As I have told the guys at Jail many times, when I am preaching there, I am also preaching to myself. Getting ready for those sermons is one of the ways the Lord works in my life. These last few months in the service at Durango Jail I have been going through the Sermon on the Mount. It is not the first time. But what is different this time is that I wanted to, as much as possible, avoid any presuppositions. This go around I have been significantly influenced by rereading my favorite books by Søren Kierkegaard (from now on abbreviated SK) (Practice in Christianity and Works of Love). I want to address the question, “What would I have understood if I had been one of those people in the crowds following Jesus?” SK insisted that Christianity can only be chosen under the condition of contemporaneity. That is, as if I were there, as if I were contemporaneous with Jesus and all the events that took place.
SK’s argument is, really, a mathematical one. If, as a believer in Christ today, I believe that He is the Son of God, then I am claiming that He is in an entirely different category (the category infinity) from any other person that has ever lived in this world. If so, nothing finite, such as the 2000 years that have passed since He walked this Earth, can change my understanding of His message. After all, in 2000 years we as human beings have come no closer to achieving infinite wisdom. We are no better off at judging Jesus’ words today than His contemporaries. So that if I claim to be believer today, I should have been able to reach that very same conviction if I had lived when He lived. Hearing His words, seeing His deeds, experiencing the reaction of the society – my society – to Him, what would my choice have been? SK’s challenge to the Denmark of his day – a challenge that equally applies to our own time and place in history – is this: Would I have believed, if I had been there?
But what if you are not a believer? If you are curious about who this Jesus was, then why not read what he said, in the context of when he said it? Why should he need apologists today to defend his position? If what he said made sense back then, and is relevant to today, it should stand on its own.
But we do not live in a vacuum.
It is a fact that about 2000 years have passed since His time, and probably over a hundred thousand books have been written on the subject. Why shouldn’t we be informed by them? Or, asked another way, Is it even possible not to be influenced by them? Is it possible to have no presuppositions?
I think it is. In my own field of electromagnetics (Electrical Engineering and Physics) I have done this very thing. Yes, I have been taught the subject by many teachers and I have read many textbooks. Yet, I could never bring myself to teach the subject based on what somebody else told me. For me to teach it, I had to understand it myself. And for that, I had to study the original sources and re-derive the conclusions. Given everything I had been taught or read before (the subject dates back to the 1860s), the only way to succeed in such an endeavor was to consciously question every argument for its own validity. Assume nothing, prove everything. It is an exercise in logic and it can be carried out because classical electromagnetics is a self-consistent discipline.
In the same way, it should be possible to understand what it means to be a follower of Christ by simply listening to what Jesus actually said (word and deed). In the process, we can be helped in our interpretation by observing the way the people right around him understood (or reacted to) what he said. After all, they were people just like us. All it should require of us today is the ability to think clearly. Which implies, by the definition of rationality, that the resulting system of belief had better be self-consistent.
Further continuing the analogy with the way I teach electromagnetics: I do not teach that subject following the “historical approach”. In that approach, Coulomb’s Law is introduced as an experimental discovery, Faraday’s Law of electromagnetic induction is introduced as an experimental discovery, the Biot Savart Law is introduced as an experimental discovery. You get the idea. The subject was, indeed, pieced together over decades of research by different investigators. But it took Maxwell (and the Maxwellians after him) to bring it all together and show how all these laws are not independent facts but rather the consequences of a fundamental reality. They are all interconnected by (or contained within) Maxwell’s Curl equations and the constraint of the conservation of charges.
Thus when I teach electromagnetics, I do it in a logical order. Maxwell’s equations and conservation of charge are assumed to be true from the outset and then by invoking certain simplifications we show how the other laws appear. In that way, starting from the simplest to understand, each level of complexity proceeds as a natural consequence of the previous step; going from Gauss’ Law all the way to electromagnetic waves. In this approach the Biot Savart Law is a derived consequence of Maxwell’s first Curl equation.
The advantage of this approach, as I often told my students, is that if you get stuck in a deserted island you can re-derive all of electromagnetics on your own – you don’t need a textbook – and so you can entertain yourself until the rescuers come.
In the same sense, I am going through the Sermon on the Mount informed by the whole story of the gospel. Statements made by Jesus after the sermon, even statements made by His disciples much later in the New Testament Epistles, are all part of the body knowledge that describes this system of belief, and therefore they can be useful in understanding what Jesus meant or what He had in mind as He said something. Similarly, to hear the words the way a contemporary of Jesus would have heard them, we have to accept, as part of the background, the Jewish Scriptures: The Law and the Prophets. (Jesus often refers to them.)
Although heavily influenced by SK, my approach differs from his because my goal is to answer the question: “What is it that Jesus is asking me to believe (and do)?” SK addresses a much more radical question: “Do I really believe in Jesus?” (Am I a real Christian?) No one dissects that argument better than SK, particularly in Practice in Christianity. If that’s the question you want to delve into, I heartily recommend him.
Finally, I am going to stand with SK and state from the very beginning that I do not claim to have any special credentials to give my words on this subject any weight… beyond the fact that I have thought about it and perhaps you have too. If I can think about it. You can too. So, this conversation is addressed to that one solitary individual (as SK used to say) who, like me, feels this journey needs to be taken sooner or later. Why not now?
(Scripture quotes are mostly from the New International Version except where it is obvious I have used the King James.)
1_1 Christianity requires faith
Whether you’ve been to Church regularly over the years or all you know is you have heard John 3:16, you know that being a Christian requires Faith. Right? “For God so loved the world that He gave His One and only Son, that whosever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Now we could say that a requirement to believe is not extraordinary in a religion. In fact, it would make sense that for you to belong, or claim to belong, to any religion, you would have to believe in what it says. How could I possibly worship or obey someone I do not believe in? So, what is different about being a follower of Jesus? I think the difference is, that everything – by that I mean my salvation, my eternal life – avoiding condemning myself forever to hell – everything hinges on faith and nothing but faith. Verses 17 and 18 of John 3 make this clear:
John 3:17-18 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
But what does that mean?
You either believe or you don’t believe. If that seems too simple, very easy to confuse, then maybe we don’t really grasp what believing in Him means. But that’s OK because even in the times of the apostles there was confusion about what Faith really is. So much so that James addressed it in his letter:
James 2:14-17 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
I am not going to continue with that passage because that’s another day’s sermon. Or rather, because I think it is a good passage to read and study yourself; and really think about it. James is making a very important point. Faith is not like a magic word, that once you know it and say it (or use it) makes things happen that you couldn’t make happen before. It isn’t like a password that lets you get into heaven automatically. James is saying that if you truly have faith, the way you live is different from the way you used to live. You do good things for others.
That makes sense, right? But then comes the question, how did this change in my life happen? Didn’t it come from faith, from believing in Jesus? And we could again think of faith as something that magically transforms us. And if you don’t like the word magically, we could say supernaturally transforms us.
Can you explain it?
Surely that supernatural component must be there in some sense. How many of us have tried to change our own lives from bad habits and addictions and sin, only to find we couldn’t do it? But God could. And many of us have proven that in our own lives; that Jesus did it, even though I couldn’t do it on my own. But my point today is: Do we understand how that change happened? More to the point: Can you explain to somebody else, how it happened?
Why does that matter? Because in the sermon on the Mount, just after the Beatitudes Jesus says:
Matt 5: 13-16 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven…”
We live our lives surrounded by people. And if that life has been changed, if we live it in such a way that it has flavor, in such a way that it isn’t a life of burden and constant striving just to make it one more day, but instead something we can thank God for every morning; if we live it in such a way that while others see darkness, confusion, and despair, we see light and hope; we see clearly to know where to go and what to do, and we do the good; then people will notice. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. They will notice and eventually they will ask, what do you know that I don’t?
When that happens, do we know what to say? Peter said we need to be ready for that:
1 Peter 3:15: But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear…
So, what is Faith? I have been wondering about this question. And what I decided was that if Faith is what I need to save me and change my life then Jesus must have been teaching about it in such a way that anyone there present in his sermons, in the crowds that followed him, would have been able to get it. My conclusion is that Faith is simply: Believing in the reality (the truth) of the Kingdom of God.
If something is real, I base my decisions on it
Believing that something is real, that it is the truth, is not the same as having an opinion. When you believe that something is real, you live your life, you make decisions, as if it were real. You are willing to stake your life on it. And there is nothing extraordinary or supernatural in this human ability to believe. We use it all the time.
What would happen if I put here in front of me a bucket full of gasoline, and I lit a match and dropped it right in the bucket? I probably wouldn’t be standing here in front of you anymore. Yet, I came here this afternoon on a bucket carrying maybe 10 gallons of gas, right behind me, that pumps that gas from back there along little tubes running right under my seat, to deliver it as a mist into these little metal chambers in front of me, and on purpose lights it on fire so it explodes. Yet here I am safe and sound. I believe that that car engine is safe and that that car is safe to drive, and I put my life where my belief is. And notice this important point: My belief does not make the car safe. It is safe, therefore I believe it.
All it takes to believe something is real is our ability to think
We do that all the time. Why? Because we can reason. We can think. Given the information and the commonsense God gave us, we can reach conclusions that determine how we live our lives. And I think that is precisely what Jesus was counting on when he walked here on Earth and taught us. Believing – what we call Faith – is a decision we all have the power to make. All we need to do is listen and understand what He is asking us to believe. Then we get to choose.