They were bright yellow with bold black letters. I don’t know if they made it to Condon, or even to the west coast, but they were all over the Bible belt. Like someone had sprinkled cinnamon sugar on french toast, “I FOUND IT” bumper stickers were sprinkled on cars all over my north St. Louis county neighborhood. One of my friends even plastered three of them all over her notebook.
I was confused. Asking someone about it was like being present at the anti-Pentecost. Those I could understand one moment suddenly began to speak unintelligibly. They spoke
in words I didn’t understand. They asked me questions I couldn’t answer.
- Have you been saved?
- When did you find Christ?
- Do you know where you’re going when you die?
- Did you know God tricked the devil?
- Jesus died because of your sins, did you know that?
And in this high-pressure peppering of questions I suddenly realized I was being evangelized. I was being pushed to attend a specific church or, rather to embrace a literalistic and non-questioning faith. I was being asked to give up the tradition of thinking for myself. I was being asked to give up the kind of Bible study we did at the storefront Disciples of Christ church my family attended.
I was being told to stop asking questions, to stop listening for a new word in the turbulent 70s. The answer had been found. All I had to do was follow someone with an “I FOUND IT” sticker to their church.
This kind of high-pressure evangelism is exactly why too many Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples, ELCA Lutherans, and UCCers are afraid of the word evangelism. I think it may be a factor in why more than one of you in this church have said that your faith is a private matter.
You have rightfully been hesitant to share your faith with others for fear of being pushy, for fear of being overbearing, for fear of telling someone else how they should believe. But fear is not a faithful perspective. It reflects a lack of trust in the Divine. The all too human emotion of fear, leads us astray from trusting in God.
Like many of you, I am a universalist. That is, I perceive that the one we call the Holy Spirit, the one others call by other names, manifests in different ways for different people. The extravagant love that is within all, is between all, and is over all leads some to follow a Buddhist way of life.
The same Love leads some to follow the teachings of Muhammed or Krishna or the Great Spirit. Faithfulness to Love is for some found in the ancient traditions of Judaism.
For you and for me it is in Jesus, the one who breathes in God and breathes out Love, that we find our faith. It is in Jesus that we meet God. It is in the Great Healer that our wounds are wrapped in healing balms. It is in the Great Challenger that we are called by God to seek justice for our kindred across the globe.
Before you say I’m ignoring what the Bible says…
Before you say I’m being swayed by misguided political correctness…
Know that Universalism is a justifiable position based upon the whole of the biblical witness. When we interpret John 10:16 through the expanding circle of God’s love rather than by its original meaning. When we interpret John’s words through the expanding circle of God’s love that is manifest from the Hebrew Bible to the gospels and to the book of Acts, we see that the One we call God loves all of God’s people.
Says Jesus in the book of John,
I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them, too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. John 10:16 CEB
And, so, we don’t have to be afraid to share our faith with others. We don’t have to be pushy or intolerant to share our faith. We can share our faith without being like those who “found it” and who have settled answers to all questions.
We can share our faith without using approaches like those that offended each of us at one time or another.
But, some say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” Some suggest that they don’t want to hear about any communal faith.
Though there are many good reasons for rejecting institutional religion, from historical atrocities to pushy evangelism and hate-filled theologies, we must be careful not to define faith as an individual matter.
To avoid those who want to define your experience of the Great Mystery, of God, is rational and good self-care. So, I absolutely empathize with those who mean that they want to have nothing to do with institutional faith when they tell me they are spiritual but not religious. I dance on the same stage as those who struggle with institutionalism. Many of you, I know, dance there with me.
But a healthy and growing faith cannot be spiritual but not religious in the sense of being a solitary act. We need one another. Writes Lillian Daniel, the pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Glen Ellyn, Illinois:
There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
As we’ve been journeying through the book of Acts, we have learned that community was critical to our ancient kindred, the apostles and others, who sought to follow the teachings of Jesus in the early decades after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
The immediate response to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the people, was a sense of awe and a desire to follow the teachings of the apostles and
“All the believers were united and shared everything.” Acts 2:44 CEB
Those whom the Holy Spirit touched on Pentecost did not disperse to pray privately. No,
they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. Acts 2:46b-47a CEB
Even when their lives were threatened by those who valued power more than God and for whom institutionalism was a tool for their own well-being, rather than a way of spreading the Good News, the apostles depended upon a sense of community. They depended upon one another. When Stephen was arrested in today’s reading, notice that
his face was radiant, just like an angel’s. Acts 6:15b CEB.
Though Luke, the writer of Acts, undoubtedly was implying that Stephen was a good and faithful man, that faithfulness was developed within the community of followers. Stephen’s strength to face the council who in verse 54 respond to his words by becoming
enraged and … grind[ing] their teeth at Stephen (Acts 6:54 CEB)
comes from living in a community of others who follow Jesus. And, though, Stephen will ultimately be stoned to death, he remains faithful to God.
That kind of faith can only sprout and grow when others water and till the soil around you.
We need one another.
Likewise, Jesus in our gospel reading today affirms that faith is not a solitary act. He affirms that faith is communal. That we need one another.
The Roman centurion seeking healing for his servant would never have gotten to Jesus had it not been for the community of Jews who spoke on his behalf. Writes Luke in the gospel,
some Jewish elders [went] to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.” Luke 7:3b-5 CEB
And, so, it is a community — in this case Jews who helped a faith in Jesus sprout within a Roman soldier. It is the Jewish community who watered this faith as it grew toward the sunshine. They and the Roman friends of the centurion enabled him to reach Jesus with his request of healing for his servant.
After the community of Jews and Roman friends had spoken to Jesus, he turned to the crowd. Luke tells us that Jesus was impressed with the centurion after hearing the community’s words on behalf of the soldier. Writes Luke,
He turned to the crowd following him and said, “I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” Luke 7:9 CEB
With our rugged American sense of individualism, we’ve traditionally interpreted Jesus’ commendation of “faith like this,” to refer only to the centurion. As if his faith sprung up in a room by himself, we assume Jesus is affirming ONLY the centurion for his strong faith.
But Jesus — who himself lived the communal life of a good Jew of the early first century — had just witnessed a faith fertilized, watered, and sprouting within a community. It was only after the community of witnesses to the centurion’s faith spoke that Jesus affirmed the strong faith of the centurion, a man within a community.
We need one another to fertilize and water our faith. And though we will each have solitary spiritual practices — various forms of prayer and meditation and reading our Bibles ourselves — we need to talk with one another about our experiences of the Divine.
We need to participate in Bible study and other learning experiences together. We need to worship together.
Just as our children need spiritual mentors to grow in their faith, we as adults and near-adults need spiritual kindred to affirm us and sometimes challenge us. We need a tapestry of different ideas, a plethora of gifts of the Holy Spirit, and others to journey alongside us.
Our pews are more than half-empty…we also need those other folks. We need to listen to their experiences of the Divine and we need to share our faith with them…even if they never walk in the door of this church.
We are called to be the Body of Christ, to be the Good News in the world. We are called to be faithful in our own right but also to plant seeds, to fertilize young sprouts, and to weed the garden. We are called to lift up and share the Good News of God’s love with everyone we meet. Amen.