what God had done for them.
Ask yourself the same questions, “Is God impressed with the gifts we bring or the sacrifices we make?” Or would God rather that we live a life that expresses His presence in our lives as the later verses in today’s reading point out.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the Gospel message, he points out that they have to see it in a new way. They cannot live the Gospel message in the way they used to live their lives because it wouldn’t work. The Gospel message wasn’t about one’s place in society or the air of authority that they presented; it was how the Gospel message changed their lives.
How are we to read the Gospel reading for today? If Jesus is teaching the people, if Jesus is teaching us, what exactly is He teaching? For some, the Beatitudes are a set of rules, perhaps difficult to understand and follow but a set of rules nonetheless and if one follows them, one gets into heaven. But as Clarence Jordan pointed out in his book Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God on earth is Jesus’ specific proposal to humanity. But it is the message of all four Gospels and not just the Sermon on the Mount that makes that proposal.
Time after time, in order to make His point, Jesus started His teaching with “You have heard it said but I say to you.” This was the challenge that He gave us so that we would be able to not only come to faith but grow in it as well.
There should only be one time in one’s life that they must defend their faith. Unfortunately there are those today who will demand that you defend it before that time comes. Can you, through not only your words but your thoughts, your deeds, and your actions provide the basis for a sound defense?
The interesting thing is that Jesus never asks you to defend your faith. He asks you to believe in Him and then follow Him. Your choice today is to decide if you shall do just that. If you do, then you will be able to the other. There, truly, is no option.