Friday, April 28, 2017

April 30, Easter 3, Believing is Welcoming

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

Jesus called the two disciples “slow of heart to believe.” Believing is our topic in this fifth sermon in my series on belief. The other lessons do not use the word “believe,” but they offer synonyms.

In the first lesson, from Acts, in the sermon of St. Peter, he says: “Let the house of Israel know with certainty.” Is “knowing with certainty” a kind of believing or does such firm knowledge surpass belief? Rationalism would say that there is knowledge more certain than belief. Rationalists impressed by Richard Dawkins, for example, might say that they have knowledge so objective that believing is irrelevant.

But the rationalist balloon has been punctured by many other scientists. All knowledge, even scientific knowledge, starts from some foundational beliefs that are simply presupposed. All knowledge, even scientific knowledge, has some quantity of believing in it. Knowing something with certainty is still believing. Everyone believes lots of things, even atheists.

Everyone believes lots of things at the same time, some things almost contradictory while being simultaneous, and with varying measures of certainty. And where does certainty come from? Analysis? Rational comprehension? Your mind, your brain? Often from your intuition, when you just know something.

Certainty often comes from your whole life of experience saying, Yup! But then, how trustworthy, really, is your experience? How often doesn’t your experience mislead you? So sometimes you believe things against your experience, and then your certainty has to depend on the trustworthiness of the messenger. I think that’s what St. Peter was appealing to when he preached the resurrection, which was opposed by  all of human experience. He was offering himself as a trustworthy messenger, so that their certainty required a decision, and thus a risk.

Another synonym for believing comes later in the lesson, when it says that three thousand people who heard the sermon of St. Peter “welcomed his message and were baptized.” Welcoming the message is a kind of believing. At least when the message is positive. I can imagine believing a bad news message and not welcoming it. But still the image holds, of believing as a kind of welcoming.

Consider your body language. You welcome with your arms more than your eyes. Welcoming is more from your heart than from your head. Welcoming is more than rational—it has emotion in it, and commitment, and self-extension. Welcoming a message is different than just accepting a message or agreeing with it or even understanding it. So believing is like first you open your arms out to a message, first saying, “Welcome, hello, glad to see you, come in,” and only then do you begin to analyze it and understand it and then know it with certainty—heart first, then head.

If welcoming is from the heart, then it includes desire, and the desire to respond, the desire for action. When those who heard St. Peter’s sermon felt “cut to the heart” they wanted to do something. They said, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Demonstrate? March on Pontius Pilate? Overturn the temple? Throw the bums out? Call a general strike? Next week we will see the actions they were led to, which were all about welcoming instead of opposition.

When we move to the second lesson, the context is very different. It was written by this same St. Peter but decades later. Instead of preaching to a crowd he was writing to the little congregations scattered in Asia Minor, where they were suffering the subtle persecution of exclusion from both Roman and Jewish society. They were exiles in their own neighborhoods, exiles from that previous way of life that had been handed down for generations.

St. Peter tells them that they were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from their forefathers. He’s calling their former way of life “futility,” though it’s still dominant around them, and regarded by the Empire as natural and even virtuous. He calls them to believe something about themselves, something opposite to what their neighbors believed about them, and otherwise than they themselves had formerly believed about themselves, when their inherited experience had been misleading them.

So then, believing includes welcoming a message as much about ourselves as about God—a message both negative and positive about ourselves: negative in that we were living in futility despite how wonderful our culture was supposed to be, and positive in that we are capable of living in the truth, and living with genuine mutual love, of sharing something imperishable, living and enduring. You have to believe this about yourselves, and that takes your decision, and a risk!

The other synonym for belief in our second lesson is trust in God, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Trust is the energy of belief, and hope is the spin-off of belief. Both trust and hope are also seated in your heart. When your heart tells you that you can trust a person, then your mind can decide to have faith in that person. Once again, believing starts here, in the middle of your chest, and it moves up from your chest to your head, and then out of your eyes, as you project your faith and hope on those whom you trust.

And now finally the Gospel. Easter Sunday afternoon, and the two disciples are on the road to Emmaus. Jesus meets them incognito, listens to their news, and then he calls them foolish and slow of heart to believe. You know the story, how he explains it all to them, that they had misunderstood the scripture, and how rightly to understand it in terms of his death and resurrection; and then they invite him in for dinner, and he takes the bread, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread, and of course they recognize him as he removes himself from them.

“Were not our hearts burning within us?” Here again, belief is in the heart, and I think it’s because your heart is the meeting place of the emotions of your gut with the thinking of your head. In your heart they come together into your will and your desire and commitment. When you blend together will and desire and commitment, you get love, the outflow of your heart. If you believe in someone with all your heart, that is an action of love.

You know, it’s because of Gospel stories like this one that here at Old First we celebrate Holy Communion every week. It’s to feed your believing. I think believing is harder than it used to be, when Protestant churches maybe did not need Communion as much. But today our believing gets starved in ways it didn’t use to. The Lord Jesus prescribed for your belief the breaking of the bread, and we accept his prescription from an attitude of humble trust more than analysis. We welcome weekly Communion more than we approve of it. We open ourselves to it, and we let the Lord Jesus make himself known to us as he wants to.

He prescribes to us his body in the broken bread. This means that he prescribes communion not like a doctor dispensing pills, but like a mother offering her body to her nursing infant. And that is the baby’s first experience of love. Every week the Lord Jesus offers you his body as the expression and pledge of his love. Welcome his love. The most important belief you can have is in God’s great love for you.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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