Why Do You Believe? — 1 Peter 3: 8-16 — Pastor Greg Seckman

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Why Do You Believe?

 1 Peter 3:8-16

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If someone were to ask you, “Why are you a Christian”; what would you say?

For many, the family or culture into which they were born determines the answer. They will say, “That’s the way I was raised; that’s what I was taught.”  Others will respond with a testimony about an individual who made an impression, whose faith was contagious.  They were persuaded by a holy life.  Then there are those who have come to Christ because they had nowhere else to go and no one else to whom to turn. Something in life had knocked them down, and so they looked to Christ to help them get up again.

Hardly anyone will say, “I became a Christian after I gathered all the available data and analyzed the theologies of all the other major religions and world philosophies and finally concluded that the claims of Christ were the most reasonable.”  Not many enter the Kingdom of God solely on the basis of intellectual persuasion, but many are dissuaded by irrational theology.  They ask valid questions and receive no answers that make any sense.  They seek understanding and are only commanded to believe.  No one can force the heart to follow what the mind rejects.  Intellectual integrity requires a cohesive unity of thought and faith.  Head and heart have to come together.

The Apostle Peter recognized the importance of being able to give an account for the hope that every Christian claims, and he believed that when asked, “Why are you a Christian”, disciples of Jesus ought to be able to respond in a rational way.  This message is to help you think about that.  Let us pray:

“Lord, long ago you told us that if we ask, it will be given, if we seek, we shall find, if we knock the door shall be opened.[1] Help us today as we ask questions and seek answers.  Open the door to greater understanding about who you are and who we are.  This we pray in the name of the one who said that when we know the truth, the truth shall set us free.[2]  Amen.

Nearly everyone who has joined this church in the last six years has heard this story because I always tell it when I share my testimony in the New Members class.  I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, first at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee and then at this church when we moved to York.  So, was here most Sundays and active in the youth group.  Since the church was so important in shaping my identity, I identified myself as a Christian; but if you asked me why, I would have just responded, “It was the way that I was raised.”

When I went off to Penn State and took a Religious Studies class I quickly learned that this wasn’t much of an answer because it could apply to any belief system and validate all manner of lifestyle.   The professor quite correctly pointed out that this view justified anything since we have all been raised differently.  Consequently, no judgment about right or wrong, true or false could be made apart from your own particular group or perspective.

Many today hold this view.  There is even a philosophical label given to describe this notion that beauty and truth are in the eye of the beholder.  It is called post-modernism.  The difference between the “pre” and “post” in modern days is the difference between the philosopher Descartes who wrote, “I think therefore I am” and the cartoon character Popeye who says, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”  In post-modernist thought personal experience becomes normative, so everyone’s view and beliefs and lifestyles, though not the same are seen as equal.  There’s even verse in the Bible that describes this view.  During the period of the judges in ancient Israel, “Everyone did that which was right in their own eyes.”[3]  Individual experience and discernment were all that mattered.

Many believe this is so in general terms.  On the surface, “live and let live” seems fair and even compassionate.  When we look a little deeper though we must acknowledge that we all make judgments that distinguish one view better than another.  Separate but equal is not really possible.

For example, Jacob Rowdala is the pastor of the Mizo congregation that meets in a Church I once serve here on Sunday afternoons once told me that before the Presbyterian missionaries came to his part of the world in the late nineteenth century his people were head-hunters.  Village would attack village, cut off each other’s heads, shrink them and hang them on poles. Collecting these gruesome souvenirs became a contest, a matter of sport.  The one who had the most heads – wins.   No one saw anything wrong with that because that’s the way they were raised.

When the missionaries brought the gospel, the people of Mizoram came to believe there is a better way to live, a way that made more sense and caused less carnage.  If you were traveling through that part of the world today you’d probably be glad those Presbyterian Missionaries got there before you.  To be a headhunter or not is more than just an individual preference or lifestyle choice because it impacts others who’d rather hold onto their heads.  Some ways of life are better than others.

Meanwhile back at Penn State, I soon realized that I could not rationally support what I had claimed as my faith position.  Rather than study and seek greater understanding about the way in which I was raised, I chose instead to jettison and abandon my heritage.  I was kind of like the Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally, who once said to her brother, “I’m doomed! I need to write a report on rivers, and it’s due next week, and I know that I’m going to fail!”  To that, Charlie Brown responded, “Well, why don’t you work real hard and turn in the best report you can possibly write?”  With that, Sally meekly replied, “You know, that never even occurred to me.”[4]

That didn’t occur to me either, but it did to Peter. He knew that his congregations lived in diverse cultures where people worshipped all manner of gods and followed philosophies that fed lifestyles that ran the gamut from benign to malignant.  It was inevitable that people would ask, “Why do you follow this man Jesus?”  So that they might have an answer that makes sense he offers this instruction.

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.”[5]  If you are going to speak to someone about a subject that speaks to the core of your being and theirs, you need to do so with a tender heart and a humble mind.  I cannot emphasize this enough because I have seen the damage done when toxic religious debate generates more heat than light; and so have you. Some people speaking for God believe they need to defend God by using the old football strategy, “The best defense is a good offense.”  Do they ever offend!  The Bible is used as a weapon and not as “a lamp for our feet and a light for our path.”[6]  For that reason many of us avoid speaking of God anywhere but Church, and sometimes we’re careful what we say here.

That’s too bad, because Good News is for sharing, but that evangelism ought to be tender hearted and humble minded.  Many of the deadly debates I’ve witnessed and even participated in focused on material for the mind, but were also influenced by matters of the heart.

For example, in the second half of the nineteenth century Christian belief was challenged by two towering figures of that era, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley.  For some, Darwin’s seminal work Origin of Species called into question a literal interpretation of the creation story found in Genesis, which helped to drive a wedge between science and faith that still exists today.  Huxley’s work focused more on philosophical questions.    

             Though their work was driven by intellectual inquiry, each experienced similar personal loss that both admitted challenged their faith.  Both Darwin and Huxley endured the death of a young child.  Both acknowledged that is was their personal loss as much as their theological uncertainty that prompted their doubts about God.  A broken heart as much as a skeptical mind shattered their faith, so answering questions would probably not been enough.[7]  They required a tender heart.

One of the observations Huxley had right is the importance of honesty and humility when seeking understanding about anything.  He wrote, “Sit down before fact as little child, be prepared to give up every reconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.[8]

Here, Huxley and scripture are in full agreement.  Humility before truth is required before any real understanding can be reached.  One of the truths scripture teaches, which I believe is empirically verifiable is that humanity is clouded by sin.  It appears to affect everyone and influences ever part of the human condition – heart and mind.  No looks at anything with absolute unbiased objectivity.  Science has developed a method that attempts to make the process of learning less subjective, but humanity is always part of the process. One of our scientists told me, “Good science recognizes that personal belief can sometimes skew interpretation of the data. We want to see something that turns out not to be there at all.”[9]  We all have some axe to grind, and if we don’t recognize that we are only fooling ourselves.

So, religious “know-it-alls” rarely persuade anyone to their point of view because they spend more time talking than listening.

Years ago, when I was part of a group working on my Doctorate of Ministry degree, I encountered another pastor with whom I disagreed on nearly every significant point of theological doctrine.  I was amazed that he could be so wrong so often, so felt obligated to show him the error of his ways.  Our dialogue was punctuated with great energy and my choice of words was probably stronger than it needed to be.  My blood pressure rose and my Christian humility fell, and afterward I felt bad because I had so poorly represented my understanding of Christ.

Then one day I looked up his results for the personality profile test we all had to take, and discovered that he scored exactly opposite from me in every category.  Remember, this just measured personality traits so there was no right or wrong to it. Everyone is just different and we’re pretty much born that way.  When I realized how different he was from me in areas over which neither he nor I had any control, I became better able to listen to him with more sensitive understanding.  I still thought him wrong in his conclusions of course, but I didn’t get mad anymore and we learned to get along.  Every once in a while he said something that helped me better understand something about God and something about myself.

That is the main thing we are to about.  John Calvin, the theological grandfather of the Presbyterian Church wrote a two-volume work called, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  In only 1500 pages he outlined what he believed are the main points of the Bible.  It was required reading when I was in seminary.

He began his first chapter with two statements: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God”, and “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.”  In other words – it is a circle around which we constantly move.  Faith should always ask questions and never be content to rest only upon the way you were raised and what you learned as a child.  How else will you better understand yourself and God? How else will you grow?

That’s why we believe Christian Education is for adults as well as children. Although the God we seek and serve knows everything, we most certainly do not. There is always more to learn, and as I used to tell my children, “Learning is fun.” Besides that, Charlie Brown was right when he told his sister Sally to study and work and do your best.  They’re not always convinced about this, but I still encourage them to do it.

Finally, Peter wrote, “When you give an account for the hope that is within you, keep your conscience clear”.[10]  The charge of hypocrisy is often leveled at those who reach for higher goals and proclaim a better way.  Whenever a saint falls sinners rejoice because it alleviates some of the guilt they had been feeling because they weren’t even trying to be better. With renewed smugness people offer, “I’m only human”, as an excuse for further bad behavior.  They think fallen saints let everyone off the hook and that’s too bad because they miss the hope that is found in Jesus Christ.

Your life is the only Bible some people will ever read.  Your attitudes and actions will tell them more about your understanding of Jesus than any words you speak.  That’s why Peter encourages us to share our faith with gentleness and reverence and to keep your conscience clear.

So, what are you going to say if someone asks, “Why are you a Christian?”  What are you going to say?  You still may not know, but I hope you think about it so that you will be able to give an account for the hope that is within you.

 

Let us pray:

Lord, help us forge a faith that respects both mind and heart.  Weave together intellectual integrity and spiritual wholeness so that we may be able to give an account for the hope that is within us.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Matthew 7:7

[2] John 8:32

[3] Judges 21:25

[4] Cedar, Paul:  The Communicator’s Commentary on 1 Peter. Word Publishing. Pp 166.

[5] 1 Peter 3:8

[6] Psalm 119:105

[7] Gould, Stephen Jay: Rocks of Ages. Ballantine Books, New York. 1999. pp 27-45.

[8] Ibid.  pp 40

[9] John Travis – N.I.S.T.

[10] 1 Peter 3:16

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