Monday, June 17, 2019

Losing Faith, Faithlessness, and Keeping Faith: Jesus and Peter

I have fallen in love with really only one car in my lifetime, a 1975 Alfa Romeo Spyder, lemon yellow with a black rag top. I knew it was old when I bought it, and I could see that the top was rag in more than just the name, but I had such loving expectations of driving with the top down, my senses fully engaged, the pleasure of feeling close to the road. I wouldn’t let anyone else drive it.

Some 10 or more years later I sold it, glad to get out of it most of my initial payment for it. I had put perhaps 3000 miles on it, and I don’t want to remember how much in repairs and tune-ups. The nice Bulgarian man on SE Foster in Portland who repaired it for me raced Alfas and told me they ran best on half jet fuel. Maybe so. But I now am driving a 2018 Honda CR-V with an extended warranty because I lost faith in old cars as transportation and I don’t have the patience to make them work as investments. I want a car I can rely on to get me where I want to go without letting me down.

Losing faith in a car that I loved was sad, but it does not compare with losing faith in people, in churches, perhaps even in God. When something or someone disappoints us deeply, abandons us, or rejects us, or just quits returning our calls, our souls are wounded and we lose faith.

I want to approach the topic of losing faith in God as gently and carefully as possible. I highly value honesty, and I believe with all my heart that God does, too. So the best first step when we lose faith in God is to say so to God. “I have lost faith in you.” And then to explain to ourselves and God what that means.

It might mean that we don’t feel emotionally connected to God. We are numb. Perhaps we see that others do express a strong sense of emotional connection to God, and we come to church and the songs are all about strong emotions with regard to God, and we can’t in honesty join in. “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.” Or “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul, rejoice.”  Or people share how God has lifted their hearts into joy or how a deep sense of peace has flooded their anxious spirits, and we just can’t relate. Our souls are troubled, our souls are exhausted, and our souls are numb. We feel so alone.

As anyone will tell you, this is a normal stage of life, one in which it is wise to sit quietly in your soul until it lifts, and if it does not lift, to seek professional help from a doctor or a counselor. Take care of yourself as if you were someone you love. See that you get good food, enough sleep, some outdoor time each day, moderate exercise. Do something you like to do. Keep yourself alive. These are acts of kindness that count as acts of faith. And, every now and then, write a letter to God.  There are Psalms and other passages of the Bible that are just this kind of letter to God.

Disappointed Expectations
Losing faith may mean that we become afraid that God is not who or what we wanted God to be.  Perhaps we expected God to be our loving and protective Father, and we experienced abuse and abandonment. What good Father would let those things happen? Perhaps we expected God to execute justice on evildoers, and instead we watched them prosper and ascend to power and prestige. What just judge allows the wicked to win? Perhaps we expected the compassionate Savior of the world to alleviate suffering and we watched horrific news stories of famine and disease or the illness of someone we love. In the book of Job, Job himself says to God, “I am a good person, and you’ve treated me worse than you treat the truly evil. What’s wrong with you?” Job teaches us that God welcomes honesty from humans. Job is angry for pages and pages, and God, while never settling Job’s questions, does show up and tell Job’s preachy friends to be quiet and listen to Job.

I myself have said to God, “If I claimed to be someone’s father, I’d never let this kind of stuff happen…” I had a friend tell me at a crucial period of my own life that I needed to forgive God for not measuring up to my expectations. I did come to a place of accepting that in a universe where God accepts human free will, a lot of suffering will ensue, and that God suffers with us and may in fact, through the work of Jesus, bear some of that suffering for us. This does not answer all my objections to the way the universe runs, but I can remain on speaking terms with God.

When we are fearful and angry about the way God runs the universe, we can still choose to do our best to make this world as livable as possible. In other words, we can still work at loving our neighbors, and these acts of love are acts of faith. 

Projected Faithlessness
Finally, I want to talk about when we are ourselves faithless, when we betray our relationship with God. There are some spectacular examples of this in the Bible, of course, in Judas and Peter, but I think we fall in and out of faithfulness every day. Indeed, there are times when we oppose God’s way of being in the world because it is so counter to our ideas of what will actually work to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.  And I think, when we are faithless, we tend to project that onto God and consider that God has broken faith with us as well.

It is common for us, looking back, to think that we would not have been as dull and dense as the disciples and the other followers of Jesus. We think we would have understood more of what Jesus was saying and been in greater sympathy with what Jesus revealed about God and how God works with humans and in human history.  

Jesus, the beloved Son of God, said, “I do nothing on my own, only what I hear from my Father. So you can know that when you see me, you’ve seen God. This is how God is and what God does and how God does it.” Right away, we can see from the life of Jesus that God doesn’t deliver by some sort of formula. It’s not a matter of us “getting it right” or “doing enough” or “following the rules” and then God comes through predictably. Jesus did miracles, yes, but not all the miracles possible to do on earth. He brought some dead people back to life, but not all the dead people who died while he was here. He stilled one storm. He fed two crowds of hungry people and provided wine for one wedding. Yes, these were amazing acts, and they were not enough to set the entire world at ease and at peace. And Jesus said, “I am not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Well, you know the disciples immediately thought that meant he would free them from Rome but instead he freed them from the law, from sin, from judgment. He set them free to love God and to love their neighbors, and that really wasn’t what they’d wanted.

As soon as Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, or the one sent by God to be the king, Jesus turned right around and started talking about how he was going to be arrested and crucified. (Matthew 16, Mark 8) Peter took him aside and rebuked him for talking like that.  And Jesus turned around and looked at the followers, and then rebuked Peter right back, calling him his adversary. “You strive for the things all humans strive for, not what God strives for. You could trip me up.” I’m guessing that Jesus could turn to me every day of my life and say this to me at least once.

Later, on the final evening before his crucifixion, Jesus told his followers that he was about to be betrayed by one of them, and that he would be tortured and killed. (Luke 22) And they went right on to argue about who would have the highest position in the new kingdom Jesus would be setting up. They could not even hear what Jesus was telling them. It did not compute that the one God sent to save them would do so by dying rather than by killing their enemies.  I don’t think we are different from them. Jesus tells us that whoever would be greatest needs to serve all the rest, and we go on worrying about who is eligible to be on elders or chair a committee. Jesus tells us that no one can bear fruit who doesn’t die first, and we just do not hear him.

Jesus Prays for Us
So, in our faithlessness, where is the hope?  I find it in what Jesus says to Peter. I’ll paraphrase a bit, the way I hear it, “My dear friend Peter, you have no idea of how shallow your faith is, how quickly you will let fear overrule your brave intentions. In fact, in the next few hours, you will publicly say you don’t know me 3 times. You have been my adversary in the past, and you will be again. This adversarial spirit will sift you like wheat. You will see how much of your professed faithfulness is worthless. But I have prayed for you that the light of your faith will not be completely put out.”

See this? Jesus has prayed for Peter. Jesus has prayed for me. Jesus has prayed for you. In all our small and large betrayals of faith, all the ways we have proven that God cannot trust us to see rightly and do the right thing, Jesus has prayed for us. Jesus is praying for us right now. Each time I betray the first commandment to love God wholeheartedly, Jesus is praying for me. Each time I violate the commandment to love my neighbor as I love myself, Jesus is praying for me. Each time I treat myself worse than dirt, Jesus is praying for me.

St. Paul says, “Who is it that judges us? It is even Christ who died, who is now risen, and is at the right hand of God, It is Christ who intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34).  Jesus Christ is judge and advocate.

“If anyone sin, we have an advocate, an intercessor, with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” writes St John in 1John 2:1. This is an intercessor who prays entirely according to the will of the Father. They are on the same page with regard to us. Jesus is praying that the light of our faith will not go completely out and his Father is on board with granting that prayer.

Keeping Faith
And then Jesus says to Peter and us, “And when you have turned back toward me again, strengthen your brothers and sisters. That’s what you’re here for.”

If we judge God’s trustworthiness, God’s faithfulness, by our own, we will find it very hard to trust in God.  If we judge God’s trustworthiness, God’s faithfulness, by the actions of Jesus Christ on our behalf and his continual prayers for us in our weakness, we have the space to pause and turn again to strengthen our brothers and sisters, to love our neighbors. 

It’s not every day I can end a sermon with a slightly modified quotation from Neil Diamond ("Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"):

Brothers and sisters
Now you got yourself two good hands
And when your brother or sister is troubled,
You gotta reach out your one hand for them
'Cause that's what it's there for
And when your heart is troubled,
You gotta reach out your other hand
Reach it out to Jesus up there
'Cause that's what he's there for
Take my hand in yours Walk with me this day
In my heart I know We will never stray

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